An intro to Ashes

In Ashes by Joe2 Comments

This art is insane. However much PHG are paying Fernanda, it's not enough.

This art is insane. However much PHG are paying Fernanda, it’s not enough.

Ashes has been getting a lot of love from the gaming community recently. The Team Covenant Ashes Weekend effectively launched the game as a viable competitive game, and got people talking about the new expansions, the changing meta and the swag that Plaid Hat have been stuffing their OP kits with [links to PDF].

I’ve been playing casual games of Ashes since late 2015, and I’m going to go into a few things that I’ve learned about it: what makes it different, what makes it fun, and maybe even a bit of strategy advice.

Ashes is an expandable dueling card game in an incredibly competitive market. Two (or up to four) players face off against each other, summoning units and casting spells to damage and restrict their opponents. It’s familiar territory.

So what makes it different? Well, it uses custom dice as resources. That’s different. The deck size is limited to 30 cards. That’s different. Your units are, for the most part, kept in a separate deck, and are summoned through spells that stay on your board. Also different. And you get to choose your starting hand. That’s very different. The distribution method is transparent and even, like LCGs, and the expansion schedule is frugal. It’s a very new-player-friendly game system.

The game is different enough to feel fresh and interesting. It’s also very easy to get into, with the core set containing all you need to play multiplayer pre-constructed, constructed and draft. And all of us at Mostly Off-topic recommend it very highly.

So, assuming you’ve now watched a couple of videos and run to your local shop to buy a core set, here’s a bit of a breakdown of player strategy in Ashes.

Always start by laying down a book. They're the backbone of the game.

Always start by laying down a book. They’re the backbone of the game.

If you play any of the many dueling card games, you know all about the importance of economy in gaining an advantage over your opponent. And you understand the concept of ‘action advantage’ – gaining an edge by being able to do more things than your opponent.

In Ashes, actions are so tightly paced that, along with a resource economy, there is an ‘action economy’. The way the game works – you do a thing, I do a thing – combined with the limited cards and dice each player has access to each turn creates an interesting dynamic.

The subtleties of the game come in your decision-making during attacks: do you lose that unit you’ve just summoned, or do you block with your Phoenixborn, edging your opponent closer to victory? Essentially, you have three choices during your turn: attack your opponent’s board (either with a unit, or with a spell), attack their Phoenixborn (usually with a unit), or prepare and expand your board by playing ready spells, summoning units or enhancing existing units.

All together now: "Stop! Hammer Knight!"

All together now: “Stop! Hammer Knight!”

Quite often, there’s a huge advantage in allowing your opponent’s attacks on your Phoenixborn through, or in blocking with your Phoenixborn. Their units will exhaust, leaving their board vulnerable to your attacks. In doing so, however, you push your luck as your Phoenixborn gets ever nearer death.

There’s not a huge amount of card draw in the game (at time of writing), but you draw back up to five cards each round. There are very few ways to get exhausted dice back to your ready pool so, in a similar way to Fiasco, they act as a bit of a timer for each round.

Currently, NPE archetypes like choke, exhaust and discard are somewhat limited. They exist, and you can build around those mechanics, but they’re not as prevalent as in the Game of Thrones card game (pick your edition).

This mouse is nails. Look at how tough he is. He's probably from Glasgow or something.

This mouse is nails. Look at how tough he is. He’s probably from Glasgow or something.

In Sheffield, we’ve seen the meta grow very slowly. Despite the consistently amazing art by Fernanda Suarez, the ease in which a game can be learned, and the all-in-one-package value the core set offers, take-up is gradual.

This isn’t due to lack of trying. Some of us regularly demo the game, always with very positive results. And this weekend sees the very first organised play event for Ashes at Patriot Games in Sheffield.

The problem, I suspect, is the glut of games that Ashes has pitched itself against. It’s positioned as the budget expandable card game and, in Sheffield, this means a few people are picking it up as a second game.

That’s no bad thing – Ashes is a great second, or third, game. But gaming time is limited for all of us and, when you’ve got a plethora of great stuff coming from Fantasy Flight every few weeks, and the endless machine that is Magic: the Gathering, how do you fit Ashes in?

The answer probably lies in expansions. The core set-only meta has existed in a bubble since last summer, and it feels like the game is ready to grow. Great news then that expansions are landing this weekend, along with the OP kits.

UK players will get their hands on anywhere between two and four new Phoenixborn, depending on their experiences with promos so far. That’s a total of ten playable Phoenixborn, and a card pool that offers creativity and variety.

It’s an exciting time for Ashes, and the online buzz around the game is getting it noticed. This week alone, I’ve demoed the game to a top-tier Netrunner player who’d been reading about the game and wanted to give it a try. I’ve had messages from three other highly-committed card-gamers asking about Ashes and what they need to buy to start playing it (the answer is one core set and some sleeves).

Coal's showcase card. The cost to play cards is in the top right, while the text below each card's title says what it is and where it goes once you've played it.

Coal’s showcase card. The cost to play cards is in the top right, while the text below each card’s title says what it is and where it goes once you’ve played it.

Now that there’s a growing community, and there will shortly be more cards, I’m confident this game will see a lot of play in Sheffield, and in the UK. Some of us have already made plans to meet up at the UK Games Expo and do some Phoenixborn dueling. I’m sure it won’t be long before the game has a system for regionals and nationals.

As with all things that involve a community, the trick is to start small. It only takes a few committed, positive people to start something. Before too long, you’ll be joined by others.

I hope you’re getting a lot of games of Ashes in at your local store. But, if not, try to start something small with one or two other dedicated players. Set up a demo night – the dice-and-cards combo, along with the amazing art, will be enough to draw people to your table. At that point, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand, so pass them the Coal Roarkwin pre-constructed deck and explain the basics.

Then, after two or three turns of laying down spells and swinging into each other with Iron Rhinos, Blood Archers and Butterfly Monks, see how much fun they’re having.

Don’t be scared to try Ashes.


  1. Excellent article, Joe.

    I’m really enjoying the game and I’m looking forward to trying my first deck out soon (Jessa).

    I’m also thinking of grabbing a second core set. I thought about just buying the dice from Plaid Hat, but having the second set of cards as well will give me some flexibility on the deck-building (I can try out stuff while my wife and friends can just run the pre-constructed decks).

    I missed out on the expansions, though I should now be on the list for when they come back in store (have you heard when this might be?)

    Anyway, keep up the good work.
    See you soon,


    1. Author

      Cheers Jamie! I have two cores, mainly for deck building, but also for the extra dice. I wouldn’t buy multiple copies of the expansions, but duplicates of the core set cards are incredibly useful – especially things like Molten Gold, Sympathy Pain, Anchornaut, Expand Energy, Leech Warrior… OK, all of the cards are good.

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