Quick Look: Ascendancy
Artists: Georgi Minkov, Alexander Nanitchkov, Tuan Nguyen, Miroslav Petrov
Publisher: ONE MORE TURN GAMES
Year Published: Available for Late Pledges via Kickstarter Link at the bottom of this review.
Ascendancy is the ultimate 4x fantasy board game experience.
Lead 1 of many asymmetric houses of royal lineage, each vying for the throne. Reclaim your family name through a hero’s (or villain’s) journey spanning multiple generations, or a single scenario.
Build your empire skyward, seize control outward, manipulate the economy, or dominate the battlefield. There are several paths to victory. Every decision counts, and no two games of Ascendancy are ever the same.
At the heart of the game, a deep melting pot of interesting decision points awaits you. Tried & true gameplay mechanics such as worker placement, yet with novel innovations, such as “social class” based action programming & progression. Almost everything (and everyone) in the world of Ascendancy can be upgraded and improved. Reward Your Loyalists, exile your traitors, or promote outlaws to land holding lords. Master your strategy, and you will be rewarded with a limitless kingdom of your own design.
As labor of love in active development for over 4 years, it’s inspired by classics from the likes of Heroes of Might & Magic III, Civilization, Magic The Gathering, and Game of Thrones. The world of Ascendancy wears its epic fantasy roots proudly, yet exists for you to blaze your own trail.
Core mechanics; Engine build your tableau, Worker Placement, Move to explore, place tiles, establish area control outwards, and build upwards.
Solo, Competitive AND Co-operative team modes.
Single scenario, or multi-session campaigns, with multiple branching generations, marriage decisions, legacy family traits, and heirloom inheritance.
“Choose your own adventure” style narrative structure, where decisions matter. 4 victory point tracks; rule by Cunning, Might, Intellect, or Loyalty.
Rock paper scissor based JRPG side style combat, combining deep strategy, and a bit of dice chucking excitement.
Deep branching tech trees, with over 200 unique unlockables.
18 champion class evolutions. 6 Schools of Elemental Magic, with creature summoning, lycanthropy, equipment crafting, and epic boss battles that you’ll be talking about for a long time.
Secret objectives, hidden roles, family vendettas, and personal agendas.
Eurogame style economics, with anytime market access, and dynamic pricing of goods.
3 Correlated Gameplay Loops, with 6 Ways-to-Win Strategies. Play How YOU Want, Including;
Go Wide or go Tall (empire building)
Grow fast, or slow roll out-tech (engine building)
Push-your-luck, or minimize risk (encounter resolution)
100% optional combat, and PvP
You might be surprised to hear that I am usually very adverse to worker placement games.
Yes, you heard that right. Here I am diametrically opposed to the concept of Worker Placement–and yet, I directly requested to review Ascendancy 4x.
Am I mad, or am I a masochist? Perhaps a little of both? What type of insanity could ever make me ever want to venture into gaming territory that I typically avoid?
I will admit, I remember seeing the crowdfunding for Ascendancy 4X quite a few times, and I kept coming back to it–despite my reluctance to pay any attention to a genre that has typically left my family feeling ambivalent at best. Though usually underwhelmed would be a better descriptor for our sentiments.
Because Ascendancy 4X seemed to consist of a rather odd pairing of mechanics…
What kind of Frankenstein’s monster could this game’s creator be trying to create? Surely impossible, I said.
The simultaneous pull and repulsion of combining the two genres was maddening to say the least.
Because as much as I cannot stand Worker Placement games, 4x games officially stand as my second favorite game style, following very closely after Dungeon Crawlers. Unofficially, I think 4X games may in fact be my favorite, though. And by this, I mean that I have more 4X games in my collection than even Dungeon Crawlers, if sheer numbers mean anything.
Needless to say, I was faced with a dilemma…reach out to try Ascendancy and prepare to do something I would regret doing…or not to reach out and risk not trying a new 4x game implemented with a mechanic seldom, if ever, seen in the genre.
Curiosity got the best of me. As I am in the process of writing and compiling an article on virtually every 4X game I have ever played, I figured this would be a good opportunity to include the game in my upcoming 4X Shootout article (keep an eye out for it later this year). If Ascendancy fared poorly, so be it, but I definitely did not want to miss out on the opportunity to put every game I possibly could into the fray.
Besides, how often does a non-space-themed 4X board game come along?
Uprising : Curse of the Last Emperor is the only one in my collection at this point in time, if that says anything…(Ascendancy is more of a medieval, political setting to make things clear).
