Search Results for: deck-building games

The callow pleasure of inventing new Ascension cards

Ascension is a popular game, I personally am hooked on it, and it has an expansion. Therefore: I indulge myself by imagining cards for another expansion.

I am not the only one, certainly. But I have not flipped through BGG or game forums looking for other people's lists. So this may repeat ideas you've seen before.

This isn't about big, expensive, game-changing new powers. I'm interested in subtle effects.

(In case it's not obvious, nobody says "honor" or "rune" or "power" in our neighborhood.)

Explosive Homunculus: Monster, cost 3. Gain 1 VP and 2 sword.

I noticed there were no gain-sword-on-the-back-side effects out there, so I thought why not. Maybe they playtested it out, but this don't look broken to me -- just a nice limited chain opportunity.

Emri's Javelin: Void Construct, cost 4, 2 VP. Gain 1 sword every time you defeat a monster in the center row.

No, not for Cultists. Sheesh. Yes, if a Homunculus comes up, you get to throw metal fingers.

Rage Star: Void Construct, cost 3, 1 VP: Gain 1 sword. After you defeat a Cultist, you may treat further Cultists as 3/2 monsters for the rest of this turn.

A point here, a point there, but maybe at the end of the game your sword deck gets a big windfall.

Junkyard Diver: Mechana Hero, cost 3, 1 VP. You may choose a construct from your discard pile and put it in your hand. Draw 1 card.

Foul Slime: Monster, cost 2. Gain 2 magic. Return 1 VP to the pool (if you have any).

"Eww, it got all over me."

Worldly Fetter: Enlightened Construct, cost 3, 2 VP. Once per turn you may return 1 VP to the pool to gain 1 magic.

Adayu's Hut: Enlightened Construct, cost 3, 1 VP. If you do not defeat a monster during your turn, gain 1 VP.

Two-Faced Predva: Enlightened Hero, cost 1, 1 VP. You may gain 3 magic; if you do, then at the end of your turn, put this card on top of one of the cards in the center row.

A cheap one-shot booster, but then someone else gets him. Also lets you do some low-grade card denial.

Xeron, Duke of Lies: Monster, cost 6. Gain 4 VP. Draw a card. Each other player must banish a card worth at least 1 VP from their hand (if they have any).

Yes, it's friggin' Xeron. Everybody hates Xeron. This is an alternate Xeron which isn't quite as hateful. Use it as a house rule if you like.

I'm having a hard time coming up with Lifebound cards. Can't think of any interestingly different ways for them to build off each other.

And finally, I keep trying to invent the Onefold Askara. The joke is that it's just some guy. A guy with one face! "0 cost, 0 VP, draw a card"? Not funny enough.

Maybe "0 cost, 0 VP, cannot be banished". This is more interesting if you're playing the Variant, so that another card is visible behind him. But that next card might still be crap, and then nobody would touch him for the rest of the game. I dunno.

Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Try the two-rows Ascension variant

The next time you play a non-digital edition of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer (or any of its followup titles), give this simple variant a whirl. My local Ascension-fan friends taught me the game this way, in fact; I tend to agree that it makes the game more interesting, without wandering far from the core ruleset.

The new rules are these:

  • At the start of play, deal out the center row of six cards as usual. Then deal out another row of six cards above it, giving you a two-by-six grid of cards. (Yes, this won’t fit neatly on the game board. You may have noticed by now, however, that the board actually doesn’t really add anything to the gameplay experience, so consider keeping it folded up and in the box.)

  • The lower of the two rows is “the center row” referred to by the usual Ascension rules, as well as all on-card text. That is, all the usual purchasing, monster-slaying, and banishing occurs in the lower row alone; the upper row is untouchable.

  • When a player buys, defeats, or banishes a card in the lower row, instead of replacing it from the draw pile, immediately slide the card directly above it down to replace it. Replace the resulting gap in the upper row with a card from the draw pile.

That’s it. Everything else about the game proceeds per the usual rules.

Once you start playing, you should quickly see the implications of this simple change. “Knowing the future” for every center-row card, even only one draw in advance, adds a rich layer (literally!) of strategy where the original ruleset depends more on chance. You will see opportunities to grab a card and then immediately snag the one that will replace it — and, later, you’ll hesitate to get a plum card for yourself because you know it’ll give your opponent the chance to gain an even sweeter prize.

