Ascending Empires (Game Review)

Ascending Empires box

Ascending Empires

When I had the chance to sample Ian Cooper’s Ascending Empires at Origins last year, I found it to be a clever mix of strategic empire-building and dexterity games, but wasn’t sure it would have staying power. Now that I’ve gotten to try it several times, I can report that each aspect would be unsatisfying on its own, but that the combination really is compelling.

The basic point of the game is to send spaceships out to colonize planets, and then add new buildings and troops to them. There are technology tracks corresponding to planet colors, and building research stations will let you improve various abilities. Of course, players will start attacking each others’ ships and planets once the galaxy gets a little crowded. Points are awarded for building, researching, and winning battles.

None of these rules are unusual, and the system is pretty simple. There are only three building types and four technology tracks, and most players will never go beyond the basic ship type. There are no engines to develop or clever synergies to build your empire around. Left alone, this part of the game would be a simple race to optimize your builds according to basic rules. However, this is all a context for the ship movement: Players actually flick the wooden ship disks around the board on their turn! This adds a decent amount of aiming skill, not to mention luck, to keep the game interesting.

I like the rules governing the ship movement, which are straightforward but work effectively. Players can choose to be either safe or ambitious in their movement, and the combat rules offer good incentives to aggressive players while giving some good benefits to the defender. Planets are heavy disks that get placed into holes in the board, so ships can’t dislodge them, and “orbital areas” surrounding planets become the goals for ships to land in.

Close-up of the game in play

Battle between the red and yellow players

Quality components matter when the game involves sliding pieces around a board, and Z-Man Games went the extra mile here. There is a large baggie to protect the board from humidity (and warping), extra stickers for the wooden pieces, and rules inserts with clear advice for using all these. (This is especially appreciated after Panic Station, whose initial rule set buried non-intuitive instructions for applying the stickers in the middle of its rulebook.) The board pieces snap together like a puzzle, which keeps it smoother than a folded board or unconnected cardboard would be. Despite all this, though, it’s still a problem that the bumps where the board pieces fit together can upset the best-aimed ship. I’m pleased to report that the pieces do wear well, and if anything fit more smoothly on game five than they did when first taken out of the box. Admittedly, it can be funny to watch the occasional ship careen wildly in the wrong direction due to these “folds in the fabric of space”, but at least one of my games was determined by a single unlucky break when going across one of these boundaries. If it weren’t for the strategy and theme, this wouldn’t hold up well next to a simple dexterity game like Crokinole – and while new Crokinole boards may be expensive, they set a standard well beyond what can be achieved with board game components such as this.

So why does this game work? Well, the main reason is that its quick turns give it a fast pace that perfectly matches its depth and slight chaos. A turn allows a single action, either adding a piece to the board, or making two to four (depending on technology level) ship movements. Even the especially careful ship moving turns will take under a minute, and the tension there is interesting for everyone to watch. If a player chooses a different action, they complete their turn in a few seconds. You’ll have a hard time finding another hour-long game that gives everyone as many total turns as this one. Once the battles start and tension rises, this pace does a lot to add to the excitement. It’s easy to overextend yourself, as every empire’s border is guaranteed to have holes. On the other hand, taking advantage of too many openings will just leave you more stretched and vulnerable than ever. Fighting off enemies on two fronts, while wondering if you can spare the time to ignore the battle for a turn and build more infrastructure, can be a tense experience that feels like it has no downtime at all. Concerns about simple, deterministic game mechanics are forgotten once they get mixed in with battles driven by aim and luck, but those strategic options still give the game an important dimension beyond “pure dexterity”.

Ascending Empires avoids problems with runaway leaders by making the game end quickly if anyone gains a strong position. The endgame is triggered once a certain number of VP chips have been claimed, so the more one player manages to dominate the others, the quicker they’ll end it. That doesn’t leave much time for the other players to sit there watching the game go on without them.

Not as strategic as most empire building games, not as crazy as most battle-heavy games, and not as elegant as most dexterity games, Ascending Empires succeeds by finding just the right combination of these elements. The result is a tense experience that still feels light-hearted and fun.

Grade: B

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