I think I can safely say I arrived at the deck building realm harbouring a few doubts, but I leave converted.
A quick browse through the shelves housing my beloved board game collection highlights an obvious omission from the many genres. I have no card drafting games. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever really played a proper card drafting game.
With that in mind, when opportunity dropped a big old card drafter from a brand with a rich history right into my lap, well, it would have been rude not to dive right in.
Ascension: Realms Unraveled comes from a stable of games with some real pedigree. The brand has been doing the rounds and entertaining the masses for some considerable time, however, I’ve somehow remained completely in the dark about them until this point. I mean, I knew card drafting games existed, I just felt uncertain that they were something that could deliver the sort of experience I generally seek from my games. You know, entertainment, socialising, underhand tactics, that sort of thing. From my uninformed standpoint, the whole deck building, card drafting genre was all a little serious, complicated, and, boring.
And this remained my viewpoint right up to the point I sat down to play this game. All I can say is, I get it now. I can see the allure of these games, I can begin to appreciate the tactical back and forth as two players strategize and plan for the spoils of victory, which let’s face it, is bragging rights, and those are worth their weight in gold!
Now the game itself is surprisingly simple to pick up and play. As I said, I came to this as a complete novice, as did my challenger, yet within a few minutes we were moving at a reasonable pace of play with the odd stutter for rules checks.
The game is based around a small number of key points. The idea is from an opening hand of ten cards, the player shuffles, deals five and then uses them in the best way possible to acquire further cards, defeat monsters, or score victory points. The opening cards are basic and lacking power, we have eight apprentices who hold points to be spent on cards, and we have two militia with which to embrace combat. Dealt along the centre of the board are six random cards from a main deck which are available for the player to interact with. These cards come in three flavours; heroes that can be added to your deck and used later on, constructs that can be built and stay in place offering you bonuses throughout the game, and monsters that can be fought and defeated for victory points. As a card is removed from the centre row, a new one is dealt in from the main deck. In addition to these cards, there are also three separate decks available to use at all times. These are made up of two upgrades on apprentice and militia, namely; mystic and heavy infantry, and the cultist. The cultist is available as a monster to defeat throughout the entire game, so when the cards in your hand offer little in the way of options, there’s always time to wail on the old cultist for a few victory points.
Some cards hold special effects that occur when brought into play, others can be transformed under the right circumstances (generally when matching factions are played in the same turn, oh yeah, the heroes have factions attached to them that work best when in unison with the same cards of the same faction), and the whole thing works pretty well and plays at a decent pace.
Having said that the game is not without niggles (when are they ever?). As a newcomer to Ascension, and deckbuilding itself, there were times I found the rulebook impressively vague, or at its most impressive, completely void of answers at all. What this led to was a couple of prolonged pauses in the middle of the game whilst we hit Google in search of answers. I will openly admit we probably missed something glaringly obvious, and even as I type I’m sort of imaging an alternative answer to the one we eventually went with that might have worked better, but it is what it is, and the rulebook for Ascension: Realms Unraveled, is a tad light.
Thankfully the basics of play are very simple. The foundations are in place to allow ease of play for the competitors, and from there the depths of strategy adopted are entirely at player discretion. I plumped for pick a card and hope for the best, but it was my first couple of plays. I can definitely see a point where as card knowledge becomes second nature, the room for strategic play will enhance significantly.
In terms of its looks and build, the game is really eye-catching. The artwork is detailed, colourful and fits the theme brilliantly. The board in particular looks incredible, with fantastic vivid art that does a great job of pulling the player further into the game than playing against the wooden backdrop of just a table ever could. However, my own board has become a little warped. It’s only slight at present, but because of the position of the warping it has left one card stack permanently tottering like it always wanted to be Jenga. The cards themselves feel great in the palms and the tokens depicting the victory points are crafted like little silver and red jewels which look excellent.
The game has room for 1-4 players. The solo game is a great learning tool for the basics and setup, the four-player adopts a team scenario of 2 v 2, but I didn’t sample this for the review. I believe the real meat of the game lies firmly in the 1 v 1 duel format.
One for the Kids?
Although on the surface, deck building games might appear a little heavy going, the reality is quite the opposite. Ascension might not be one for the under-10’s, but beyond that I see no reason this style of game can’t become a firm favourite for (almost) all the family.
I played against my sixteen-year-old son, and it proved a solid entertaining slice of strategic (ie: pick a card and hope for the best) fun, where the only player downtime came from the previously mentioned rules searching.
Dylan, 16, said, “There was nothing I didn’t like about the game really. It was easy to play and I thought it was good.”
I think I can safely say I arrived at the deck building realm harbouring a few doubts, but I leave converted. Ascension: Realms Unraveled has shown me how much fun these games can be. I have no doubt the game will spend some serious time at the table over the coming months, and will likely be joined by a few other deck builders in the near future. Having said that, the game isn’t entirely free from issues. The rules were a little vague for the newcomer, and the board has lost a little shape, but, one is easily overcome by seeking a little knowledge, and the other isn’t game breaking.
I found surprising simplicity combined with great scope for expanding strategy as the player becomes familiar with the cards and the possibilities at hand. I have no doubt the game will hold great appeal for the already Ascension initiated out there, but for us newbies too, it’s a pretty cool place to spend some game time.