Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Ascension, and iOS boardgaming

I recently bought quite a number of games on my iPhone. Ascension, Le Havre, Ticket To Ride Europe (plus the in-app purchase of TTR Switzerland), Summoner Wars (and all expansions, which were on special offer) and Tikal (it was on offer too; I still have not played it since downloading it). This splurge was partly because Allen just got himself an iPad recently. Han has always been doing boardgaming on his iPad, but I have not been playing much against him using my iPhone. I usually use the boardgames I have on the iPhone as time-wasters, playing against AI's. When Allen got an iPad too, the three of us were suddenly keen to play together on the iOS platform. This is good because it means we can play more often despite Han being overseas. This year we have only been occasionally playing together online using boardgaming websites. Now we are constantly playing, having a few games running in parallel at any one time. When one game ends, we start a new game. We are boardgaming every day! That's the life!


Ascension is the only recently purchased iOS game that I have not played before. It's a deck-building game, so it is not surprising that it has quite a number of similarities to Dominion. However there are enough differences for it to have a different feel. Here's a quick summary of the differences.

  • Two currencies - Magic is basically money that can be spent to buy cards, and strength is the ability to defeat monsters. Most cards in the game give one or the other. Dominion has three currencies. Money to buy cards, action slots to be able to play more than one action card on your turn, and purchase slots to be able to buy more than one card on your turn. In Ascension you are not restricted to play only one card or buy only one card. You have more freedom, but also less challenge.
  • Lower card purchase freedom - On the table there are three types of basic cards that you can always buy / defeat - one that gives magic, one that gives strength, and a weak monster that you can defeat to gain points. Other than that, the card pool only has six cards from which you can choose. Every time a card is purchased (or a monster defeated), a new card is drawn to replenish the pool. Watching what's in the pool is important. Often you want to snatch a card before another player who wants it badly can afford it or defeat it. Whenever you take a card, you risk bringing in another card that the next player wants. Sometimes the card pool can be mostly monsters or mostly cards to be bought. Your deck composition (magic-heavy or strength-heavy) will determine how well you can claim cards in the pool.
  • Gaining victory points doesn't dilute your deck - When you defeat a monster, it goes to the void pile and doesn't go into your personal discard deck. You claim points using tokens. Most cards that you buy into your deck have both a special ability and some victory points (VP). Your hand doesn't get clogged with VP cards which can't be used for anything else. Also there is a type of card called constructs, which when played is placed in front of you permanently and gives you benefits every round. This also helps to keep your deck nimble. This can be good and bad - good because you don't get bogged down, bad because you lose the challenge of managing the efficiency of your deck.
  • More card types per game, fewer cards per card type - I think all cards are in play, as opposed to in Dominion where only 10 types of action cards are used in any one game. So you see a much bigger variety of cards in every game, but the card set is the same from game to game, unlike in Dominion where different action card combinations can drive a different emphasis and different strategies. I think there are only 3 cards per card type. That's one problem with playing computer implementations of boardgames. The software handles all the rules and you don't know the details.

The six cards in the middle are the card pool. Those with a silver triangle in the top right corner are cards that can be bought by paying magic. Those with a red circle are monsters that can be defeated by paying strength. The three cards in the top left corner are the basic cards that are always available. The row at the bottom is my hand of cards. The black area is the card play area. Those two cards tucked away at the bottom left are the constructs that I have in play.

The star in the bottom left corner means victory point value. I quite like the artwork in Ascension. It's unconventional.

At first I thought the AI's were rather poor. I easily beat them at 2P and 3P games. However, once I started playing 4P games, I kept losing. Not only that, every game I get outscored by them by a big margin even before mid-game. There must be something I am doing wrong. I am intrigued and am keen to discover the tricks that I am missing.

Ascension as a game is not all that special. But then maybe it's because I'm not a particularly big fan of deck-building games in the first place. However I find playing Ascension the iOS game very enjoyable because of the very slick interface and smooth gameplay. I am surprised that I'm liking a game more because of how well-implemented it is than the game design itself. Playdek is a very good developer.

