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Designer Diary: Ascension: Gift of the Elements, or Transforming Old Into New

Justin Gary
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Hello, BoardGameGeek! I've already written a "first look" article on Ascension: Gift of the Elements (which debuted on March 20, 2017) on the Ascension website, but I wanted to do a deeper dive into the mechanisms and thinking behind the design.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ascension, it is one of the first deck-building games, released in 2010. As a former professional Magic player, I have always had a natural affinity for the strategy in collectible card games. My favorite way to play CCGs is draft, and in a draft, players must select from a limited number of cards, then pass the remaining cards around the table for others to select from.

My initial vision for Ascension was to put the best parts of collectible card game drafts into a single boxed experience that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg. I approached this goal by creating a moving "center row" in which six cards are available for purchase, and new cards are revealed each time a card is acquired or removed. Unlike more static deck-building games (e.g., Dominion), this creates nearly limitless permutations and makes every game different. This forces players to evaluate cards against each other based on what you've already selected, what other players might select, and the time remaining in the game.

The initial game was a hit, and seven years later Stone Blade Entertainment has now released over ten expansions, free apps on Android and iOS, and a virtual reality game available on Steam and the Occulus Store.

Gift of the Elements is the first expansion to revisit our most popular mechanism: events. Events are cards that change the game rules for all players as soon as they are revealed in the center row. Only one event can be active at a time, so when a new event shows up, the old one is removed and play can change dramatically in an instant. There are, however, always challenges when revisiting an old mechanism...

Challenge #1: Complexity and Design Space

When revisiting old mechanisms, the most obvious design space has usually been claimed. Our team spent nearly a year working on the designs for Storm of Soulsand Darkness Unleashed (now featured in our Year 2 Collector’s Edition), and we spent most of that time finding the most impactful designs without unnecessary complexity.

The first thing I did to reduce complexity was to remove the "Fanatic" references from events. In Storm of Souls and Darkness Unleashed, the Fanatic was an "always available" card whose power changed based on the current event. This idea was great in theory, but in practice I believe too complex for the value it generated.

The complexity-to-game-depth tradeoff is the fundamental axis that most designers deal with. Everyone wants a game that is "easy to learn, difficult to master". Unfortunately, those two goals are generally opposed to each other. Every additional mechanism added to a game makes it harder to learn, but (hopefully) adds strategic depth and fun. Finding good tradeoffs is the key skill of good design.

Adding a new "always available" card is a high cognitive burden for players. While I still enjoy playing with the Fanatic, looking back, I don't believe the complexity cost was worth the amount of fun the mechanism provided.

Once I removed the Fanatic from events, I had room to add more complexity to new events. Unlike the original events, events in Gift of the Elements can influence costs in the center row. This can be tricky for players to remember, but the discount makes the events more meaningful and can create some pretty epic turns, allowing players to get high cost cards much earlier in the game.




Challenge #2: Same, But Different

The second challenge with reintroducing a beloved mechanism is to balance the familiar with the new. This challenge is part of any expansion design. You need to keep the game similar enough to what players liked about the original game, but different enough to justify a new purchase. (I talked about this issue in my 2015 article on Gamasutra if you want to dig deeper.)

With the reintroduction of events, I decided to solve this problem by combining it with another beloved mechanism: transform.

By paying the transform cost on an event — 8 runes for the card shown above — you can transform it into a powerful hero for your deck. As a designer, I liked this approach for two reasons:

1. I could be more aggressive with the power level of events that transform into heroes because the previously designed cards that let you acquire cards for free from the center row don't work on events (since events are removed from the center row once they are revealed). Players have to actually earn enough runes to pay for the card, making it harder for the powerful effects to show up early and let someone run away with a game.

2. Players can now interact with an event in a new way. Before, if you didn't like an event, the only hope you had to remove it was to reveal more cards from the center row and pray for a new event to show up. Now, you have the option to transform the event and turn a card that used to work against you into a powerful hero for your deck!




The mechanical advantages are significant, but I also really enjoyed the story behind the events. In Gift of the Elements, the events are represented as mythic, almost god-like figures that influence the whole realm. Being able to recruit those creatures and make them mortal heroes in your deck felt really cool and got a great response in playtesting.

Much More to Explore!

Gift of the Elements isn't just about bringing back favorite old mechanisms. It also introduces two new keywords:

-----Infest: "You add dead cards (Monsters) to your opponent's discard pile."
-----Empower: "You can remove (banish) a card you have already put into play."




You can probably imagine why these two mechanisms were paired together in this set. Infest represents a pretty big departure for an Ascension expansion.

I was often frustrated by the "kingmaker problem", games in which a player who can't win gets to decide which other player wins the game based on who they choose to attack or aid. I prefer that a game is won based upon the skill of the players combined with some uncertainty from random chance. Part of the design goal for Ascension was to remove as much direct player attacking (and the opportunity for kingmaking) as possible. It's impossible to entirely remove this problem from a multi-player game, but I did my best to minimize it. Since Infest allows you to choose which player receives a dead card, it introduces a bit of direct player attack into the game.

Direct attacking has its advantages, however. For one, it helps address the runaway leader problem. Deck-building games are inherently susceptible to this concern. As you acquire better cards, the odds of acquiring even better cards increases, increasing the gap between a single player and the competition. Now if one player is far ahead, Infest gives others a chance to catch up by throwing a few dead cards at the leader. Moreover, some players really enjoy the ability to knock down their friend in a more direct way. As this is our eleventh expansion, I felt it was time to throw those players a bone (beyond our "Samael Claus" holiday promo).




That being said, my design instincts couldn't let Infest show up without some tools to combat it. Empower is a great way to get rid of Infest cards, along with the weaker starting cards that clog up your deck late in the game.

Getting rid of cards in your deck — which we call "banishing" in Ascension — is a critical and challenging part of deck-building games. If you can't get rid of weaker cards, then your deck stays diluted and you limit the opportunities to draw powerful cards acquired late in the game.

However, too much banishing can make decks too efficient, creating very long and complicated turns that make other players want to leave the table. Empower is a fantastic tool because unlike other banish cards, you can use it only a single time. This means that most players will be able to banish a few cards from their deck, rather than run away with the game through massive early banishing.

Empower also has other design implications. Since an Empower card usually replaces a weak (or dead) card, the barrier to acquiring them is very low. The Ascension center row mechanism requires that most cards we create are desirable. If no one wants to buy anything in the center row, the board becomes static and the game won't progress. Empower cards allow us to create cards with weaker effects that are still desirable to purchase because they are an automatic "upgrade" of the cards in your deck.

To that end, the original playtest name for Empower was "Upgrade" and it initially required you to banish a card when you bought it to solidify this theme of one card upgrading into another. We shifted the mechanism after playtesting proved that players didn't like the mandatory banish. We also made the decision to change the name from Upgrade to Empower since it was no longer a direct upgrade of a card.

I hope you enjoyed these insights into Ascension: Gift of the Elements!

Justin Gary

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