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Designer Diary: Ascension Tactics and the Coming Inferno

by Justin Gary

It’s been over thirteen years since I began working on the first version of Ascension. At that time, I had no idea the huge impact the game would have and the community that would develop around it. With over sixteen standalone expansions and a million units sold, including an app and a VR version, Ascension is the game for which I am most well known. When it came time to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Ascension, aside from releasing a special edition of the base game, my team and I wanted to do something special, so we set out to create Ascension Tactics: Miniatures Deckbuilding Game.

Ascension Tactics combined my love of deck-building games with my love of miniatures games, drawing inspiration from my previous work designing the World of Warcraft: Miniatures Game, as well as playing games like HeroClix and Memoir ’44.

Ascension was the first game to introduce the now-familiar mechanism of an ever-changing row of cards into a deck-building game. When new mechanisms are introduced, they provide a novel experience for players as they learn the ins-and-outs of the system. As core mechanisms become more common and are adopted by multiple games, they then become building blocks that other games can use to create entirely new genres.

Ascension Tactics thus took on the ambitious task of using an ever-changing center row to power a tactical miniatures game. All of that hard work paid off in a hit Kickstarter, with rave reviews and more gameplay packed into a single box than any game I’ve been a part of; Ascension Tactics included dozens of scenarios, a campaign mode, solo and co-operative play, and much more.

As with every new game, and in particular with one as ambitious as Ascension Tactics, we had to be merciless when it came to cutting any unnecessary or overly complicated cards and game mechanisms. This allows players to focus on the core engine of the game and ensures that they don’t have to learn too much all at once. As a designer, it can be difficult to cut beloved mechanisms in the interest of streamlining the game. One thing that helps me, in this regard, is not to think of these mechanisms as “cut”, but as “delayed”. I add all of the great ideas and extra mechanisms that don’t make it into a game into a design ideas list for later reference. Ascension Tactics hit retail stores in 2022, and since then, I’ve had the opportunity to go back to that exciting list and create a new standalone expansion: Ascension Tactics: Inferno.

We had initially conceived of Ascension Tactics: Inferno as a small add-on expansion that would require a copy of Ascension Tactics to play — but as we worked on the game, it transformed into something much larger. Ascension Tactics: Inferno includes even more miniatures than the original game and a full center deck of all-new cards. It also brings in new mechanisms and game modes, including the much-requested four-player co-operative campaign experience.

A New Story and World

Ascension Tactics: Inferno introduces you to the hellscape called Deofol, the long-corrupted realm where the god of love once dwelled. The standalone sequel includes a new map, themed tiles, scenarios, and a campaign that bring the infernal realm to life. The setting in more detail:

The Arch-devil Kythis has taken control of the infernal realm, forcing its people to submit to his might and twisting a once peaceful land and its inhabitants. It is up to the champions of Vigil, alongside a few rebellious monsters, to bring peace to the twisted lands, and set the hellscape called Deofol on a path to redemption.

New Gameplay and Fundamental Mechanisms

Fallen Champions

In line with the story of Ascension Tactics, we wanted to make the “monsters” of Ascension come to life in a new way. For the first time ever, players can select monsters as their starting champions to play in the game and can acquire monster heroes and constructs to add to their deck.

After discussions with our creative team, calling these cards monsters didn’t quite feel right. These creatures were as much victims of Deofol’s corruption as they were villains. Their fall and possible redemption are at the heart of Inferno’s story. Thus, we created the Fallen faction, the first new faction added to any game of Ascension.

Introducing a new faction to Ascension created a lot of interesting design challenges. First, we had to determine which mechanisms would set the Fallen apart from other factions. It is important to make sure each faction has its own mechanical feel and flavor, so usually it’s a good idea to plan ahead for any new factions you might want to introduce into a game and reserve some mechanisms for them. We didn’t have much simple design space left for the Fallen, so we relied on another useful approach: introduce new mechanisms that then become the primary domain of the new faction. We did this with many of the new mechanisms introduced below, including Quests, Rats, and interactions with new token types.

Transform Champions

One of the best parts of deck-building games is the feeling of progression as your deck improves and you get more and more powerful turns throughout the game. This feeling of progress and growth is a key aspect of what makes games fun in general, and it is a worthwhile thing to analyze within any design you might work on.

Transform Champions bring that feeling to the battlefield. Each champion starts off with modest stats and abilities, but once you complete their specific goal, you can transform them into something pretty incredible!

Once a Champion is transformed, it stays in its improved form for the rest of the game. Improving cards in a deck is fun, but it can’t compare to the visceral glee of bringing one of these monsters into play and seeing the look on your opponent’s face!


