What is the craziest thing you have done to get a board game? Stood way too early in front of the Essen convention halls, waiting for the gates to open? Check (cannot even remember the game I so desperately wanted at the time). Searched through a foreign land’s eBay to acquire that expansion you really want to play and never came out on the global market? Check (Tokyo Highway: Cards & Buildings). Contacted an ex-colleague in another country because the publisher wouldn’t ship outside their country and you needed someone to relay the package? Check (original Tranquility and playmat). Okay, come to think of it, crazy may be the wrong word, but it is surprising what we sometimes do for – what to people outside the hobby looks like – just a bunch of printed card board, wood, plastic. I guess that’s what those people collecting rare dolls or sneakers must feel like as well, both of which I don’t really can relate to for equal amounts.
I was thinking about that last weekend while I did something I hadn’t done before: printed my own copy of a game I simply couldn’t get because it isn’t out yet. Well, that’s a bit of an oversimplification because there neither exists a PnP version of Tranquility: The Ascent nor do I even own a printer suitable for the job. So it took some digging in a Tabletop Simulator mod, photoshopping, finding a copy shop that wanted to do a short notice A1 print job without charging an arm and a leg, and a couple of other things. You see, I adore the original Tranquility. It’s simple but has universal appeal, plus the art is just lovely which doesn’t hurt either. It hits that nerve that a lot of us got triggered when they played Solitaire on Windows PC for hours or should I say days?
I actually stumbled upon original Tranquility while researching the Kickstarter for Tranquility: The Ascent, played it on BGA and really liked the solo mode as well as general vibe. Of course I ended up backing Tranquility: The Ascent and that brought me to today: fashioning my own prototype/PnP because I really, really want this game in my life. If you are reading this, you are most likely aware that the Kickstarter has been in a bit of a limbo state for quite a while and with a recent update seems to get moving again. What better time to do a sort of preview on what we all can look forward to in the hopefully not too distant future?
Tranquility the Ascent is a card game, so unsurprisingly, setup is pretty quick. Place the ten triangle shaped mountain pieces at the bottom of your playing area. These form the foundation on which we will built the mountain that the players will try to climb by completing it. Set aside the climbing hooks (only used to mulligan in solo mode) and, depending on player count, hand out one of the 5 bridge cards to certain players. These allow you to basically delay a build action and just make life a lot easier. We’ll get to those later. Otherwise shuffle all the other cards and split the deck into equal amounts, handing each player their own deck of playing cards.
Tranquility: The Ascent is a co-operative game. When it is your turn, you can do one of two things: play a card on to the mountain and then refill your hand back to five cards – or – discard two cards and also refill back to five cards. The majority of cards are ascent cards that come in three different colours (red, white-greyish, yellow-greenish) and with numbers from 1 to 12. Placing one on the mountain is simple: within a row, no two adjacent cards may have the same colour and you must not play a card on a row that is higher than its number (e.g. a 3 can only be played in the first three rows). When you place a card next to existing cards in the same row, you have to discard a number of cards from your hand equal to the smaller difference regarding the card to the left and right. You also can only place a card in the gap above two already placed cards of the row below (so no overhangs). That’s pretty much it. There are however three other types of cards: bridges allow you to fill a gap and continue building up but have to be replaced by a normal, fitting card before the game is completed, campfires can replace an existing card of the same colour and allow you to reuse that card further up in the mountain, and summit cards that are needed to complete the game.
End of Game
The game can end in one of two ways: either the players win by collaboratively completing 8 rows of cards and placing a summit card on the 9th row or they lose together because someone has depleted their personal deck and hand of cards. There are multiple ways of failure: there are only 5 summit cards in the deck and someone may have discarded the last one by accident, players run out of cards they can legally place (e.g. only small numbers or incorrect colours) or they do not manage to complete all bridges because they are missing suitable cards to overbuild them.
If that does sound a bit too easy for your taste, you’re not alone. The core mechanism is only the base on top of which the three included expansions modules can be added. The first is “Green Path” where the players have to form a consecutive path of green tiles from the bottom to the very top. Where previously the rows were completely independent of each other, this adds a much needed vertical component to building. It’s not too difficult to achieve this goal but one noticeably has to do more planning. The final production copy will include a green hiker meeple such that players can easily track which their most promising path is.
The next module is “Panorama Objectives”. On the back side of the foundational, triangular mountain pieces are combinations of numbers. Flip over 3-5 at the start of the game. Each of them shows a 3 number combination that the players need to construct within the mountain, otherwise they lose the game. I really like this module because you need to juggle a lot of aspects at the same time:
- how to build the mountain to not run out of places where you can place new cards?
- how to deal with a hand that gets clogged up by numbers you need later on for panoramas and thus cannot play right now?
- where/when is a good time to start a potential panorama?
- how …
With 5 panoramas, things are tricky but not impossible. I in particular like the challenge of doing a low number panorama like 4-4-5 because due to the number-height-restrictions, this can only be placed on the first 4 levels of the mountain (remember, a 4 cannot be placed above the 4th row).
Finally, there are the Mountain Goats. When a card is played that contains a goat symbol, a wooden goat is placed on that card. The goal is to get at least 8 goats to the summit but moving goats costs one card per step. Note that that is per herd, so one can combine multiple goats to one herd and then move it as one. It’s highly thematic to have the goats spawn up and see them move upwards the mountain. Mechanically, it forces one to place such cards close to existing goats and also requires additional cards to be discarded, running out the deck that much quicker. It’s a nifty challenge but I would say it feels roughly the same difficulty as the panoramas.
