The story of the Phoenixborn is a little tragic. Phoenixborn are powerful humans who developed magical powers to drive back the chimera threat. They unified to cleanse the planet and worked together to restore peace and usher in a new golden age for humanity. However, their individual powers later sought to come together and in doing so, they would need to fight one another – until there could be only one.
Ashes – Rise of the Phoenixborn from Plaid Hat Games is a tactical, turn-based, expandable card game for 2 to 4 players. The core set was recently released to critical acclaim for its innovative new approach to the genre. Early previews were very encouraging and so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Is Ashes – Rise of the Phoenixborn deserving of its critical acclaim? Read on to find out…
Upon receiving my copy of Ashes – Rise of the Phoenixborn I was immediately impressed by the presentation and quality. The artwork is beyond superb, and looks even better against the crisp white background. It makes the game look fresh and inviting from the moment you open the box.
The contents of the box contains six Phoenixborn, their respective decks, and conjurations (though these aren’t fixed – I’ll explain why later). You are also supplied with four different colored dice pools that have their own unique symbols and reference cards. You’ll use these dice as your resources to cast your spells and summon units to your battlefield. Also included in the box are all the necessary tokens and counters for a 2 to 4 player game.
The objective of the game is to defeat the opposing Phoenixborn using your spells and units. Both players will chose their Phoenixborn at the start of the game and defeat one another in three different game modes. The easiest way to play in your first game is to follow the instruction manual’s recommendation of using generic pre-constructed decks for each selected Phoenixborn.
All Phoenixborn are unique and will have cards that are specifically tied to them (think ‘class-restricted cards’), which is important during a drafting game. However, more importantly they have their own hitpoints, abilities, and spellboard & battlefield size restrictions.
You will have access to one or more dice pools (of the four schools of magic) with which to summon units, cast spells, and invoke conjurations (essentially, token creatures). Each die has three symbols: two are unique to that school of magic, and one is a neutral “basic” energy shared amongst all the magic schools. These dice are rolled at the start of the round and each round is compiled of three phases.
One of the most innovative aspects of the game is that you can choose your opening hand of five cards. Rarely does a game give you this much freedom at the start of a match (but there are some, such as the Game of Thrones LCG, that does something similar). You can essentially put your strategy into play from your opening hand and then rely on the remaining draws to complete your strategy.
The first phase is where the dice are rolled and cards are drawn. The second phase is the longest part of a round and is called a turn. This is because each player will have multiple opportunities to go through this phase each round. During each turn you can take one Main Action and one Side Action. These can vary from summoning units, casting spells, or attacking another unit or Phoenixborn. This phase does not end until each player has consecutively chosen “Pass” as their Main Action.
The to-and-fro dynamic here is incredibly good at keeping both players interested and engaged in the game at all times, rather than sitting there for a turn while waiting for your opponent to finish. It’s one of my favorite things about this game and really minimizes downtime for both players. It’s a very modern game design choice, and I approve wholeheartedly.
The dice used to perform your actions is another excellent touch to the game that avoids the usual resource systems used in other games. In order to cast your spells and summon units you will need matching dice symbols in your active pool of dice and once used they are moved to an inactive pile. Cards (or the Meditate Side Action) will help you change faces on the dice or even bring dice back into play from your exhausted pool. It’s frankly a fun and exciting resource system to use because every turn you roll the dice and are thrilled to see which symbols land face-up.
Most actions will require you to place an exhaustion token on the spell, unit, or Phoenixborn in order to use them. This is the game’s way of tapping used cards. Once you’ve completely exhausted your cards and dice it’s time to move on to the final phase where everything is recovered for the start of a new round.
The gameplay flows very efficiently and because both players alternate taking turns in the second phase, you’ll have plenty of thinking time for your next move. Some players may wish to take more time in taking their turn and this will hamper the player interaction, but this isn’t the fault of poor game design. There is never too much time between your last action and your next, so you’ll hardly ever be bored whilst playing Ashes – Rise of the Phoenixborn because you will always be involved in the action.
Ashes – Rise of the Phoenixborn is an exceedingly strategic card game. Some of the moves you plan ahead won’t be so obvious to the opponent, and you can often back them into a corner without them realizing it. You can also use their own Phoenixborn’s limitations against them in certain circumstances.
Playing the game feels a little bit like Magic: The Gathering where a lot of set-up is required to make a powerful board. You will not be able to overwhelm your opponent on turn one, and it will take a number of turns before you will have several units and ready spells.
