Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn – Review

While I’ve written about board games before, this is my first ever post dedicated to a single board game review. Tabletop gaming of one sort or another has been a hobby of mine since the first year of university (about 4 and a half years ago!) so I thought it was about time I had a stab at making some content for it.

Which brings us to today’s post: a review of the game Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. If board games aren’t your thing, just skip this post. But if you’re interested, read on and let me know what you think in the comments.

Details

Designer: Isaac Vega
Artist: Fernanda Suárez
First published: 2015 by Plaid Hat Games
RRP (UK): £39.99
Genre: Fantasy, card game

The baseline

Available for between £35 and £40, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn offers excellent value for money.  The game comes with 6 ready to play decks of 30 cards each (plus Phoenixborn cards and conjuration cards, which stay outside the main decks), 40 stunning dice and a few different types of tokens to help you track things during the game.

The simple fact that you get 6 pre-built decks means that, at roughly 45 minutes a game, you and a gaming partner can get over 11 hours of gameplay just from trying out all the different deck match-ups (15 x 45 minute games), and the game goes a lot deeper than that.

The game rules suggest 2 main formats to play the game: constructed and draft. Constructed means playing with ready made decks, like the pre-built 6 or a deck of your own devising, while draft makes deck-building a part of the game as you and other players build decks from randomly drawn hands of cards.

Fans of both online and offline trading card games like Magic: the Gathering and Hearthstone will be familiar with these ways of playing. In many ways, Ashes feels like a TCG, but more manageable in scope. It’s a living card game (LCG), popularised by Fantasy Flight Games, which means that your collection grows through pre-made expansion decks and packs, rather than random booster packs.

Story

Before we get into how the game works, let’s touch on the story – something I always like in a game. Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is set against the backdrop of Argaia, a world where powerful, godlike beings – the Phoenixborn – battle for supremacy.

The story starts with humanity trapped in fortified cities by the monstrous chimera. To free them, the mysterious power of the Phoenix was divided among humankind, turning ordinary men and women into demi-gods. These ‘Phoenixborn’ destroyed the chimera and freed humanity.

However, power creates a hunger for more power and as the Phoenixborn fought they discovered that if one could kill another and absorb their ashes, the victor would grow in power proportionally. Now the Phoenixborn stalk Argaia and wage war against one another, supported by allies and powerful magic in a bid to absorb the full power of the Phoenix and ascend to godhood.

Gameplay

In Ashes, players take the role of a Phoenixborn, denoted by a unique Phoenixborn card. This card specified your starting life total, as well as how many units and spells you can have in play. They also have unique abilities that players can leverage to their advantage. The base game comes with 6 Phoenixborn, each with a readymade deck 30-card deck containing 3 card playsets of 10 unique cards showing off the 6 combinations of the 4 starting types of magic: Natural, Charm, Ceremonial and Illusion.

Phoenixborn cards - Noah Redmoon, Stormwing Sniper and Shadow Counter
Noah Redmoon and 2 cards from his deck

The 6 Phoenixborn are as follows:

  • Aradel Summergaard (Natural + Illusion)
  • Noah Redmoon (Illusion + Ceremonial – pictured above)
  • Jessa Na Ni (Ceremonial + Charm)
  • Maoni Viper (Charm + Natural)
  • Coal Roarkwin (Natural + Ceremonial)
  • Saria Guideman (Charm + Illusion)

Each Phoenixborn uses 5 of each dice corresponding to the magic types in their decks (pictured below). These dice, each of which has 3 different symbols (a basic and two different magic symbols) allow you to play cards and activate abilities throughout the turns and rounds.

The 4 types of dice found in the Ashes base set
The 4 types of dice found in the Ashes base set

Unlike a game like Magic or Hearthstone, where resources accumulate throughout the game, players start with all 10 dice available from the very first turn of the game. This means the core skill the skill is in managing a diminishing pool of resources over a number of turns, rather than an increasing pool.

Ashes uses a system of rounds and turns to replenish resources and card flow. At the start of a round, players roll all their dice and draw up to a hand of 5 (at the start of the game, players each choose their own hand of 5 unique cards). The round then proceeds in turns, with each player using their resources to complete main and side actions each turn. Players don’t draw any new cards or roll new dice each turn (unless a card says otherwise). Instead, players manage diminishing resources until each of them consecutively choose to ‘pass’ (do nothing) as their main action for a turn. When this happens, a new round begins and resources are replenished.