The solo mode is exactly the same as multiplayer with a few minor adjustments: all 1s are removed from the deck, the player gets a card hand of 6 instead of 5 and three climbing hook cards which can be used to shuffle your card hand back into the deck and draw a new hand. There is also a recommendation to play with the green path module. Personally, I like playing with Green Path, five panoramas and no climbing hooks. It’s a good challenge where you need to do some careful planning but it’s still doable. Combing all three expansions is quite tough but I got a good win rate going.
Unfortunately, a neoprene playmat wasn’t an option during the Kickstarter. In general, I don’t like playmats but wouldn’t play original Tranquility without it. It just adds a certain something that elevates the gaming experience. Luckily, for Tranquility: The Ascent it doesn’t feel necessary due to the foundational triangle pieces. It just works as is… which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pay the publisher a fair sum if they would offer a playmat in the future. What was part of the Kickstarter was a paper-folding map which looks nice but I’m curious how well it will work. Perhaps someone will find a way to turn it into a custom neoprene playmat.
Tranquility: The Ascent is a great iteration on the original Tranquility.. It loses a bit of the endearing, universal appeal of the original but gains a more puzzle-like quality. In original Tranquility, the main two challenges are running out of cards because one runs the risk of placing vastly different cards next to each other and the various elements of randomness that come in the players’ ways. The rocks blocked a whole row from building, the sea monsters forced the players to destroy something already built, the start card to discard cards at random notice, and – my favourite – removing random cards from the deck during setup left that lingering feeling of “is this still possible or not”.
In Tranquility: The Ascent, the players face a different mix. The core mechanism actually feels easier than in the original since rows are independent of each other. With just twelve different values, it’s usually easy to place something with just a penalty of one or often zero cards to discard. Of course the rule that two adjacent cards must not have the same colour adds a bit of spice, but it is still quite manageable. By adding the Green Path or Mountain Goats modules, a much needed vertical constraint is added. I would go as far as calling the base game more of an introductory version and wouldn’t play without at least one module. Especially the panoramas kick it up a notch because players are forced to hold back certain cards, clogging up their hands. I’m wondering why the variant to remove a random number of cards hasn’t been brought over from the original Tranquility as the uncertainty of success was one of my favourite parts. Due to the more complex interactions of cards in Tranquility: The Ascent, removing any card could probably easily result in an unwinnable setup.
Similar to the original Tranquility, the aesthetics drive a lot of the gaming experience. The art is once again lovely, but even more I like the idea of using the triangle pieces to mark the foundation of the playing area. It creates a looming feeling of “oh gosh, that will be quite a high mountain”. One major drawback though is that the cards are no longer symmetric and playing with multiple players will cause some to not look at a mountain but a rotated giant triangle. I hadn’t had the chance to try The Ascent with larger groups, but due to it’s more puzzle-like nature, my guess is it will primary be played as a solo or two player game.
One downside I found is that the game is quite error-prone. It’s easy to accidentally place two cards of the same colour next to each other or more often place a card above it’s limit. The latter is especially common because there is no indicator at what level one is. So to figure out if you can play that 4 on your hand, you have to count rows and then check what row you want to build. This happened to me multiple times, only half of which I was able to backtrack enough to salvage the game. It’s not too severe an issue because the game is rather quick, but still somewhat annoying. I wish there would have been four cards that one could place in the center column to indicate the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th level.
An improvement over the original Tranquility is the introduction of the bridge and campfire cards. These not only make life easier for the players but also help to keep the already built part of the mountain relevant. The bridge cards are particularly nice for blocking out a space that one needs to complete a panorama until the right card comes along. But there is a small risk that the players won’t be able to complete the bridge and thus lose the game. Speaking of losing, I wish the game would be slightly harder than it is, though I haven’t tried playing with all three modules at the same time yet. But it for sure has an addictive quality similar to its predecessor and is a nice game to just break out in the evening with a hot beverage, blissfully playing away…
To sum it up, original Tranquility was a great game to lure non-gamers into the hobby. It’s easy to teach, easy to play, non-offensive. Tranquility: The Ascent is an iteration for those that were looking for more of a head scratcher in Tranquility. It feels more like a puzzle than its predecessor, retains some core principles but presents them in a totally different mix. Definitely worth having both, but for solo play I will for sure grab Tranquility: The Ascent from now on.
P.S.: As I played my home-made version of Tranquility: The Ascent, I once again got reminded how much I want this game to be in existence and how much it takes to turn an idea into reality. Our hobby is fuelled primarily by the passion of people that create games. We as players buy games and intuitively feel entitled to a certain standard, customer support, prompt delivery and what else. But in reality, even well known authors create games as a hobby besides their day job because there is not enough money in it and publisher are usually way smaller and more fragile than one thinks. The Tranquility: The Ascent Kickstarter has been hit by a number of unforeseen events and it’s easy to complain why the game isn’t out yet. But the more I think about it, the more grateful I am that they are still trying to get the game into the hands of the players. I for one really like the game and look forward to the day I’ll have my physical copy in my hands.
Update Oct 20, 2022: I had the chance to play with a non-gamer and thought I add that experience as well. Learning the game was a bit more challenging for her as compared to Tranquility simply because there are more rules. So there was a fair bit of “no, you cannot place that because it’s the same color”, “no, the row is too high for that number”, and I had to explain multiple times how the camp fire works.
Still, it took only two plays until she grokked it and we were able to add the Green Path module after that. We lost only 1 in 4 games but it was close and she asked for more plays. Adding panoramas or goats would likely drop our chances of winning quite a lot. But she found it challenging enough as is and was noticeably fond of the game. Maybe I should have backed multiple copies. I can see this being a great gift for people that are non- or casual gamers.