Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is a strategic card game from designer Isaac Vega, artist Fernanda Suarez and publisher Plaid Hat Games. It's a living card game, which means it plays in some ways like a trading card game (TCG), but without the need to buy random boosters or specific singles to expand your collection.
The base game comes with six ready-to-play decks that can also be combined into any number of 30-card combinations in the future. The rules of the game explain two main ways of playing: constructed and draft. Constructed involves using one of the pre-made lists or a 30 card deck of your own invention to play, whereas draft makes choosing the cards for your deck a part of the game as you and other players pick cards in real time to build your decks out of.
As a former player of Magic: The Gathering and other TCGs, this style of game immediately appeals to me. I think it will also appeal to other players of that sort of game, especially if they're tired of spending money continuously to build their collection. Expansions for the game come in the form of new, complete decks that are very reasonably priced, so it takes away all the uncertainty over what you're buying if you want new cards.
The theme behind the game
For me, a game's theme is important, even if it doesn't have much bearing on the mechanics. In Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, decks are crafted around powerful Phoenixborn - individuals with immense magical abilities given to them by the Phoenix, a mysterious power dividing among humanity's heroes to help them stave off the monstrous Chimera that are besieging their cities and forcing them to live in fear.
Now the Chimera have been defeated, but a taste of power creates a hunger for more. It was discovered that, by killing another in battle with powerful spells and loyal armies, a Phoenixborn can absorb their ashes to take their power. If one Phoenixborn can defeat all the others, they can finally ascend to true godhood.
The way the game plays
Each Phoenixborn has a unique card, which dictates their player's starting life total, as well as how many cards they can have in play. The Phoenixborn also have their own abilities that encourage you to play the game a certain way. With six of these characters in the base game, each with a unique deck, there are many different match-ups to play without any extra deck construction (something that I haven't actually felt the need to delve into yet).
To play the cards in their decks, each player pays costs with the 10 dice they roll at the start of a round. Each die represents one of four types of magic: Illusion, Ceremonial, Natural and Charm. Each die has three different symbols: A universal basic symbol and two magic symbols, one of which is the ideal 'power' symbol. The starting decks show off each of the six possible combinations of these dice types.
Both players start each round with all 10 of their dice available, which makes the game play very differently to others where resources have to be accumulated over a number of turns. A core skill in Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is planning how to use a single set of resources, rather than building and managing a growing pool.
A round starts with each player having five cards in hand and 10 dice available, and proceeds over alternating turns until neither player can take a main action. At this point, the dice are re-rolled and each player draws back to five cards in hand.
Players can take a main and a side action every turn. Main actions involve playing most cards, using some abilities or attacking, while side actions could be more minor abilities, or changing your dice to make them more powerful (reducing the role randomness can play in making or breaking the game).
Because of the limited stuff you can do a turn, turns proceed pretty quickly once both players know what they're doing. Most cards can also only be used in some way once a round, which keeps options fairly limited (in a good way).
Players use their units to attack and defend in a mechanic that fans of Magic, Hearthstone and similar card games should find intuitive, until only one Phoenixborn is left standing.
There is a lot more to the game than that, with each card having its own unique effect, but those are the basics. Isaac Vega was going for a game that feels unique, playing out like a symphony rather than an aggressive slug-fest. This means that the game ebbs and flows, and planning over multiple turns is key. You can't just through everything at your opponent and hope for the best. Personally, I love that about the game, and I think many other people will love it too.
Playing with more than two players
Before I move on, it's worth mentioning how the game plays at a higher player count, given that the box says it's for 2-4 players. If you follow the rules for a three or four player free-for-all, it's a terrible game. Don't do it. The game works best at two players but, if you want to play a game with more, I would recommend bringing in constraints, like saying you can only attack the player to your left.
That rule keeps the game moving and prevents the frustrating board stalls that happen when no one wants to make the first move in a free for all. If you can, sticking to two players is much easier, and clearly what the game has been designed for.
My experience with Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn
I really enjoy playing Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. It feels enough like a TCG to scratch that particular itch, but it's also unique and interesting in its own right. I find the gameplay exciting, with powerful effects balanced by genuine interaction and tough strategic decisions. It's a great back and forth game, especially when it's played head to head.
I will say this: The game isn't light. If you're not familiar with TCGs or this type of card game, you'll probably find the rule book pretty dense and the gameplay hard to pick up at first. However, the people that I've taught this to have enjoyed it, and they're not all regular gamers. Just bear in mind that it can take a little while to get the hang of the mechanics and basic strategy.
All that being said, there aren't so many decisions that every turn feels overwhelming. You have a lot of possibilities at the start of each round, but once you're a couple of turns in you'll probably be committed to one strategy or another that will limit your options until the next round.
There is a lot of thinking, which means the game isn't one to pull out if you want something quick or you're considering teaching it to friends who aren't familiar with strategy games, but that's not a bad thing. In this case, it means that Ashes has real depth, so players willing to spend some time with it can get a lot of enjoyment from it.
Aside from the gameplay itself, the art is gorgeous on pretty much every card. Four of the six Phoenixborn are women, and my wife commented that she likes how they're depicted as as strong and powerful as the two male characters. The game feels like a lot of care has been taken with the art and manufacture, making it look great on the table.
If you like card games or games with a lot of depth and replay-ability, check this one out. In my opinion, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn deserves far more attention than it currently receives.