Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ascending Empires - Proving That Converting Men Makes Both Empires And Trousers Ascend


As pretty much everyone knows by now, I love most dexterity games, but even more than that, I truly love science fiction. Even more than that, I truly love 4X conquest games, so when I heard about Ascending Empires, it immediately folded space into the forefront of games I wanted to buy. Well, now that the remodel is done at Superfly Circus headquarters, I had some spare change lying around, and five clicks later, Ian Cooper's masterpiece was hurtling toward my house at sub-light speed. And by 'sub-light speed', I mean in the back of a U.S. Post Office tractor-trailer, on I-75, at about 65 miles an hour. It was accompanied by Chaos in the Old World, and after many, many lusty nights, Survive! Escape From Atlantis. Oh yes, there would be blood.

Ascending Empires is, at its heart, a 4X empire building game that tells the story of up to four intergalactic peoples exploring, building, advancing, and mercilessly subjugating one another. While the concept is not remotely new, what is new is how the game unfolds, or rather, doesn't. The board itself is made up of nine Swiss cheesy puzzle pieces that lock together less-than-flawlessly, wherein you place toilet paper roll sized discs in the holes, representing planets. The most novel thing about the game, though, is the fact that to move ships, which are represented by small discs, you flick them in a Crokinole-style fashion across the board, hoping not to have a mechanical failure during the flight, which is represented by careening off of one of the seams on the board, which as I mentioned, do not fit together seamlessly as I'm sure the designer intended.

Even with the improperly tested FTL drives, this game is hands-down one of the best games I've played in a long time. I'm totally biased, since not only did I drop the cash to buy it, but I knew going in I'd probably like it because it ties so many things I like into one game. Heck, it could've sucked ass, but luckily, it didn't, not in any way. All but one of the other players I've played with also loved the game based solely on its own merits, none of whom are sci-fi or 4X nuts like I am. The one guy who didn't dig it as much said he liked it, but just didn't understand it. That's understandable, since it was midnight, and he had done both radiation and chemo therapy earlier, let alone the fact he was loaded with enough morphine and percocet to make Timothy Leary seem like a straight-edge kind of guy. Truly, this is an incredibly fun, unique, and challenging game that will most assuredly go down as one of the most unique and remarkable games of the year.

Opening up the box, you're going to be met with nine well illustrated puzzle piece boards, a truly well-written and well-organized rulebook, some plastic men, two pre-cut sticker sheets, and roughly a metric assload of wooden bits in various shapes and sizes. I will note that if you've ever owned a Columbia Games block game before, you'll totally relate to the suffering you'll endure when you place the veritable billions of stickers on the myriad disc-shaped blocks in the game. That being said, the art for the planets is really dope, and the ships, while a little bland, are still decent. On top of this stuff, there's four player boards that track all of your technological advancement as well as how many units you have available at any given time. Finally, there's a bunch of tokens which represent victory points, 16 tokens which stay with the players, four each, for use on the technology track, and four range rulers to determine firing distance in combat. All in all, everything's really nice, with the planets and player boards being the coolest looking of all.

To set up the game, you first have to assemble the nine-piece board, which takes quite a soft touch, and needs to be done in a specific order. Pressing too hard will cause major mangling of the edges, which will truly bollocks your future experiences. I've realized after many plays that the corner pieces are almost identical, but they fit better in certain spots. So, I've marked the back side of the boards with little arrows so that the board gets put together the same way each time, and now I don't have a problem putting them together. I also considered taking a Dremel cutting wheel and shaving the edges so they fit more loosely, which would alleviate a lot of the problems regarding the tight fit, but I'm not sure it would make the problem easier.

To understand why this is important, and a real pisser of a problem, I need to jump ahead a bit. Each piece is almost a foot square, and to move ships in this game, you flick them across the board like a Crokinole disc. If there's ridges that form from repeated misalignment or too much pressure, when ships cross the threshold from one board to another, they can catch the lip and careen off into uncharted space. One current explanation is that while faster-than-light engines exist in the game, they have not perfected their telemetry technology, and thus certain areas of space are littered with more micrometeorites than others. To cross these planes is eternally dangerous, and impacting a stone marble travelling at millions of miles an hour causes near-instant death and dismemberment.

Why does this matter, other than inconvenience? Because if you go off the board, your ship is killed. If you inadvertently, or purposefully, crash into any other spaceship, both are killed. So, these ridges seriously test your manhood because to truly excel at the game, you need to have the balls to attempt very long-distance travel, and over dangerous terrain such as the ridges, it's a 50/50 proposition at best.

