Full disclosure: A review copy of Tsuro: Phoenix Rising was provided by Calliope Games.
Back with another Calliope title! As I promised like, a week ago. I can tell I’m starting to get behind on reviews because I’m going from “I wrote this in June and it’s December now” to “I wrote this on Wednesday and it’s Monday now”, which is a bit worrisome, given that I wrote that sentence on Wednesday and this sentence on Thursday. Timetables! They’re slipping! But I have plans for that. And plans for this game, so, let’s talk about Tsuro: Phoenix Rising.
Similar to Katamari Damacy, Tsuro: Phoenix Rising has a backstory about all the stars going missing from the sky. Rather than rolling your own, the people have instead released paper lanterns to illuminate the darkness, helpfully. To your surprise, phoenixes showed up and started turning the lanterns into stars! Very cool. As one of the phoenixes, capture these lanterns and convert them to stars to relight the night sky. Will you be able to outpace your opponents and relight the darkness? Or will you simply flame out?
The first thing to do is set out the tile holders; they interlock, so, it should work to just kinda snap those buddies together:
Next, have each player choose an empty space on the edge of the board and place the phoenix of your choice there:
That’ll be your player token. Grab a Life Stone, as well:
Set the Stars nearby, too:
Now, set up the play area. Have each of the center 16 tiles flipped to their cloud-outlined side (pictured), and then shuffle them and place them in the center:
Place the lanterns on the spaces with a pictured lantern of that color:
Choose one player; give them the 1P token:
Shuffle up the remaining tiles and deal each player two:
You should be ready to start!
Alright, a game of Tsuro: Phoenix Rising is played by having players create paths through the sky to turn lanterns into stars into points. If any player hits 7 points, the game ends and once all players take equal turns, the player with the most points wins! Getting points is the challenge, so let’s find out how to do that.
Create Your Path
On your turn, you’ll create your path in one of two ways. If you are facing an empty space, draw two tiles (unless you already have two tiles in your hand through some other means) and place one such that your path continues through that tile. Discard the other tile to the bottom of the stack. You may also do this if, at the start of your turn, you choose to Rise Again by removing your token from the board and discarding your Life Stone (you may only do this if you have your Life Stone). You may then place your phoenix off the board, adjacent to any empty space on the outer edge of the board.
If you are already facing a tile, you may flip or rotate it such that your path continues through that tile. If there are already players / lanterns on it, remove them temporarily and then add them back after you’ve changed the tile orientation (even if they’re no longer on a path; they’re birds).
Follow Your Path
Now, move your token to the end of the path you’ve created. As you exit tiles with lantern tokens on them, place a star next to the lantern. Once you’ve finished your path or left the board, trace your path from start to finish and move each lantern to another tile with a lantern icon of the same color and no star on it. This tile cannot be the tile your piece is currently on. After you have moved all the lanterns, take the star tokens.
I mentioned leaving the board. This happens in a few ways:
- You go off the edge of the board. You fall into the void of space. Nice.
- You collide with another player. You both explode. Nice!
- You get caught in an infinite loop. You see the entire universe end and a new one begin and the madness overwhelms your mind. Nice!!!
Either way, you dead. Remove your phoenix from the board and discard your Life Stone. If you don’t have a Life Stone, you’re eliminated. Everyone gets one. If you did have a Life Stone, on your subsequent turn you’ll place outside the board adjacent to an empty space on the outer edge of the board. If none exist, you’re also eliminated. Tough life.
Prepare Next Turn
If you end your turn facing an empty space with no tile, draw two tiles. If you cannot, take the Phoenix tile so that other players know you’re owed at least one tile by the game.
If you end your turn facing a tile, don’t do anything.
End of Game
The game ends when one of two things happen:
- A player gains 7 points. All players take an equal number of turns, so, finish the round and then tally scores. The player with the most points wins!
- All players but one are eliminated. The survivor wins by default! Take that, points.
The advanced game is played slightly differently. Setup remains the same, but now the lanterns have known states: Glowing and Dimmed. Glowing, they’re illuminated; Dimmed, they’re not.