Do give it a try — and if you happen to know where this variant originated, please comment, so that I can add due credit to this post.

Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Origins 2011: Fighting monsters through deckbuilding

DeckbuildingAs I wrote earlier, I hadn’t attended the Origins Game Fair (or any tabletop-focused game expo) since 2006, so I suspect that my shouting Holy grog, so many deck-building games! will sound a year or two out of sync with the forefront of game news. But I’m shouting it anyway. To my eye, Dominion-style deckbuilders seemed far and away the most prominent genre represented among new-and-newish games on display last month in Columbus.

I played no fewer than four new (or at least new-to-me) deckbuilders, and that still left a handful unplayed. The unifying theme among the whole field seems to be “Gee, Dominion doesn’t have any hit points or leveling up or monster-killin’, so clearly we can compete with it by adding all that stuff, because it’s awesome.” I’d argue that that’s rather missing the point of Dominion’s delicious rules elegance, and after playing a few, I find myself standing by that notion.

Which is not at all to say that these newer games are not worth playing. Allow me to now inevitably and at great length share my impressions of them with you!

The most charming is Quarriors, a dice-based game that Wiz Kids will release later this year. The rules are actually quite similar to Dominion’s, but with an additional axis of luck: not only do you randomly draw a hand of different dice from your “deck” (a dice-bag, actually) every turn, but you then throw it, resulting in unpredictable effects.

Quarriors’ monster-slaying and hit points and so on comes courtesy a creature-summoning mechanic reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Most of the dice you buy represent creatures. You summon them if you can roll the proper faces of their respective dice, so long as other dice you rolled display enough “quiddity” (buying power) to pay their summoning cost. (A creature die’s other faces instead provide quiddity, or trigger other effects.) Once summoned, creatures deterministically fight other players’ creatures. If they can stay on the table for a full go-round, they score points, and allow their player to tune their deck by removing one of their dice from play (usually one the initial, Copper-from-Dominion-analogue-dice).

In my experience, a throw rarely resulted in any decisions to make; you’d carry out all the creature-summoning and special effects that your throw allowed, then buy the most expensive die that your quiddity faces let you afford, then pass on your turn. And yet I had a good time! The dice are very pretty, and somehow a looser, less thinky adaptation of Dominion feels just fine when implemented with dice. I’ll be looking at this one again when it goes on sale.

The game I’d most like to try again is Resident Evil, a deckbuilding adaptation of the videogame. Of the new deckbuilders I tried, it’s also the most focused on monster-bashing. Players’ decks come to resemble the inventory screen of a Resident Evil character, filled up almost entirely with a variety of weapons, ammo, and health potions. A properly tuned deck will provide a narsty and fully-loaded boomstick on most draws, which players can then apply to the nearest bloodthirsty revenant to win victory points.

Resident Evil’s fighting mechanic comes directly from Munchkin: players can, if sufficiently emboldened by their hand, flip over a card from the table’s face-down “mansion deck” to reveal a gooey shambling survival-horror baddie. (Or, rarely, a groovy powerup; but don’t count on that.) If their hand contains enough firepower to properly perforate the monster, they collect its head for VPs, and with enough VPs they’ll level up and gain more powers. A weak hand against a monster makes the player instead lose some hit points. Losing all your hit points forces you to miss a turn, and if you make a habit of it you’re dropped from play entirely — not a bad way to give the action a videogamey vibe, evoking respawn penalties and limited lives.

The point I’m most skeptical about are the single monster deck, which makes it equally likely that you’ll encounter either a 98-pound milquetoast zombie or the toughest creature in the game on your first flip. My immediate desire is to split the monster deck should into halves or thirds, with each sub-deck representing a dungeon floor. By requiring players to clean out one deck before moving to the next, you’ll guarantee a smooth power increase as the players delve deeper and find tougher baddies, which strikes me as a good expression of a typical combat-adventure videogame’s spirit.

Gunther Schmidl informs me that I’m not the first to think of this, but suggests that the game is perfectly fine as-is. And to be fair, due to a rules misread, I spent most of our one play feeling more sour about the game than it deserved. My mood improved when we figured out how to play properly, and while the game still has a lot of oddity around it, it kindled my curiosity enough to want another go at it sometime.

