I was not enthusiastic about Ascension after a little while with it, but I have been exploring the expansions to the game, and it has grown on me. It is not exactly deep strategy, but it is a fun little game that does some interesting things.
The best suggestion I saw was to try most sets in pairs. Where most Dominion sets do pretty well all thrown together, Ascension favors having one or two sets of cards. The link there has a good guide to which mechanics pair well together. I tried throwing a bunch in at once, and the game just stops working. All of the interesting interactions and synergies stop working, because each set explores a different design space without much overlap. The unique mechanic in each set is not shared between sets, so mixing 4 or 5 just dilutes everything interesting.
I saw that previously playing the DC Comics Deck-Building Game (actual name). A friend at Gen Con was excited about it, bought three sets, and shuffled them all together. And then we played with five players. We might as well have played multi-player War with an Uno deck. But I digress.
You can see the opposite design decision in some games, and they sometimes struggle under the weight of trying to support all the content at once. A small version occurs in Seven Wonders, where later expansions build on mechanics in earlier ones, so remember to swap out the Cities, Leaders, etc. if you are not using everything at once. RPG books either ignore half the content or spread themselves very thin trying to do something for all the classes the accumulate over time. To the forums if monks are forgotten in this expansion! But I digress again.
Chronicle of the Godslayer and Return of the Fallen are the most vanilla sets. They have the fewest interesting mechanics, but that also makes them the most stable. This is the core of the game, and if you talk about Ascension with no subtitle, this is what you mean. They place nicely together without exploding. Dull, but the core of the game. Return of the Fallen fleshes it out a bit more, like Intrigue does for Dominion.
Storm of Souls and Immortal Heroes did not click for me. The event mechanic is not a big enough deal to change the game much, while adding extra complexity. Soul gems add randomness but not anything genuinely new. Ongoing trophies are near and dear to my heart, because I like constructs, and they are like constructs that cannot be destroyed. Not a pair that I played or enjoyed much.
Rise of Vigil and Darkness Unleashed are the best pair I have played. Energy and transform are great mechanics. They give a “power up” effect over the course of the game. A card may do little or nothing in the early game but because quite useful once you can energize it. That is also about the time that cards start transforming. Adding energy develops the early-middle-late game flow with a straightforward mechanic, even if handling it through cards is a little clunky and prone to odd random swings.
Realms Unraveled and Dawn of Champions are great for multi-faction cards and building on those faction effects. Apart from Mechana constructs, the early sets do not put much weight on factions. These start doing interesting things when you focus on a faction or two, or use the multi-faction cards to splash across the spectrum. Dawn of Champions is a weaker addition. The Champions do not have a big enough effect on the game to matter that much, and Rally is a problematic mechanic. It adds too much streaky randomness. It may do nothing; it may give you one of the most expensive cards for free on turn two. I saw a card Rally two copies of itself, which seems like a big swing in reward for no change in what you are doing. Part of the point of Dawn of Champions is setting up ridiculous synergies and cascades so you can watch one thing turn into six, but sometimes the cards are moving and stacking too fast to keep track of. I imagine it is a very slow playing out with physical cards. That is great when it happens for you, less fun to watch, and it is not good for the game when you can have a huge point swing off a lucky deal. This is probably the most exciting set, but it also can take a lot out of your control.
Dreamscape is the last set I have played. I like the mechanic of the third currency, but it does not add enough to the game to justify the additional weight. Every player needs a separate side deck, a set of counters, another deck in the middle… all to extend buying options. This is another set that gives some big swings, notably in acquiring free things that could be huge or tiny. Be the first to beat the 8-power boss, and maybe you’ll get 20 points, which is a lot in a 60-point game. I enjoy the extra mechanic, but I get to let the computer keep track of it. I should note that the dream card interface is lousy in the app. The game runs into problems when cards overlap each other, so sometimes you cannot zoom in to read your dream cards, and sometimes trying to do so leads to you buying the cards underneath the in the offer row. The UI remains poor.
Ascension has difficulties making things exciting without tossing balance to the wind. In one sense, everything is balanced in that everyone gets a shot at it. In practice, that means whoever happens to get the lucky draw gets a huge windfall. That can be fun in games, just not under the heading of strategy games.
I find myself in the odd state of enjoying Ascension but not knowing that I can endorse it. I got the game for $3 on a Steam sale, and I unequivocally endorse that. Well worth the money, probably worth the time, even if you are only playing single player against the hapless computer. The equivalent in physical cards is hundreds of dollars, and I could not justify that. But for $3 on sale? Absolutely!