When the Red Rains swept over Argaia, the monstrous Chimera followed. They slaughtered armies and destroyed towns, until the Phoenixborn arose to beat them back and bring on a new golden age. But power calls to power, and now the Phoenixborn are driven to fight against each other in the Ashes.
Ashes Reborn, designed by Isaac Vega (also known for Dead of Winter and Forgotten Waters), is a deck-construction duelling game, normally for two players. By casting spells and summoning creatures to fight for you, you’ll whittle down the opposition’s powers and eventually defeat them. A game typically lasts 30-60 minutes.
Many duelling games have sprung up since Magic: the Gathering first came out in 1993, and most of them want to be “lifestyle games”, the ones that get all your gaming time; as someone who plays lots of games a little bit each, I’m looking for a game that’s also friendly to casual players, and this is the one that I’ve played most.
How To Play
Each player chooses a Phoenixborn, a magician with an innate power (there are six in the core box), and then builds a deck of 30 cards: each Phoenixborn has a standard pre-constructed deck, including a few cards unique to them, or you can mix and match (though never with more than three copies of any specific card, and the core box has three of each card). You’ll also choose a pool of ten dice, each associated with a particular style of magic (Illusion, Charm, etc.).; the standard builds take five dice from each of two styles. You then choose your starting hand (no more than one of the same card).
Play proceeds in a series of rounds, each of which consists of alternating turns for each player. At the start of the round, you roll all your dice, and gradually spend them over the course of the round, which ends when both players pass in succession.
On your turn, you can take a major and a side action. Launching an attack with summoned creatures is a major action; activating the innate power of one of your dice is a side action; but more commonly you use the abilities on the cards in your hand and in play, each of which specifies what sort of action is needed to use it as well as any cost in die faces or exhaustion markers.
Each die has three different symbols of increasing power, with the top-level one giving you a specific effect (e.g. you can spend a top-value Charm die to reduce an opposing unit’s attack value by 1 until the end of the round). You can also “meditate”, discard cards from your deck to set your dice to different faces: this brings on the end of the game sooner, since when you run out of cards you start to take damage every time you’d draw one, but lets you do more before it happens.
Fans of Magic will see that land cards are entirely replaced by die faces – meaning that you never end up with lots of power and nothing to spend it on, or lots of spells but nothing to power them. But separately from the game-mechanical element, there’s a pleasant tactile effect to rolling and spending the dice.
The cards you play may go straight to your battlefield as creatures to fight for you, produce an immediate effect, or modify a creature you’ve already summoned; or they may go to your spellboard, to allow you to use them repeatedly later (another way of summoning creatures, which in that case come from a separate deck that can be recycled when they’re destroyed).
When attacks happen, you can go after one of the opponent’s creatures or after their Phoenixborn; their creatures can try to block, and fight back, and may produce other effects.
This is clearly a very flexible system, a lightweight framework to let cards have very different effects from each other. The pre-constructed decks certainly have flavours of their own; some give you a few powerful creatures, some give you a horde of weak ones, while others concentrate on leeching the enemy’s power or causing them to exhaust their deck.
While a lot can happen in a round, individual turns go very quickly: a player may have several options, but can only do two things, so you never end up waiting a long time for the opposition.
Most duelling games are focussed on tournament play, and certainly there’s a lot of that in Ashes, but I’ve found the community also very welcoming to casual players like myself, who mostly play with the same group of friends rather than going out to fight strangers.
The game can handle up to four players, but there are very few cards that take advantage of having more than one opponent, and particularly with just the core box available you may find yourself running short of playable combinations.
The cards are the major part of Ashes, but there are also cardboard tokens for wounds, exhaustion, and special-purpose markers, as well as the magic dice. Cards and tokens are well-made and solid, though if you’re concerned about wear on the tokens you can put them in 19.5mm coin capsules. There’s no need for a specialised playmat, though it’s important to keep your various components in a standard layout so that your opponent can see what’s going on.
Art in the core set is mostly by Fernanda Suarez, and it gives the game an energetic and colourful style. These aren’t grim fantasy post-apocalyptic warriors: they’re having fun with their magic, and one feels they might even have lives away from the battlefield. (And this isn’t a game I’m ashamed to play with my female or non-white friends.)
Editions & Expansions
Any duelling card game with a tournament element needs a constant flow of expansions or it will be pronounced “dead”. This one has died once before: the original Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn was published in 2015 and cancelled in 2019 for undisclosed reasons, but then, after Plaid Hat Games was bought back by the founder Colby Dauch, Ashes Reborn was launched in 2020 (with an upgrade pack to allow players of the previous version to bring their sets and all old expansion content up to date with the Reborn rules and cards). So there are twenty or more Phoenixborn available outside the core box; but the options with a huge card pool can be excessive to take in all at once, so it’s worth playing just with the core box to start with and then slowly adding expansions.
Most of the expansions add a new Phoenixborn and their pre-built deck, which you can then mix and match with the cards you already have (similarly to FFG’s Living Card Games, you always know what you’re buying and there are no randomised box contents). Some of them also add more dice in a new power style, and provide convenient small boxes in which you can carry a deck with all necessary cards, dice and tokens to a tournament. The Red Rains expansion adds a solo or cooperative play mode against an automated boss enemy.
Rising From The Ashes
Isaac Vega’s design in Ashes has stood the test of time, producing a game that can be enjoyed in casual play as well as in tournaments. One concern is that there’s relatively little randomness in play, and it can mostly be mitigated: if you play someone much more skilled than you, you are very likely to lose consistently, which may be a problem in some gaming groups. Another is that, as in most duelling games, when card A provokes a reaction B which then allows someone to use power C, the order in which to resolve events can be complicated to work out. But all in all this is a game without a pool of tens of thousands of cards, but with plenty of variation and tactical depth even playing with just the core set.