Now, beyond the mere use of Worker Placement as a mechanic, one of the things that pulled me into this review was the sheer number of things that it seemed possible to do, judging from what I saw on their Kickstarter. The grandest question I had was “could this game possibly live up to all the gameplay that it claims to”?
Judging from the pictures of various cards, sheets, and player boards that were splattered across their campaign, my first inclination was to believe that it was possible, knowing that nevertheless, I have been disappointed many times before.
Note that the copy I received was a prototype, with ver
y early rules. As such, please note that much is potentially subject to change, including quality of materials and rulesets. In fact, I can already tell you that after playing through the original draft of the rules, I was able to check out the changes that have been made so far are in some cases these are very substantial. This review will encompass the general gist of things in an effort to convey the main takeaways of my experience, rather than summarize the full breakdown of rules, because, as noted…things may change.
Now my first impression…
Wow, that is a big box, full of lots of goodies…
And my second? For a 4X game…that central board is small!
The third realization was that, as noted in the Kickstarter pictures I mentioned, there are a LOT of components that seemingly serve to affect the customization of the game as it progresses. More on this later.
The fourth. There are quite a lot of game-trays that not only serve for storage, but also for gameplay tracking. They each have custom inserts that allow for various dice and cubes to be placed in, and denote all sorts of actions available to be taken, cards to be placed, or slots to be covered and uncovered as you advance in tech trees.
Yes, indeed! In true 4X fashion, each of the game’s 4 player factions, in addition to being highly asymmetrical, sport their own distinct Technology Trees.
Now I am going to just assume that most readers will already be familiar with the Worker Placement mechanic, so I am not going to spend a lot of time going into this feature. Rather, I will try to impart my experience of what Ascendancy manages to do differently.
The first difference is the most obvious, but also the most profound. It is the sheer number of options available to use of your workers. You basically have 4 tiers of Workers, from the lowly Outcast to the might Lord, but in a pleasant twist, they do not perform identically–the lower tiers are much more limited in terms of the placements they can take, while the Lords can do virtually anything in terms of placement when it is their turn. Even so, it feels like a power struggle being able to have the privilege to place workers first, as there are limited number of slots to place Workers. While it is normally considered a good thing to have the highest score, what comes as a surprise is that for the person with the lowest Loyalty (what serves as this game’s Victory Points), there are times when it can become strategic having a lower score.
This also provides a good form of rubberbanding that can help players that are lagging behind by giving them something to offset the lead that others have, without compromising the game at all for other players.
And continuing along those lines…The number of actions that can be taken are really something I have not ever experienced in a Worker Placement game. Each faction has the option of building (within their player board), and whenever they make a new building, it can go into one of the game’s 4 main areas to sit alongside the “normal” slots where workers can be placed. This essentially means that there will be an ever increasing amount of places a worker can patronize throughout the game with many different types of actions and items that can be taken, and this helps ensure that no two games will be alike. Each location lets you do different things, or derive vastly different benefits. And as an added benefit, whenever someone opts to visit a building you personally have made, it adds to your own score / loyalty. How’s that for a nice twist?
And of course, there must be exploration to be a valid 4x. Yes, there will be hexes to unveil and move onto, and this allows you to make settlements, or even upgrade them for all sorts of advantages (Hrmm, those upgraded settlements look a lot like the ones I have seen in Uprising…).
And inevitably, there will be combat.
Well, not really inevitably, as there are many potential ways to garnish points or even steal away your enemies’ Loyalty points. But combat is one way to achieve victory. Whether it be fighting monsters or some other opponent, this crucial element to 4X games in very much present.
And what would it be without dice chucking? In a rather atypical fashion, rather than using a handful of dice to determining outcomes, you typically use just one…
And is fun.
Monsters can actually be quite swingy and miss often enough that it doesn’t ruin the game. Although it can happen that through bad fortune a monster kills one of your cherished warriors or units that you acquire despite the odds seemingly being in you favor.
Moreover, the fact that both players and monsters have various types of attacks to utilize makes combat much more engaging (players always get to chose their attacks, monsters get to roll for whatever offensive and defensive measures they get to employ.
There are lots of items.
Lots of status afflictions.
The components and boards are are all really well designed so far.
There are various types of “currency”. Basically summed up as food, ore, knowledge and special types of resources that are basically used as mana.
There are skill checks that can be performed if you are feeling lucky, which can give you quite an advantage if you are fortunate.
There are various types of scenarios, and campaigns. Some story modes, some games can be set to last a few hours, some can be set to last as long as 8…
Of particular note, the game can be played in solo mode, co-op, or competitive! Most of the games in my 4X collection can only do one mode of gameplay!
