Version tested iPhone
A general problem among fantasy games is they have incredibly crap titles. It's pretty hard to work yourself up to play something called Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, because it's a formulaic title that suggests the game itself will be similarly uninspired, full of beardy dwarves and willowy nymphs. Ascension has beards, sure - but the game they hide is beautiful.
This is a deck-building card game with hundreds of antecedents, but the one that matters is Dominion. As there, you begin with a deck of 10 bog-standard cards and use them to bag ones from various sections of the board - these cards then enter your discard pile, and crop up in future hands. Your hand is used to build up as much mana and/or power as possible, and these stats are then what can be used to defeat or acquire any of the five cards in the middle of the board.
Building your hand is a tricky business, entirely contingent on what the board shows. Including the expansion 'Return of the Fallen', there are four types of hero cards (Enlightened, Lifebound, Mechana and Void) each of which leans towards a specific playstyle. It's essential to build a deck containing cards that work together, in other words, to enable you to stack abilities and squeeze as much juice as possible out of every turn.
Though Ascension's basic economy owes much to Dominion's example, the way the game works is ultimately different. This is thanks to two things. First, the central row of five cards that each player buys from is constantly changing, and to a degree limits what strategies you can pursue - there's little point acquiring a mega buff for Mechana units when none have turned up. So each game isn't a question of building your ideal deck, but rather a question of what you can rig from the tools available.
Secondly, Dominion's scoring doesn't happen until the game's end. In Ascension, each player isn't just competing to acquire valuable and useful cards (which are also totted up at the end), but also bumping off monsters that give up points and can interfere with opponents' carefully constructed strategies. It makes the mid-to-late game especially tense, with players simultaneously supercharging their decks while keeping up with each other's monster hunting.
The key thing about Ascension, however, is that it's perfect for playing on a phone or - especially - a tablet. It's happy accident, of course, but the dimensions of its 'board' fit just right, and though the app has a few rough edges it contains every option needed. The online multiplayer's especially well thought-out, letting you create or join games with 2-4 players lasting from 10 minutes to 14 days, and there's always plenty of people playing.
Is it better than Dominion? Of course not, but that doesn't matter: Ascension is different. And in terms of money per hour spent, it's one of the best apps you'll ever buy.
App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.