Friday, 3 March 2017

New Heights in Ascendancy

Off the bat I want to say this - I'm in love with Ascendancy.

I've been playing Attack Wing for some time now and that's offered at least one foray into tabletop gaming with Star Trek with a very one-on-one combat focus with a ton of upgrades but nothing much beyond (excellent) space battles with a handful of ships.

Ascendancy by Gale Force Nine on the other hand puts you at the head of your own empire. At the beginning you've just got a home planet and some limited resources but as you Build and Command your fleet those vital Production, Culture and Research tokens will start to trickle in and soon you're venturing out into the galaxy to seek out new life a - I think you know how it goes. 

For starters, let's take a closer look at the contents of the box...

The principle of Ascendancy is straight forward; explore, annex/invade the worlds you find to reach an Ascendancy level of five or conquer your two opponents outright by capturing their home worlds. Except that it's not that simple and I'd recommend setting aside a whole afternoon if you're looking to play at least for the first venture into the game.

Ascendancy is an incredibly immersive experience and you do need to dedicate the time to it. It's not something you can rush through and even the set up can be a bit of a task with numerous tokens to assign to each player, cards to place, planets to establish, control panels to zero...and more. It is all well worth it though and the key to a successful campaign/domination of your enemies lies initially in that set up. If you know where everything is and what everything does then you're already in good grasp of the game and stand a much better chance of making it to full Ascendancy. 

Initially the starting game box provides three powers to control; the Federation, Klingons and Romulans with two additional packs adding the Ferengi and Cardassians which means you could turn this into a massive five player game. We just started off with the boxed three factions and it's probably best enjoyed with three players to give you the variety in the game. I reckon two player is manageable but a third brings a more balanced chord to proceedings.

Playing Ascendancy takes the form of three stages; Building, Command and Maintenance. During the Building phase you can construct new starships, increase your abilities and add resources to your research projects as well as establish Production, Research and Culture nodes on your planets. Each player completes a Building phase before moving on and you can use as much or as little of your resources as you want and in some cases it might be better to conserve and spend on larger items further down the road.

Command then allows you to explore the galaxy by developing space lanes (each planet can only have a certain number spreading from it), charting planets, taking on hazards and challenges that they unearth and even engaging in combat to win worlds or defeat your opponents. Closing out the round is Maintenance where you assess if victory has been achieved, dish out collected resources from your developed/developing worlds and reset any hazards on the board.

Klingon Empire Command Console
Now at the beginning I tried to be a bit of a smart arse and failed because I set out to divide and conquer as the Klingon Empire and generally forgot about actually developing my civilisation.

Y'see Ascendancy is not as clear cut as I imagined and that's what makes it such an immersive experience. You really do need to plan out your Building phase and utilise the resources at your command to help upgrade your weapons and make your Command phase therefore easier to manage. As you discover new worlds and new civilisations by boldly going you will begin to gain a regular source of resource "income" if you will, which in turn makes advancement easier and allows you to spin your people off onto a more successful path of your choosing. Also you will be able to issue more Commands as you gain Ascendancy that will let you act more across your expanding empire.

You might go for all out domination or consolidate your borders against invasion choosing to pool your resources more inwardly while others might seek to plunder what you have constructed.

Full game layout for three players
In the three hours we bashed out our empires there was a lot of discussion and arguing over just what each rule meant and whether there was a point to warping or impulse speed. Needless to say there is a point to everything and at the end we all had a good gist of exactly how the game mechanics worked and how each player's civilisation differed in its style. I cannot stress how important it is to keep the rule book to hand in those early stages.

One of the big twists in the game comes from uncovering your next unexplored world at the end of a space lane. In fact when you flip the top card on the Exploration deck you don't know what you'll get. In some cases it's a totally blank canvas, in others a dangerous hazard to overcome and in a few it might be a pre- or post-warp civilisation that you'll need to coax into your way of life. As you research and spend resources these actions do become easier but at the beginning trying to create an hegemony was a total waste of tokens since I didn't have enough experience behind me. My advice would be to spend internally before branching out to developed and developing worlds. Make sure you're fully prepped for the big unknown.

Even at three hours we barely scratched the surface of this epic game. Each time we play it, the outcome and layout will be distinctly different because you'll find something unexpected to do each time. We did get quicker at running through the trio of stages but I do again recommend laying aside a good afternoon to really pick apart your understanding of Ascendancy at least the first time you crack open the box.

Romulans advancing to Excalbia
One niggle was the heavy focus on The Original Series and The Next Generation within the look and feel of the game even down to the planet choices and a lot of the Exploration cards. While the subsequent expansions added Ferengi and Cardassian factions I would think expanding the cards to deal with events from Deep Space Nine and Enterprise at the least might encourage more players to take it up. I even pose that a Voyager expansion pack could add transwarp elements and Borg encounters. Deep Space Nine might add the station itself and a dicey passage to the uncharted Gamma Quadrant.

Saying that it is a very small niggle because this really does celebrate some of the great elements and events of Star Trek. Given it's the 50th anniversary it's more than understandable that the focus is on the two more popular series even down to your ships being Galaxy Class, Vor'Cha or Warbird starships, Each faction has their own agenda set out on their Command Console and while there is a part of the game which does rely on inter-player combat it's also about construction, exploration, negotiation (trade agreements) and the hazards that those pieces bring with them. Ascendancy is very multi-faceted and I'm fascinated as to where each journey will take me.

The rulebook is a hefty piece of kit too and I recommend a good read through at least twice before kicking off with your first game. It will speed up your set up period and probably your first couple of rounds where there's likely to be zero first contact with new worlds. I did find that I was referring back quite a bit especially during the combat phases to make sure I was rolling the right number of dice and similarly when we pitched up to our first spacial anomaly. Watch out for those by the way since they'll either be a useful goldmine or an unwelcome reset button for your ships.

Federation starting from Earth - note the hub and resources
I'd also suggest grabbing hold of this game right now because there are an extra batch of 50th Anniversary Exploration cards included which add in a few more scenarios to deal with when you reach a new planet. Yet even without those few extra helpings, this is still an incredible game for Star Trek fans that provides more than just "pew-pew" action and makes you think beyond the turn you're playing. It is a little more costly than other Star Trek games with the big box retailing for anywhere between £55 and £75 in the UK. The expansions are retailing for around the £22-£25 mark.

As a fan I absolutely love this game but you do need some like-minded fans to enjoy it with you. I have some family who will play and enjoy it more as a big tabletop experience more than it being Star Trek but I would love to play it against people who "get" the franchise and will really understand all the nuances of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. It's not a game I'm going to be pulling out every day to play because of the big set up process but it is one that will keep me and others entertained and engrossed for many hours on a weekend or a day off. The price might put some off but this is probably the best all-round Star Trek gaming experience available right now and if you're into your strategy then this is a must on all levels.

You can find out more about Gale Force Nine's Ascendancy at their website now. Thanks also to Gale Force Nine for giving us the chance to review their game.

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