Ascension and the Game of Chicken

This week has been the introduction to Ascension in my Games and Game Theory class. I love teaching this game for many reasons, and among them is how it easily shows one of the greatest game theory dilemmas: Chicken.

Ascension is easily my favorite gateway to Deckbuilding games. In a deckbuilder, you use a deck of starting cards to purchase new cards, which then get added into your deck. As the game progresses, your deck allows you to do better and better things. Dominion is the classic standard, but Ascension shows off the deckbuilding method in a great way. My students who have played Magic: the Gathering before were able to instantly pick up this game and run with it.

In particular, Ascension has two types of cards available for “purchase.” Heroes and Constructs get added to your deck and can be purchased with Runes. Monsters can be “purchased” with Power, but are not added to your deck, instead granting you victory points.

This means that you have two currencies which allow you to purchases two different types of cards. Generally, players focus on one or the other. Which is the perfect setup for conflict.

What happens when every player chooses to focus on one currency and have to compete for the best cards? What happens when the board is filled with the wrong type of cards and no one can buy them?

As soon as someone changes their strategy to focus on the other currency, their deck becomes weaker overall. But if no one changes their strategy, the game is objectively worse for every player.

This is what we call the game of Chicken. While it often uses the example of James Dean and his rival driving cars towards certain doom to see which driver takes the coward’s path and swerves first, Chicken can also be found in places as diverse as Ascension and global nuclear disarmament.

In the Chicken matrix, both players would prefer to be at the bottom right, but they find themselves locked in eternal struggle at the top left. No player is motivated to change their strategies, because they would immediately get trampled by the other player. Since no one is willing to put themselves in a weaker position, the eternal struggle continues.

In Ascension, this means that players will make suboptimal choices, waiting for another player to change the state of the game. In terms of global nuclear disarmament, no one wants to be the first to get rid of their arsenal. And for James Dean, it should lead to therapy sessions about the dangers of bravado.

Solving This Dilemma

How would you change Ascension to solve this dilemma? You could create a house rule that allows players to spend, say five points of a currency to remove a card from the board which does not cost that type of currency. Or allow a player to remove a card from the board if they don’t purchase any cards on their turn. Both of these allow the game to change states, but both penalize the player who decides to make the change. Plus, won’t the other players benefit from your sacrifice? Now we’re dealing with the Volunteer’s Dilemma and that’s an entirely different can of worms.

Ascension is a fantastic game to get new players into the world of Deckbuilders. Plus, with a ton of expansions and new versions, there’s always new cards and concepts to be tried and tested.