Back to setup. Once you've got the board assembled, you refer to a chart and illustration to set the planets into the holes in the board. These are randomly distributed, but there's a set amount of each of the four planet types and asteroids per quarter of the board, so no player has an advantage in their home system. These are set face-down, so you need to explore the galaxy to uncover the planet types, which is a big deal down the road. After this, you need to pull a set amount of VP tokens from the box in accordance with how many people are playing, and these act as the game timer, since once they're gone, the game ends.

Once the stage is set for galactic warfare, you hand out the four player boards, the ships, troops, research stations (cubes), colonies (tiny discs), and cities (rectangles). Here's the catch, though, when it comes to the bits: the structures always stay out of the bag, but you only keep six troops and two ships on your player board to begin with. As the game progresses, you earn more expansion ability, but initially, you have very limited resources to work with. The two ships are immediately put in orbit around your home planet. Each planet has a printed ring around it on the board, and this delineates the planets' orbits. As long as a piece is touching that ring, it's considered to be in orbit.

That's all there is to setup. Provided the bits have been bagged by player color, this should take all of about five minutes. One of the neatest things about the setup of this game is choosing the first player. Unlike German games where the oldest player goes first or American games where it's a roll-off, the game asks the player "with the most compelling reason to go first" to begin. Seeing as my good bud has cancer, he always trumps us by stating, "This may be the last game I ever play, so I'm going first." Can't really argue with that logic.

On each player's turn, they may take almost exactly one action. Of these actions, they can choose to build a structure, advance a technology, mine for VPs, recruit new troops, or make movement actions. Building a structure requires certain things, such as having a certain mix of things on a planet, at which point you remove those things and put a new one down. An example is that you have to have a troop and a colony on a planet to build a city.

This is a huge strategic decision since you may never have more than three items on any planet at any given time. To mine for VPs, you simply remove a certain amount of troops from a planet and take a certain amount of VP. Recruiting troops calls for you to pull a certain amount of troops off of your board and put them onto planets you currently control, meaning there's already something on the planet.

Now movement, well, that's an entirely different animal, hence the reason I noted you get "almost exactly" one action. You get a certain amount of movement actions when you choose the move action, which can consist of any combination of launching ships, landing ships, and navigating ships. The former two actions, launching and landing ships, consist of converting a ship in orbit to a troop on a planet, or vice versa. Hell, pretty much all of the actions in this game consist of converting one thing to another, and almost all of those actions require the conversion of your men.

Movement is simple, really, in theory: pick and flick your ship. If it hits a planet, it's not actually hitting a planet, it's careening off of the atmosphere's gravity well, swooping around the planet and launching off into a different direction per the "Star Trek IV" slingshot move. That being said, if you hit any other ship, be it an enemy or your own, you're not only dead, but you take you're partner in collision with you. While I initially thought this was a bad thing, in reality, my 10 year old successfully had a comeback near victory due to her implementing this "crash and burn" strategy.

At the end of your turn, if you have ships in combat range, which is determined by using the ruler, or if your ships are in orbit of a planet, combat may ensue. In order to blast an enemy ship into atoms, you have to have two of your own ships within firing range. No die roll, no ace pilot defying the odds and winning the battle. You simply cease to be. If you're in orbit of an enemy planet and there are no enemy ships in orbit to defend that planet, you may well be able to free the planet from the tyranny of your opponents.

It is at this point that I should discuss the fact that structures have defense values, and if you want to nuke them from orbit, just to be sure, you have to have a stronger force attacking. Colonies and troops have a defense value of one, and cities have a defense value of two. So, if you wanted to involuntarily vacate an opposing planet with a city and a troop, you'd have to have four ships in orbit to do so. Furthermore, to attack a planet, there cannot be any enemy ships in orbit.

One other thing to note is that ships may only initially attack one ship at a time, so if you have two enemies within range of two of your ships, you can only choose one to decimate. I haven't mentioned it, but anything that is killed, blown up, or converted goes back onto your player board, not back into the box, so you're only temporarily hosed. Also, you get a VP for every ship, unit, or structure you waste, so it's as viable to be a bloodthirsty galactic emperor as much as it is to be a peaceful explorer.

The last little thing about ships and combat I'm going to mention are the battleships. Battleships are twice the size of normal ships, there's only one battleship per player available, and can only be acquired through technology upgrades. These are essentially treated as having two ships in the same space, and having one of these means that you can send them into the far reaches of space to annihilate people more easily. It is also far more immune to bad flicks than their smaller counterparts, so when you get the battleship you are far less susceptible to FTL drive malfunctions and micrometeorite impacts than the little guys.

