Last Spring, my Twitter feed became slowly infested with #Ascension tweets. I was busy playing in two Dungeons & Dragons campaigns at that time and did not know what the hashtag meant. But one thing became clear; people were having a great time playing a specific game called Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. My first exposure to Ascension came at Gen Con 2012, where I was able to play the game at the Gary Games booth. As someone who only played a few rounds of games such as Magic: The Gathering and Dominion, the game play was familiar enough to quickly grasp the rules. I played several games of Ascension at the booth and soon after returning home from Gen Con, I bought the iOS version – I’ve been hooked ever since!
Recently, I learned that Gary Games – the company that launched Ascension and its numerous Expansion Sets – is now Stone Blade Entertainment. The company is in the process of releasing a new game, SolForge, and I was able to communicate with the CEO of Stone Blade Entertainment and creator of Ascension and SolForge, Justin Gary. In the interview below, I pry into the development of his self-contained deck-building game and how it is both similar and different to the Magic: The Gathering behemoth. I inquire about the mechanics of Ascension and how they have evolved throughout the expansion sets. He also discusses the collaboration with Dr. Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, on their new game, SolForge.
Thank you for agreeing to answer some questions. Diving right in, I became hooked on Ascension after playing it for the first time during Gen Con 2012. The game felt more alive and interactive than previous deck-building games I’ve played like Dominion or Thunderstone. How much of this was purposeful during your design process?
Certainly game variance and excitement were some of the key goals of designing Ascension. One of the problems I always had with games like Dominion, is that once the available cards are determined, there is very little excitement and drama left in the game. Every game of Ascension is different and card valuations change dramatically based on when they are revealed and what your opponents are playing.
I have been reluctant to engage in collectible card games because the process of learning the world and mechanics of a game like Magic: The Gathering is intimidating to me. Plus, I am not inclined to spend a great deal of money buying more powerful cards to improve the chances of winning a game. I do realize there are many play types in MtG that level the playing field so expensive and powerful decks do not win every contest, but it is wonderful to have a vibrant competitive card game that does not require me to shell out more money on a consistent basis for better cards.
As a person with extensive experience playing MtG competitively (including winning the 1997 U.S. National Championship), what lessons have you learned from your experience with MtG that has shaped Ascension?
Magic (along with Dominion) are the major inspirations for Ascension. The Ascension center row is inspired in part by the magic “Drafting” experience, where players select cards from packs and then pass those packs to other players in the draft. The interplay of making choices that influence the available choices for everyone else in the game has always fascinated me and is a big part of what I tried to create in Ascension. Magic also taught me the value of high level competitive play and introduced me to the many other talented designers and developers of ascension (including John Fiorillo, Patrick Sullivan and Hall of Famers Rob Dougherty and Brian Kibler). This has led to Ascension being one of the best developed deckbuilding games on the market.
One question I have asked myself is, “How can I become a better Ascension player?” I feel like a streaky baseball player when one week I’m “in a zone” and find ways to win games by the skin of my teeth and by 50-plus points with an eight-piece Mechana Construct monstrosity . . . and other weeks when I cannot earn a win to save my life! The game is maddening at times – in a good way. The feeling of stringing together a combination of cards that practically sings is wonderful, but there are games when it feels like there is no way I could have won regardless of the decisions I made. How much of Ascension is luck versus strategy? And – seriously – how can I improve my chances!?
Ascension is a great combination of both luck and strategy. Better players win far more often than inexperienced players, but it’s not impossible for a “noob” to grab wins here and there. This keeps the game interesting and makes it fun for everyone. As far as improving your chances, there are a lot of great strategy articles out there to help and a thriving community on the forums of ascensiongame.com. Some basic tips:
- Try to stay out of the same strategy as the player to your right in a multiplayer game as they will typically be taking the cards you want before you can get them
- In the early game, try to get banish effects and increase your resource generation as much as possible. In the mid-late game, your priority should change to higher point cards and plays.
- If your opponent is playing a dominant late game strategy (e.g. banishing a lot of cards in their deck, ramping up to buy big powerful heroes), try to end the game quickly by emptying the honor pool as fast as possible. If you are the better late game strategy, try to lengthen the game (e.g. by banishing monsters from the center without defeating them).
Ascension is played with cards comprising four factions: Enlightened, Mechana, Void and Lifebound. The factions have their own personality and can be quite powerful by combining cards from just one faction, and it is also fun to experiment with combining cards from the various factions to produce interesting results. How did the factions develop during the game design process? What gap could a fifth faction fill to the world of Ascension?
The factions were built around the core mechanics we wanted to develop. Void got power boost and banishing, Lifebound focussed on heroes, rune and honor generation, Mechana is all about constructs, and Enlightened draws cards and manipulates the board. We’ve talked about a 5th faction, but I’m not revealing anything about it now.
The expansions for Ascension have gradually increased the complexity of game play. Each expansion brings new cards and the addition of a new mechanic. Return of the Fallen introduced Fate, Storm of Souls brought on Events and Trophy Monsters and Immortal Heroes introduced Soul Gems. The added complexity seems to increase the amount of chance and skill involved in the game. What have been the goals of each expansion and the progression of the game mechanics?
Chronicle of the Godslayer was designed to introduce people to the basic game mechanics. Return of the Fallen implemented the remaining core design features that were cut from Chronicle, the most important of which is the Fate mechanic which allows cards to change the game as soon as they resolve.
Storm of Souls introduced trophy monsters, making the monster killing strategy a lot more decision-filled and strategic. It also introduced the Event Mechanic, which does a lot to change up gameplay as new global rules are introduced whenever an event comes up.
I unfortunately have not yet had the opportunity to play Immortal Heroes. Can you speak a bit about the latest features in the most recent expansion?
Immortal Heroes finishes the year 2 story arch (started with Storm of Souls). Immortal Heroes expands on the mechanics of Storm of Souls by introducing Ongoing Trophies (monsters that once killed give you a benefit every turn) and an alternate rule to make events more prevalent. The main new mechanic in the set, however, is the introduction of Soul Gems. Soul Gems represent the trapped souls of the heroes from the first war. Certain cards allow you to draw and use a Soul Gem card, that can vary greatly in power level and effect. It’s a fun mechanic that adds a bit of uncertainty to your strategic decisions as you weigh the value of these cards.
The art for the cards in Ascension is terrific. Who is the artist and how did you decide on the design goals for each faction?
Eric Sabee is the artist. He is phenomenally talented and worked closely with myself and the rest of the team during the initial game design to flesh out each faction in detail. We will be doing an article later in the year outlining the visual world of Ascension on ascensiongame.com – I’m gonna leave more details for that article.
You have another game, SolForge, which you created with Dr. Richard Garfield. What updates with SolForge can you provide since your previous interview with Castles & Cooks? How would you describe the game play?
Solforge is a free to play digital only trading card game. We just released a Demo on iPad back in December and the response as been great. The gameplay rules are deceptively simple: Each turn you play 2 cards into any of the 5 lanes. Creatures fight whatever is across from them and if they are unopposed, do damage to your opponent. Reduce your opponent to 0 to win. The depth and strategy of Solforge comes from the fact that every card you play levels up and gets recycled back into your deck every 4 turns. This means that the plays you make now have a huge impact on your late game options.
We are very close to releasing an update to the app and will have our PC demo very soon. Check out solforgegame.com and like us on Facebook to stay up to date on SolForge happenings. If you are a fan of Ascension and/or Magic, I can pretty much guarantee you will like Solforge as it is a wonderful blend of those two games (which makes sense since Richard and my team co-designed it).