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[Review] Phoenix

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Phoenix (Eurogames, 2003 - Zach and Amanda Greenvoss) is one of the most colorful games I own; its brightly colored box contrasting sharply against all the rest on my shelf. This is rather fitting, considering that the game itself is about the rearrangement of color. In fact, there is no theme, with the colors in the spectrum of light being mentioned only to expedite game mechanics. When the game is set up, everything looks bright, colorful, and full of fun.

Sadly, although the game produces a bit of fun, there isn’t much else to recommend this game. I have used it to wean new players into the wonderful world of board games, but even these players realized that the strategy in the game was basically at the whim of the cards drawn. There are a certain amount of moves a player may make, but luck of the cards will determine a winner against equally skilled players; and the game leaves one feeling a bit unsatisfied.

The game consists of three rounds, each of which requires the same setup. A small board is placed in the middle of the table, with six squares in the middle of it and with two rows of ten circles in front of each player that run parallel to the squares. Six cubes of different colors (red, green, blue, yellow, purple, and orange) are mixed up and randomly placed on the squares. A cloth bag is then filled with thirty pawns, five each that match one of the colors on the squares. Players take turns randomly selecting pawns and placing them on their row of circles. A deck of fifty cards is shuffled; five cards are dealt to each player; and one player is chosen to start, with play alternating.

On a turn, a player simply plays a card, follows its effect, and draws another. Players are seeking to line up their pawns in the same color order as the squares in the middle. Cards allow for a variety of effects, such as:
- Move: These cards allow a player to move one of their pawns a certain amount of spaces in either direction (2, 3, or 4). The pawn displaced and all others in between are shifted one space towards the space vacated by the moving pawn.
- Switch: These cards allow a player to switch two pawns on their side. (Either adjacent, two, three, or four spaces away.)
- Rotate: The player may switch the two pawns at both ends of their lineup.
- Exchange: The player may switch one of their pawns with the pawn on their opponent’s side that is directly opposite.
- Modify: The player may move or switch blocks in the middle. There are only three of these cards.

As soon as one player has all of their pawns lined up, each group of pawns of the same color in the same order as the blocks in the middle, the round ends immediately. (A player need not have all six colors represented in their line of pawns.) Players then score points according to these specifications:
- The player who got all of their pawns in the correct order receives five points.
- Having all six colors in one’s lineup scores a player four points.
- Having three, four, or five pawns in a row of the same color scores a player two, three, or four points respectively.
Players total their points and begin another round. After three rounds, the player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: This is where the game really shines, as the components are dazzling, both in color and quality. The blocks of wood are fairly large, with rounded edges, making them easy to grasp. The pawns are the same as ordinary game pawns except for their bright colors and the nice, wooden finish. The board is a bright orange and yellow, with the spaces for blocks and pawns clearly defined; and this and all the pieces fit easily in a nice sized box, one of the most colorful I own. The box is a little bigger than necessary, about twice the size of Eurogames other two-player games. The cards have no text on them, instead showing an example of each action, and are quite easy to read and understand. Bright, colorful, cheerful - the game bits certainly elicit a definite reaction.

2.) Rules: The rulebook comes in four languages: English, German, French, and Spanish - each consisting of seven full-color pages. The rules are extremely simple, but the manual takes no chances, showing each card in full color and giving very detailed instructions on how to use them. There is absolutely no question after reading these rules that they are very thorough. The game is very easy to teach; and although a few players take a bit to differentiate between switching and moving pawns, everyone, even children catch on quickly.

3.) Strategies and Tactics: Obviously, a player is trying to get their pawns into order as quickly as possible - similar to other games such as 10 Days in Africa. The difference here is that a player’s pawns are seen by all; and if they don’t get the right cards, an opponent’s move can really leave them reeling. For example, if you have all of your pawns in order, almost finished, and an opponent switches one of their pawns, what can you do? If you have a card to reverse the process, that’s great; but otherwise, the player can be left up a creek with no cards to play effectively. Yes, they can reverse what happened; but it might take eight cards, depending on what they draw. And that, I fear, is probably my biggest problem with the game. You may have executed some of the best tactical maneuvering in the world, but a single card play by your opponent can leave you stranded.

4.) Scoring: The scoring sounds interesting and unique, but I have yet to see a game where the person who doesn’t line up their pawns first two out of the three rounds win. So why bother with the scoring at all? Is it simply a way to make the loser feel good?

5.) Fun Factor: Even though I have severe problems with the strategic black hole in the game, it does provide a bit of mindless fun; and players sit there, concentrating hard on their colored pawns, as if they can fight fate. Frankly, if I want to do something like that, I’ll play the vastly superior 10 Days in Africa (or USA) game, which do the same thing but allow the player a lot of ways to win.

Despite my enthusiasm for bright, colorful components, sometimes they aren’t enough. Phoenix is a great game to have set up on your coffee table (as long as you don’t mind the slight gaudiness of it) for it attracts people with its stimulating visual effects. However, after a play or two, players will realize that the game, while interesting, really doesn’t provide any real choices; and they are simply moving their pawns, hoping to get the cards they need. If you’re seeking a pleasant diversion without any real brain usage, this game may delight you. And indeed, it’s too beautiful for me to get rid of. But to play it, I’d rather watch, thank you, and pretend that the players have something to do with the outcome.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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