Sometimes I buy things that really catches my interest and then fade away once a shinier, more interesting object appears. Such is my experience with Ascending Empires, a dexterity/strategy board game made by Z-Man Games. I bought it over five months ago, played it frequently with friends, and then two major flaws pushed it to the wayside. The first problem is the quality of the board pieces, which makes a huge impact on gameplay. The second problem is that even though Ascending Empires is a neat concept, it isn’t very much fun. Here’s my review.
The object of Ascending Empires is to score as many victory points as possible before the end of the game. You earn points by building a fleet, recruiting troops, colonizing planets, researching technology, and sometimes, sometimes by fighting your opponents.
The game is mostly a dexterity game, meaning that you flick your spaceships around the board to explore planets and screw with other players. All of the planets are represented by round chips that are face down at the start of the game. In order to explore and eventually colonize a planet you have to flick one of your starfighters within the planet’s orbit. The orbit is represented by a purple circle around the planet, and as long as your spacecraft are within the orbit or touching the purple circle you’re good to go.
Once you discover a planet you can occupy it by converting a starship into a trooper. This wasn’t obvious to us at first by the rules, and most people I’ve taught the game to don’t grasp this, either. I found it easier to explain by saying the starships were Transformer robots; you have to transform from a spaceship to a trooper in order to land on a planet, and you have to transform from a trooper to a spaceship in order to fly into space. It’s not entirely accurate as you may choose to buy more starships than troopers or vice versa, but this little rules detail is an example of the “crunchy” nature of Ascending Empire’s simple but lengthy rule set.
A city and a research facility. The technology from this brown planet helps you upgrade your ground forces.
Once you explore and occupy a planet you can colonize it or build a research facility on it. You can upgrade a colony to a city — cities allow you to either build another starship or add another trooper to your army.
Technology branches into four categories: offense, defense, ground troops and space fleet. The branches are colored orange, purple, brown and gray, respectively. Each technology tree has five levels, and you can research the next level of technology by building a tech lab on a planet of corresponding color. In order to research level two weapons technology you have to have two tech labs on two orange planets.
There are a bunch of other rules, but I’m not going to get into them here. Let’s move on to the more interesting part: gameplay.
Playing the game
Before I played it, the flicking / movement part of Ascending Empires sounded awesome. The idea of flicking the pieces around the board, fighting opponents and discovering new planets seemed fantastic. Ascending Empires seemed poised to be a more strategic, thinking-person’s version of Micro Mutants.
Unfortunately, the game suffers from a critical fault that keeps the game from being completely enjoyable. The board is comprised of nine large cardboard pieces that fit together like a puzzle. The pieces are not cut very well and do not always fit together properly. In addition, some of the tiles were slightly warped out of the box and became more so over time. Other games suffer from warping — Betrayal at the House on the Hill comes to mind, as well as the YuCatan Settlers of Catan board.
Unlike other games that have warped pieces, the tiles for Ascending Empires are integral to actually playing the game. Flicking a starship close enough to an opponent’s to engage in space combat but not so close to cause a collision is hard enough. Trying to navigate the meta-game aspect of warped tiles and uneven edges is even worse. One player would hold the tile flat while the other player would try to pilot their ship.
This really ruined my enjoyment of the game. There were always moments where we were no longer playing the game, but fighting with the game in order to play. That sucks. We’ve had a few conversations about creating our own board, but we’d have to experiment with the smoothness of the surface (not too rough, not too smooth) and then figure out where to store the thing, or if it needed to be hinged or multiple pieces, etc etc etc and then I wondered why I almost $50 to re-engineer the playing surface provided by the publisher.
Is it fun?
Even once you get around the warped tiles issue, is Ascending Empires fun? I wish I could say “yes, always.” But there just seems to be something missing from the game. It has all sorts of seemingly fun components. The dexterity aspect, the technology tree decision aspect, the explore, colonize, and upgrade aspect — all of these things seem interesting to me. But for some reason I don’t find Ascending Empires to be very much fun.
The space combat is not very much fun — you have to achieve a two to one ratio of your ships to opponent ships within firing range in order to destroy it. This is not impossible, but is hard enough that the other strategies for messing with other players means people are more likely to blockade an opposing planet than hunt down and destroy their starcraft.
Some technology upgrades are far more important than others. In general, you should ignore all of the offensive technology upgrades. Focusing on them means you aren’t getting the other technology tree upgrades as fast as your opponents. Being able to flick your ships three times instead of just twice a turn is always useful, whereas shooting at a longer range is less useful, especially given most people’s ability to accurately pilot ships and the crooked nature of the playing surface. Any game that has an easily defined “better” or “best” decision path is less likely to get replayed, especially when we have so many other interesting games to choose from.
The game rules are very simple, but there are many of them. New players (and sometimes experienced players, too) have a hard time remembering the different rules and frequently skip things or try to combine the activities of different action choices. For example, new players try to land troops on a planet and research a technology upgrade. You can only do one or the other, but it’s a frequent error to try to combine these activities. The sum of all of the little rules is what undermines some of Ascending Empire’s fun — not the individual rules themselves.
Ascending Empires has the potential to be a fun game, and maybe with the right group it can be. I find that the problems with the quality of the board pieces, portions of the game design, and the laundry list of rules keep me from having much fun after a game. Ascending Empires reminds me a lot of eating at a sub-standard buffet. Some parts may be tasty, you might get a few bits that don’t taste great, and in the end I feel unsatisfied and wondering what I spent my money on.