Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Friday 7 May 2021

The Game Shelf Reviews:- Ashes Reborn: Rise of the Phoenixborn

Game: Ashes Reborn: Rise of the Phoenixborn

Publisher: Plaid Hat Games

Designer: Isaac Vega

Year: 2021
Ashes Reborn is a re-release of Plaid Hat's successful two-player customisable dueling card game, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. The reprint is described as version 1.5, with not significant changes from the original game, but some improvements to the wording and balance of the cards. If you've never played Ashes before, then this would be your entry point, or you could use the 1.5 Upgrade Pack to upgrade your original copy.
If you want to dive deep into the game, then a huge number of expansions are on the horizon with a new phoenixborn character in each pack. Plaid Hat Games are even running a direct subscription service, but frankly, there is a huge amount of content in just this base game box, with the six phoenixborns allowing you to play 15 different combinations with the preset decks, plus the option to deckbuild, making the variety pretty endless!
The game starts with each player selecting a deck from the six available in the set. Alternatively, you can deckbuild or even draft the decks at the start of the game. Decks are then laid out with separate piles for your phoenixborn, dice reference cards, conjuration cards and your main deck. Players will then choose any five cards from their deck to start the game with, before shuffling their deck, rolling their dice and beginning to play. Every turn players will get the chance to perform two actions: 1 major and 1 minor action. The main action can be one of three things; playing a main action cost card/effect, attacking, or passing. If both players pass in a row then a new round begins. with players drawing back up to their hand limit and rolling their dice again.

Many effects in the game will require you to spend resources in the form of dice faces. Depending on your deck you will have two or more different dice each of which has three different faces. Playing a card may require you to pay a combination of a 'wolf' and a 'face' which means taking those two dice from your active area and moving them to your inactive area. Once played, cards typically end up either in the discard for instant effects, in your spellbook for spells that can be cast once a round, or on your battleline, where your creatures lie in wait to attack (or defend). Every phoenixborn will have a different limit on the number of spells and creatures they can have in play at any one time, in addition to having a unique special ability and variable starting health.

Attacking with creatures is the main way you'll win the game. Your objective is to get your rival's health down to zero - angry people with swords are a great way to achieve that goal! You can also attack the other player's creatures directly if you want to take out a dangerous foe before they get a chance to attack you. Any creature can be used to defend against direct attacks to your phoenixborn, but both attacking and defending will exhaust the creatures involved, meaning you can't use them again until the round ends. Side actions are more or less similar to main actions, but are marked with the side action icon. Alternatively, as a side action, you can meditate, discarding a card to change a single die to the next face up in power, or use a die's special ability. These vary by the different dice types and always require the most powerful face to use, but can often give you a surprise edge.

Amy’s Final Thoughts
Ashes Reborn is hardly a rebirth of the deck dueling genre. You make a deck (or use one of the prebuilt ones), summon creatures, bash your opponent round the face until you win. We've seen it before and I can guarantee we'll see it again. There are some nice twists to the genre though. In particular, I love the fact that you can choose your starting hand, this means that everyone is going to get a strong start. While the cards you draw will still add luck to the game, if you chose your starting hand well you should be able to at least survive a few rounds. The way your character can build up a library of spells that they can call on every round is a nice twist too, once again providing an element of consistency to your deck, no matter what happens you're going to be able to call upon your little sprites, or massive iron rhino.

The six included starter decks all manage to play completely differently too, with some focusing on swarming your opponents, some being pure brute force and others having to nurture their creatures, building up their strength over time until it's time to strike. This is done mostly through the phoenixborn specific cards which ensure that each character has a certain focus and it certainly keeps the game interesting. Some of these characters are simpler to use than others, but I've no doubt that in experienced hands they are evenly balanced. Just don't be shocked if your first game ends rather fast!"

The use of dice as energy is a great way to ensure that you can do things right from the start. Since you can use the meditation ability to lose a card (from the top of your deck) to ramp up the power of your dice, there is rarely a time that you can't play that card you absolutely need to play, and yet luck can still help/hinder you from turn to turn. Whatever happens though you can only spend ten dice per turn, so the energy game remains fairly balanced throughout.

