The chimera were a plague on us all. They destroyed our livelihoods, killed countless among us, and terrorized us all. From that terror, emerged the Phoenixborn. These powerful beings were humanity’s only chance at survival. Together they defeated the chimera. However, before the ashes of the war had even settled, a new war had begun. Now, each Phoenixborn fought with a new hunger for power. For each of their kin they slaughtered, a Phoenixborn would move one step closer to godhood. This new war will not finish until one Phoenixborn has unified the world and eliminated all their competition.
Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is a two to four-player card game where players take the role of a powerful being known as a Phoenixborn. By casting spells and bringing out units, a player aims to be the last surviving Phoenixborn. Each Phoenixborn has unique starting hit points, battlefield value, spellboard value, and special ability. The battlefield value is the maximum number of units a Phoenixborn can field at one time, be they allies, summoned from a player’s hand, or conjurations, summoned from ready spells. The spellboard value represents the number of unique ready spells that Phoenixborn can have out. These ready spells stay out between rounds, and multiple copies of the same ready spell only count for one slot of the spellboard, increasing the efficiency and frequency at which those spells are cast. Phoenixborn also have access to action and reaction spells, as well as alteration spells to buff their units. Phoenixborn pay for most of their spells, units, and abilities through dice representing magic energy within four schools. Each die has three ranked symbols, with higher ranked symbols being able to pay for lower ranked symbols. However, even if a player doesn’t roll well, they still do something interesting, and there are many ways to mitigate poor die rolls.
At the start of every round, both players roll their ten energy dice. Then players discard as many cards as they like from their hand, and draw up to five cards. Note that in the first round, players get to choose their starting hand. Also note that if a player could not draw because their deck is depleted, that player takes one wound for every card they were supposed to draw but couldn’t.
Next, the player turn phase begins, which lasts until both players pass consecutively. On a player’s turn, they must take a main action, and they may take a side action. Side actions can be performed before or after the main action, and they don’t need to be taken at all. Side actions include paying a side action cost, meditating, and activating a dice power ability. Certain cards have a side action symbol, meaning that they can be used for a side action if the player also spends the appropriate dice. The special abilities of many phoenixborn also require a side action. Meditating allows a player to change their die faces: a player can discard any combination of cards from their hand, the top of their deck, or their spellboard, and for each card discarded they can change one die face. Finally, each die, while on its highest rank, can be spent for a special action, such as removing an opponent’s die or temporarily buffing a friendly unit.
Main actions include paying a main action cost, attacking a unit, attacking a Phoenixborn, and passing. Most cards require a main action to play, be they action spells, units, or ready spells. Note that most ready spells require one main action to play to the spellboard and a different main action to activate. Also for their main action a player can attack an opponent’s unit. To attack a unit, a player chooses any number of their unexhausted units to attack a single enemy unit, and these units will exhaust at the end of the attack. If the defending player does not want that targeted unit to die, they have two ways to block this incoming damage: either their Phoenixborn could block all the attackers and take all the damage, or any unexhausted units the defending player controls with the unit guard ability can block one of the attackers and take the damage from that unit instead. Any attackers that are not blocked will inflict their damage on the targeted unit. Any unexhausted defending unit (not a Phoenixborn) involved in the battle will either take the damage and go home unexhausted or take the damage, hit back, and go home exhausted. If a unit takes damage equal to its life value, it will be removed from the field, but note that conjurations can be summoned again with future actions. Any number of unexhausted units can also attack a Phoenixborn and then exhaust for a main action. When an attack is thrown at a Phoenixborn, each unexhausted unit the defending player controls can step in and block one attacker (with the same option of going home unexhausted or hitting back and exhausting), and any damage not blocked will go straight to the target Phoenixborn. Finally, as a main action a player can pass. Note that a player can perform a side action and pass and that a player who passes can do a different main action in a future turn if the opponent does not also pass. Once both players pass consecutively, the round will end. At this point units with recover heal some hit points, every card removes one exhaustion token, players can exhaust remaining dice, and the first player token passes. A new round will start with players rolling their dice, and play will continue until one Phoenixborn is reduced to zero hit points.
