RogerBW's Blog

Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn 27 June 2019

Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, designed by Isaac Vega and published in 2015, is a competitive game of wizard battles for 2-4 players.

Or perhaps "was"? The publisher, Plaid Hat Games which is part of the Asmodée monolith, suddenly announced at the end of April that there would be no more expansions, and while there's still a reasonable amount of stock in the retail system, they don't seem to be adding any more. Naturally we don't have sales figures.

But it was that announcement which caused me to look at Ashes again. I pretty much ignored it when it first came out, because even then I had plenty of other games I liked; but I've had a game or two on Tabletop Simulator and I rather enjoy it, even though it's quite unlike other games in my collection.

It doesn't hurt that gamers in thrall to the cult of the new (or perhaps just insistent on having official ongoing support) are getting rid of their copies, which in turn has driven down prices from dealers; I've been buying expansions off eBay, still in sealed packs, sometimes at less than half retail price.

So what sort of game is it? Well, it feels like what you might get if you started with Magic: the Gathering and decided to fix all the things that are wrong with it. So for a start that means no randomised purchase model: you know exactly what you're getting in a box. (I regard random packs as taking advantage of bugs in human psychology, especially when sold to children, and I have nothing to do with games that use them.)

The next problem with Magic is a gameplay one: I think that anyone who's played will know the frustration of "all-lands" or "no-lands" situations (i.e. your hand contains either the cards that generate power, or the cards that use it to produce helpful effects, but not a mix of the two). Vega fixes this in Ashes by turning the "lands" into dice, while keeping the other things as cards. The dice have differing effectiveness based on what's rolled, but even the least good sides are still of some use. What's more, players are allowed to choose their starting hands from their decks, with the sole restriction that no duplicate cards are allowed.

Game length is also reduced, by a variety of methods but most obviously by limiting decks to exactly 30 cards. If you have fewer than five cards in your hand at the start of a round, you draw to refill it; if you run out of cards to draw, you don't recycle them. Instead, you take damage, and soon lose.

There's a nested structure of rounds and turns. At the start of a round, both players roll their ten dice and refill their hands; then they take turns to do things. A turn consists of one "main action", such as attacking an enemy, and one "side action", such as activating dice powers; there's no limit to how many cards you can play in your turn, but most of them have a main-action or side-action cost to play. (Which fixes another Magic problem, long downtime between turns; you don't do much on an individual turn, so you don't have long to wait while your opponent does their thing.) Most cards will also require the expenditure of one or more dice, which are moved to an "exhausted" area and are generally not available again until the next round.

Individual cards do a variety of things. The most standard sort goes on the spellboard, an area with the spells currently available to your Phoenixborn, and can be used in future to summon conjurations (i.e. monsters) or produce other effects. (But there's limited space on the spellboard, so you need to be careful what you choose to put there.) Others enhance monsters, produce immediate allies, react to incoming attacks, and so on. The conjurations themselves are on separate cards; when you summon one, you find its card and put it on the battlefield, but you'll be able to use that summoning spell again later.

And of course monsters can attack each other, and the opposition's Phoenixborn; but they become "exhausted" in the process, so they can't be re-used infinitely.

That's the basic game. Naturally, specific cards can and do make exceptions to any of these rules, and that's rather the point; which rule do you find most constraining to your play style, and what would you like to do about it?

There are three modes of play. The simplest, and the only one I've tried so far, is to use a pre-constructed deck: for a particular Phoenixborn, a specific set of dice, cards, and corresponding conjurations. (The ones in the core game even have a recommended starting hand.) Next, and the standard for tournaments, is to build a deck (one Phoenixborn and its unique cards; exactly 30 cards total, no more than three of any one; any corresponding conjurations; exactly 10 dice); clearly some cards are more powerful than others, and as I understand it the serious players have now shifted to a system where cards have individual costs (as well as a third-party FAQ and errata document that does a better job of fixing the inevitable errors and inclarities than the official one did). Finally, there's a drafting model, in which you build your deck jointly with the other players just before you play.

Each expansion contains a Phoenixborn and a pre-constructed deck of 30 cards, plus any conjurations, so they can be played out of the box; and of course everything's mutually compatible, so you can incorporate them into your deck-building.

It's not a perfect game, but it's one that I'm very much enjoying even though I've only dipped my toe into the gameplay so far. There's a lot of fun to be had from this "dead" game. It helps that Vega seems to have managed to avoid the gradual power creep that plagues many competitive games with progressive releases; even in the final official tournament, plenty of cards from the core set were still in play.

While good art isn't a high priority for me in a game, bad art can put me off one; in this case Fernanda Suarez was able to produce a consistent, energetic and colourful look which manages to represent a variety of human cultures and racial types. It's pleasing without being distracting.

One drawback: it is at its core a two-player game. I haven't played in a larger game yet, and although it does support four players, none of the cards seems to take any particular advantage of that.

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