By Scott Simoneau
One of the big hits to come out of GenCon this year was Plaid Hat Games' new card game, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. It has been on sale from Plaid Hat direct since GenCon, and releases into the retail distribution chain this month.
Ashes is player vs player card game best described as a mix of Magic: The Gathering and SAGA (the miniatures game), wrapped up disguised as a Fantasy Flight Games "Living Card Game". In the box you get six full preconstucted decks, 40 dice, the rulebook, and a small handful of reference cards and tokens. Note that unlike FFG's Living Card Game core boxes, you actually get full playsets of all the cards, thus negating the need to purchase multiple core sets!
The basic gameplay of Ashes involves summoning minions and playing spells to attack your opponent with. Each player controls a Phoenixborn, which will have a unique ability and a number of life points. Reduce your opponents Phoenixborn to zero, and you win! Each turn has alternating activations - you may take one Main Action and one Side Action, and then your opponent does the same. This alternating activation continues until both sides consecutively pass, then a new turn begins.
As you can see on the reference card below, Main Actions including paying a Main Action cost (usually playing cards), launching an attack, or passing. Side actions include paying a Side Action card (usually lesser spell effects or already in-play abilities) and Meditating (discard cards to manipulate dice).
In order to summon minions and cast spells, you will expend special dice. Each turn you roll 10 dice, and whatever faces they end up with are your resources to spend that turn to play cards and use abilities. When you design your deck, you also pick the ratio of dice you use - there are currently four different types. Each die has three results -
3x Basic magic symbols. These are the same on all dice.
2x Intermediate magic symbols, unique to each color. They can also be used as a basic symbol if needed.
1x Advanced magic symbol, unique to each color. They can also be used as any lesser symbol of the same color.
At the beginning of the turn, you roll the dice and see what you get.
So what can you use the dice for? First, your Phoenixborn has a special ability. Aradel can expend a leaf result from the Nature dice, in addition to spending a Side Action and becoming Exhausted to deal two damage to any unit. Pretty nice and straight forward direct damage ability! Exhausting a card places and Exhaustion token on it, which means it cannot be used again this turn. Many abilities require Exhaustion, but some do not and can be used over and over again if you have the dice to do so!
In addition to the Phoenixborn, you will also have some Conjurations available for summon. Conjurations are part of your deck, but are not shuffled in with the rest of the cards. You will play "Summon <Conjuration>" spells which remain in play, and can be used to summon Conjuration minions over and over again. You more or less have an endless supply of them. Let's look at the Conjurations available in Aradels preconstructed deck:
First up is the Mist Spirit. It has an Attack of 1, meaning in combat, it deals 1 damage, and a Life of 1, meaning it can take one damage before being destroyed. Pretty basic and cheap.
A step up is the Blue Jaguar Conjuration. It has a 2/2 Attack/Life value, and a special ability that says when a unit comes into play on the opponents battlefield, you can spend a Basic Magic die to exhaust it. Pretty good at locking the opponent down. Also notice Aradel's avatar in the bottom right of the card - this means the card is unique to Aradel and can only be included in your deck if she is your Phoenixborn.
The third Conjuration available is the Butterfly Monk. It has 1 attack, a variable amount of life, and also a Recover value of 1, meaning it heals one damage at the end of each turn.
Remember how I said Conjurations are not shuffled in the deck? (Also notice I didn't sleeve them!). Rather, you shuffle in spellbooks that allow you to continually summon Conjurations. These cards fall under a group of cards called Ready Spells, which remain in play and can be used over and over again each turn.
Shifting Mist is an example of another Ready Spell that remains in play, allowing you some flexibility in your dice results each turn.
Mist Typhoon is an Action Spell, which is simply played from your hand and discarded after it's effect goes off.
Alteration Spells are similar to enchantments from MTG. They alter something (usually a unit) already in play.
Place the alteration below the unit, and you see the bonuses it gives. Massive Growth turns our 1 Attack/1 Life Mist Spirit into a formidable 5 Attack/5 Life, albeit only for one turn!
Many Alterations have a Respark value as well. This allows you to return it to your hand should the unit it's buffing be destroyed.
Allies are unit cards that are shuffled into the deck. The function like Conjurations once on the battlefield, but when they die, they are destroyed and cannot be summoned back, unless you draw another one from the deck. They're generally more powerful and more expensive, whereas Conjurations are usually fairly cheap and meant to be disposable.
The game comes with an 18-page full color rulebook that walks you through the game. The rules are pretty basic and there's not a lot of nitty-gritty for it.
It also includes sample decklists for each of the six included Phoenixborn, and remember, you can build all six at once from the core box.
It also includes rules for Deckbuilding, Drafting, and an Index.
One last major feature is that you can always pick your starting hand of five cards. That's right, your initial hand of cards you get to choose instead of being randomly drawn. This gives your deck a bit of predictability on how it will work, and really gives the game a miniatures game feel, where you would ordinarily build your army ahead of time and deploy it as you see fit.
Ashes provides a unique take on the player-vs-player card games on the market right now. Despite using both random cards and dice, it actually has a relatively low amount of randomness - certainly less than MTG or Netrunner - through the chosen opening hand and several cards to manipulate dice rolls. You get everything you need in (one!) core set box (I really love not having to buy multiples), and expansions are planned a few times a year, probably in the format of entire new Phoenixborn and their corresponding deck. I am completely enamored with this game at the moment, and give it a solid 10/10.