Main actions are the backbone of the turn system. As a main action, players can play cards with a main action cost (most cards), attack the opposing Phoenixborn or opposing units with their own units, or pass. As a side action, plays can meditate (discard cards to change their dice) or play cards and abilities that require a side action. With only one main and side action a turn, the turns proceed fairly quickly. It also makes the game feel very ‘tit for tat’ – with only a couple of things you can do each turn, you can’t suddenly dump your hand and overwhelm your opponent. Instead, you have to engineer a board state with which you can leverage an advantage.

In addition, attacking or using most abilities causes an exhaustion token to be placed on the card. Exhaustion tokens remain until the end of the round, so the majority of cards will only get one ability or attack each round. This makes timing very important, as your cards will most likely be useless for the rest of the round once they’ve been used once.

The game ends when only one Phoenixborn is left standing. This is normally achieved by players attacking each other with units. Combat in this game will feel familiar to players of TCGs, with attack and life stats forming the basis for simple combat maths. A unit deals damage (wound tokens) equal to its attack value – if the number of wound tokens exceeds the other combatants life value, be they Phoenixborn or unit, they die. If the other combatant can deal damage in return greater than the attacker’s life value, the attacker dies. It’s simple when you see it played out.

Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn‘s gameplay than I can describe here, but I’ve given you a snapshot of how the game plays out. The designers wanted it to feel very interconnected, like a musical symphony, and in my opinion they succeeded. It is a highly strategic and interactive game where planning over multiple turns is the key to success.

This excellent video gives you a more complete breakdown if you want to see how how the game played step by step.

Expansions

One of my favourite things about the living card game genre is the way expansions work. After playing TCGs where acquiring more cards is a matter of buying bad pre-constructed decks, random booster packs and expensive singles, it’s refreshing to play an LCG where each expansion is pre-constructed deck on a par with the 6 decks included in the base set.

I’ve already bought Ashes‘ two deluxe expansions, each of which come with a new Phoenixborn, a full deck, a deck box and a new die type. While I’ve only had the chance to see each one in action once, I found their gameplay just as compelling as the base set. Each other expansion deck retails for around £10-£12, which is a very reasonable price compared to expansions when compared to other card games, TCGs included.

I also imagine it’s much easier for the designers and developers to keep a game balanced when you’re only trying to integrate one or two new thematic decks at a time with 30 cards each, rather than sets of 150+ new cards that are brought in by the big TCGs every few months.

My experience so far

If you haven’t picked it up already, I love this game. It really scratches the TCG itch that I’ve had since I started to play less a year or so ago. It’s also a strategic card game that my wife will play with me (whereas I’ve never managed to convince her to learn Magic). I find the gameplay compelling, with interesting decisions, high interaction and fun mechanics. When you get used to the quick back and forth, it becomes easy to immerse yourself in each game.

While the lore could be more developed, I like what’s there already. The game is also greatly helped by Fernanda Suárez’s art, which is consistently gorgeous. My wife pointed out that she likes the abundance of female characters (4 of the 6 starting Phoenixborn in the base set and both Phoenixborn from the deluxe expansions are women) that are depicted as strong and powerful without being sexualised for the sake of it – she said it felt like they were treated on a par with the male characters. The art of the rest of the cards is similarly attractive, with stunning designs and colours that bleed out to the cards’ borders.

A word of warning, though: this game isn’t light. While everyone I’ve introduced it to has enjoyed it, it’s not one to play when you’re tired or you don’t want to think too hard. The decisions are not so many as to be paralysing, but there’s a lot of thinking to do as the turns, rounds and games play out, and a lot of new cards to get your head round when you first sit down with a new deck. I don’t consider this a bad thing – I love games with depth – but it’s something to be aware of if you prefer lighter games or you’re considering teaching this game to friends who don’t play a lot of strategy games.

Ashes for 3+ players

My final note is that although the game says it’s for 2-4 players, it doesn’t scale well with the free for all rules suggested as standard. 2 players definitely works best with the normal, and I would recommend variants on Magic multiplayer formats for larger games. I’ve had a lot of fun playing 3 player games where you can only attack the player to the left, and though I haven’t played a 4 player game, a similar rule or an adaptation of Magic’s two-headed giant ruleset could work well.

My very final point is to urge you to give this game a shot if you like the sound of it. £35 is a steal for a game with this depth, and playing it is a truly fantastic experience. I do say this slightly selfishly – I just want sales of this game and its expansions to be high enough that Isaac Vega and Plaid Hat games keep publishing more Ashes content for years to come! I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you give it a go.

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