Storm of Souls shoots an exciting new jolt into Ascension

, | Games

Sequels can do things originals can’t. Superhero movies, for instance. The first movie is an origins story. That’s when you have to explain the rules to people like me who didn’t read the comic books. The superhero frets about great power. Aunt Martha gets killed. The superhero stops fretting and punches a few punks. Finale. But once you get to a sequel, your superhero fights better villains and maybe even trashes the city, since sequels have bigger budgets for special effects.

Ascension: Storm of Souls, a sequel to Ascension, gets down to the serious business of serious spectacle now that the ground rules have been laid. It may not be better than the core game — the elegance of basic Ascension is a tough act to follow — but it’s different, it’s more, and it’s the logical next step if you’re an Ascension fan.

After the jump, is it as good as fighting Terence Stamp? What about Heath Ledger?

Ascension was followed by a small add-on called Return of the Fallen, which folded new cards into the mix. But Storm of Souls is intended as a standalone set of cards. A full-blown sequel, if you will. Unlike other “living card games”, or LCGs, the idea isn’t that you’re amassing a collection from which to draw for each game. You can certainly mix and match Ascension cards however you like, but there’s a thematic unity and gameplay focus with each set.

Storm of Souls feels very different from basic Ascension and the Return of the Fallen add-on, and not just because it’s a complete set of entirely new cards. Well, there’s one minor exception. The Fettered Soul is exactly the same as the Mephit, but who’s counting? Besides me, I mean. But Storm of Souls also feels different because of some all new gameplay concepts like trophy monsters, events, and the fanatic. Trophy monsters are a bit like constructs in that once you beat them, they sit on your side of the table until you want to use their special effect. At that point, you get rid of them. They’re one-shot powers that add a bit of extra decision making every turn.

If new event cards come into play — you may never see one, but you also might see multiple events replacing each other as they roll out — the rules shift slightly, often in favor of one type of card.

By adding this touch of faction color to a match, events can give your Ascension games a unique sense of character. You might remember a game as the one where you used the Void event to pare down your deck, or where the monster event showed up in just the nick of time to favor your military cards. Events also add power to a new monster called the fanatic, who sits off to the side with the cultist, waiting for an event card to basically kick him into gear. Fanatics give military focused decks something to do besides twiddle their thumbs waiting for monsters to wander out.

One drastic change from the basic game is the way mechana contructs are handled. In basic Ascension, mechana constructs were immensely valuable for a couple of reasons. The most obvious reason was that they added a whole lot of victory points to your deck at the end of the game. The other reason they were valuable is because they didn’t cycle with your cards once you put them into play. In effect, they were huge victory point investments that wouldn’t clog up your “economy” (i.e. how effectively you cycled your cards).

But in Storm of Souls, you generally have to discard a mechana contstruct to use its power, cycling it back into your deck. Several cards interact with this new dynamic, which even gets its own word. The term for discarding mechana constructs is now “destroy”, which is a terrible choice, since you’re not destroying anything. It’ll be back in your hand soon enough. For a game that’s normally pretty careful and clear, this is a rare instance of Ascension being oddly tin eared. But as a way of revising the arguably overpowered “fire-and-forget” mechana constructs, I really enjoy the new interactivity added to the faction.

With all that’s going on now with trophies, events, fanatics, and “destroyed” constructs, there’s a lot to keep track of. There are also some crazy gimmicks with buying cards by their honor value, and a really strange card — P.R.I.M.E. — whose special power you have to remember while it’s in your discard pile. This is definitely a game for people who’ve played a fair bit of Ascension. It can be fairly demanding, even to the point of losing some of the basic game’s elegance. But that’s a sequel for you. Sequels require bigger budgets, whether we’re talking money or cognitive processing power.

Finally, you can’t really talk about Ascension without a nod to the unique art style of Eric Sabee. That’s in evidence better than ever in Storm of Souls, with redesigned core cards, all new artwork for all new cards, and almost no cards that look like they were hurriedly sketched on cocktail napkins. Now you might not even want to discard your apprentices!

You can get Ascension: Storm of Souls from your usual boardgaming sources, or directly from the publisher for about $40. You can also listen to my interview with Ascension designer Justin Gary here.

4 stars