In addition to being able to blow planets up, if a ship is in orbit of an enemy planet, but can't wipe out all life on the planet for whatever reason, the ship automatically blockades the planet. This means that the player who has units or structures on the planet can't do anything with them, such as launching ships, recruiting, or using research stations. This is a hell of a strategic option if you want to stop enemies from developing technology or building structures, and it also works as a stalling option to allow you some time to get other ships there to bombard the planet into the stone age and don't want the player to launch ships from the surface.

The last aspect of gameplay is the technology tree. There are four planet types, and in order to develop technology, you need to build a research station on whatever type of planet you're hoping to upgrade. There are four levels of each, and in order to increase the level, you need to have research stations on multiple planets of the type. For example, if you want to have level three orange technology, you need to have earned level two as well as have three research stations on orange planets. You can have two research stations on one planet in your entire empire, but beyond that, you have to have multiple planets in order to upgrade your technologies. Once you've developed a technology, though, you can use it even if all of your research stations are destroyed.

Technologies do different things, and the technology trees are pretty linear within each type, although each type is much different than the next. Grey technologies revolve around movement, orange around warfare, purple is devoted primarily to defensive issues, and brown is primarily around troop development. Each of these levels also offer a very important bonus in that the first person to develop any level of technology gets a VP bonus equivalent to the level, not to mention that the first person to develop an entire row of technology through diversification gets a hefty bonus.

After each turn, you may also scan one planet that you're orbiting, which consists of secretly looking at the planet type by flipping it up and then placing it face down again. This is a quick way to determine if it's a planet you'd like to colonize on later turns as well as a way to feint opponents out of wanting the planet with an outburst of "how many damned asteroids are in this game??"

The game ends when the last available victory point is taken, at which point everyone gets one last turn to soak up the gravy as much as they can, taking more VP tokens from the reserves left in the box at the beginning of the game. Players tally their VPs, then add one VP for every occupied planet, one VP for every colony, and two VPs for every city. Finally, players check for some special conditions like having cities in three or four quadrants. The winner is the person with the most VPs at the end of the game, simple as that.

That's pretty much all there is to the game, in a nutshell. Flick, kill, develop, harvest, and win. What makes this game so neat is that there are so many different viable strategies to win, not to mention the base mechanics which absolutely rock. You can spend all your time developing technologies, earning points, or you can spend your time making war. You can develop the technology that allows you to recruit more troops, and then convert them to VPs by mining, thus creating a little economic engine. There's just so many different strategies that you simply cannot get sick of the game. Or, at least, I haven't so far, and I don't anticipate doing so.

Why This Game Has Ascended To My Top Ten:
- Great mechanics and fast turns make this an exceptionally intense and exciting game
- One of the best rulebooks ever, with little left to question
- The ship movement aspect of this game adds all the randomness the game needs
- If you sit for more than a minute between turns, even in a four player game, someone is doing something wrong
- This is one hell of an intense game

Why Ascending Empires Has Failed The Emperor Of Mankind:
- The edges of the puzzle board can really piss you off when your ship catches them and careens off to its death
- The art on the ships is a little on the bland side, and all of them are the same aside from the color
- This game could've really had 8 pre-made races with variable player powers to make it more unique


Overall:
This is truly one of my new favorites. I've played the piss out of it, and I cannot wait to play it again. Once all of my home repair and remodelling projects are complete, I'm kicking back into the full swing of gaming, and this game will most assuredly be one of the first played. Truly an astoundingly great design, and I recommend it to any gamer, Euro or Ameritrasher. Just an excellent game.

Rating:
4.5/5 Stars

Check out this awesome game at the Z-Man games site here:
http://www.zmangames.com/boardgames/ascending_empires.htm

And check out the rulebook too, if you'd like: http://www.zmangames.com/boardgames/files/ascending_empires/AE_Rules.pdf

3 comments:

Andrew Wodzianski said...

Pete,
Home repair and remodelling projects are never complete...

Good review,

StephenAvery said...

I *still* haven't played this yet, despite Branhams' ultra slick friction free homebrew board. He demonstraded it almost looked pieces were floating. Ascending Air Hockey...

Your obvious love of the game makes me want to break it out though.

BTW When are you getting to ATL again?

=+=SuperflyTNT=+= said...

Andrew: You ain't shitting, brother. I got this place in 2005 or so, and since then I've remodelled the bathroom, redone the floors, landscaped the place twice, remodelled the kitchen. Married men are not allowed to have idle hands.

Steve: I'm dead serious, man. This game rocks. This and Risk: Legacy are getting more play than anything, and people keep asking about it. It's an hour and a half civ-lite in space. What more can you ask for!?!?

It'll be a minute until I can get to ATL unless something pops loose down there. My sales guy is really starting to get a feel for the job now, so who knows...either way, you're first to know.