Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn

The last game I learned at our post-Gen Con game night was Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. I use “learned” loosely. We mostly learned how to play, but we were not sure that we had the rules right because we went mostly from someone’s explanation rather than having everyone read the rules, and when we did consult the rules we found things the explanation had missed and a few points that might have been missed in the rules entirely and need a FAQ. Or maybe we just did not find the right page in the rules in the midst of play.

Ashes is a living card game of the sort becoming popular after the relative decline of collectible card games. Android: Netrunner and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game would be in the same category. Instead of buying blind booster packs, you buy an entire set and construct decks from that, then expansions and such come along.

We played a couple of games using the recommended decks. It seemed entertaining, although using recommended decks skipped the deckbuilding experience, and we did not have enough play experience to do much more than learn the basics (and maybe not well). So this is not so much a review as some vague impressions.

The cards are pretty.

The mechanics have interesting balance potential. I played a character with fewer hit points but more space for summoning and spells. I had lots of summoning spells, while my opponent had allies that he played directly. Mine scaled better, but his had better potential for launching quick attacks. The others were trying different recommended decks for growth and control.

I want to mention three mechanics. First, you pick your starting hand of five cards. That is a bold design decision that puts the player in control of initial strategy. Second, there are creature-summoning spells. That is the distinction I made above: some cards are allies you play, others are spells you can use once per turn to summon creatures. In MTG terms, think of allies as summoned creatures while the spells are enchantments that generate token creatures. So my opponent had a few strong creatures while I was pumping out weaker ones that were more of renewable resources. Third, the game’s “mana” mechanic is dice. You get ten dice that line up with the game’s schools of magic, and you roll to see how much power you have this turn. Different rolls can power different tiers of abilities, and other abilities can alter dice. This also gives the game meaningful custom components, in a way you could duplicate with normal dice and some memory but not so elegantly given how different schools of magic have different but overlapping symbols.

Worth trying again. My gaming friends are not sure how well living card games will work for us given that you deckbuild from a common pool. Either we construct fixed decks and leave them in the box (which we did with the recommended decks) or you must go through the potentially lengthy deckbuilding stage every time you play. Pathfinder addresses that by effectively being an RPG campaign with a different gameplay mechanics (cards instead of rulebooks). I have never played Android: Netrunner with the same person more than a few times, so it is always back to base decks or newly constructed ones whenever I play. And I rarely play because who wants to learn a game and figure out deckbuilding for something you will maybe play a few times per year? Living card games seem like great value for dedicated groups but not so much outside of that.

: Zubon