I bought Ascension to have something to play with coworkers on the way to DEF CON: there’s no iPad Dominion port, so this seemed like the next best thing. That was a little over 100 days ago; how many games have I played since then? I’m pretty sure I haven’t averaged 10 games a day, but 5 games a day wouldn’t surprise me at all; so let’s go with 500. Mostly against the AI, of course, but a fair number against other people.
So I’m pretty obsessed with the game: I’m writing this post not because I’m done playing it but because my playing the game has reached a steady state where I mostly only play during idle time in my day. I see its mechanics everywhere: some friends and I were toying with the idea of designing a game a month or two ago, and whenever they suggested a new theme, bits and pieces of Ascension mechanics would immediately come to mind, fitting themselves to that theme. But there’s also the surprisingly tactile feel of the iPad port, the way it lets you express the different gameplay actions by flicking cards in appropriate directions. And there’s the number of games I played in the middle of the night, passing the time until a round of achy Zippy squeaks subsided.
My obsession really took hold when I became fascinated with Arbiter of the Precipice. Most games have growth as their strategy for improvement: you get more and more powerful, but the new powers are layered on top of the old. With the Arbiter, however, you’re explicitly curating your hand by pruning less powerful cards. If you’re really successful at that pruning, you can end the game with a deck that contains none of the cards that you started with, but that contains powerful enough cards (and cards allowing enough further draws) that you can go through your entire deck every turn, grabbing the best cards off the board in the process.
That curation by pruning is still my favorite strategy: if you can pull it off, you can dominate with it like no other strategy. (Though a pure Mechana Construct strategy can come close if all the cards fall right.) But you frequently don’t have that choice: you have to live with the cards that appear on the board, the cards that remain on the board after your opponent has taken her turn. Which initially frustrated me in comparison to Dominion, but now I very much appreciate that aspect of the game: it’s all about contingency, about living in a web of possibility, about your feel for how your current hand and the cards on the board affect that web. A month ago, I wished I could reason better about that web, trying (failing!) to turn those possibilities into probabilities; these days, I just play by feel, going in whatever direction the cards are pulling me.
It’s a quite different game with three or four players than with two. When your turn comes around again in the larger games, the board will look completely different: not only do you want to actively curate your hand, but curating the board by banishing cards lest your opponents get them becomes increasingly important. And games take fewer turns, so you have less time to build your deck, you have to be prepared to jump on monsters when they appear. (You can’t count on constructs you’ve played hanging around, either.) The contingent nature of the probability web really reveals itself in those situation; I’m starting to get my footing with three players, but I still have a lot to learn; four-player matches are a complete mystery to me.
Playing with humans instead of AI opponents adds yet more wrinkles: the AI is more focused on maximizing its score improvement every round, while humans are better at building up latent power in their hand. So games with other people are more vicious, more visceral: your opponent is much more likely to grab that expensive card that you had your sights set on, where you’d just drawn a hand that would enable you to purchase it on your next turn.
And, with humans, there’s the different flavors of online multiplayer. Most of the time, my games with friends are spread out over the course of days, making a move every few hours: delightful, painful anticipation. Sometimes, though, we’re online at the same time, and blow right through a game. At first, I preferred that, but it’s really a double-edged sword. Because Ascension cards are a very low-bandwidth mode of communication with a friend: without even text chat, let alone voice chat or talking face to face, I’m left wanting to say more, I’m wondering why we’re playing together online instead of hopping in a car and spending time together in person.
I think I used to care more about game narrative than game mechanics, but the half year I spent playing almost nothing other than Minecraft and Rock Band 3 flipped that preference around. And Ascension feeds into that in spades: it’s an exposed presentation of a handful of mechanics (buying cards versus defeating monsters, cards that give you extra draws, banishing cards from your deck, banishing cards from the board, constructs versus heroes, the ticking down of the clock, cycling through your deck, the limited and random selection of available cards to purchase), you can go through a game in five minutes, and you can explore those mechanics through hundreds of games over the course of a month. (I’ve played Ascension many more times than any other board game.) So you spend a lot of time getting to know those mechanics, getting a feel for the implications of the different choices.
And mechanics beget narrative; if the mechanics are sparse and orthogonal enough, that narrative in turn begets metaphors for your life outside the game, even suggestions for how to live. Build up your hand, increasing your powers in the future. Do that as part of an explicit strategy of curation: pay attention to the mixture of techniques, set up reinforcing possibilities, prune actions that once served a purpose but are no longer as valuable. Seek out techniques that bring immediate value while not closing off further possibilities. But don’t be afraid to take immediate profit when opportunities present themselves.
Be aware of the most glorious success possibilities; be aware of the unlikeliness of succeeding with a strategy that focuses on them, even if the cards on the board seem to support such a strategy. (Mechana Constructs as a metaphor for startups!) But also: it’s up to you how you interpret success, whether you prefer a strategy that maximizes the chance of winning by at least one point or a strategy that has you winning somewhat less often but where those successes are truly glorious. (Arha Templars as a metaphor for lack of ambition: they’re the one card I refuse to purchase outside of the endgame.) Losing one match isn’t much of a setback if you’ve gotten something out of that loss: just jump right back in and play another one.
And always, always be aware of the web of possibilities: know what your hand suggests, know what the state of the board suggests, but be (painfully!) aware that that’s only a suggestion, that the future may bring something quite different from what you hope. And be prepared to find unexpected good in that change! So don’t get lost in that web of possibilities, that web of fantasies: constantly re-ground yourself in the actual cards in hand, in the actual cards in front of you, in the actual person you’re playing with. Or people: and as the number of people involved increases, life gets more complicated, contingency and incomplete information forces itself upon your awareness, to an extent that is at first unpleasant but that has its own beauty once you accept the transience of your plans.
And, as the name of the game suggests, you’ll eventually reach enlightenment if you study it assiduously enough? Seems a bit far-fetched to me, but much less so than it would have two or three months ago.
This post has not been revised since publication.