‘Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn’: Game Review

ashescoverIsn’t it funny how you get a little taste of something you love and it only makes you want more? That’s what Gen Con is like for us in la Casa Bryant. We get to run away from home and play games for four days, and what we end up wanting is more time to play games.

Now that we’ve unpacked, cleaned up, and gotten back into our regular schedules, we’re trying out some of the new games we bought.

Our first choice: ‘Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn‘ from Plaid Hat Games. As we usually do when we play a new game, we played a partial game of a few turns until we felt like we really understood the gameplay, then we started over for real. It was a two-player game, as the teenager was out and the third-grader was busy with her Minecraft. Before we played, we both watched this how-to-play video from Watch It Played, which was VERY helpful. We appreciate having a virtual someone teach us to play. Rodney Smith does a great job, and video visuals of gameplay are more clear than text and static pictures.

Here’s a he said/she said overview from me and my husband, Travis.

Why We Bought It:

He said: I took a small risk buying ‘Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn’. My lovely wife enjoys playing ‘Magic: The Gathering’-style games, but is less interested in building new or tweaking existing decks. ‘Ashes‘ comes with six characters and suggested deck “recipes” for each of the Pheonixborn. Even if I don’t buy the future expansion packs there (hopefully) would still be enough in the basic box to get our money’s worth.

She said: This one was my husband’s pick. I was attracted by the art and by the ready-to-play promise. My husband is right that I like playing deck dueling games but have little patience for actually building the decks. I can get lost in permutations and take forever to choose, which makes me unwilling to start. Or else I choose cards purely on cool factor and end up with a deck that doesn’t have any good engines. I’m sure he gets tired of building all the decks. We also wanted a game that would play well with only the two of us, but could include other friends when we have the chance.

Opening the Box:

He said: Card design assists in early games of Ashes. As a user experience designer, two professional thumbs up for cards spell out the stats in plain language. Rather than having to explain “3/5 means three attack and five defense” the cards state, “Attack 3” and “Life 5.” Plus they tell you where to place your cards as they’re played. Creatures go to the Battlefield, spells to the Spellboard, and “instants” to the Discard. Got it. Cool.

That’s not to say there are no abstract symbols that are common to the card-battling hobby. Each card has a string of pictograms that spell out the summoning cost and timing. At first Samantha and I had to pause over each one, which lead to a much longer first game and many exchanges like this:

“Okay, it says compass-evil-eye-circle-with-triangles. What does that mean?”

“Is it a full compass rose or just a four-pointed star?”

There are useful reference cards and by our second game we could translate the card instructions more rapidly. I think if we don’t play this one often, though, the first few turns will require relearning the symbols. The dice, too, have symbols instead of numbers, but only one of those is a little difficult to read (the curled snake).

She said: Of the two of us, I’m the one who fades the fastest at day’s end, so I appreciate a game that sets up quickly and lets you get to the playing right away. It’s frustrating when I get too tired to finish playing a game because I spent my energy on the set-up. This game earned praise from me for ease of set up. There were even suggestions for which cards to pull for your opening hand, which is really useful when you haven’t played before and have no idea which cards are actually the best ones.

I’m also a sucker for beautiful cards. One of the joys of owning games for me is having access to all these tiny pieces of art. ‘Ashes‘ didn’t disappoint. Maeoni and Coal, the Phoenixborn characters we chose for our first games were both gorgeous and powerful.

Maeoni Viper and Coal Roarkwin, the Phoenixborn characters we played with.
Maeoni Viper and Coal Roarkwin, the Phoenixborn characters we played with.

Game Play:

He said:

The point of the game, like so many other Magic-style games, is to murderize the enemy wizard. Creatures and allies can intercede attacks on the wizard, or try to attack opposing creatures specifically. If I left the review at that, you’d wonder what makes ‘Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn‘ worth considering. It’s the way Plaid Hat takes this established concept and makes clever use of moment-to-moment tense decisions.

The vibe that I get is ‘Magic: The Gathering‘ plus ‘Mage Wars.’ Each round you roll dice that generate various flavors and power levels of magic. This is basically your mana. You then take back and forth turns, doing one or two actions such as summoning creatures, playing allies (which are different than the summoned), attacking the opponent, or casting spells.

“Dice?” I hear you shouting needlessly at the screen, “That’s even more random than having mana cards in my deck!” Ah, here’s the terrible beauty of the game: like Plaid Hat’s Summoner Wars, you can have what you want but there will be a cost.

As one of your actions in a turn a player can discard one of their cards from their tableau or deck to change a die to any facing. You need the most powerful level of magic to summon that scary damage spell? Just give up one of your precious cards. Sure there are only thirty cards in a deck and your character will start to die if you run out of cards. That’s the price of victory.

Luckily, if you are able to get your spell book cards into play, you can summon creatures from a smaller, separate deck. Unlike allies, if your opponent kills a summoned card, it simply recycles into the magical aether, ready to be summoned again on a later turn. This means that, so long as you keep those spellbook cards on the table, you can keep bringing out creatures so long as you can afford it.

Pheonixborn cards

She said: 

Ashes‘ is a game of hard choices, moves and counter moves. As we get to play more, I know I’m going to love finding out how the different Phoenixborn characters match up. In this game, my Silver Snakes became more powerful when they killed or when my Gilders died, so that had me playing much more aggressively than is usual for me and trying to trap Travis into killing my Gilders and thereby feeding the power of my Snakes (which means that the cute little mice are really just snake food, creepy and cool!). It would be a very different game with different decks.

‘Ashes’ is well organized game. Through details of board setup and card design, it’s easy to track all the different aspects you need without resorting to pulling out a notepad and taking notes. For example, as you spend them to enact different spells and effects, you move dice from the ready side to the exhausted side of a card that explains the powers. I found that intuitive and easy to understand. I didn’t lose track of what resources I still had at my command.

The damage/wound and status tokens made it easy to keep track of power-ups and how risky your risks really were. I’m definitely a fan of the exhaustion tokens. I found them much easier to work with and more aesthetically pleasing than turning my cards sideways to indicate that they’ve been tapped.

Travis is right that the rolling of dice for mana adds a random element, but I liked that randomness. Unlike other games I’ve played, where getting a bad roll meant I was toast, in this game, I still had options and sometimes came up with better turn choices than I would have if I’d rolled all Power symbols.

The first player token, and exhaustion, wound/damage and status markers.
The first player token, and exhaustion, wound/damage and status markers.

Parting Thoughts:

He said:

I liked that the turn structure of small, manageable actions truly supported this feeling of a rapid, tactical duel between two magical adepts. Sometimes – especially in the mid to late section of other CCGs/LCGs – a single turn can seemingly last forever. “Okay, it’s your turn. You have ten creatures on the field and have drawn at least twice your starting card limit. I’m going to go make popcorn. When I get back you can tell me how much damage I need to soak.” Not so much in Ashes. You are only making one or two actions per turn, and until both players have passed, nobody’s drawing a fresh set of cards or rerolling their spent dice (without using a spell to do so). Quick turns equal no downtime equals higher player engagement. Well, okay, maybe that’s the ideal. In reality our first two games did have a few moments of noticeable Analysis Paralysis, as we pondered whether sacrificing a card or important creature would be The Move That Won The Game or that opposite kind….

She said:

Quick set up, easy to understand game organization, and high levels of interaction make this game a hit with me. The premise of a new kind of wizard-warrior arising from the ashes of a post-apocalyptic world and fighting each other Highlander-style until there is only one sparked my imagination. Each Phoenixborn character and his or her conjurations and spells fit together thematically and covered a range of fantasy themes and creatures. Other than some time needed to parse the symbol language, the game plays quickly, also an important feature for those of us fitting gaming into already very busy lives. All in all, it’s a win. Good choice, Travis.

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Samantha Bryant is a middle school Spanish teacher by day, and a novelist by night. Her Menopausal Superheroes series is available from Curiosity Quills Press. You can find her on Twitter @mirymom1