Progress through transformation is not just represented in Champions. The other major mechanism using transform is quests. Quests can be acquired in various ways, including quest giver tiles, scenario rules, and center row cards.

Quests all draw you a card when played and count as a specific faction for purposes of Allegiance effects. This design choice came after a lot of iteration. The challenge with quests is to make them feel meaningful but not to have them get in the way of gameplay. Adding cards to your deck that replace themselves when drawn means they never slow down the game, but quests really shine if you can complete the quest condition. If you complete the quest, it transforms into a permanent upgrade you can attach to one of your champions! This permanent improvement can create some amazing combos.

Quests are a great way to emphasize different deck-building strategies, increasing the value of both allegiance effects and cards that help fulfill your quest conditions. This pushes the emphasis back towards the choices you make in the center row and how you build your deck, reinforcing the core tension of Ascension.


One of the challenges to making a standalone expansion that can also be combined with the original game is that when combined together, they create a huge center deck of cards and a wide array of Champions. This improves game variety, but can dilute the impact of the expansion within a game. One of the ways to help overcome this challenge is to create new mechanisms that are always available at the start of each game. Ascension Tactics: Inferno does this by bringing back an old Ascension favorite: the rat.

In the original Ascension, rats were first introduced as a promo pack along with the Rat King. Rats were 1-power monsters that created a nuisance on the board. Now, the rat joins the Cultists as the only always-available champions players can command. Rats are the teensiest of creatures, but at just 1 command point, they can scatter around the board and create real problems for your opponent.

Since rats are easy to command but weak, strategies that want to empower them are encouraged to grab as many speed and attack boosts as possible to maximize their rodent army. Rats bring a fun new tactical element to the game, and with plenty of cards that interact with them (including the Rat King and Rat Queen), they are sure to impact every game played of Inferno.

Dual-Faction Champions

One of the great things about working with the Ascension universe is that we can pull from its rich lore of characters and popular mechanisms. Dual-faction champions, originally introduced in Realms Unraveled, now make their way into Ascension Tactics. Dual-faction champions also helped us solve a key design challenge. Because this set focuses so much on the new Fallen champions, we didn’t have as many designs available to reinforce the original four factions. Dual-faction champions give us a “two for one” design slot to ensure all factions are evenly represented in the game.

Many dual-faction champions have Allegiance powers that trigger if a card of the appropriate faction is played on your turn. This helps incentivize different strategies in deck-building and makes for a simple but powerful way to make deck-building choices matter more than ever in Ascension Tactics.


Some of the most fun parts of Ascension Tactics are collecting treasures and using them to enhance your champions. By providing a secret one-time bonus, treasure help to disrupt the predictability of gameplay and create some exciting and tense moments. Furthermore, they give players an alternative objective in the game, often sacrificing an opportunity to score points to collect these strategic resources. We wanted to expand on that fun by adding more variety of treasures and more ways to interact with them.

Here’s an example of some of the new treasure varieties that grant additional keywords like Range and Double Strike.

Four-Player Co-Operative Games

Building the co-operative campaign in Ascension Tactics was the hardest and most time-consuming part of the entire project. In essence, each scenario is a game in itself, and all of these scenarios needed to connect together in a way that allowed for player progression and a cohesive story.

All of this hard work was worth it, though! Playing the game solo or with a friend in this mode provided hours of entertainment and unlocked gameplay for an entirely new type of player. We felt the need to create this mode in particular because player vs. player Ascension Tactics can be a very brutal experience if players have a significant difference in skill or experience. In regular Ascension, the game has a low amount of direct conflict between the players. All players get a chance to build their deck and execute a strategy, regardless of who wins. The reality in a tactical game, however, is that when you are losing, you feel it far more deeply; you can visually see enemy champions taking over the board and your champions getting defeated. Co-operative play gives you an opportunity to work together and enjoy the game without the need to be on an equal skill level.

Unlocking the game for more than four players, however, was a particularly difficult challenge. If each player starts with three or more champions, the board quickly gets cluttered, and it becomes hard to maneuver. If you have two or fewer champions, you often don’t have positive ways to spend your command points, and thus turns can feel underwhelming. The solution turned out to be updating the home portal by giving every player the ability to spend power and ready a champion they control.

Ascension Tactics was created by the fans as much as it was by us. Your feedback helped improve the game, and your backing let us add more miniatures, more premium components, and more scenarios to the game. We can’t wait to go on this journey again with you again in Ascension Tactics: Inferno, which is being funded on Kickstarter through March 9, 2023 ahead of its availability in Q2 2024.

Justin Gary


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