October 2, 2011

Sci-Fi Shuffleboard

Ascending Empires immediately stood out to me the second I learned of its stellar existence, so asking for a copy for my birthday was an easy choice. It's hard enough to get in a board game or two, let alone one about space ships that can turn off my less game-interested friends. My patience over the last month finally paid off last night when I was able to corner two friends into playing the game.

I've only played the game once, but the rules were very well written, the components excellent, and the overall strategy deep, but not so obtuse that me and two casual friends weren't able to conceive some cool strategies and have a lot of fun. I'm not a review site, so I'm not worried about putting down my thoughts after one play. If you are, make sure you check elsewhere!

The board and components for the game stood out immediately. The planets are slick-plastic pucks with colored planet stickers atop them. There are also pucks for spaceships, ornate little space men, slick player reference boards with your tech tree and game reminders, and lots of fun wooden pieces. Ascending Empires is one of those games that demonstrates the tactile joys of playing a board game.

The goal of the game is to have the most victory points when the game ends. This is accomplished by upgrading planets, researching technology first, and attacking your opponents' ships and planets.

There are some really solid mechanics employed in Ascending Empires. One favorite is that each player takes only ONE action (out of about 5 choices) each turn. This keeps the game moving, but also gives it a slight chess-like feel where you can set a plan in motion, but can only make progress towards it one-step each turn. As each player takes their turns, you may be able to see your plan executed, or have to deal with enemy initiated hiccups along the way. For perspective, actions are things like moving ships (and if you are in range, attacking), building structures on planets, placing men on planets, or researching technology.

Another thing I loved was how men are a resource that fuel everything. You have a finite number of ships and men which are constantly moved from your supply placard to the board and back again. If you want to land your ship, you place a man and remove the ship. If you want to build a research station, remove two men and place the station. One of your potential actions is to place men onto planets, so about midway through the game placing men becomes really important as you decide where to upgrade, from where you want to launch ships, and more. Using men as a flexible resource is so clean and elegant and I really appreciated the mechanic!

This is the reference/research/supply placard.
Researching technologies was also very satisfying. The designer did a good job of making each technology useful. Most interestingly, however, is how research is tied to planets. There are four colors of planets you may occupy and improve: brown, pink, grey, and orange. There are also four research trees of the same colors. If you want to research the first tier grey technology, you must have one research facility on a gray planet. If you want to research the second tier grey technology, you must have a research facility on two planets. Getting to four is very difficult and only one of us (me!) was able to accomplish the feat. The fourth tier was an incredibly powerful game changer that cemented the lead I'd been striving towards the entire game.

Because the upper tiers are so useful and due to the fact planets are scarce, the mid-to-late game turns were primarily comprised of campaigns to overcome the defenses of the desired planet, occupy it, build a research station, and acquire the tech. Conquering a planet was no simple feat and doing so was very satisfying.

The final mechanic I'll call out, which fed directly into conquering planets, was blockading. If you have even one ship in orbit of an opponent's planet, your opponent cannot do anything on that planet or with its resources. When I sought to conquer the yellow player's planet, I blockaded his two closest planets so that he wouldn't be able to reinforce. After a few turns of attrition, I was able to move in for the kill. You can blockade a planet to deny your opponent the ability to use its research stations. You can blockade an opponent's forward planet from which he intended to explore and occupy future planets. It was a very annoying, but balanced tactic that we all used to great effect as the game carried on.

There's no luck in the game, with one minor exception. Moving your ships around the board requires you to flick them, almost like shuffle board. I was worried this would be tedious or stupid, but it was a fun little element. I can't really say it enhanced or hindered the game -- the vast majority of what occurs is from choices you make -- but this did add a slightly unique element. Overall I'm for it, I think. We'll see how my opinion changes as I play it more.

I don't really have a lot of negative commentary for the game. The board is comprised of 9 jigsaw puzzle pieces and in some instances they didn't fit to make a smooth surface without some pushing and shoving. Seeing as how movement is based on a flick, a divot in the board and ruin someone's chances for success. I really hope the components hold up over time.

The game is a bit longer than I'd like, though you can shorten the game by reducing the number of victory points that can be obtained, as the game ends when all are taken. I also wish there were a few more ways to obtain victory points during the game. There was definitely a period when I thought my friends would need to go home because the game was starting to take a little while and we weren't earning the points. But, then things sped up.

In one or two cases we weren't sure how precisely to interpret a rule, but by using context clues we quickly arrived at an interpretation that seemed correct. In no case did this have an impact on the game.

I really dig Ascending Empires. Like 7 Wonders, another recent purchase for me, it's a really great mix of accessibility and depth. It's my kind of game and I am looking forward to a four player space brawl in the near future.


FarmerLenny said...

I'm glad you liked it. It's one of my recent favorites, and it is better with four people.

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

The designer has posted a couple of variants on the Geek: one which creates black holes (you can warp from one to another) and another 2 player variant that adds a neutral empire in the center of the board. Both are quite good.

Grant said...

That sounds cool! Do you have a link? I'm not great at moving through BGG. We'll try these out. I think the neutral empire sounds very interesting.