I can be a total sucker when it comes to being attracted to a game almost purely based on its theme. And sometimes that’s burned me, most exemplified by the copy of Conquest of Nerath that has done nothing but gather dust in my living room. After hearing some of my fellow X-Wing players raving about Fantasy Flight Games’ (FFG) Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), and taking a look at some preview articles, I decided to give the game some consideration. If I got burned again, the initial investment was pretty modest ($39.95), so I wouldn’t feel bad if I only ended up playing it with someone else once or twice.
Legend of the Five Rings is a living card game (LCG) for two players set in the world of Rokugan, a fictional world influenced by feudal Japan and its mythology. Each player represents one of the seven major clans seeking the favor of the Emperor, either through outright conquest, achieving enough honor to gain the emperor’s favor, or thoroughly dishonoring your opponent. While I never really played the original collectible card game (CCG) or know much about it, the initial lore that FFG presented seemed pretty interesting. It draws some parallels to the Dune, especially the various Houses trying to curry favor with the Galactic Emperor. The game itself also kind of feels like a real-time strategy (RTS) game with a card game element. I find myself being highly engaged while looking at the distinct styles of the seven clans, and I recommend reading through the freely available lore.
The Major Clans of Rokugan
Rather than going through a dry wall of text explaining the basics of the game, here’s an intro video from the folks over at Team Covenant as well as the Learn to Play guide from FFG’s main site.
First off, while it feels like a minor thing, I want to note how much I love this game’s mulligan rule, which is the first of its type I’ve seen in any card game I’ve played. There’s nothing that feels more shitty in a card game than to mulligan a bad starting hand only to end up redrawing some or all of those cards. L5R’s method of keeping your unwanted cards out of the pool of cards you redraw is a great feature, lessening the chance of bad redraws.
Where I think the game really shines is the multitude of interesting decision points throughout all the phases of the game. All your choices feel like they matter a lot. Do I assassinate a troublesome character and risk being dishonored? Do I spend extra fate on this powerful character at the expense of paying for another one? Is the fate from passing early in the dynasty phase really worth risking my opponent flooding his side with characters that I may not be able to respond to? The back and forth nature of the game phases also feels great. While there are things in the game that could be described as wombo combos, your opponent will generally have at least a few opportunity windows to either respond or try to disrupt it.
Because the card pool for each clan is relatively small at the moment, there’s not much to the deckbuilding aspect of the game. Pick two or three copies of each of your “best” cards and maybe a few niche/tech cards, and you’re done. The Clans themselves feel somewhat balanced, though the Unicorn clan feels like a sour exception (they’re really bad). Hopefully as more cards are added we’ll see perhaps some deck archetypes for each Clan, and Unicorn might be playable.
There are a few other things to nitpick. For one, most decks will have a whole lot of triggers or reaction cards to keep track of. There’s very few “vanilla” cards in this game. Just about everything allows you to take some sort of action or has some sort of conditional trigger effect that are generally important. I find myself forgetting to trigger a ton of stuff every game. It can get a little overwhelming and frustrating. And while it’s great there’s a lot of clans in the game to choose from, it means you’ll need to be somewhat familiar with all of them, lest you get throttled by things you don’t realize you need to play around. For example, in my first game against a Dragon clan I ran into that discarded my hand down to four (I had nine cards in hand) and proceeded to get steamrolled in two turns because of it. Sad! Players have also raised some concerns about the introduction of that are in the game and that might be , but I think there should be a “wait and see” approach to figure out if there are really any problem cards that might need adjustments.
Well, with one exception: The one type of card I do have a bit of an issue with are the dueling cards, such as . Dueling is, in theory, an interesting mechanic: Take two characters, compare their political or military skill value based on the type of duel, and then bid honor (one through five) to add to their skill, and then determine a winner. Overbidding your opponent requires you to give them the amount of honor you overbid, regardless of whether you win or lose. The problem is that the person initiating the duel chooses the participating characters, making it somewhat easy to engineer a duel where you cannot possibly lose, allowing you to just bid one and not have to worry about losing any honor and still win the duel. Policy Debate in particular is a powerful card, letting you see your opponent’s hand and getting to discard the best card. Some adjustments could be made to add some risk to the initiating player, which feels like the original intention behind the concept of duels.
The game’s competitive scene is also where I’m very intrigued at the things Fantasy Flight Games is implementing. FFG has been developing an ongoing story for the game, and the direction of the story will be impacted in some ways by the results of major competitive events. The other aspect of competitive play is Clan Roles. Roles, an optional part of the core game, are assigned to each Clan at the end of the World Championship each November. Roles bend some of the rules of building decks and also will provide access to cards requiring a specific role type or element. That means each time the roles change could have major meta implications without the need of even adding any cards. Though there are some downsides as it means some cards are essentially dead for a clan and the role choice may come with some controversy.
Lastly, we should talk about the LCG model. This is the first game I’ve bought into that uses this model, and I like it. All the contents of each product are known. There are no boosters. I was initially alarmed at the aggressive rate of releases for this first expansion cycle (6 packs in 6 weeks!) but the next product release is rumored to be February with a less aggressive release schedule, so this feels like it won’t hurt your wallet too much to keep up with if you want to play competitively.
Single core set games for casual play are also a good experience (just don’t play Unicorn). If you want to play competitively you will want to buy at a bare minimum 2 core sets and most of the expansion packs released (each pack is $15). It should be noted that you can also easily split 3 core sets with another person as long as both people don’t intersect with clan cards. If you are trying to get the most bang for your buck, investigate each pack to skip the ones that don’t have any relevant cards for you.
So I’d give this a recommendation for anyone looking for a competitive minded card game.
Update: And just like that, we get a news drop for a new clan pack upcoming focusing on Clan Phoenix. Not sure how I feel about this for the competitive meta. There’s mention that there will be cards for other clans in this pack to counter some things that Phoenix can do, which probably means they might be auto-includes once this pack drops.