There is a good amount of strategy in various types of conflict that uses a rock-paper-scissors type of mechanic. Which, although it helps knowing what power types of useful against what type of foe or encounter, this does not necessarily guarantee victory, as I rather painfully discovered…
So can there be any takeaways from my experience with Ascendancy 4X? There really is a lot to cover, and given that much could potentially change between now and the full version of the game, I am reluctant to give a score the game “officially”.
First of all, were there any negatives? Perhaps…
I did notice that setup seemed to take a bit longer compared to other 4X games in my collection, owing to the large number of components, boards, and cards needing separation and order prior to commencing the game. Maybe the storage options employed in the future will facilitate this, but for now I will say that the time involved in this endeavor was definitely pronounced.
That would be my main negative.
I will say that I am really looking forward to a full version of the game. Here are my reasons why:
The game features virtually THE best tutorial I have ever seen in any rules-heavy board game. I usually scoff at these, and practically never do them. I can usually tell at a glance if I will need to follow through with a tutorial or not, but when I do, I usually feel that the walkthroughs have been a waste of my time, and that I would be much better served if a game developer just give me the full set of rules right away (explained well, of course) rather than treat me like an idiot and leave me feeling like I made poor use of my time for the evening.
Ascendancy 4X took this learning experience to a level I have never seen before. It was active. It was engaging. It was, in a word, thrilling.
The next thing that I would say is glaringly evident about Ascendancy 4X is that it is coming from a first-time Indie developer /designer.
And I mean, this is beyond a doubt obvious to me. In fact, it has become a staple of my general observations over the past few years.
This is not coming from a big name publisher. Not in any sense of the word.
Because if it had been, chances are that I would have walked away unimpressed, as I had initally expected to be.
You have heard me say this before with Dungeons of Infinity, Arena the Contest, and Uprising : Curse of the Last Emperor. And now I will say this again with Ascendancy 4X.
What sets all of these games aside from the rest of the crowd is that, because of the fact they are being made by first-time developers, they are nothing more than labors of love.
In each of these games, I know both from what I have read and my communications with the makers that many, many years were spent in development. And it shows.
These games were not just rushed out the door, as they could have been while under the distribution of a larger publisher. Nor can these first-timers just fall back on their name (as I have noticed many developers doing in recent years, making increasingly worse products as time goes on and knowing the will sell simply because who it came from, not because how good the game is).
These games are not born out of the primary desire to make money (not that it is unfair to say that creators have a right to make a profit from their ventures and ideas), but rather the desire to make the best game they possibly can, in pursuit of making the game of their dreams, if you will.
Regardless of how much the rules change for Ascendancy 4X, this is a game I want to see in action personally when the full version hits shelves.
I was expecting boring, and was provided a glimpse of a game that is anything but boring for my group. The most exciting prospect of this game is the sheer abundance of choices that are available.
In addition, while other 4X games in my collection excel in their own respective ways, they usually have just one or two X’s where they shine the best. As far as I can tell, eXploring, eXterminating, eXploiting, and eXpanding are all equally well represented in what I have eXperienced thus far with Ascendancy.
The game claims to have set out with the goal of merging concepts gleaned from classic Final Fantasy, Civilization, and Game of Thrones, and it immediately feels to me that these design goals were all achieved.
Luck seems to take a back seat overall (even though it is still present), and the big surprise for me is just how much strategy itself gets to be in the driver’s seat for once. The game seems to be much more reliant on a battle of wits and cunning for a change, rather than the dependancy on dice.
With this being said, and with the game feeling like it is still possible to undergo quite a few more changes, I regret to say that I do not feel comfortable giving it an official score at this point in time.
However, I feel obliged to say that I expect it to fare very well when I get a chance to include it in my epic 4X shootout in the future. Even though my shootout will most likely be published before Ascendancy 4X lands on shelves, I wouldn’t be surprised if it made a great and sudden leap to the top of my ratings if development continues to proceed as planned. I know for a fact that this has happened to other games for me within the past year (see my best games of 2022 for an example), and I could easily see this happening again with Ascendancy .
I will say this, the mind behind Ascendancy gets an A for innovation from me, if that says anything…
It’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon if this sounds interesting. You can find links to Ascendancy below :
Find out more at BGG.
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer
Jazz Paladin is an eccentric at heart — When he is not learning to make exotic new foods at home, such as Queso Fresco cheese and Oaxacan molé, he is busy collecting vintage saxophones, harps, and other music-related paraphernalia. An avid music enthusiast, when he is not pining over the latest board games that are yet-to-be-released, his is probably hard at work making jazzy renditions of classic/retro video game music tunes as Jazz Paladin on Spotify and other digital music services.