Ashes is a tough game for me to review because it is my favorite game. I have been a gamer for years, and I have never played a game that I enjoy as much as Ashes. The first thing that I noticed about Ashes is the art. The game art done by Fernanda Suarez is all incredibly detailed and evocative. The art beautifully depicts what each card does, and as you play you get a vivid picture of this wonderful world the people at Plaid Hat have created. For example, there is one Phoenixborn, Saria, who is a prim and proper character who mentally controls her subjects, forever keeping them in a false sort of bliss. Her play style focuses on control, and when her plans go awry she is one scary lady. The Sympathy Pain card in her base deck is played when a Phoenixborn suffers damage. This card allows the wounded Phoenixborn to instantly hit back hard. The art depicts Saria, disheveled, with a look of pure fury, about to unleash a powerful spell. That card art haunts me. Every single card has absolutely beautiful art that captures the theme wonderfully.
In a similar vein, I love how women are represented in this game. Ashes has an amazing diversity of characters, with people other of different genders and ethnicities represented respectfully. Sadly, many games, especially other fantasy games, do not depict women this well. In Ashes, four of the base six Phoenixborn are women. That alone is amazing, but each character is done incredibly tastefully.
The gameplay is also phenomenal. While I play a diverse range of games, I tend to prefer card games. I think Ashes is the tightest card game out there. The rules are incredibly simple. Each turn a player does one or two actions, yet the game opens up to allow for many more possibilities. At times, Ashes will play as a game of chicken, where players bluff each other, wanting to figure out what their opponent is capable of. At other times, Ashes is very aggressive, with one player attacking the opponent early, but also leaving themselves open for an even stronger counter attack. The pacing never slows. Turns are very quick, and player’s need to be very cognizant of their opponent’s moves. Through manipulation and bursts in attacks, players try to come out ahead of the battle that is each round.
There is not a single card that feels superfluous or underpowered in this game. Each card has its own utility that player’s need to figure out how to use. Even cards that do similar things (such as dealing direct damage) are diverse based on how and when they trigger. Yet, Ashes is easy to jump into. Ashes comes with six pre-made decks that feel complete, play extremely differently, and extremely balanced (although some are easier to learn than others). There is Noah, my personal favorite, who focuses on traps and deception. Saria focuses on controlling the opponent and making them run out off cards. Aradel creates a seemingly endless flood of units to swarm the opponent. Coal the pirate is all about doing direct damage through endless side actions and protecting his powerful units from damage. Jessa the voodoo princess punishes opponents for attacking. Finally, there is Maeoni, who has one goal: summon some snakes and make them giant. Each of these decks feels polished and complete, and a player could get endless fun just playing with the constructed decks.
Ashes gives players a lot of control over what they can do, more than most card games. First, players pick what cards they start the game with. This allows players to jump-start their strategies with cards that will often remain between rounds. Players will also always have access to ten energy. At first the fact that energy is generated by dice may seem excessively random. However, the cards are well balanced, and there are enough cards that use low level energy, which means that players will always have interesting ways to use their energy. The difficulty comes from figuring out how to use your energy effectively. And, if a player really needs a certain configuration of dice, there are many tricks that allow for dice manipulation.
Ashes will be an expandable game, but it will also pursue a much less aggressive model than similar card games. While deck building can enhance your personal strategies, there is no need to construct decks. The starter decks are perfectly competitive and very fun straight out of the box. Expansions are scheduled to come at most once every three months, with two decks released at a time (though there will be a yearly, bigger expansion). Each deck will be a complete playset for a new Phoenixborn. What this means is that players can try the cards out before figuring out how to build decks with these cards. Every deck has one card that is unique to that particular Phoenixborn, but any other card can be put into any other deck. The deck building is really open, and players are only limited by which energy dice they wish to use in their decks.
Ashes technically can play up to four players, but this game is best with two. I have played a few multiplayer games of Ashes, and they feel very different. The games take two to three times the length of a two-player game, and you have to monitor many different players, constantly balancing who to attack. As such, multi-player games of Ashes are much more stressful because Ashes is a game where players have to be completely aware what their opponents are doing. Multi-player Ashes is fun, but the game is meant to be played with two-players. Breaking out three or four player Ashes is fun on occasion, but what draws me to Ashes is its pacing. In a two-player game, the turns are very fast and there is no downtime. I would not say there is much downtime in multiplayer Ashes, but rather two-player Ashes just has better pacing.
Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn
Designed By: Isaac Vega
Published By: Plaid Hat Games
Ages: 10 and up
Time: 30 Minutes
Mechanics: Hand management, dice-resource generation