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Board Game Geeks: Dominion vs Ascension, posted by Derek

Carlos’ gift guide prompted this – it was originally just a comment, but once I noticed the size, I figured it needed a post of its own….

For the Board Game Geek (see what I did there?), Ascension: Rise of the Godslayer is quickly coming to be the new Dominion.  It’s another “build your deck as you play” CCG-esque game.  But there are several key differences that make each of them appeal a bit more or less to certain player types….


Dominion is all about resource planning.  How many actions, how many buys, how fast you can get to the magic 8 number.  It’s about making a lean, mean, 8 resource per turn machine to snap up Provinces at an obscene rate.

Ascension is much more about having a theme.  In Ascension, you play every card you have, if you need it.  You get unlimited actions and buys.  So if you have 8 runes in your hand, you can decide whether you want to buy 4 2 rune cards, 2 4 rune, or one big ol’ one. 

In Ascension, you feel less like stuff is wasted – you throw it all out, and buy up everything you want that you can afford (or kill everything you want that you can defeat).  But you also don’t feel nearly as awesome as when you hit the 5 action, 2 buy and 13 coins jackpot, and the game doesn’t reward the careful mixing of resource types.  There’s no Market equivalent in Ascension – one card that gives you a little bit of everything, and rewards you for playing it across the board.


Dominion is a game of careful planning.  You see the 10 options at the start of the game, and generally, good players know from that point what they want their deck to look like (barring other players buying up the cards).  Generally, Dominion is about making a plan, and executing it as well as you can.  There are a few mitigating factors (focusing on Moats if you need them after people buy up Attack cards, picking which path to go with a Minion each time, dealing with Curse cards, etc), but generally, your strategy is independent of what other people are doing.  If my opponent isn’t buying up my cards, I’m going to do what I’m going to do regardless of what choices he makes.  That can be amazingly satisfying – it’s basically a “whose plan is best” contest.

Ascension has very few fixed elements.  There are 3 things you can do every turn – buy runes (the equivalent of money), buy power (used to kill stuff) or kill a little monster.  However, those three are all on the low end of the ROI scale.  You get at most a 1:1 return on what you spend, or a 1:2 for Honor (aka Victory Points).  You’re much better off buying/killing the stuff that comes out randomly.  For instance – killing The Cultist (the always available option) requires you to spend 2 power to get 1 honor.  Killing a Wind Tyrant from the middle might net you as much as 7 honor for 5 power, if you’ve set it up right.  Buying a Mystic (another always available option) requires you to spend 3 runes to get a card that gives you 2.  Buying a Construct might cost you 2 runes, and get you a free run every turn.  Etc. 

However, at any given moment, there are 6 cards in the middle, mixed between resource cards and monsters.  There are something like 150 total cards, and I don’t think any one card has more than 2-3 copies in the game.  So you’ll never know whether this game is going to be extremely monster focused, making your high production plan useless, or if everything that comes out will cost 7+ runes, making your focus on mid range costs useless.  That means that you can’t necessarily say “I’m going to focus on getting Mystics and things that give 3+ runes per turn” and go to town – you might only see 5 of those cards all game.  So either you’re picking up random things to fill your deck, or you’re wasting chances.  Neither is a good plan.  Finding synergies on the fly is really the key.

That also tends to reduce the trade-off nature to some degree – in Dominion, buying a Province gets you 6 points.  It also gets you a dead card, barring Islands or the like.  And that’s a part of the strat.  There’s a point in Dominion when it becomes worth it to start buying 3 VP cards.  Finding that helps you catch up if you do it right.  And you can spot a Dominion Noob in a second – they buy Coppers or Estates in round 3. 

In Ascension, every card gives you *something* to do.  To be sure, there are a lot of less efficient cards.  But you never get a hand of 5 cards that simply get discarded.  You might not get enough to buy something on the board with every card (although you only need 2 of anything to do *something*), but you’ll get to do something every turn (often 4-5 somethings later in the game).


In Dominion, you quickly know who’s winning – you can track how many Provinces people have bought, and generally know who’s ahead, and how long it will take to end the game.  You see the stacks shrinking, you know that there are 2 Markets left, so there are 8 in play.  You know that no one has bought Witches, so you don’t need to worry about trashing Curses.  Etc.  You have an early game, a mid game, and a late game in terms of play and strategy.

Ascension is harder to predict outcomes.  Ascension uses a dual victory point system – you get visible Honor in front of you, but every card you buy also gives you Honor at the end.  So on the one hand, you know that Jim has 50 honor in front of him, but on the other, Jane has been buying up Mechana Constructs which give 5-8 honor per card, so who knows?  Your strategy might suddenly change when you get the chance to buy a card that gives you honor every time you play a Lifebound Hero, and notice that there are 4 Lifebound Heros on the board.  Now you’ve got a new goal!


The final thing is purely cosmetic – Dominion is a very contained, restrained game.  Everything is familiar and “real” for the most part.  Ascension is a huge, over the top fantasy world.  Dominion’s wildest card is an Alchemist.  Ascension’s wildest card is something like Lexx, Duke of Lies, or The Hadron Cannon.  It’s a very specific feel.  For some (me included), it’s a fun feel of four warring factions with different flavors, with flavor text tossed in for good measure.  For others, it’s a bizarre and overly done weirdness.  “What the hell is a Mechana?  Why is this one all weird, and that one looks like a hippy?  Do these words at the bottom in italics matter?”  That’s going to polarize your audience a bit.

If you haven’t played either game, you really owe it to yourself to try them.  Both are under $40 for the base set, and both will more than pay for themselves!  Right now, I’m more partial to Ascension, but play Dominion more often.  But both are more than worth the time you put in them.

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