Episode 226: The Spiel on Ascension: Dreamscape


Release Date: Mar. 21 , 2016

Download: PDF

Designer: John Fiorillo, Justin Gary

Publisher:  Stoneblade Ent.

1-4 players  ages 13+  MSRP $40


Battle cosmic forces in Ascension by building a deck of cards filled with powerful heroes and machines from otherworldly realms. With nine versions of the game, Ascension offers a nearly infinite variety of card combinations and strategies while remaining easy to learn and quick to play. Dreamscape is the latest addition to the world and it continues to carry the banner of quality and fun for the entire family of games. 

Written review continues after the break.

Ascension: Dreamscape   Stoneblade Ent.  |  BGG  |  Amazon | App  

The Concept 

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer was first published in 2010 and was a tremendous critical and commercial success. Ascension: Dreamscape is the ninth iteration of this deck building game and can be played on its own or in concert with other editions of the game. 

The story of Ascension is a cosmic struggle in an epic fantasy setting.

The world of the game is Vigil. A Great Seal has protected Vigil for millennia, keeping it free from divine influence. The Seal was put in place to keep the corrupt god Samael the Fallen from influencing the world directly. The story begins with the first game, Chronicle of the Godslayer. You live in an era when the Great Seal is failing and horrors from beyond and breaking through. Your job as a hero of Vigil is to gather a force to defend and defeat Samael once and for all. 

During the game, players will recruit powerful heroes and constructs from four different divine factions to aid them in their quest.

Members of the Enlightened faction are ascetic warrior monks. They yearn to achieve a higher state of being through knowledge.

Members of the Mechana faction hail from a machine world, Hedron. They are engineers who build powerful Constructs of immense power.

Members of the Void faction worship death and are experts at battling creatures that erupt from the Void. 

Members of the Lifebound faction adapt and grow to face any challenges they face. Their connection with the natural world allow their powers to evolve.

Each new edition of the game advances the storyline and presents a new set of challenges for the heroes of Vigil. 

In Dreamscape, New Vigil is at peace. A cultural and intellectual renaissance has led to the discovery of a new pocket of reality - the Dreamscape. Visitors to this realm could catch glimpses of possible futures and fates and, in turn, help them come to pass or avoid them. But where there are dreams, there are also nightmares.

The more citizens from Vigil enter the Dreamscape the more it is warped by each person’s desires. Each faction gains new insight but must be on guard against those who might bring the entire realm to destruction pursuing their own selfish agenda. Your job is to explore this new world to see what fate awaits Vigil.

In game terms, Ascension Dreamscape is a deck building duel where players spend Runes, Power and Insight to gain Honor. The player with the most honor at the end, wins.

The Components

Ascension is a card game, so let's learn about the different decks of cards that come with the game.

Each player has a personal deck that is identical to begin the game. These cards represent your starting force made up of apprentices and militia that will help you recruit others and do battle. There are 10 cards in your starting deck: 8 apprentices and 2 militia.

There are 41 cards that are always available. These represent trained versions of the starting cards in your deck: heavy infantry and mystics. In addition there is one enemy card, a cultist who is always available to attack and defeat since the forces of evil can never be completely eradicated.

There are 98 cards in the center deck. These are the cards that represent the factions you hope to recruit to join you and also the monsters from beyond that threaten Vigil. These cards will be shuffled and will come out randomly as the game progresses, being dealt to a center line of 6 cards.

Last but not least are 35 Dream cards. These are unique to the Dreamscape edition of Ascension and represent your hero’s adventures and glimpses into this new realm.

The game also includes a nice board with places for the various decks to be stored and a center line where cards available for recruiting or defeating will be placed.

There are two types of shiny tokens included as well. Honor tokens are victory points. These are  small plastic diamonds and larger plastic rubies. The small gems are 1 point. The large ones are 5.

In addition to Honor tokens there are 30 Insight tokens which are unique to Dreamscape. The tokens are translucent faceted orange eggs. They’re very pretty. 10 small and 20 large. The only knock on the egg tokens is that because they are round, they want to roll around on the table. You might need to deploy a small bowl or muffin cup to contain your eggs. :)

Setup is ridiculously simple. Shuffle the center deck and deal out 6 cards to the center row. Set out the always available cards on their places on the board. Place 30 honor tokens per player where everyone can grab them as needed. Each player shuffles their personal deck and you’re ready to play!

The Mechanics

Ascension is a deck building game. Many players of modern games in the past 10 years may know about deck building. Dominion was the first game that launched this relatively new genre into commercial success. If you’re new to games, let me give you the 50 cent tour.

A deck building game is built around the idea that, over the course of the game, you will “pay” to add cards to a starting deck of cards. These new cards will give you additional abilities and will help you score points. When purchased the cards do not go into your hand. Instead, they go to your discard pile. When you run out of cards to draw or play, you reshuffle and the cards you purchased will now become part of your deck and will be available to play as they are drawn. In most cases, the cards you build into your deck are worth varying numbers of points. In many deck building games there are also penalty cards that you will be forced to place in your deck that are worth negative points. When the game ends, you will count up the points on the cards in your deck and this will determine the winner.

Now that you have a basic sense of how these games work, let’s talk about the base game and end up with the new twists Dreamscape adds to the mix.

