A tactical take on a modern classic.
Ascension has been one of the most prolific deckbuilding games for over a decade. Across many releases, publisher Stone Blade Entertainment has perfected the system of plucking cards from a public offer in order to construct unique engines. WIth Ascension Tactics, they’ve now taken that wisdom and put it to use as the backbone of a rich tactical miniatures skirmish (see it on Amazon). The union is seamless as this odd concoction of systems is surprisingly smooth.
The classic Ascension lineage is front and center. Everything is driven through card acquisition and the deck you build. The benefit is that the bulk of rules text, special abilities, and exceptions are smartly consolidated into the various cards you acquire. This allows the miniatures skirmish battle taking place on the board to be rather lean and focused, making for an exceptionally easy game to teach and learn.
Participants alternate taking turns playing their hands and attempting to squeeze maximum efficiency out of their evolving engine. There are two main resources which are gained and manipulated through the majority of cards. Just like previous Ascension titles, you spend Runes in workmanlike fashion to purchase cards from the central market. Power, on the other hand, boasts a completely new application. Here it’s used to command your champions on the battlefield, issuing them orders to move across the hex-board and deliver powerful attacks. The importance of Power and Runes is equally balanced. What portion of your deck you allot and how you utilize each of these resources is where much of your strategic thought will be focused.
The market consists of a row of six cards dealt from a large shuffled deck. It is quite unpredictable as you will only see a small portion of the available pool over the course of the hour-long playtime. There are some clever options such as the novel construct cards, which function as upgrades to your heroes. This allows for character growth over time and for some significant creep in strength over the game.
Unfortunately, the rest of the market options are rather safe and underwhelming. Most offer varying Power and Rune amounts, some with small flourishes such as increased effectiveness if you play multiple cards of the same faction type. Yet, nearly all of the abilities across the 132 card deck are just differing degrees of strength which roughly map to the Rune cost of the cards. It feels dull and lacks the dynamism evident in both the most interesting deckbuilders, as well as miniatures games. The impression is that this card pool is more foundational, setting Ascension Tactics up for the future as opposed to offering truly unrestrained and captivating effects for players to wield.
The skirmish portion of the game suffers for this quality. Unlike its strongest peers such as Warhammer Underworlds or Unmatched, your tactical considerations are somewhat predictable and steady. The capabilities of each champion are known, which presents a ceiling on more crazy and dramatic play. Even combat is deterministic with playing attack cards and needing to exceed your opponent’s defense; however, this is partially relieved by the nifty treasure token mechanism. These tokens are seeded on the map and gained through play. They boast effects which increase the strength of attack and defense, and they’re played spontaneously in combat. This adds a touch of excitement to the otherwise drab conflict system, as it keeps you somewhat unsure of your opponent’s capabilities.
The presentation feels flat as well. The bright and cheerful illustrations are not poor at all, but they are much more generic and uninspiring than Ascension’s original Eric Sabee artwork, as divisive as it was. It’s also odd that the game is given a subtitle of Miniatures Deckbuilding Game when there are no actual miniatures in the retail edition. They’re not needed, as the standees are perfectly functional, but just going with a complete title of Ascension Tactics would have been a stronger move. When all of this is taken in combination, the general blandness threatens to relegate it to the back shelf, a game forgotten as quickly as it was learned.
Yet, Ascension Tactics overcomes this through an exceptionally rich and generous scenario booklet. The variety and quality is stronger than any of its competitors. The 12 scenarios feature a mix of different player counts and formats. Most have you aiming to control points of interest with your three champions, but some require you destroy enemy strongholds, perform tower defense, or even retrieve objectives mimicking a capture-the-flag structure. There are wild flourishes such as summoning a massive colossal cultist to batter your foes, and a neutral mechanema “wrecklamax” tank construct which players alternate controlling.
While the bulk of scenarios are aimed towards two players going head to head, there are options for multiplayer free for all and team-based skirmishes. Many pages are even dedicated to a solitaire or cooperative story-based campaign with branching scenario pathways. The AI-controlled adversaries are handled through a fleshed out scheme deck. It’s effective, presenting a wide range of maneuvers and even offering difficulty scaling.
Impressively, the scenarios use the simple ruleset to create a dynamic and interesting experience that elevates the limited tactical scope of the card play. The decision space is often tense and vibrant. The structure and setup of many scenarios achieves a MOBA-like feel, pushing champions down lanes and creating direct engagements. It’s just a very crafty overall suite on offer.
The strongest quality of the scenario set is that it positions Ascensions Tactics as a very fulfilling and dense title. This separates it somewhat from competitors in the miniatures skirmish realm, as those boxes often feature limited scope, often requiring many supplementary purchases for longterm play. That’s clearly not the case here as this set is robust and weighty.
Despite this immense feature set, I still find myself circling back around to that desire for a more radical card pool. That fault lingers at the edge of play, an occasional thorn jutting out of the brush and providing a bit of a prick. This is surmountable with future content as this system is primed for such experimentation. Fortunately, that flaw is only occasionally a nuisance currently with much of play smoothed over by delightfully theatrical scenarios.
Where to Buy
(For more game ideas, see our list of the best board games to play in 2022).