I’ve already written about Ascension here lately, and so has Andy. While I did play through a demonstration of the card game’s inevitable first expansion set, learning about the original game’s then-nascent iOS adaptation piqued my interest the most. Since it appeared in the App Store only days later, it’s safe to say that this game among all the Origins deckbuilders has remained active in my mind the most.

And while it’s another deckbuilder-with-monsters, somehow Ascension manages to seem less, hm, egregious about it. Maybe it’s because the base rules are sufficiently different from Dominion that the presence of monsters feels less tacked on.

Taking a begging-your-pardon card from Race for the Galaxy, Ascension replaces Dominion’s stacks of randomly determined purchasable card stacks with a single drawpile, the same one every time (though shuffled, of course). At all times, the table features six face-up cards, a mix of killable monsters and cards you can add to your deck; picking up either kind of card results in its immediate replacement from the drawpile.

Gaining cards happens much as in Dominion, except that you may buy as many cards as you can afford, and the currency comes in two flavors: white for picking up deck-cards, and red for zapping monsters. Since monster cards are removed from play as soon as you pay their cost, their printed effects take effect at that moment. A skillful player will dispatch monsters in ways that maximize their short-term buying or killing power even beyond what their hands allow, letting them make some impressive purchases.

Ascension plays fast: the deck lacks pure no-op cards, like Dominion’s VPs or Curses, so even terrible draws let you do something with your turn. This doesn’t necessarily make me like the game more than games that allow you to draw a do-nothing hand, but I appreciate the intentionality that went into the design to avoid this phenomenon while remaining a perfectly playable deckbuilding game.

Really, my main disappointment with Ascension is that the official rules are not the house rules that my friends and I prefer when we’re playing the game’s cardboard edition, which we all agree make for a much more interestingly strategic game. That’s a post for another time, though.

By the time I got to Thunderstone, I’m afraid, I was so saturated with examples of the Dominion-plus-monsters meme that the game seemed like parody. Looking at it uncharitably, one imagines the game appearing by way of someone playing Dominion for the first time and thinking, “I don’t understand; why isn’t this game literally Dungeons & Dragons?”

And so you have a game where the cards represent hirelings in a classic D&D setting, each of whom has inventory slots and classes and levels and so on. Each turn, you can either “visit the town” to add equipment or goons to your deck, or hit the dungeon, represented by a tableaux of face-up monster cards.

I can’t say much else about it because the whole experience passed straight through me. I had learned simply too many different new deckbuilding rulesets in one day at this point, and simply had no appetite left for more of the same, except with shuffled-in second-level clerics wearing gauntlets of strength, and thieves who added +1 to your hand’s light-source level. I look forward to playing it again sometime with a clean palate.

What can I conclude from this? Well, in one sense, I have nothing to complain about: I actually rather love deckbuilding games, and absolutely welcome more variants to come to my table in an attempt to show Dominion how it’s really done. And because the circles of “tabletop game designers” and “nerds” have an awful lot of Venn-diagram overlap, I can’t express much surprise that the first wave or two of contenders appear to be attempts to jam standard RPG elements into the core concept, starting with monster-slaying.

So I definitely look forward to seeing what the future holds for this sub-genre of card game. Until then, I’ll be over here with my seven Coppers and three Estates, ready to once again make my grandparents (on my mother’s side) proud.

(Present at Origins, but not played by me: Nightfall and The Ares Project, even though both were recommended to me by various other game-fans at the Expo. I just didn’t manage to cross paths with them that weekend, so I don’t know how monstery they are. Perhaps the second wave of Dominion reactions is already here…? I’d love to hear some thoughts on them.)

Image: Original photo illustration combining Deck Building by Reuben Cleetus and Evil Cat by Jason Bran-Cinaed. Both are CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Posted in Jmac on Games | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Ascension polish

Jmac referred to UI issues in this morning's post about Ascension for iPad. I have indeed been swearing and muttering about the UI (as I play incessantly). But don't get your hopes up for another tirade of designerly bile. This isn't the sort of bad UI caused by being an idiot, and then patching the patches on the patches until the result sinks into its own mire. Ascension just isn't right. It can be made right.

I rather assume that Incinerator Studios knows they have lobby issues, and decided to ship something rather than delay the project for a complete lobby rewrite. Nonetheless, for the sake of my own serenity, I will run through the diagnosis.