In Ascension, you buy cards from the central row by playing your cards as forms of currency. Apprentices generate Runes. Militia generate Power. You start your turn with 5 cards in your hand. If my hand has three Apprentices and 2 Militia, I now have 3 runes and 2 Power to spend on cards on the board. 

Monsters from the center deck are red and take Power to defeat. This number is listed in the upper right hand corner of the card. If you have enough Power, you spend it and discard the Monster from the row and gain whatever reward is listed on the card. Most often the reward is honor (victory points) but the more powerful the monster, the more juicy the rewards and abilities can be.

The cards you recruit into your deck take Runes to purchase. These cards come in four different factions (as described earlier) and each faction has its own color. Enlightened cards are blue. Mechana cards are brown. Void cards are purple. And Lifebound cards are green. The number of runes needed to buy a card is listed in the upper right hand corner of the card. Faction cards can be heroes or constructs. Heroes are played to the table and you gain their effect once and they go to your discard pile. Constructs are played and remain in play and you gain their abilities  each turn until they are discarded. 

The most critical factor in the base game to keep in mind is that this currency does not carry over from turn to turn. You must use it or lose it. So, part of the challenge of the game is deciding how to make the most efficient use of the Runes and Power you have available to you on any given turn.

Heroes and Constructs enhance your abilities to buy better and more powerful cards for your deck and to defeat more powerful and dangerous monsters. The common pool of honor points is actually the game clock. Each time a card says gain honor, you take tokens from this pool. When the pool is exhausted, the game is over once each player has had an equal number of turns. But here’s the twist. The honor you gain from this pool only tells half the story of your progress in the game! Most cards you buy has a honor value printed in the lower left hand corner of the card. This means your deck itself will score. Take all the points on your cards and add them to the honor tokens you collected and that’s your score. Player with the most honor wins.

What Sets This Game Apart 

Dreamscape adds a Dream deck to the game and a third type of currency: Insight (the little eggs!).

At the beginning of the game you will be dealt a hand of 5 Dream cards. You will choose 3 of these and place them face down in front of you. You have access to these cards; they are available for purchase, but only you can buy them and only you know what they are. 

Here’s the catch. To buy these cards you need Insight and you don’t have any to spend when the game begins.

Many heroes and constructs you may purchase from the central deck will generate Insight as an ability. Other cards may have the Dreamborn attribute which means every player gains an Insight when these cards are revealed as part of the center row.

The Dream deck alone adds a fun new element to the game but here’s what really sets Dreamscape apart from all other members of the Ascension family. Insight can be saved from turn to turn. It does not go away like your Runes and Power. You can build up your reserves over time which is impossible to do in any other version of the game. This one simple twist adds another level of strategy and decisions without cluttering the game with additional complexity. 

There’s also a new class of card in the Dream deck, Vision, that comes into play immediately when purchased, instead of going into your discard pile. Again, this breaks all the normal rules of the game. Deck builders are usually games of delayed gratification. You buy a card, it goes into the discard pile and after the reshuffle, you know the card will come up and help you some time. With Visions, there’s a class of card that has an immediate (and sometimes ongoing) effect on the game. 

If you have played previous versions of Ascension, having a currency that can build up over time and cards that can be played immediately are elements that force you to reevaluate many of your tried and true strategies and assumptions about the game. They make you see the game in a new light.

Spiel of Approval

Dreamscape is a worthy winner of the Spiel of Approval award. I am constantly amazed after nine iterations of Ascension that the designers can find ways to tweak the game in such a way that the game feels familiar but substantially different from the original. Dreamscape is no exception to this. The gameplay is easy to grasp if you are just learning but the small twists mean experienced players have to adjust and adapt their decisions to account for the new challenges and opportunities the Dream cards present.

If you have not tried Ascension in any form, Dreamscape is a great place to start. And if you enjoy it, there’s a lot of fun to be had in exploring the many faces of the game in previous editions that are equally challenging in different ways.

If you’re interested in trying the game before buying, there’s a free to play digital version available on iOS and Android. It is a darn near perfect implementation of the game, including a robust AI and nearly every edition and expansion and promo can be purchased as add-ons. You can also play asynchronous games with your friends.

Ascension is a Keeper

While the latest iteration is certainly worthy of individual accolades, I want to draw special attention to the entire Ascension series. This is not an honor we hand out lightly or often. 

I play a LOT of games. Many games I enjoy playing occasionally when I’m in the right mood. Some games I’ll play if asked. And then there are games that I come back to time and time again because they prove to be fun and engaging every time I play. These are the keepers. Games I’ll play day or night, any day, any time.

I have to admit most of my plays of Ascension have been via the amazing digital app, but in the last few years I have played Ascension in all its forms over 900 times. The only other games in my regular rotation that come close to that number are classic card games: Cribbage and Scopa. 

ANY game that can hold my interest over that number of games and still manage to feel fresh and interesting has achieved something truly noteworthy. The variety of strategies and cards between editions and the different challenges each opponent can pose make the game ridiculously entertaining even after hundreds of plays.

I’m pleased to award the entire Ascension family with our first Keeper award, the highest honor any Spiel of Approval winning game can achieve. It will have a place on my shelf years from now when so many other games will have faded from memory.