It’s Thursday morning at GenCon in Indianapolis, Indiana. As soon as the floor opens you need to know what game you want and where it is, because there’s a great chance it’ll be gone if you wait. Last year I waited until Friday morning to get my hands on another Plaid Hat game, Dead of Winter. I was told it sold out by lunch the previous day.
Coming up to their booth I saw large advertisements for their two previous games, Dead of Winter and Mice and Mystics. These are two incredibly fun, beautiful, and replayable games. The mechanics Plaid Hat puts into their games are really solid and make for a good game night no matter how many times you pick up the same game. What really caught my eye was their latest offering, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. The white box simply “popped” with beautiful fantasy artwork. Several epic spell casters do battle against a colorful background of a phoenix rising. This immediately got my attention. The art alone was enough to draw me in. I love Phoenix lore and any game involving spells and spell casters. When I arrived to that section of the booth a pretty young lady was sitting there behind a full set of the Phoenixborn cards, all signed. Turns out she was the artist for the game (as well as Dead of Winter). Next to her was an enthusiastic man that grinned and shook my hand as I asked what the game was about. With just a brief explanation I immediately hollered across the booth that I’ll be buying two copies right away.
Ease of Play:
For the rest of the weekend I just kept looking at the cards and familiarizing myself with the rules. I couldn’t wait to play, but it seemed a little too complex for a drunken game in the lobby. Turns out I was dead wrong. The number of pieces and cards, along with all of the pictures in the rules, make it seem like it’s going to be a headache but it’s actually incredibly simple. PHG has a video online of how to play, but I couldn’t get it to load.
The gameplay is simple. 2-4 players each play a different Pheonixborn (a godlike spell caster with incredible power all working to come out on top). Each round is set into three phases. Your basic “ready” phase (re-roll spell die, reset creatures and spells, draw up your hand), an Action phase where you can deploy creatures, attack, or cast spells, and a Recovery Phase. In a nutshell, you roll a predetermined set of die that allow you to perform actions. You have two actions, a main and secondary. Doing things like deploying spells or creatures, attacking, and activating abilities take a Main action. Some spells and your dice have secondary actions. This pretty much ensures no one player can throw out their entire hand and wipe the board clean (if you deploy, you can’t attack that turn).
This is something that really draws me to Plaid Hat. Owning a gaming pub I game, a lot. Every Sunday at least. The number of times we default to Dead of Winter when we have the right group is staggering, and every game is different. There are three ways to play Ashes. You can use the pre-generated decks found in the book, you can use the cards to make your own deck, or you can do a draft. This really ensures that you can play the game several times without it getting dull, even if you play the same Phoenixborn!
Pacing and Strategy:
I won’t lie, this is a slow game. Even knowing the rules the mechanic of one Main/one Secondary action means you aren’t going to do a lot of stuff during your turn. Add to that you only have about nine different cards in your deck means you may go a few rounds with nothing to do (if you don’t have the right spell dice combination to perform actions). This is very much a thinking game and not one you really can just throw down cards at and hope to make a win. I’ll get more into this when I talk balance, but I’d really compare this more to a basic chess game than TCG. You have to know your opponents cards and think a few moves ahead, and when I didn’t do this I was decimated very easily.
This is my only gripe with the game, the balance is awful. The fact that it’s only 2-4 players just bugs me. Why not make it 5? That seems like it’d be more complete to me. Each Phoenixborn also has a very unique mechanic and set of cards. You have one that focuses on getting soldiers on the field, another that relies on dealing damage as it’s taken, one that conjures creatures that get stronger with each death of an opponent’s unit. They all sound amazing on their own, but if you get a bad match up you’re literally going to play against your opposite. Both games I played were like this, in which there was no contest once we each saw the style of our decks. My first deck was geared to getting units on the field and my opponent specialized in exhausting enemy units. Think tapping enemy creatures in magic. So, I was able to get a good amount of creatures out that just sat there not able to do anything. The second game my creatures would get stronger each time I killed an enemy unit. However, each time I dealt damage to an enemy unit I received the same amount of damage to the unit of my opponent’s choosing! This made for a very long game of me taking 3-4 points of damage each round as I wasn’t able to really grow my conjurations. Very frustrating. This alone makes me very hesitant to add this game to my weekly game night.
Overall, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is a beautifully crafted game with a lot of great things going for it. I suggest to make the game truly fun everyone drafts their decks rather than use the incredibly unbalanced pre-generated decks in the rule book.