Designed by: Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, Sean Sweigart
Published by: Gale Force Nine
Playtime: 2-3 hours
Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.
I was practically raised on Star Trek. Not the original series where Shatner was so hammy you could have a lovely Sunday roast, but with the philosophical musings of The Next Generation, the tenacity of the Voyager crew and the wonderful characters of Deep Space Nine. What I’m attempting to say is that Star Trek is ingrained in my personality and it’s a franchise which I have quite the fondness for, so a boardgame that uses the famous Gene Roddenberry license is one that has my attention.
Rather than focusing on a single crew or even one of the Enterprises Ascendancy opts for a galactic scale, casting three players as the mostly peaceful Federation, The bloodthirsty Klingons and the sneaky Romulans as they take their first steps into galactic travel. You’ll take your first tentative warp jumps into new systems containing unique planets and discover existing civilizations or huge space creatures or dangerous hazards, colonize new worlds, build up your industry, culture and research capabilities, raise fleets and wage war, all while completely overacting everything you do in true Shatner style. If it sounds complex then you’d sort of right. Ascendancy’s individual mechanics are actually relatively straight forward and easy to learn, but there is quite a lot of them.
Before getting into the game proper, though, you have to select which of the three factions you’ll be playing as. Naturally, the Federation is included, and along with earning culture tokens for discovering new civilizations and stellar mysteries they are wholly incapable of invading planets, instead relying on hegemony. The Klingons are the most warlike of the three, their technology deck focused on amping up their destructive abilities. Speaking of which they gain culture tokens for annihilating three or more ships in a fight, so now you have the perfect excuse for doing nothing but building fleets and going on rampages. As for the Romulans they’ve got some sneaky tech to research, including an advanced version of their cloaking which lets them move through enemy space unimpeded. Each race feels distinct enough that you’ll likely end up with a favored faction and their abilities are thematically solid. The Federation are encouraged to go off exploring, bringing new civilizations into the fold and ogling at weird space beasties. The Klingons will just charge in and kill stuff, and the Romulans will pick their opportune moment while researching lots of tech. Yup, pretty thematic, although it’s going to feel a tad odd going on the offensive as the Federation. Just think of Ascendency as being based on Star Trek’s history, rather than replicating it. With that said the game doesn’t allow you the free to completely rewrite Star Trek’s lore; no matter how aggressive your Federation is they’ll never be allowed to warp into orbit and proceed to obliterate a planet’s surface.
Of course, you also need to know how to win. A supremacy victory is gained by simply going in and decimating everyone else. Hold all three home planets and you win, presumably while standing atop a mountain of skulls and laughing like a nutcase. This also happens to be the most difficult method to achieve, though.Breaking through to an established race’s home planet can be tough, and the likelihood is that the third player will intervene or use the opportunity to assault your own base of operation. The other way of walking away from the table as the winner is the ascendancy victory by having five ascendancy tokens, which can be bought for five culture tokens each. Essentially this is the game saying that your civilization has become a cultural powerhouse, a beacon of light for all other species to admire. Not that such a thing would stop the Klingons from trying to blow you up.
Your turn begins with the construction phase where all the resources you’ve so far gathered can be spent. New planets can be colonized by spending a culture token and a ship in orbit, letting you place a control node and then expand from there by adding research stations, production facilities and cultural hubs, depending on what that particular planet can support and the resources you have at your disposal. At the end of the turn these nodes will produce the production, research and culture tokens you need. New ships can also be produced at your home planet or at a space station for one production apiece.
Once construction and colonizing is finished it’s time to move on to the command phase where the bulk of the action takes place. At the start all players will be given five command tokens, indicating that they have five actions to use on their turn. This amount can be increased throughout the game by researching new technology, building space stations and capturing space stations.
Your initial turns in Ascendancy revolve around taking the first steps into a wider galaxy, seeking out new planets that can be colonized or existing civilizations to conquer through military might or to absorb culturally. How exploration works is that when you leave a system, represented by chunky cardboard discs, you roll the space lane die and then place a space lane of equal length anywhere around the system you left. These act as the pathways which connect systems to each other. Once you reach the end of a lane it’s time to reveal a new system, simply done by drawing one from the stack and placing it on the table. In this manner Ascendancy’s galaxy is created anew every time, a sprawling web of planets connected by lanes of various length. The only limitations are the size of your table, and the fact that each system has a limit to how many lanes it can accommodate. Furthermore, any system that is connected to just one other system is free-floating and can be moved by the active player, letting them shift it in order to join up somewhere else or just move it out of the way.