Ultimately Ashes Reborn is a really rather good card game. It plays smoothly and features plenty of surprise moves and counterplay to keep the game interesting. Often taking that last health point off your opponent can end up a difficult puzzle where every turn you poise something ready to attack only for them to spend the turn exhausting it or setting up a defence. Deck dueling games are not a genre that we tend to gravitate to, so it's to Ashes' extreme credit that it only barely failed to get onto our shelves, if you are a long standing fan of the genre then you'll find a lot to love in this box.

Fi’s Final Thoughts
Even though 2-player is our primary player count, two player dueling card games are not a genre we gravitate towards. Head-to-head combat in two player games tends to be a turn off for us, quite frankly because I get annoyed at being punched in the face. However, when a game of this type does break through and I actually enjoy it, it's quite likely it'll become a favourite because it's just that good. Dice Masters and Keyforge are both games that have managed to find away into our favourites in spite of their head-to-head nature, and Dice Masters even does something more unusual, which is that it asks me to pre-build a 'deck', something I usually avoid like the plague. We wanted to try Ashes Reborn, firstly because it got a re-launch which has to mean something positive, and secondly because the dice sort of reminded me of Dice Masters. When we opened the box, I was very happy to see that the base game comes with six pre-built decks too! (The deck-building for this game would certainly be outside of my comfort zone, since I just don't enjoy trying to devise and build in clever combos into a deck in advance.

After a mis-step with one of the first decks we chose where I got completely obliterated, I've since enjoyed every deck I've played with. It's quite exciting how unique each deck feels - I've had a hoard of creatures who can each only do one damage, or a deck that tries to whittle down your opponent's deck as fast as possible, as well as a deck with really high damage creatures - each one makes you work to try and solve a new puzzle. 
Creating your tableau is only part of the game though, since each turn will force you to think carefully and creatively about how best to deploy the dice you roll. You need to think on your feet, take opportunities to block your opponents moves, and maybe you'll get the chance to pull a couple of surprise moves too.

Most games end with a really close finish, but it can take quite some time to get to the finish line. Most decks favour the long game and it can become a little tiresome to keep chipping away at an opponent who is obviously on the ropes, but just not ready to give in. Some games have a fun and varied start, but a monotonous long tail ending. On the other hand, some decks only get going right at the end of the game and what looked like a lost cause can suddenly turn into a victory. This closeness and the way that the tide can turn in a game is quite an addictive feature, which made me keen to try all that the base game had to offer. However, Ashes just doesn't quite compete with my favourites in this category, and so I don't see myself diving deeper into what could become an all-consuming lifestyle game.

You Might Like...
  • Each of the preset decks has a very unique gimmick, that is apparent early into your first game.
  • Most games end up very close, but have highs and lows for both players - some phoenixborns favour the early game and others the late game.
  • Using dice rolling as the mechanism to generate resources turns every turn into a different puzzle that tends to mitigate repetitiveness in your turns.
You Might Not Like...
  • Out of the six phoenixborn's, we'd recommend that one of the preset decks is avoided by new players.
  • Some of the decks feel like they're gimmick results in a bit of a grind and a long draw-out path to inevitable victory.

The Verdict
6.5/10 Ashes Reborn: Rise of the Phoenixborn really grew on us over multiple plays. Our first play was a complete landslide, but after that games were close and competitive with a lot of back and forth that reminded us of some of the aspects of our favourite dueling card games like Keyforge. You get a lot of content and lots of very unique strategies in this core box and I can see most board gamers enjoying and exploring this box for a long time. However, once you start deck-building and expanding, Ashes becomes a lifestyle game that we don't have the appetite to immerse ourselves into.

Ashes Reborn: Rise of the Phoenixborn was a review copy kindly provided to us by Plaid Hat Games.


  1. Lovely review and really well written :)

    I know what you mean about lifestyle games. Happened to me with Keyforge where I throughly enjoy playing it but I spend too long between play sessions that it can be a bit of chore to remember certain complexities in the rules when coming back to it so it ends up staying on the shelf more than I would want it to.

    1. Thanks for the comment, much appreciated :-)

      With Keyforge we've managed to keep playing casually. We just buy two decks each time there's a new release and every so often get tempted by cheap old decks.

    2. I'll admit, I struggle to walk into a gaming store and not pick up a pack of Keyforge ;). That or a Magic the Gathering booster pack for old times sake.

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