I bought Ticket To Ride games not to play with Han or Allen, but to play with Michelle and Shee Yun (7), and also to pass time when I'm idle or when I feel like a quick relaxed game. This is the Switzerland map, my favourite of the series so far. I've completed 9 tickets at this point. Too bad the AI's are not very challenging.

Le Havre is a boardgame that takes up a lot of table space and has a lot of information, so it is difficult to squeeze onto an iPhone screen, or even an iPad screen. The interface of the iOS implementation works well enough, but it is simply not easy to play such a game with so many components on such a small screen. Font sizes are small, and you need a few clicks to zoom in to or to view certain details. That said, it's still good to have an iOS implementation of this wonderful game. I have been enjoying playing this against Han and Allen. Without an iOS version, I wonder how long it will take before we come back to playing Le Havre again. One downside to the iOS version is it can feel rather start-and-stop, because on your turn you usually only do one simple main action. After that you go back to waiting for your opponents to make their moves. If you play in a PBEM-like way, it take take quite a while to complete a game. It can feel tedious to sometimes have to simply wait for your opponent to feed his workers at the end of a round, or to wait for your opponent to decide whether to take a loan or sell a building in order to pay interest.

Your buildings can be viewed in a row. You can zoom in to see a specific building.

Beating the AI's was not much of a challenge. Playing against AI's is much less fun than playing against friends. They are not very strong. They make their moves quickly and I can't catch up with the animations on the screen. I don't bother with examining their moves and trying to outsmart them, because even without doing these I can win comfortably. When playing against friends in a PBEM-like manner (since we don't set up a time to be all online at the same time), I have time to examine my opponents' moves, and I get to enjoy the strategising and manoeuvring.

This is one feature I like a lot. This lists the recent moves by your opponents. This helps me guess my opponents' intentions and helps me plan.

I first played Summoner Wars in Jun 2010. It was a physical copy that I played then. I remember it as a nifty two-player combat game played on a chess-like board, with the game being driven by unique decks of army cards. Each player has a summoner on the board, which is like a king in chess. New units can be summoned onto the board to fight, and different unit types have different fighting abilities and special powers. The objective of the game is to kill your opponent's summoner.

The game is all card-driven. You sacrifice cards to gain magic which can then be spent to summon new units. Some cards are one time use events. Some cards are walls, which can be placed onto the board to block opponents and to protect your units. Killing an enemy unit (card) moves it to your magic pool, i.e. you can then use the magic to summon your own new units. You only go through your deck once, i.e. once it is exhausted, you basically run out of resources and can't summon more units.

I bought all the expansions, since they were on sale. That means I have access to lots of different armies and I will be able to try many different match-ups. So far I have only used the Pheonix Elves though. Still feeling my way around. The AI seems decent. It beat me a number of times and taught me some tricks. Now I also play against Han, who taught me other nifty tricks (the hard way, of course), e.g. killing your own unit can be good, because you earn that card for your magic pool, you deny your opponent a kill, and you lower your unit count. Some event cards reward you for having fewer units than your opponent. Han and my units must all fear us because we are such brutal overlords.

I find that generally it seems to be good to summon the strong champions and summon fewer common units, i.e. quality over quantity. Common units get killed easily and would fuel your opponent's magic pool. Relying more on champions mean you can have a lower unit count, and you won't feed your opponent's magic pool as much. I wonder whether this applies to just the Pheonix Elves or it applies to other armies too.

You can zoom in. My three units have surrounded the AI summoner and are about to finish him off.


philwebservices said...

Cool! I also was not able to try and play this one. I should try it. It looks really fun! :D

Aik Yong said...

you need to get magic 2013 too if you're an ex-magic player. the achievement and unlockables system is really well done and have not yet emulated on the boardgames.

I got Ticket to Ride, Ascension and Titan for my iPad, but I found that since I play solo, the games don't have longevity without unlockables.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Magic 2013 works for iPad only, and I rarely get to use the iPad at home (monopolised by the other three ladies of the house). Also it takes 1GB free space, which I don't the iPad has.