Monday, September 12, 2011

Game Review: Ascending Empires

If you’re a fan of “games… in… space… “ (yep, gratuitous Muppet Show reference), 2011 is a very good year. July gave us the newest opus from the creators of Heroscape & Summoner Wars, Battleship: Galaxies. (I’ll be reviewing that pretty soon, btw.) Of course, we’ll talking more about Ascending Empires in just a moment…

And coming in the next few months are:

  • Space Empires 4x (a sprawling space/civ game from GMT)
  • Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifact (a new expansion for the beloved card game that strips it down to the base deck & heads off in a new direction)
  • Battle Beyond Space (Frank Branham’s long-awaited masterpiece – a massive battle of spaceships that manages to play in about an hour… note: I’m a long-time playtester on this game)
  • The Ares Project (a card-driven battle game with four asymmetrical factions that works to bring the feel of real-time computer gaming to the board game table)
  • Eclipse (a resource management space/civ game due to be released at Essen 2011)
  • Core Worlds (a deck-building space game from Stronghold Games)
  • Star Trek: Fleet Captains (using Clix models to do space combat w/the rebooted Star Trek universe)
  • and a reprint of the classic space game Outpost

That’s some mighty fine space gaming ahead for all of us who cut our teeth on Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (yes, both the book & the original Avalon Hill wargame) and Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century (yes, both the TV show & the TSR board game)… and it doesn’t hurt that the first one out of the gate, Ascending Empires, is a keeper.

That’s right – after 6 plays (3 with four players, 2 with two players & 1 with three players), I’m prepared to call this one of the top games of 2011. (I’m not the first to do this, of course – designer Bruno Faidutti named it his 2011 Game of the Year.)

That said, I need to get something really important out of the way – Ascending Empires has been described by many people (including myself) as a weird & wonderful cross between a dexterity game like Carabande or Catacombs and a space civilization game like Twilight Imperium or Starcraft: the Board Game. There’s two problems with that description:

  1. It’s really a space empire-building game with flicking rather than a flicking game with a space theme. (Flicking is used simply for movement – and unless you’ve managed to ramp up your tech, you don’t actually want to run into other people’s ships.)
  2. Though it is a space empire-building game, it has a playing time of about 75 minutes… which is roughly 1/4 of a game of Twilight Imperium & 1/3 of a game of Starcraft: the Board Game.

Players begin with a home planet (which, thanks to some kind of unexplained technological marvel and/or diplomatic agreements, can not be attacked by other players), a small army of soldiers/settlers and a couple of starships. In turn, player begin to explore the board, settle planets, build stuff (colonies, cities & research stations), advance their tech levels… and, as time goes on, attack other space empires. Various actions give you victory points (destroying starships, capturing planets, improving your tech & mining valuable resources) during the game, while building up your infrastructure & expanding your empire is worth points at the close of the game. The player with the most points wins.

OK, a gamer-y aside: I just typed the sentence: “The player with the most points wins” after describing how to get victory points & it has occurred to me that is the one of those moments that belongs in the Department of Redundancy Department. Who else is going to win? The guy who has the least points? Sheesh. Alrighty then, moving on…

Many space empire games have long player turns where you do all of the things listed above – but Ascending Empires limits players to one action per turn, which has a couple of neat effects on game play. First, the game moves along at a blistering clip (once you’ve got a game or two under your belt) – there is very little downtime. Second, players have the opportunity to react to the actions of other players (or the perceived plans of other players) quickly… while it’s not a real-time game, the quick turns & ability to react makes it feel that way.

As well, players are limited on their resources: to launch a ship, you have to return a soldier to your supply. To land on a planet, you have to do the same with a ship. To build a colony, city, research station or mine, once again your soldiers go marching off to your supply … and since you have only 2 starships & 6 soldiers to start with, the management of those finite resources is a key part of how your space empire develops. (Building cities & increasing your tech levels give you access to more soldiers & ships in supply… thus allowing you to expand a greater rate.)

As mentioned before, movement & combat are dependent on flicking – but with an occasional exception, most of those flicks are short hops rather than attempts to cross the board in a single jump. While there are times when you want to ram the starship of another player (this is a cost-effective way to get rid of an enemy battleship, normally worth 2 starships in combat), losing your own ship is costly and so finesse is important. As well, certain tech modifications can give your opponent points for being rammed – another reason to avoid spectacular collisions in space.

Here’s some things I’ve really enjoyed about the game:

  • As mentioned by Bruno Faidutti in his review of the game, each playing has had a wonderful story arc – the beginning is (mostly) peaceful as the empires begin to build, then the empires begin investing time into research stations & tech advancement, which sets them off on different development paths. Finally, war can no longer be avoided and the various empires do battle for scarce resources.
  • Both the mix of the planets (which makes it easy to play 2 or 3 player games on a 4 player board) and the amount of victory points in the pool (by which you can vary game length) are adjustable.
  • The designer, Ian Cooper, has published two great scenarios (a 2 player “Lost Empire” scenario that introduces a neutral empire and “Wormholes” variant board that takes planets off the map to introduce black holes) on the Geek… and has promised more.
  • The game just looks cool mid-play with all the pieces out & the planets flipped up.

If you’ve heard of Ascending Empires before, you’ve also heard of the one possible problem with the game: the puzzle-cut board.In a game with flicking, the optimal way to have published this game would have been to sold each game with a one-piece Plexiglass board – but then NONE of us would have been able to afford it. After much testing, the puzzle-cut board was found to be the best solution that balanced cost & usability.

Personally, I have had very few problems with the puzzle edges interfering with movement – and board warping just isn’t an issue in the dry hot climate of the Central Valley. (For those of you in less arid climes, Z-Man has thoughtfully provided a bag to seal the pieces in between games.) There are a number of “fixes” proposed by users on BGG – here are a few that I like:

  • be CAREFUL when putting the board together – there is an optimal way for the pieces to go down (this is true & works like a charm)
  • allow players to hold down sections when flicking across them (we actually help each other out with this)
  • accept the imperfections as “space turbulence”
  • replace starships with glass beads (from a craft store) placed upside down
  • make your own board out of wood or plexiglass (this seems extreme… but very, very cool)

Please, don’t let allow the moaning & groaning about the board keep you from buying Ascending Empires… or any “I don’t do flicking” prejudice keep you from trying it. This is a well-balanced & fast-playing space empire-building game that isn’t quite like anything else you’ve ever played… and is worthy of time on your gaming table & a place on your game room shelf.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

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