One of the problems that two player abstracts suffer from is one of accessibility. That is, how easy will it be for players of differing skill levels to play the game together? Particularly in games with no luck, it's all too easy for an experienced player to overwhelm a beginner and this can be discouraging for both people. I really enjoy Zertz but rarely get a chance to play anymore as finding experienced players is difficult. Introducing random factors helps somewhat but such games (two player abstracts with luck) are fairly rare breed. One such game is Phoenix, a game that I definitely found to be very "accessible".
In the center of the board six large "light spectrum" cubes, each a different colour, are placed in a row. (The rules state that these are placed randomly but I found that organizing them according to the colours of the spectrum helpful and does not affect how the game plays.) Each player has a row of ten pawns (also in six colours) arranged before himself as well as a hand of five cards. These cards allow a player to change the order of his pawns (a few even allow you to change the order of the large cubes). For example, some cards will swap the positions of any two pawns that are four spaces apart or to move a pawn three spaces to the left or right. The main objective of the game is to arrange the pawns so that their order matches that of the light spectrum cubes. There are also secondary considerations such as having at least one of each colour and forming long, connected groups of colours. Points are awarded for any of these objectives accomplished and then another round is played. The winner is the player with the most points after three rounds and this will take about 20 to 30 minutes, a duration ideally suited to the game's weight.
I found that Phoenix was very easy to learn and players got into the swing of things right away. The cards are well designed and easy to understand so you can practically explain the rules by telling someone to "play a card, draw a card". (The victory conditions are the only thing that you really need to explain in detail.)
Success in the game will depend much on the cards you draw as well as your initial row of pawns (if it closely matches the row of cubes it will be that much easier to end the round). Playing over three rounds does help to reward skill while allowing beginners the chance to be competitive. Further, I think that learning how to effectively combine the cards in your hand is a skill that is rewarded so doing well is not simply a matter of luck.
Another aspect of the game that I think is useful for beginners is that interaction is somewhat limited, for the most part players are independently working on their own line of pawns. It's quite often frustrating for new players to become discouraged when a veteran counteracts every move they make in a game so Phoenix avoids this problem fairly well. However a little interaction is often a good thing and there are several cards that do just this. Three (out of a deck of 50) allow a player to change the light spectrum cubes which can have a significant effect things (although nothing too drastic as only two or three cubes will be moved). There are also 10 "exchange" cards and these allow a player to swap one of her pawns with the pawn directly across the board (in her opponent's row). Obviously this is a very powerful move and since there are so many of these cards in the deck it's important to be aware that they're out there. I did find the use of these a little disappointing though—as mentioned they are powerful and so once one is played there will usually be several more played, one after the other, moving the same two pawns back and forth. This is a minor irritant at worst though.
The graphic presentation of the game is very nice, the pawns are easy to handle and the full-sized cards are clear an easy to read. A cloth bag is included which makes setting up the initial, random order of pawns that much easier. The rulebook is in four languages (English, French, German & Spanish) and easy to understand with no ambiguities (that I could see).
Overall, I think Phoenix is a very nice game in the light, casual class. It won't set anybody's world on fire but it's a decent little diversion.
- Greg Aleknevicus