In short: game creation is clunky and misleading. The initial choice is "play offline" vs "play online", which sounds like the right lead-in. If you choose "online", you're offered the choices "create game", "find game", and "game list" -- the first sign of trouble: "find game" and "game list" mean the same thing, surely? If they don't, what's the difference?

If you try to "find game", you're presented with a list of tables -- fine. You select one. Bang, back to the previous screen with no indication that anything's happened. Huh? After some flailing you discover that you have to enter the "game list" and select the game you just selected. Except that this sometimes puts you in yet another unnecessary screen, where you discover that you're "waiting" -- gosh -- and you will eventually have to hit "back" and then select the game again.

Creating a game, again, dumps you back to this menu with no indication that the game got created. And throughout this process, the UI occasionally interrupts itself to tell you that it's been "disconnected from the server" -- meaning you have to push a button to get back to where you were.

The offline branch is nearly as bad. You can get into a game with a minimum of fuss -- "play offline", "create game", "start" -- three taps. But when you finish, the process to start a new game (and you will want to start a new game) involves hitting "done" and "quit", backtracking through those levels, just so that you can forward-track through them again. Five taps for "play again"? Bad.

But this is not a cavalcade of bitter failure. It's basically one mistake: the "game list" shouldn't be a screen. It should be a list, visible from all the other screens. When you create or join a game, a new entry pops down into the game list. Tap it and go. If one of the games becomes ready, that status change is immediately visible. This pretty much makes all the problems go away.

Oh, and if you get disconnected from the server, it should reconnect and refresh the list. I mean, that's just common sense. Keep the list up to date. There's no reason the player should have to think about TCP streams.

(You still want to streamline some things. For example, there really doesn't need to be a list of offline games, most of the time. You're only in one at a time. Just go straight to the game-setup screen. If you step out of an offline game, and then come back, then sure -- you'll want that list-of-suspended games, together with a "create new game" option. But don't present this list of six empty slots by default.)

(Also, remember my favored avatar for the offline game setup. I hate being that apprentice guy.)

A friend pointed out some in-game annoyances as well. It's weird that you double-tap a card to zoom to a closeup, but then single-tap to zoom out. Why not say that a single tap zooms in and out, whereas a double-tap means "fire!" Double-tap is a better shortcut for advanced players than the flick gesture, which is weirdly persnickety about where you flick the card to. (If I try to flick three Cultists off the heap, I inevitably wind up killing two and leaving the third to hobble home unharmed. C'mere, sonny, you're not getting away that easily...)

Yes, you should leave the flicking and dragging in place -- it's correct. I just want the double-tap too.

And the game screen really doesn't need to be so noisy. I know, the art is nice, but dim down the background another 50%. Nobody's looking at it.

I want to end on a positive note, though. The "end turn" button -- the way it turns green when you have nothing else left to do on your turn? Genius. Obvious, like all genius ideas after the fact, but genius nevertheless.

Okay, I think that's it. Go rewrite some code. Be the archetype of correct iPad lobby behavior. Show everybody how it's done. ...That way I won't have to rewrite this post every time another damn game ships.

Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Descending beneath Ascension's surface

Tribute day3While I have a half-written post about my Origins 2011 adventures, I must defer it to address instead recent iOS adaptation of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. I’ve been playing an awful lot of Ascension (originally designed and published for the tabletop by Gary Games, iOS version by Incinerator Studios), and planned to write about it anyway. But it won priority in the wee hours earlier this week when I discovered myself hallucinating my way through a game. Only several moves in did I realize that I was lying on my side in bed, staring at a wall in the dark.

I did in fact enjoy a very real game just hours before that, sitting on Cambridge’s riverside esplanade with several excellent friends, passing my iPad around while we waited for Boston’s Independence Day fireworks to start. And while memories of a good game session have often rolled around in my head for hours after playing, I don’t recall the last time my subconscious mind blustered in and demanded to watch the tapes in full as soon as my head hit the pillow. So, something’s going on here.

Ascension isn’t a perfect game; while a very faithful and eminently playable adaptation of the physical card game, it’s not without flaws, mostly involving UI and polish (the details of which we shall leave for another post). It nevertheless strikes several chords with me, in particular my obsession with online multiplayer games, and my more recent interest in tablet versions of tabletop games. Its properly transparent use of Apple’s GameCenter has resulted in my playing at least as many online games as I have solitaire games against the bots (an especial boon since the bots don’t seem terribly skillful). Those online games have been a half-and-half split between my GameCenter friends and total strangers. And, now that I think of it, they’ve featured a half-and-half split along another axis, between real-time games and asynchronous ones.

