Game Review: Ascension Storm of Souls

After playing so much Ascension that my hands actually started hurting from shuffling so much, it comes as no surprise how eager I was to get my hands on the first standalone expansion – especially after getting the chance to speak with Justin Gary about it before its release. Well the long wait is finally over and after spending the holiday playing the latest version of Ascension I can say that Storm of Souls is better than the original in every way.

Samael is defeated, but the world of Vigil has been left in turmoil in his wake. In Storm of Souls, players will see different factions rise to prominence with the new Event cards, and have powerful new Trophy Monsters to hunt! In addition to the brand-new mechanics, players will also see powerful new takes on popular mechanics from past Ascension releases.

Suggested Ages: 13+
Suggested Players: 1 to 4 players (5-6 players when combined with Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer)
Playing time: 30 minutes
Contents: 200 cards, 50 honor tokens, full-color rulebook, game board, storage tray
Retail price: $39.99 available at Amazon or Ascension Game

If you are unfamiliar with Ascension as a game, the quickest way to describe it is Dominion meets Magic: the Gathering. While the core game is basic at first glance, the depth and strategy available really begin to shine the more you play. For a more in depth review of the game and its core mechanics, check out both the reviews of Chronicles of the Godslayer and Return of the Fallen.

Storm of Souls has two major changes to the game (besides adding 101 brand new cards). The biggest change greatly effects how combat works with the addition of Trophy Monsters. Differentiated by their white text on the names, Trophy Monsters helped fix the issue of monster rewards sometimes being useless. Slaying a Doom Weeper was great since you got both two honor and two runes, but occasionally those two runes ended up being unusable – and trophy monsters fix that.

Once you defeat a Trophy Monster you get your honor like normal but then they act almost like a construct and go on the board in front of you. You can banish a trophy at any time during your turn to use their reward, like adding additional runes, power or even drawing cards. Being able to bank these Trophy Monsters can really change the game dynamic.

To help people get used to the Trophy Monster idea, a new monster is added to the Always Available region called the Fanatic. The Fanatic is basically a beefed up Cultist who takes 3 power to defeat and is worth 1 honor and an Event Trophy. To keep the game simple, you can only have a single Fanatic Event trophy at a time. For those of you who play with multiple players, six Fanatic cards are included.

Events are cards that change the way the game is played by affecting everyone in different ways. For Magic players, think of them as enchantments or Planes. Each of the five Events corresponds with a different faction and can buff different aspects of the game, even going as far as changing how some of the cards work. In addition to changing some rules of the games, each Event determines what the Fanatic Trophy is.

Events exist in the Portal Deck like any other card, but when they come up, they are automatically moved to the Event space on the newly revised board and replace the existing event (if there is one). The new board is clearly for more advanced players as it has removed the outline for the player’s turn and added some much needed markings like the honor pool, Event space and Fanatic zone. The honor tokens remain unchanged from past sets.

The art in Storm of Souls looks amazing too. Eric Sabee is really showing off some impressive work with the latest expansion, which makes it feel kind of weird that the original Cultist is included when the Apprentice, Militia, Mystic and Heavy Infantry all got redone.

With the first two expansions, I felt that the Factions in Ascension weren’t quite balanced properly and this time around, every one has been given a few tweaks to help them shine. Lifebound has earned a new keyword called “Unite” which isn’t that new – just a shorthand way to say if you play more than one Lifebound Hero in a turn, you get an additional bonus. Lifebound is really focusing on earning honor while minimizing its interaction with the center row (most of the time).

The Void Faction is still going strong with being the combat heavy faction. When combined with some viciously efficient banishing filters, the Void is quickly becoming popular when it arrives in the center row. Enlightened finally feels like they have gotten a purpose beyond just drawing cards with better control of banishing cards in the center row and having my favorite 1 rune costing card, Prodigal which defeats any monster with a power of 3 or less – they don’t have to be in the center row!

The biggest overhaul though is Mechana. Originally intent on assembling some grand machine, Mechana is now more about assembling smaller constructs and trashing them for different effects. To help make this work even better, many Mechana cards let you rummage through your discard to return cards back to your hand.

For monsters, the biggest change is the addition of Trophy Monsters which really help mix up the combat dynamic. With this being the first set, the Trophy Monsters are a tad basic and only add little effects like adding a power or a few runes, I’m hoping the next expansion really amps it up.

My favorite pair of cards though are probably the rare Void Constructs known as Umbral Edge and Penumbral Edge. Each card allows you to gain 2 power once per turn, but if you control the other card, they give an additional 2 power for 6 runes. It’s a great pairing and very flavorful.

Avatar of Aiyana and Raj, Psionic Master both introduce a new concept of acquiring heroes based on their honor value, not their rune cost. Avatar of Aiyana is terrifying when she lets you pay runes equal to a hero’s honor instead of runes. While Raj, Psionic Master lets you banish a card in your hand to acquire any hero in the center row with honor worth up to two more than the banished card’s honor – and put it into your hand!

For people who have both expansions of the original game, you’re quickly going to notice some power creep. Many older cards simply do not hold up to newer cards included in this expansion – especially the lower costed cards. I hope this is just a balancing act and not a trend of making older cards obsolete with each expansion.

Another area of disappointment for me is that the game feels like it is still really holding back. The multitude of promotional cards that have been made constantly show how much depth this game can have. The inclusion of Soul Collector for those who preordered is another tease at where the game can go and I am eagerly awaiting some realization of those – like how the Rat King was the precursor to the Fate mechanic.

To make everything even better, all the cards from Chronicles of the Godslayer and Return of the Fallen are compatible so you can make any kind of Portal Deck that you wish. Personally, I would advise against combining all of the cards into one super deck but picking a choosing could make for some fantastic games. At the end of the day, if you enjoyed playing Ascension there is no reason not to grab the latest version. It’s more complex, it has better strategy and I can’t wait to play some more.

Pros
Trophy Monsters add more strategy
Events keep players thinking
Enlightened feels like they have a purpose!
Fully compatible with past expansions

Cons
Power creep slowly showing up
Cultist needs a facelift
Redefining Mechana means it doesn’t play as well with others
Don’t mix all the expansions together
Hints from promo cards not fully realized