Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ascension Realms Unraveled

Few days ago (exactly last week) we were chatting about board games and card games and the question when the 'new' Ascension Core Set will be out came to our minds. I know that Ascension sets are usually available in December and June. I skipped the last expansion because I seriously did not like Rise of Vigil (I guess I wrote something about it?). After our chat I just went to the local game store and bought a copy of Ascension Realms Unraveled that was released in June. When I brought it home I opened it and was surprised to see that the box can contain more cards in a certain manner. Not only that more cards can be fit in the box (that it contains) but it can also hold sleeved cards and tokens and whatnot. This was a surprise. What I was interested was the game. I unsleeved few Magic Modern decks and sleeved this copy of Ascension instead. Unfortunately it took few more days for me to actually try the game out. At midnight on Friday (Saturday already) we finally managed to play the first game.

So what is new? The game introduces Multi-Unite as a new mechanic. There are also multi-faction heroes for the first time (that had to happen one day.) Multi-unite is more or less Unite but each hero of the specific faction triggers it. Realms Unraveled features also transformed cards that were already in Darkness Unleashed. You can either use double-faced cards or single-face cards for that. (I don't like either of the ideas but I really HATE flipping Delver of Secrets so I stuck to two cards version instead of double-faced card.) In order to transform a card a player needs to fulfill a certain condition. It usually means to play a certain number of heroes (one or two) of a specific faction.

All this might not sound much - there is one new mechanic, multi-faction heroes - a something that simply had to happen one day - and already used mechanic from the last set. Other mechanics/features we had the chance to experience like Fate, Events etc. are not present in Realms Unraveled. It looks more like the very first Ascension set - Chronicle of the Godslayer. Do not be fooled though, this is a large set and has a lot to offer in terms of game play and the power level changed significantly.

So what's different? Obviously the very first thing one will notice is the design. Apart from the new illustrations that are much more colorful and less scratchboard-ish there are changes that make the cards seem more clear and easier to read. For me it is quite confusing still (I'm used to the old ones). There is no rarity symbol but rather just dots indicating the number of copies in the portal deck (good thing). The base personal deck cards have white boarders, the transformed cards, mystics, heavy infantry have a grey one and the rest of the cards you end up having in your deck are black bordered which also helps better with the set up.

From the game play point of view the very first thing we noticed is that factions matter. This set has set the boundaries of the 'kinds' of cards a faction can have. For example Lifebound primarily gains Honor, Void generates power and banishes cards from your deck, Mechana generates runes and Enlightened like to draw cards, acquire/defeat without paying costs etc. It is the multi-faction cards that do something that is unique to two different factions. For example Deathbound Druid gives you 3 Honor (Lifebound effect) and let's you banish a card in your discard pile (Void effect) - this card is obviously Lifebound Void Hero. We both like cards like Soul Assassin or Kor Feromancer. Those are cards that would not really fit the pure Void or pure Mechana card respectively. In Magic: The Gathering we both like freedom and that is why we don't really like limited formats or formats that limit in other way the game how it is to be played (Elder Dragon Highlander for example that implies that you can only put cards to your deck that shares a color identity with your general.). This feels a bit similar. In order to get a strong deck one needs to focus on one faction (saying it the dumb way, it's not entirely true but I think you get the idea...)

The faction matters for both multi-unite effects and the transform mechanic. While keeping this in my mind I had to choose a different key for acquiring cards. This is the same in Rise of Vigil even though in this case it is even more prominent. The multi-unite and transformed cards are so much more powerful that it really is worth buying 'worse' card but of the faction you need. In other words the decision making is affected by more factors than just power-level of a single card.

The second thing is that the game is much faster. The ability to transform a 1-rune card on turn 3 into a card that would be worth 4-runes is really powerful. The cycle of faction 4-rune constructs is powerful as well. One such construct (not really sure about the Mechana one though) transformed in early game can win the game on its own. I think that this in general is a good thing. But sometimes it also means that the game ends prematurely, well before a player manages to play their deck. <

The last and the most notable thing for us is that the game is more combo-ish. In Rise of Vigil/Darkness Unleashed one build his or her deck and in one or two turns simply comboed off (at least that's how it went when we played the game. Usually it was just one player who stormed like this and the other one was left to count his honor points). In Realms Unraveled both players usually get to do this on a smaller scale but still it can generate for example 20 or more honor points in that turn. Sometimes the games does not even reach mid-game or late-game and simply end with players having cards they wanted but never played. The other thing that is annoying and can happen is that you won't be able to transform a key card in your deck and then when you finally manage it the game suddenly ends.

More random bits from our game play experience
What perturbed us a bit is also the fact that there is no way of destroying constructs. Many times it happened that we had access to a 'banish card from a discard pile' effect but no discard pile. That was really annoying and added much more to Scryer of the Lidless Eye and Sage of Lucid Dreams.

There is also a flood of cards costing 4 that we did not really appreciate that much at the beginning. We hope that with the expansion there will be a higher variety of cards costing anything else than 4. Three would be the wanted number, but I can understand what this could do with the game, one needs to tread lightly when talking about anything that should be added to the game - this btw shows how well the game is designed. We both really appreciated the card drawing cards once again. Enlightened cards are really powerful! Any Enlightened splash for whatever effect can be ridiculously powerful (I know I'm saying this more or less about anything, but well there are really ways how to build a multi-faction deck with Enlightened splash for one can really go nuts if he or she wants, it's just that sometimes the cards won't appear but well that applies to all Ascensions. In this case the player will be screwed more though if they do not show up). I also wonder what cards I would want to put into my cube. Some cards won't do much and some cards will be insane. I have a long list of cards I do not want there already which brings me to the fact that some cards can be really abused and become broken like Adayu, Cetra, Dharta or Vir that we eventually banned and replaced with 2 "Thirst for Knowledge" (Draw three cards, then discard two cards unless you discard an Enlightened card), original Cetra and a card costing 5 saying 'Draw two cards'. With broken I mean one player taking 300 points in one turn. Some people enjoy seemingly limitless combos but I'm not really fan of this. That's why I would rather ban some cards and replace them with something weaker.

There is also a construct for 2 runes and a monster that you can beat with two power that let's you banish a card from the center row. This is something quite desirable and is needed especially by a player that does not really have access to much of power. As for the 2-rune-cost construct, constructs are important in this set (as a stand-alone set). Many times ANY two constructs you have in play are really important, having access to cheap constructs is something really good.

In general the game is really solid and good and I look forward for its first expansion. It looks to me a bit more random and less friendly for two-player game. Otherwise with such a small amount of cards and overall simplicity this game is actually complex and might not be the easiest thing to decipher for new(er) players. I was really taken aback by the design (I mean game-wise design).

The contents of the box, the box itself, the art, the cards everything is nicely done. Thumbs up for this because that's not always the case with other games and shouldn't be taken for granted.