In the Cards: A Review of Ascension for iPhone and iPad

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer

One downside of doing QA in the video game industry is, of course, the slightly grueling experience of crunch time, where testers are expected to put in long hours and late nights in a rush to get the final product out the door. As I am currently in the middle of said crunch time, I sadly have not been able to give much thought to anime, manga, or the blog articles ruminating on such. Hopefully things will return to normal in a few weeks and you can all enjoy your regularly scheduled geeky musings on the best and worst anime and manga has to offer.

In the meantime, however, I thought I would share a little something that has kept me sane during the interminable commute to and from work in the mornings and late nights; a simple little game on the iPhone, more card game than video game, which was the first app I purchased and is still one of my favorite games to play on the go.

Thus, I bring you a mini-review of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer (and its expansion, Return of the Fallen) for iOS, a remarkably faithful and enjoyable adaptation of the widely popular card game and one of the best ways to while away a long or short commute.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Like the card game I previously reviewed, Tanto Cuore, Ascension is a deck-building game in which players use their resources to buy new, better cards, defeat enemies, and win victory points. Every player starts with eight Apprentices (who provide “runes” to purchase cards with) and two Militia (who provide “battle” that can be stacked to defeat monsters). Between the players, five cards from the main deck are laid out at random in a row; these can be monsters who can be fought for victory points, or they can be heroes or constructs (“permanent” buffs to the player) which can be bought and shuffled into a player’s deck. Unlike many other deck-building games where you can often get stuck (e.g. tons of “money” to buy things with but nothing to buy), Ascension also provides a separate, endless supply of Mystics and Heavy Infantry (like super Apprentices and Militia respectively) and a poor hapless Cultist enemy to whack again and again and again if there are no other targets to take out your battle on. Game ends when the pool of victory points is empty; most victory points from battle and from purchased cards is the winner.

One of Asension’s strengths as a card game is how simple it is to grasp and how quick gameplay can progress, and the iOS version captures this flow perfectly. Once you have grasped the rules, play is quick and instinctive. The game’s fast animations and easy interface gets things moving, and rather than agonizing over each little decision, players will often find themselves smoothly improvising as they go along, experimenting with different card purchases, finding their own rhythm as the cards are laid out. Another great thing about Ascension is that it’s very rare to have a *bad* hand; while players are often left a bit short of battle or runes to do *exactly* what they wanted, there is almost always some great alternative to pick instead, and the permanent option of buying Mystics or Heavy Militia is a fantastic touch which always gives you good bang for your buck.
Dealing your hand with your finger

For people who are already fans of the card game, Ascension should be a must buy, hands down. Everything you love about the game is here, made easy and efficient thanks to some good design choices. There are plenty of complicated cards which could easily have tripped up an adaptation of the game (e.g. the numerous heroes who can banish cards in your hand or discard pile, or the card in the expansion which asks players to guess what the next card is), but everything is kept smooth and clear with very obvious pop-ups, colored outlines and so on. Cards can be played/kept/discarded/banished/etc by either dragging them to the right pile or by double tapping them, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re curled up in bed with both fingers on the iPad or standing in a crowded bus trying to play with one thumb. Better still, playing with the computer means you can have a game anywhere, anytime, and the short length of the games (10-15 minutes, sometimes slightly longer) makes it perfect for transit that’s broken up with lots of transfers etc. In fact, I’ve gotten into the habit of timing my bus and Skytrain trips by my games of Ascension!

If I had to pick one big problem with the game, it would be one that really only affects new players and those unfamiliar with the game, and even then it’s mostly an iPhone issue. It can be extremely difficult to read the cards and see what they actually do; on an iPhone screen, the text appears extremely small, and while long-time fans can probably recognize all the card art and play accordingly, newbies will be a lot slower to register exactly what is going on and what cards are available. The game does allow players to double-tap a card to read it and see what it does, but it slows gameplay down, and I suspect things would be much more comfortable on an iPad screen where the cards are more visible.

The Grand Design

Don’t let the $4.99 price point (+$2.99 for the excellent expansion pack) turn you off at all; this is one game that is definitely worth the purchase. If you’re a fan of the original card game, you definitely need to pick this up; even if you may feel like the game should be played with friends with the original cards, the convenience and fun of having your own pocket game can’t be overstated. If you have never played Ascension before, I would still recommend it, but try the iPad version if possible over the iPhone; the cards take a bit of getting used to before you can recognize them by sight. Either that, or pick up the card game itself and give it a shot; it’s a great geeky classic and always deserving of more love!

Are you a fan of Ascension? What other geeky card games do you like to play on your phone or other device?

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