As for the systems themselves they may contain dangers, as shown by a red number, which forces any ships entering the system to roll a die and risk being destroyed. This, of course, can be used to your advantage if the system also happens to contain a decent planet to colonize since any enemy ships incoming may take damage. You might also stumble upon phenomena, which also have hazards which must be braved. There are no planets in these systems, but they do grant a free research token to whoever survives the hazard that can be immediately placed on a research project, and the token will be replaced at the end of every turn, making them an invaluable asset.
When you enter a new system, provided it doesn’t contain a phenomena, you draw an exploration card from the sizable deck. Many of these simply state that it’s an empty world, perfect for colonization, but the others are far more interesting. You may stumble across a race of peaceful beings offering to improve your civilization or new dangers to overcome. Any planet discovered may also already be inhabited by a pre-warp or warp-capable species, and thus if you want to lay claim to the planet it will have to either be conquered or taken over via hegemony. More on those later.
Honestly, the way the map is put together might just be my favorite thing about Ascendancy, because a clever player can use it to create chokepoints or to open up new routes into enemy territory. You really need to consider the layout of galaxy as you play. It also happens to nail the feeling of exploration and discovery. The cards you draw when discovering new systems don’t bring anything mechanically spectacular to the mix, mostly just asking you to roll a few die or something, but they do succeed in helping capture the theme of Star Trek. I couldn’t help but smile as I ran into situations I was already familiar with, like a giant crystalline entity or Q being a dick. It’s brilliant!
The other way to move around is the most common and effective; warp. To enter warp you exhaust a command token and then take a ship or fleet and put it to the side of their current location, signifying it has entered warp. You then place one warp token next to it, meaning that when you bring it out of warp, done by exhausting another command, it can travel one system. You can increase this by spending more commands to add extra warp tokens, but ships and fleets in warp will automatically generate one new token at the end of your turn, and various bits of researched technology can radically improve warp speed so that it’s possible to stick a ship or fleet into warp and gain multiple tokens, allowing it to hurtle across the table. Aside from just being a more effective method of getting around than impulse, the true power of warp is that once a ship or fleet has been moved to the side of a system or space lane opponents don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s quite tense when somebody gets their mitts on some technology that makes their warp drives much greater than your own, because suddenly it means in a single turn they could put a fleet or two into warp and move across the whole galaxy, dropping out of warp right next to your homeworld before launching a surprise attack that leaves you hurting badly. It’s like trying to play tag with friggin’ Nightcrawler from the X-Men.
No doubt you’ve noticed that I’ve mentioned fleets a couple of times now, and if you didn’t then STOP NOT PAYING ATTENTION! The point is by using up a command token you can take individual ships and form them into a fleet by adding them to one of your faction’s three unique fleet cards and then plopping one of the much larger ship miniatures on the table. These cards will provide you with a variety of bonuses, such as the Federation’s diplomacy fleet which makes them better at taking over planets via hegemony, or the Romulans mining fleet that can claim resources from unclaimed planets. And of course, there are battle fleets aimed at combat, especially if you’re playing as the Klingons. Aside from bonuses, the other reason to form fleets is that it can be commanded as a group, rather than a bunch of individual ships. That means rather than spending numerous tokens to move a few ships from system to system you can spend just one to maneuver the entire fleet. However, you can only field three fleets at any one time.
Eventually you’re going to bump into the other players, so we need to chat about combat. By spending a command token you can engage in a space battle, with both you and the opposing player grabbing as many dice as they have ships taking part and rolling them. From there you calculate hits, which is based upon weapon and shield ratings. By default each faction starts with zero shields and weapons that hit on a five or higher, but both of these can be upgraded. Toss some research tokens into weapons, for example, and you’ll hit on a roll of four or more. Shields alter this by being added to the opponent’s hit requirement, so if you have a shield rating of one and the enemy hits on a four or higher they’ll actually need to roll five or more to hit. Once you’ve established all this it’s just a case of going through the dice and counting up the hits, with each successful attack annihilating one of the opposing ships. If anyone is left standing retreating is possible, or you can carry on until one side is utterly destroyed. It is simple stuff, which ensures that the game doesn’t come to a grinding halt every time fleets clash, but on the other hand its simplicity can make it feel a bit less epic than it should be.
