It is with a lot of love that I dub Ashes Reborn as “Magic: The Dice Game.” It is a game where, like Magic, you assume the role of duelling spell casters (Phoenixborn), able to summon an array of magical creatures to aid you in the battle. Also like Magic, Ashes has a dedicated fandom who will no doubt be uncomfortable with this analogy, now onto Rise of the Phoenixborn.
I bought the first edition of Ashes in 2017, solely for the phenomenal artwork. At the time I picked up the box I had never heard of a ‘Living Card Game’. As the term has been trademarked by Fantasy Flight Games, and Ashes is published by PlaidHat, let's pretend you haven’t either. Unlike old style deck duelling games which required you to build your own battle deck, Ashes is much friendlier to the casual gamer. Ashes cards are sold in pre-built decks of spells, allies and summons with a Phoenixborn to match the style of magic/play. In the base game there are 6 such decks which provide plenty of replayability and a broad range of magic use. However, if you love the game and like collecting things, there is some good news. There are currently, not including some fan built decks, 22 additional Phoenixborn with prebuilt decks you can purchase to add to your collection. You can think of these like player vs player, Marvel Champions Hero Packs.
In Rise Of The Phoenixborn, choose your Phoenixborn and deck, select the dice corresponding to the types of magic your deck requires, then take a seat opposite your opponent. The great thing about ashes is that it’s easy to get started. On a given turn you will be playing cards (spells and allies) or attacking your opponents Phoenixborn and ‘units’ with your own spells and ‘units’. Everything each card does is written on the card and there is a handy reference for everything else. Spells and Allies have a magic cost which you will pay with your dice, so depending on your roll at the beginning of the round, you will need to be selective of what you play to maximise the effects of your limited pool of magic.
Spells, Allies, Summons, and your dice themselves all have unique effects and abilities you can use together against your opponent. This gives a huge variety of things you can do on any given turn, so if you like strategy, or duelling games, Ashes is definitely worth trying. I like to take it on my travels as you don’t need the full box to play each game, just a deck , 10 dice and a handful of tokens. The set up, when using the preset decks, can be done in under 2 minutes.
Despite the ease of getting started with Ashes, as you play it more and more, you will learn the best individual play style of each Phoenixborn. Due to this, a veteran player will thrash a newbie, so choose your gaming group wisely. On the box, Ashes is listed as a 2-4 player game, however it is best enjoyed at 2 players. If you have 4 players - do a tournament as this will last about as long as a 4 player all v all and will be much more engaging.
Theme is where this game absolutely shines. If you play with the preset deck; the spells and magic used are tailored to your character and their play style and it feels very intuitive. The artwork is beautiful and your chosen Phoenixborn will feature in the artwork on many of the spells in their associated deck. The spells and strategy are believable for that character and the dice are great quality.
Replayability & Expansions
With 6 preset decks in the base game and any expansion decks you’d want, there are a great number of “match-ups” to try out. Plus even if you played the same two decks each time, you won’t be rolling the same dice results or drawing the same cards. I’ve been playing Ashes now for over 5 years and, while I have decks I prefer to others, I have not yet tired of the game. It also takes a good few plays of a character to play their deck ‘well’, so you get a lot of mileage with this game.
There are, in the Rise Of The Phoenixborn rule book, two alternate setups; a deck building option and a draft. These are for if you want to start combining spells from different Phoenixborn in one deck. For the former I’d suggest using the preset options on Decks - Ashes.live as they have been tried and tested and the dice required to play them is also listed.
For the draft option, it drastically increases the playtime, which for a 2 player game with pre built deck, sits at just under an hour. You have to be very careful that the spells you draft use the same dice, as you will find yourself very limited if you stretch your 10 dice over too many kinds of magic. I’d recommend having a maximum of 4 different dice types in your pool. Ideally only 2 or 3. I don’t feel Ashes was made for deck drafting. You lose the immersion as the spells no longer tie up to your character, different Phoenixborn have different life values so you may struggle to get balanced decks, and there are no symbols on the cards to help you sort them back out after. If you are solely after a deck drafting game; I’d look for something else.
Lastly, there is now a co-operative/solo expansion which will give you a boss deck to battle solo - some promo cards and one new full deck that uses ‘ritual’ magic. This will appeal to the Marvel Champions fans, (although you won’t find synergy between the phoenixborn decks as they are originally built for pvp). I’m excited for this expansion as co-op would be a better way to play Ashes with a gaming group with varying experience of the game. I’m guessing that, like in pvp, the co-op game boss deck will be weaker against certain phoenixborn, so if you do get thrashed by it, try a different deck.
Ashes Reborn - Rise of the Phoenixborn is a new edition of the original game Ashes - Rise of the Phoenixborn. There have been a lot of tweaks to the wording on cards, and some of the rules, with the intention of making the games play faster. Changes include.
- Blocking units have to counter
- All unit attacks must be 1 v 1 (You can still send multiple attackers against a Phoenixborn)
- Respark and Illusions have been removed
- The number of copies of summons have been reduced for most Phoenixborn
- All spells that allow you to re-roll or use already spent dice have been removed
Ashes has the potential to be phenomenal. It’s highly strategic but with a very fast set-up, it is very immersive with fantastic artwork and has a lot of expansions for replayability.
Unfortunately, there is a major drawback, the decks are wildly imbalanced. Due to the range of different spells and abilities, and different magics, balancing the decks is an almost impossible feat and while the new edition attempted this, it hasn’t helped much. Some Phoenixborn are much stronger/weaker against others.
So while the rulebook, packaging and artwork suggests a gateway duelling game where you can pick up any character and play (such as Dice Throne or Villainous), the reality is some matchups will lead to disappointing games. I wish Plaid Hat would publish the best matchups (so no-one would have to suffer like my husband in last week's Saria Guideman vs Jessa Na Ni three round annihilation). To get the best out of this game you need to play a lot of it (so the above case is a rarity), which moves this game out of casual, into the hobbyist genre.
In conclusion, if you like magic duelling or collection games, this is a very enjoyable one with lots and lots of expansions (inc co-op) with immersive themes and artwork. However you will need to be prepared for games in Rise Of The Phoenixborn where a Phoenixborn that is weak against your opponent, and a bad run of dice rolls will negate even a brilliant strategy. Does this bother me - yes, will I continue buying all the beautiful expansion decks as they are released - also yes. With the addition of Ashes Reborn: Red Rains - The Corpse of Viros, I will then have Ashes; The Magic Money-Pit “Cooperative” Dice Game.