Here’s the big change: when you claim a Star from a Lantern, you must flip it from Glowing to Dimmed, if it’s currently not Dimmed. When you move the Lantern to another tile, you must flip it from Dimmed to Glowing, if it’s currently Dimmed. You may place it on a Glowing space, if you want. When you flip, either flip it along the vertical or horizontal axis, but choose before your flip. You can’t check the backside and then change it to be what you want.
Game still ends at first to 7 points.
Player Count Differences
I personally find that a lot of where I enjoy Tsuro: Phoenix Rising is in the lower end of the player count spectrum. The reason why is simple: I think that Phoenix Rising benefits a lot from being able to execute really cool maneuvers, but those maneuvers often require a decent bit of planning and setup. With too many players, enough tiles are flipping regularly that there’s no way to formulate a coherent plan (and it’s much more likely to get noticed). At that point, it feels like you’re flying by the seat of your pants through the game, and while you may get lucky you may also get completely wrecked. It’s not entirely up to you. There’s still some of that in the lower player counts, but it’s not happening constantly since your turn occurs more often. I personally find it a bit frustrating, so I won’t play it with more than four people; I’d really rather feel like I have a sense of control with my turns. I think that the limited number of center tiles makes it feel more constrained, since you can’t switch their locations, but I’m not sure. Either way, yeah, lower player counts for me.
- Try to plan your route. This is the crux of the game, isn’t it? You need to have a plan if you’re going to try and hit a big turn. Working incrementally to gain points is fine, but if you don’t have a big turn and someone else does, well, they’re making moves on you. See what you can do, but keep in mind the board state is going to change drastically at higher player counts (especially if you’re playing with the advanced variant, which introduces even more entropy). You may not be able to plan all that much.
- It’s actually fine to die, once. It can be used to give you really solid board position, provided your opponents all move the lanterns away from one spot on the board towards another. Plus, if you choose to die, it happens at the start of your turn and you still get to go, so it’s hard to counter. Who’d’ve thought you could turn dying into an advantage?
- Try to move lanterns away from your opponents, if possible. I suggest avoiding clustering because of the thing I mentioned above, so, try and spread them around the map so that you can’t necessarily get more than one in a turn. This goes double for if you just had a massive scoring turn; you want to now make it hard for other players to emulate your big turn.
- Playing tiles to expand the board will often give new lantern placement locations. This is good! This means you can put the lanterns closer to the edge. Now, not only will your opponents have to go farther for the lanterns, they also run the risk of flying off the board to their deaths.
- Moving your tile such that you force an opponent off the board is both cruel and efficient. Highly recommend. Even better, though, is moving a tile such that you move on and your opponents slam into each other. Literally two birds with one tile. It’s just … too perfect.
- Just make sure you don’t force someone off the board and give them an excellent follow-up turn. This is the real danger. If there’s a cluster of lanterns somewhere near the board’s edge and it’s easily accessible, you’re much better off trying to force your opponents into less-useful locations than you are killing them. Though you might be well-served by killing the player with the fewest stars so that they can potentially swoop them from the higher-scoring opponents? Hard to say. Depends on the game state.
- Keep track of how many stars your opponents have. You need to know if and when they’re planning to hit the game’s end. You really don’t want to be surprised by “it’s the last round”, especially if that means you won’t get another turn after the one you just took. Whoops!
- If all else fails, attempt to disrupt your opponents’ routes. This is the kicker, honestly. If you can’t do much else, just … send your opponents somewhere unexpected, when you can. Mess with their plans. Or, use them to snipe each other. That’s always fun. Doesn’t usually affect you as much if they’re hitting each other, too.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Still a big fan of tile-laying games. It’s one of my favorite genres, which is part of why I’ve had a Tsuro family game in my collection basically since the beginning. I was super excited about Phoenix Rising for that reason, and it’s always nice to get to play more pathing games.