Planetary attacks aren’t much more complicated, either. Like a typical space battle a command token has to be spent to order an invasion. Like before the attacking player will get dice equal to his or her ships. As for the player controlling the planet they get dice equal to the number of buildings they have in the system, excluding space-stations, something we’ll come back to later. This means that without counting bonuses offered by other cards the most a planet can have is four buildings, thus four dice, which is why it’s important to support valuable planets with fleets in orbit as attacking players must always destroy ships first before embarking on a planetary assault. Once hit results are calculated, again based upon weapon and shield ratings, you can find out how the assault went. For each hit the defending player rolled a ship goes bang, however for the attacks it’s a little different; if they score more hits than there are buildings then they strike with overwhelming force and take the system over, replacing the control node with one of their one and taking control of any existing buildings. If they get less hits then buildings are destroyed instead, damaging the planet’s defensive capability, and another round of combat is played unless the defending player capitulates or the attack retreats. Should the attacking player roll a number of hits equal to the amount of buildings, though, then the surfaced is razed, annihilating everything on the surface, leaving it empty and awaiting colonization. If you couldn’t tell, then, planetary strikes are all about attacking with a massive force so that you can hopefully capture it with everything intact, thus earning you resource generation without having to spend time and tokens to colonize and rebuild.
Just going in all guns blazing like some sort of maniacal tyrant is obviously the best thing to do in just about any situation, but for the gentler souls out there hegemony is an option, allowing the takeover of planets without having to resort to all-out warfare. Doing this is considerably different than just blowing stuff up. First, the hegemony resistance of the system you want to take-over must be calculated. In the case of non-player races this is the number of buildings plus the species level, which ranges from one to three. For another player it’s the amount of buildings, plus any space stations hanging around and their Ascendency rating. That means that theoretically without counting any other bonuses conferred by cards or abilities a system could have a resistance of nine. With a system’s resistance level ascertained you take your own ascendancy rating, roll a die and add the two results together. If it’s higher than the system’s resistance then you successfully take over, integrating the planet into your own culture. Fail and nothing happens, except that you end up looking a tad embarrassed about the whole thing.
During the command phase you can also spend a token to construct a starbase in any system you currently control. These cost no actual resources to build, but you are limited to three throughout the entire game, so you need to really consider how you want to use them. Each starbase will provide you with a bonus command, as well as aiding in space combat, counting toward hegemony resistance and acting as somewhere to construct new ships. However, a starbase can be captured when a system is taken control of by enemy forces, and the new owner will claim the bonus command token for themselves. Do you therefore use them at the out fringes of your territory in order to get ships to the frontlines quickly and to defend distant planets? Or do you keep them closer to home so as to avoid the risk of them being captured?
Command tokens may also be used to launch new research projects, which means drawing the top two cards from your race’s unique advancement deck, which is naturally geared toward a certain playstyle and choosing to keep either one or both, depending on whether you have enough research facilities. At the start of a turn you can place one research token from your supply on each advancement, slowly working on them until they are completed. Advancements are incredibly important, so it’s often worth going out of your way to build more research bases and to study phenomena to speed up development of new technology. Not only does new technology provide huge boons to your society and military, but on the side there are extra goodies to claim, like enhanced warp speed, culture tokens or a command token. With that said you typically won’t have enough time to complete too many of them throughout the course of the game, so you need to pick and choose what you want wisely. A good option rule included in the rulebook is that players don’t have to randomly drawn, and can instead just pick what they want from the advancement deck. I personally prefer this as it allows you to really focus on the research that will help you most, rather than just having to hope you get lucky enough to draw a card which fits in with the current state of the galaxy.
In a way, Ascendancy feels like a game of two three distinct parts, with the first devoted to the exploration of a rich galaxy brimming with potential and some light skirmishes, the second being an almost cold-war situation with everyone eyeing each other up and the final portion coming down to warfare and betrayed alliances. Sadly the final part can sometimes feel like the least enjoyable. Should a player get a great start thanks to some good systems popping up stopping their victory can be very difficult as they’ll typically have the resources available to pour into constructing fleets to hurl at your forces. What this means is that the other two players will have to work together to stop the opposition from winning, but then of course if they succeed then the cycle can repeat itself with alliances being betrayed and new ones formed.
Some of this is the fault of the ascendancy victory condition which encourages players to get as much culture nodes as possible and then go on the defensive so they can bide their time while the tokens pile up. This feels especially weird when playing as the Klingons, a traditionally warlike race who feel like they should only ever win through annihilation of everybody else. With this said the way culture and ascendency works creates a time-limit on the game that helps ensure it doesn’t drag on for too long, a good thing considering the typical playtime is around 3-hours. If one player decides to clamber inside their little space fortress and not come out it forces the other two factions to act or lose the game entirely. But as I’ve said before even with the combined might of two players breaking a well-established engine can be difficult.
Smartly there is a very light layer of diplomacy included in the form of trade agreements. Each player will have three of these cards and once they’ve made contact with another player they can opt to give them one. At the end of the turn when it’s time to generate resources these agreements will bestow an extra 1-3 production tokens, which is a significant economic boost. These resources aren’t taken from your own supply and given to the other player. No, they just magically appear somehow. But that’s beside the point. They are the foundation for alliances, even though all parties know that alliances will have to be broken at some point. That kick up the backside to your fleet production ability is huge, and between two players can help overwhelm most defenses. Of course, that can be frustrating for the player who gets ganged up on for having the audacity to be winning.
Yes, it’s fair to say that Ascendancy has a hefty dollop of luck involved in its exploration and combat. You may warp your way into the galaxy and get relatively unlucky compared to the other players, flipping over systems with less resources and running into dangerous exploration cards that wind up destroying your ships or even wiping out entire systems. And once you build up a substantial fleet it’s still possible to get wrecked by somebody thanks to pure bad luck, although obviously shield and weapon upgrades can help mitigate this. In short, there were times when I wondered if the game wasn’t so much balanced as it was just a wonky seesaw of luck that somehow went three-ways. Sometimes I felt like I won because I played smartly, and other times it felt like I just got quite lucky. Other times I lose because I felt like I’d done something daft, and other times because the other two players ganged up on me because I got a good start.
But let us come back to some positivity! The components are generally very nice. The ships themselves aren’t particularly detailed, but given the fact that you’ve got loads of them to use that is completely forgivable. Systems and tokens are made of nice thick card, the exploration deck is filled with imagery straight from the TV shows and I quite appreciate the weapon and shield sliders on your player board, even if they don’t work all that well. It’s also a pleasingly easy to read game since the chunky nodes that get constructed on planets are brightly colored and all the ships and fleets are easy to distinguish. A quick glance at the table lets you see the whole playing field and understand who has what and how close they are to winning.
All of those components require some serious table-space, though. The rulebook recommends that you start with each faction’s home planet 18″ apart from each other with an extra gap around the edge. Once you put down the player boards, bags of ships, tokens, advancement decks and other assorted stuff you need a sizable table.
That brings us to theme. Generally speaking, I find Ascendancy does capture the broad strokes of Star Trek rather well, but it’s also fair to say that because it focuses on a galactic scale you could really replace the Star Trek license with any other generic sci-fi template and it would make very little difference, if any at all. Just chuck in a warlike race, a peaceful race and a suspicious race along with some a jump-drive or something and you’d never notice the difference. Still, I think Star Trek fans will appreciate Ascendancy greatly.
And now back to a bit of negativity; 3-players. That’s the exact number of people who can play Ascendancy, a slightly awkward player count. Despite that relatively low number of people the time between turns is pretty damn high, too. While you wait for another player to go through their building phase and then issue all their commands and then wrap up with earning resources from all their constructed buildings it sort of feels like you could wander off, have a cup of tea…hell, there’s a pretty good chance the next season of Sherlock will be out by time your turn comes around again. Yes, I just watched the final episode of season 4 before writing this. Yes, the wait is going to hurt. The point is there’s a lot of downtime in Ascendancy, and if expansions increase the player count it could become very annoying.
Whew. That’s a fair amount of words I’ve written. If you’ve managed to get this far and managed to understand any of my drunken ramblings then take a deep breath because we’re on the home straight. Home space lane. Whatever. Ascendancy is a 4x strategy game that’s relatively streamlined. Yes, I’ve used up most of my English language for the year explaining its rules and concepts, but once you get going it’s actually quite simple. And while it may have some flaws the simple fact of the matter is I kind of love it. I love its sweeping scope and its limited but fun diplomacy and its dice-heavy battles and its marvelous sense of exploration. I love that it’s Star Trek. I love that it is basically too damn big for my table because that makes it feel epic. Love is never without its problems, yet it’s still worth it in the end.
Now if only they could find a way of introducing the Borg.