This gives the game a great balance that other games in this genre lack. All of the pre-constructed decks have a rock, paper, scissors style of power against one another. Once you get into drafting or deckbuilding you will be in far more control than this, and so if you lose it’ll be because of poor decisions or deckbuilding.
Much of what you can do will lean on the dice rolls during the first phase. Failing to roll the best symbols will often leave you unable to perform actions or cast some of your most powerful spells. This gets increasingly more difficult when you extend your dice pool to more than two colors, but the Meditate Action lets you discard a card to change a die face if you’re truly desperate, so you’ll never be entirely mana-screwed.
I would advise that you try and save your resources and commit to lesser main actions each turn that will have your opponent thinking you don’t have anything too powerful. Then play your biggest Actions towards the end of the phase — hopefully right after your opponent has chosen ‘Pass’! Mind games are a huge factor in this game, and you need to use this to your advantage. Once your opponent has expended their own resources, it’s time to spring the big surprise and take control of the board!
As suggested earlier, there are three ways to play Ashes – Rise of the Phoenixborn.
This is where you will use the basic pre-constructed decks listed in the back of the game’s manual. Everything is suggested for you, including your opening hand of five cards. You will learn the game pretty quickly by playing this way, but you will soon tire of playing this way and want more freedom with your choice of cards.
To build a deck, you only have to follow a few rules. The first is that you must choose a Phoenixborn, and then you must include their unique cards in your deck (cards with the Phoenixborn’s face in the bottom right corner of the card). The only exclusion is the conjuration cards which are never included in a deck.
You deck must have no more than 30 cards and can have up to 3 copies of any other non-Phoenixborn unique card in your deck. This means you can have single copies of many of the cards in the game, and this will give you a much more varied deck than the pre-constructed deck approach.
This is by far my favorite way to play Ashes. Set-up is a little more involved than the other two ways of playing, but the end result is fantastic. All of the non-unique cards are separated and one card of each is shuffled into a drafting deck. Players are dealt 9 cards each and then you pick one and pass it along, as per most drafting scenarios.
Once all cards are drafted you will then need to draft your dice two at a time. In a four player game this becomes exceedingly competitive. You then have one last chance to swap out one card from your drafted cards for a revealed card in a small public pool drawn from the draft deck.
You’ll then take the remaining copies of the cards you’ve drafted to make a deck of 30 cards, giving you a full playset of each card you drafted for maximum deck consistency. If any of those cards are spells that allow you to summon conjuration units, you will take the corresponding conjuration cards and place them next to your Phoenixborn.
Drafting is a highly competitive way of playing and is more fun when played with more than two players, but is also my favorite way to play even with two players. You’ll find yourself making choices to deny another player a card you think they’d prefer to have based on previous card choices, called “hate-drafting”. This is something that is common in Magic: The Gathering circles and extends itself here too. However, so many of the cards work very well in most decks that hate-drafting is not as devastating here as it is in Magic drafts.
There is much to be excited about in Ashes – Rise if the Phoenixborn. I personally never want to stop playing this game, and am very much looking forward to the expansions to be released a few times each year.
The exciting new mechanics make the game a delight to play and a wonder of modern card game design. The strategic gameplay scratches my competitive itch as well. It’s an almost flawless design in terms of aesthetics, gameplay, and fun. Everything feels perfectly balanced with honestly little room for improvement. This game is superior to Magic‘s design in every way, only being held back by the lack of a large card pool right now (but that will change with time!).
There will be a few instances in which you may feel the element of luck, with the dice rolling. Very rarely, it can seem a little unfair and can cause a slight snowball effect if you can never seem to counter your opponent’s moves. However, from my time playing, these occurrences are extremely rare and this is present in all games that use dice and randomized drawing of cards. There are more Actions and ways to mitigate the chance element than you can shake a stick at, so complaining about the dice never became an occurrence with anyone I played the game with.
Expansions have already been announced for Ashes – Rise of the Phoenixborn. They’ve just announced early sales of the game have gone above and beyond expectations, so it looks like we’re in for a long life to this game! The planned expansions already show a commitment to the product from Plaid Hat Games and should reassure you for its long-term prospects – making this a title you will not want to miss investing your time in.
There’s a new big player in town, and its name is Ashes – Rise if the Phoenixborn. Prepare to hear a lot more about this game in the near future, and beyond!
For more screenshots, click here.
Did you enjoy this review? Like!