None of these features are, taken individually, new to iOS games — I believe that the platform’s Carcassonne version features them all now, for one, and presents them in a far more polished package. So perhaps it’s just me; maybe Ascension just happens to be the first iPad game I’ve played that’s presented all this stuff to me all at once, driving it from a decent deck-building game into a startlingly direct expression of my current digital game obsessions.

But for me, the real closer is the game’s theme. Mechanically, it’s a deck-builder similar to Dominion, and follows a current trend among among new card games of presenting some variant of Dominion-plus-monster-slaying. (More on which when I get to my Origins post.) The theme, though, I adore. On the surface it’s somewhat corny dark fantasy; the flavor text on the cards tends towards the cartoonish, and the artwork is evocative but a bit loose. However, various card interactions that occur in play — and which the iOS version brings attention to — suggest an engagingly deeper story.

It sketches out a fantasy world that’s suffered, I believe, a sort of Lovecraftian Greenhouse effect. Alien-worshipping secret societies have been allowed to flourish unchecked, and now all manner of squamous reality-bending horrors stomp freely down the street in the middle of the damned day, snacking on the citizens and converting the survivors into their enthralled cultists. The players are mage-lords, invincible in their towers and normally unmoved by the affairs of mere mortals. But many-angled Mistakes of Creation devouring the city is a bit much. And besides, if their rival mage-lords slay all the monsters first and win the peoples’ terrified love and tributes for generations, well, that won’t do either. And so they each get to work at their scrying pools, which manifests itself to the game’s players through the familiar motions of deck building, drafting armies of mystic warriors to put the hurt on some trans-dimensional outrages. The winning player is the one who collects the most points, through a combination of a high-value deck and a trophy case full of freshly lopped demon heads.

One key bit of flavor to which the iOS version particularly contributes involves the Cultist, an ever-present monster card depicting a raving, scripture-waving street lunatic. If you have the bad luck to draw a strong hand when no juicier monsters are on the board, you can always choose to kill a Cultist or two for a better-than-nothing reward. In the tabletop version, he’s just a single card that stays on the table no matter how many times players zap him for his one lousy point. The iOS version punches this up delightfully, having the Cultists emit Wilhem screams while they careen off the playfield as fast as you can flick them away with your finger — several at a time, if you can afford it, but always leaving another Cultist behind. I delight in the notion of your mage-lord, dealt a crap hand, taking out their frustration by planting their Wizard Rifle on the tower windowsill and burping a few rounds at the nearest batch of streetcorner pamphleteers, whose gory deaths barely attract notice. Even though we’re still looking at graphics of playing cards on a table, the extra, lightly-cartoony effects the digital version brings helps gel the game’s darkly humorous narrative to a surprising degree.

There’s an option specifically to silence the Cultists’ screams, but I don’t know why’d you’d ever want to do that. In fact, I’m disappointed that the screams aren’t extended to the Apprentices, your hapless underlings who play a role analogous to Dominion’s Copper cards. While they’re important to your first few buys, they quickly become dead weight in your hand, obsoleted by the very cards they allowed you to gain. Various Ascension cards let you “banish” unwanted cards from your deck, to use the game’s term for permanent removal. So the midgame often features players banishing their poor Apprentices as fast as they can, divesting themselves of two or three on a single turn if lucky. I find this strongly thematic, since I can’t help but read “banish” as a polite euphemism for rather more pyrotechnic exits — working as an all-powerful mage-lord’s lackey is dangerous work, you know? Inevitably, my mental enactment of a turn in Ascension has me envisioning a typical workday for the evil Mistress from the highly NSFW webcomic Oglaf (who graces the top of this post) or this gentleman:

(And that’s David Warner as Evil in Time Bandits, of course.)

I guess what I’m saying is that if you have an iPad, and you enjoy deck building games, you’ll probably like Ascension. And if you enjoy reading far too much into the storylines of your deck building games, you might even love iOS Ascension as much as I do. (It’s also available for iPhone / iPod Touch, but I haven’t tried that version.)

Posted in Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment