When getting together materials for our recent review of Ascension: Rise of Vigil from the lovely folks over at Stone Blade Entertainment, it was offered to have a chat with Ascension's creator and Stone Blade Entertainment's founder, Justin Gary. Since, as I'd mentioned in the review, Ascension is my favorite game that exists right now, I was thrilled at the chance of talking about the game with its creator.
So here we have an interview with Justin Gary, creator of Ascension and founder of Stone Blade Entertainment.
TGN: Tell our readers a bit about your history. Who is Justin Gary? What sort of background do you have in the gaming world?
Justin Gary: Though I have been a gamer my whole life (starting with family games of Monopoly and Uno), I first got into gaming seriously in 1997 when I won the US National Magic: The Gathering Championship. After that, I helped pay my way through college by playing Magic and winning a Pro Tour, Grand Prix, and World Team Championship.
I started designing games in 2004 working on the Vs. System trading card game. I lead designed the Infinite Crisis expansion and eventually shifted from cards to miniatures when I designed the World of Warcraft Miniatures game. After that, I founded Gary Games (now Stone Blade Entertainment) and designed games for several other companies before creating the Ascension: Deckbuilding Game.
TGN: I only found out about deck-building games last year at GenCon when one friend introduced me to Domain and another to Ascension. How did Ascension come to be? What was the process like that you came up with the game? Where did your inspiration come from?
JG: Designing Ascension was a ton of fun. It was the game I made for myself and my friends- never initially intended to be released. Of course, Dominion was a huge inspiration- getting the fun of a TCG into a single boxed game is a great idea and I was instantly hooked. Over time, though, I realized there were several things I didn’t like about Dominion (e.g. set up time, the static nature of the available cards, the lack of a cool theme). I set about making my own variation and took inspiration from Magic: the Gathering drafting to create the center row which I felt was much more dynamic and interactive than a static set of cards each game.
After that it was a lot of iteration and trimming out all the unnecessary components to make the game as streamlined as possible. I would work on the game during the day, have my friends come by at night to help playtest, then make changes the next day based on the results and so on until at one point I just decided to take the risk and put out my first self-published game!
TGN: About the game mechanics, several new sets have brought new concepts to the game. There are things like Trophy Monsters and Events and the brand new “Energy” resource that makes each set different from the others. How do you come up with those new elements? Will we be seeing more new resource types or card types (like the Soul Gem cards) in future expansions?
JG: I love coming up with new mechanics for Ascension! There are all kinds of great ideas that had to be cut from the original game in the streamlining process that we now get to add back in along with many more great ideas from my team and from fans that make their way into the game.
We will certainly be adding new elements as well as revisiting popular “old” mechanics with a new twist.
TGN: The “mini-theme-expansions” (like the Rats and Leprechauns) are a great way to alter the game with minimal effort. How did the idea of those come about? Also, what might we see for future versions of those sets?
JG: Small packs were an offshoot of the promo cards we started creating for our Ascension Game Day program. Any store that carries Ascension can run events for free and have them posted at http://ascensiongame.com/events/ and get free Ascension promos.
While designing these promos, we came up with the idea for promos that required some extra cards to work (e.g. the Rat King) and this seemed like really cool design space, so the promo packs were born!
Up until now, you can only get the promo packs on http://ascensiongame.com/product-category/cards/ and at BoardGameGeek but very soon we will have them available in local stores as well.
TGN: Tell us some about the story behind Ascension. In the game, each expansion is a new chapter in the ongoing saga. Will we eventually be getting novels and other such based on the setting? I'm sure many of the players would love to read more about the different factions and the characters within them, seeing them grow and change over time.
JG: The Ascension story has been a lot of fun to create. Each year we tell a different story arc in the two set “block” of games.
Year 1 (Chronicle of the Godslayer and Return of the Fallen) was about the Fallen God Samael who returned from banishment to attempt to conquer the world of Vigil. The other gods feared intervening directly (since their last battle almost destroyed the world) and thus they seek a champion “Godslayer” to fight Samael. Our Gencon tournmanet winner, Aaron, eventually claimed that title.
Year 2 (Storm of Souls and Immortal Heroes) was the story of Kythis, who was first introduced as a promo card and was the keeper of the souls in the land of the dead. With Samael gone, Kythis attempted to rise up and take his place by trapping the souls of heroes using soul gems and using their power to elevate him to godhood. In Immortal Heroes, the Players can free the heroes from these gems and gain their power to help defeat Kythis.
Year 3 has only just begun with Rise of Vigil, and the appearance of the mysterious energy shards that grant a new kind of power to those who use them. Exactly what these shards mean and what new threat will emerge has yet to be revealed…
We would love to tell more of the story of the Ascension universe in comics, novels, etc. but thus far haven’t had the time / resources to really get it done. We almost hit the stretch goal to do a graphic novel during our Ascension Online Kickstarter, so we may just run another Kickstarter to get that made next year.
TGN: The artwork for Ascension is very stylistic. Each faction even has a specific font that goes with their flavor text. How much does the artwork play into the design of a card's abilities? Do you get artwork in for a proposed card and then come up with rules for it or vice-versa?
JG: Usually we are about gameplay first at this company, although Eric’s art has inspired some designs and much of the world of Ascension.
TGN: What is your favorite card in Ascension? Is there one that you look at and go, “Oh yeah, that's the one.”? That when it flips into the center row, you know that you must add it to your deck?
JG: This is a tough question to answer! I love so many cards and it depends on how I feel that day. Rise of Vigil is my favorite Ascension set to date, and I love cards like Ulu, Askara Prince that let you live big dreams when you energize them.
TGN: Any sort of spoilers you can give for the next set for Ascension? Any big fun stuff players can be looking forward to?
JG: I am really excited about Darkness Unleashed (set 6 of Ascension) which is releasing in September. We continue to expand on the energy mechanic introduced in Rise of Vigil, and introduce a new mechanic, which works with energy and allows you to permanently upgrade the cards in your deck. I’ll be revealing more details on https://www.facebook.com/AscensionGame soon!
TGN: Anything else you'd like to say to our readers?
JG: Thank you all so much for your support! Starting a game company with so many awesome and talented people has been a dream come true, and there is nothing better than watching players enjoy the games we make! We will continue to work hard on Ascension, Solforge, and the other exciting games we have in the pipeline – if you have a chance, come out and see us at Gencon Indy in August and say hi!
TGN: Our thanks go to Mr. Gary for taking the time to answer our questions. I know I'll be stopping by their booth while at GenCon!