Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"No, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space." (A review of Ascending Empires)

[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house thematic-loving @futurewolfie and his ferocious opponent, the stodgy euro-loving @Farmerlenny. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]

Space. Adventure. Empires. Fleets. Battle. Ascending Empires.

Relatively new from Z-man games, Ascending Empires is a strategic empire-building game combined with a dexterity mechanic. While the concept didn’t seem impressive or even appealing to me at first, it all comes together into a neat, tight package that is enjoyable, accessible, and yet maintains a level of strategic depth. 

How it works:
The board of Ascending Empires is square. Players start at a far corner on a home planet of their color. There are 24 other planets scattered around, and each planet is one of four colors related to research (or, in a two- or three-player game, there could be asteroids, which are not tied to any branch of research).

Each turn, players get one action. That’s it. Simple as that. You can move your ships, build a colony, city, or research station, place troops, mine, or develop tech. One at a time.

Start here.... (this is actually a 3-player game)

Building things like colonies, ships, or research stations is pretty simple token replacement—troop for colony, troop + colony for city, etc. Researching tech grants you special bonuses (such as increased movement points, better defense, or the battleship).

Movement is where the dexterity mechanic comes in. To move your ships, you flick them with your finger. The movement action grants you two movement points, so you have a couple chances to get your ships where they need to go.

You can also attack other ships, which happens automatically at the end of your turn if your ships are in range of the enemy. You can attack planets as well by sending your ships in orbit (and overcoming the defense of the planet), or blockade them (preventing that planet from launching ships or adding troops or buildings), or defend them from invasion.

Over the course of the game, players will be able to do more and more, as they increase their limited supply of ships, troops, and technology levels.

The game ends when a predetermined set of point tokens is used up. The player with the most points wins. Points are awarded in-game for attacking enemy ships and planets, for mining, and for being the first to reach each tech level for each technology, as well as controlling planets and cities at the end of the game. 

... finish right about here.

@Futurewolfie’s take:
What can I say? I love this game. Love it. It is so much fun.

Once players get used to what they can do, the game really moves quickly. Because you can only do one thing per turn, much like Ticket to Ride, things move fast and no one has to wait long for their turn to come around. This also really helps temper any analysis paralysis that can be prevalent in strategy games. You only have to decide what single action to do next. You don’t have to plan a string of moves.

The dexterity portion of the game is implemented almost perfectly. Planets are close enough that it doesn't require a whole lot of skill to get there, and trying to flick to the other side of the map is risky. If your ship flies off the edge, it is destroyed automatically. Even if you land a planet deep in enemy territory, it is likely to be surrounded and destroyed quickly. Ultimately, everyone will have good flicks and bad flicks. If you're nervous about this part, think of it this way: flicking will generally have better results than random dice rolls, and provides for far more excitement and entertainment than set movement points. And, as our teacher at GenCon pointed out, the player with the best strategy will beat out the player with the best flicking.

What I like most about Ascending Empires, though, is the depth of strategy and tactics that it requires and also teaches. You will soon find that flicking your ships all about is not going to accomplish much. You need to plan and build up your fleet and your planets and capture launching points to get into enemy territory. When you make a mistake, it's often pretty easy to see what you could have done differently and thus do better next time.

Actual in-game image

The game requires a balance between research, building up your empire, and attacking other players. It's impossible to max out all the techs, so you have to choose which route to pursue—but getting high in one tech makes you a target. Eventually, you will have to attack other players to continue expanding, which forces player interaction. It really captures the feel of building up a huge space empire and commanding a fleet of ships.

Surprisingly, the game does a good job of preventing players from "ganging up" on one other player effectively—even when you play with 3 players. While attacking awards you points, defending is far easier. And fleets between two players cannot team up to destroy any particular ship or planet—the "defending" rule actually forces them to separate. Ramming is also an option that takes out both ships, but can save a planet from demise and is certainly easier to accomplish than outnumbering your enemy, especially against the feared Battleship tech upgrade. Again, strategy and careful placement of pieces will keep your empire strong in the face of invasion.

I do have a few minor complaints. A few rules are slightly unclear and may require some interpretation among the players. A strict, literal reading of the rules will help, but certain questions will come up that are not directly tackled by the rules. Setup and take-down time are a bit lengthy, since you have to place the whole board together, sort out planets for each quandrant, and then shuffle and place them.

The production quality of the game is excellent. Most of the pieces are just wooden tokens with stickers, but the game provides an extra sheet of stickers in case any wear out. The board is nice and flat, with holes for planets to keep them from getting moved during the game. The planet colors are sometimes hard to differentiate until you compare them directly to each other—especially grey and brown—but you get used to it quickly. The puzzle-piece interlocking board sections keep everything locked tightly together, and the rules allow you to hold down the edges of pieces if they aren't lining up perfectly flat. It is a large board though, so you'll need plenty of table or floor space.


The box art is fun (and portrays the game pretty accurately) while the storage inside is pretty standard for Z-man games. That is to say, baggies. They do include a flat cardboard insert so you can lay the board pieces on top of that instead of uneven baggies, as well as a nice bag to keep the board pieces inside to protect them from humidity (and, hopefully, warping).

Ascending Empires continually impresses me with the way it balances out the potential imbalance of ship-flicking skills with the necessity of learnable strategy. It rewards patience but ultimately pushes all players toward conflict and interaction. It uses dexterity but keeps it toned down enough to be fun for everyone.

Fantastic use of dexterity
Strategy is the meat of the game
Well balanced combat prevents ganging up on one player
Technology trees provide for some variety in gameplay
Space combat/navigation is highly tactical
Rules are easy to teach
1-action turns help mitigate Analysis Paralysis

Takes a while to set up
That board will not stay perfectly flat forever
Some rules need clarification for certain situations

@FarmerLenny's Take:
Ascending Empires delivers the goods. This was by far the best game I tried at GenCon (even though it wasn't new there and I tried a lot of games), and I'm continually itching to play it, which is the mark of a good game. Unfortunately, since setup and take-down takes a while, this is not a lunch game contender. If it were, this would be played more frequently than it is.

I will reiterate one thing @Futurewolfie said about the game: it moves along at a great clip. The pacing is just right and is on par with Ticket to Ride. Flicking spaceships is great fun, and even when I completely misfire, I can't get too upset about it. I think every game should have a luck element to it, and the luck element in Ascending Empires is a fun one to participate in. It's also not so luck-based as to derail the game into absurdity. (A word of advice: don't use the tension-based two-finger flick; use a single finger to flick your starships. You'll thank me.)

Green's blockade is hosed by the fearful Battleship

I also like that Ascending Empires forces conflict. The map is simply not big enough for every empire to ascend, and this forces players to attack one another in their efforts to expand. Left to my own devices, I avoid targeted conflict in games—in fact, I play Warcraft like it's Sim City, which is why I almost always lose. (But my guys sure are upgraded before they're mercilessly slaughtered!) I don't have the option to play Ascending Empires like that. It is a game that cannot charitably be categorized as multiplayer solitaire. Because of this, there are lots of opportunities for social interaction surrounding the game both during and afterward. It also scales well, since there are a limited number of colored planets per game, and with fewer players, fewer planets are included (these are replaced with asteroids, which can be colonized but are worthless for research—which is a key aspect of the game).

Space empire building + dexterity mechanics may seem gimmicky (and it is), but it works. This game is an unmitigated blast. I can't recommend it highly enough...and I also can't wait to play it again.

Clips along at a nice pace
Lots of interaction is required
Gimmicky dexterity mechanism integrates extremely well
Flicking ships is simply fun

Setup is a little too slow
You can't avoid conflict if you want to

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