- I appreciate the tile holders so that it’s easy to flip up and around tiles. That’s kind of necessary for this game, I feel; otherwise, players are going to tear up tiles from constantly trying to grab them. It’s a smart way to try and reduce overall tile wear, and it’s super easy to get tiles out! You just kinda push down on them and then, it’s ready to pop out. Much simpler, in my opinion; I may try to use it for other games.
- The art’s nice! It’s very airy, which makes sense, since the whole theme is lanterns in the sky.
- I like that it’s still familiar in the overall Tsuro family. You can see the inspirations from the pathing on the tiles, which is cool. It’s very different, though, which is nice. I personally find that I enjoy this game most at lower player counts, unlike the rest of the series.
- The double-sided flippable tiles are interesting. I appreciate that the diagonals are only on one side; makes the outcomes a bit more predictable, and it’s less to remember.
- The diagonals are pretty cool, too! I like that you can attack tiles from a totally new angle with these; it adds some additional complexity, but a lot of very interesting movement patterns.
- The noise the tile holders make when you try to break them apart is horrible. It’s a particularly upsetting “CRACK”, which is … it’s not great. I wonder if the holders are going to survive long-term usage. The fact that they had to include a guide in the box to explain how to take them apart suggests that the holders being broken is a very real possibility.
- Having the pieces kind of hang off the edge of tiles is aesthetically kind of weird. It just looks a bit odd and can make the tiles a bit hard to flip. Just push them back onto the tile if you can’t move onto a new space on your turn, though the instinct to let them hang off the edge is real.
- The component quality in my copy is surprisingly poor. This is something that really bummed me out. My tiles are already warped (and starting to come apart after startlingly few plays), for instance. The first player marker looks like it was 3D printed with has some mistakes (it’s notably not flat on the top). The printing on the tiles is lower-quality than I expected, to the point that several players across several games made mistakes with their pathing because they couldn’t see the correct path on the tile (white on white). The phoenixes themselves are well-made, but they’re awfully thin and brittle for pieces that should be touched a lot; I’m worried they’re not going to survive forever. All in all, I’m kind of surprised (in a bad way) by the pieces for this game, and hoping that it’s just bad luck that I got a copy with these issues, rather than having it be a problem in every copy of the game.
- I probably wouldn’t play this above four players. The thing I like about the game is planning and executing a smooth move across multiple tiles. At higher player counts, trying to plan that is a fool’s errand; there’s too much entropy happening in the board for anyone to be able to think a full turn ahead. At lower player counts, that might not necessarily be the case, but the available space really decreases drastically as player count increases.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, Tsuro: Phoenix Rising is kind of a mixed bag, at times, for me. There are a lot of things I really like! I think it’s a lot of fun at lower player counts, and I like that it feels familiar in the Tsuro sense but adds enough new things that I’m still consistently intrigued. It’s distinct from the others in a way that Tsuro of the Seas aimed for but didn’t quite hit, I don’t think. I don’t believe you can play the base game with this set, and I think that’s good; I don’t want an upgrade. The problem is, I don’t want a downgrade, either, and that seems to be what happened in some areas of the game. The most particular ones seem to be the component quality. It’s rare for me to notice when I think components aren’t great, and these have some rough patches. I’m already noticing the tiles starting to have some issues around the corners and edges, and I’ve really only played this game five or six times? That’s not a great number. The first-player marker isn’t great, but, I never use them anyways, so don’t really care about that either. I’m also disappointed by how this game plays at higher player counts. Part of the appeal of classic Tsuro was that you could basically play it at 6 – 8 and it was still fast and fun. The additional planning requirements cause players to take a lot more time on their turns, I’ve found, and that slows the game down a lot for us. It takes it up a bit in terms of mental weight required to play the game effectively. So, like I said, mixed bag. I do really enjoy it at lower player counts, though, so I’m willing to cut this review a bit more positively than negatively because there are several things I do like. And if you’re looking for a tile-laying game best suited for smaller groups of players, it’s possible you’ll enjoy Tsuro: Phoenix Rising, too!