Playing cards is fun. Acquiring stuff is fun. Playing cards to acquire more powerful cards to play, to acquire even more cards and points is even more fun. This is a pretty simplistic take on the deckbuilding genre of board games, but the reality is that deckbuilding games, and deckbuilding mechanics in games, are extremely prevalent throughout boardgaming because the core mechanics are almost always rewarding and fun.
Enter Ascension: Dreamscape, the latest standalone expansion to the Ascension: Deckbuiling Game line that has been around since 2010. The Ascension system is built around a center line that always consists of six cards, and a set point pool. Whenever a player buys a card, or defeats a monster card from from the center line, the vacant space is immediately filled. When the pool of points, determined by player count, is exhausted, the game ends and the player who scored the most points, both via Honor points tokens and via card values, is the winner.
The point-pool system is a handy way of gauging how much time is left in the game and how each player is doing in relation to their opponents. The one downside to the points system is that the game usually ends just as players are bringing really interesting and powerful card combinations into play, so it can often feel like the game ends a turn before you want it to. The bright side to this is that the game is good enough that you wish there were another turn or two left to play, and it's a snap to sort the cards, shuffle them, and begin a new game.
The base Ascension game isn't my favorite. While I enjoy deckbuilding, buying cards and defeating monsters from the center row were really the only two options, leading luck of the draw to be one of the most important factors in the game. It's not a bad game, there just isn't enough of a hook to make it stand out from the crowd. Dreamscape, on the other hand, throws in just enough tweaks to make the game shine.
The core of Dreamscape is simple. Runes are used to buy more cards for your deck, and Power is used to defeat monsters, which score points and sometimes give special one shot abilities. Dreamscape succeeds by adding in a third currency, called Insight, and allowing players to use that Insight to purchase cards from their own personal Dreamscape. The cards that make up each player's Dreamscape are drawn from a special Dream Deck, and have interesting and powerful abilities. Some of the regular cards also allow for creative use of Insight, such as allowing Insight to be spent in place of Runes or Power.
Rather than just grabbing whichever cards are affordable at the time, the Dreamscape allows players to plan and strategize. The Dream Deck cards can be incredibly powerful, and choosing the right moment to play them, or buying cards that specifically mesh with, or enhance, the cards that you've purchased can turn the tide of the game in your favor. This extra layer of complexity and strategy really enhances the Ascension system.
The only downside to Dreamscape's system is that it works so well as a standalone game that it could easily be diluted to a non-factor if mixed in with too many of Ascension's other expansions. The balance feels just right as it stands, although players who wish to play with more than four will have no choice but to combine Dreamscape with other Ascension products. The good news is that Ascension: Dreamscape should feel fresh and new to current Ascension players and is a perfect place to start for players who haven't played any other game in the system.
A note on solo play: Ascension: Dreamscape features a solo variant that's decent. This changes the way that the cards enter the center line and is almost as much puzzle as anything else. At the end of each turn, the two rightmost cards in the center line are removed from the game, with monster cards adding their points to a pool and the various other cards going into a pile. Once 50 Honor has been claimed by the player and the pool, the game ends. If the player has more honor than the deck and pool, then the player wins.
The solo variant isn't as good as the standard multiplayer mode, but it plays very quickly and is a fun challenge. I wouldn't recommend Dreamscape solely for solo play, but it is a nice bonus to an already great game.
A note on “chrome”: The cards and components in Ascension: Dreamscape are all good quality, even the rulebook is printed on quality paper that feels good in your hands. The card art isn't completely consistent, with some cards having wonderful art, and some having illustrations that feel a bit out place, but for the most part the theme is consistent. One very nice touch is that the different types of cards have different colored borders around the front edges which is extremely helpful when sorting the various card types out when preparing to set the game up.
The bottom line: Ascension: Dreamscape takes the tried and true center line deckbuilding formula from the core Ascension games and tweaks it just enough with the Dreamscape mechanics to make it feel fresh without bogging it down with excessive complexity. The new mechanics should interest players familiar with the system, yet prior experience with the system isn't required. Ascension: Dreamscape plays wonderfully as a standalone game, and the rules and mechanics are straightforward and easy enough to learn and understand that it is a great place to start for players who want to try deckbuilding games but don't know where to begin.
Get this game if:
You enjoy other Ascension games and want to add a fun, new mechanic to the mix.
You enjoy center-line deckbuilding games.
You want to try deck-building games but don't know which game would be good to start with.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike deckbuilding games.
You prefer cooperative games.
The copy of Ascension: Dreamscape used for this review was provided by Stoneblade Entertainment.
Ascension: Dreamscape is a great deckbuilding game that takes the fairly simple deckbuilding mechanics of the core Ascension games, and adds depth and fun via the Dreamscape mechanics.