A Glance at Legend of the Five Rings…

Base Game Review

Player/s: 2

Play Time (Box): 45-90mins

Play Time (Goof): 60mins

Producer: Fantasy Flight Games

Designer: Nate French, Brad Andres, and Erik Dahlman

 

For Shame! I can hear you crying like some kind of Impeccable Magistrate.  Why is this a glance and not a full review? Well allow me to use my Voice of Honor and explain. I REALLY want to talk about Legend of the Five Rings, and I haven’t played enough to do a full review yet.

My muses are everywhere.

Don’t get all Matsu Berserker on me, it’s a beast of a game (almost a Kitsu Warrior if you will). And I’ve been competing in a couple of local leagues and competitions at Ace Comics and Games Annerley and Vault Games. As such, I’ve been more focused on refining my own strategy and not as a reviewer exploring all aspects of the game like the taint trying to spread through Rokugan.

Legend of the Five Rings is a competitive Living Card Game with a number of interesting elements. It’s got seven distinctly different clans (factions you play in), a variety of different strategies and a couple of different win conditions. Fighting political and military battles over the five rings, each with unique and fascinating powers, you build yourself a deck and go to battle against another player. I haven’t tried to Multiplayer variant yet, just the 1v1 matches.

It’s a lot of fun.

I will say, part of me only really got into competitive play with L5R after Android: Netrunner was heartbreakingly cancelled (we salute you in your final days, you amazing game). I try to keep myself to only one competitive LCG at a time, because keeping up with the packs can get a little expensive on the wallet (and I’ve essentially given up Collectable Card Games all together because they’re a huge money sink). I am enjoying the new experience. Let me explain why.

 

The Good

L5R is a really different beast. Fantasy Flight Games continues to surprise me with how unique card games can be. In my younger gaming days, I always played pre-constructed deck games which followed a very similar format. Put thing on field, use thing to hit enemies, use cards in hand to support things hitting enemies. They were usually quite straight forward and deviated very little in terms of strategy, always approaching the same goal just from different positions.

L5R has the dude on the field hitting things, don’t get me wrong. But it’s much wider than that. For example, you can win in three different ways – destroying your opponent’s stronghold, getting to 25 honor, or your opponent going to 0 honor. And the dudes have a timer which you can manipulate called “fate”. It’s a system I quite like as it sort of works to balance things by not keeping powerful characters around too long and makes when you play characters matter. L5R isn’t just about hitting your opponent – it’s about when you hit, how you hit, where you hit, and if you can outmatch your opponent in strategy.

I’m not claiming to be an expert on L5R. As in stands I’m way more likely to lose a game than win one. But each time I’ve lost, I’ve seen mistakes I’ve made, combinations which I could have exploited better, missed opportunities to improve on next time. It’s less about the cards I have and more about how I use them. To me this really clearly indicates the game has a ton of crucial decision making points. It’s almost overwhelming to be honest. If you’re the sort of gamer who enjoys juggling a lot of different elements, L5R is for you. If not – I don’t think my next few paragraphs are going to convince you to like this game.

You have two different decks in L5R. Conflict and Dynasty. The dynasty deck is where your characters come from, as they fill provinces and can be instructed to enter their particular fray. The conflict cards are like the strategies and tricks you use to manipulate the various elements such as honor of your clan, political conflicts, military conflicts, character deployment, personal honor of characters, equipment, spells, spirits… the list goes on. What FFG have managed to do is get a competitive card game to tell a story which unfolds as you play. I was super concerned all the elements wouldn’t interact and things would get a little too convoluted. And look yeah, L5R isn’t a straight arrow. It twists and turns like a Phoenix Shugenja weaving a spell. But it works.

When I say L5R tells a story, this actually occurs on multiple levels. There’s the immediate game you’re playing out, then there’s the narrative FFG is writing to coincide with pack releases (which I thoroughly enjoy), and then there’s the voting players get to do at competition for which role their clan is going to get, and who takes important locations such as the city of Toshi Ranbo which the Scorpion clan has now claimed (leading to an exclusive card they can use).

All of these storytelling elements lead players (especially me) to care about their clan. To feel loyalty to it. To want to embrace the narrative from their point of view. It’s the part of the game I enjoy the most and hats off to FFG for managing to do this fairly well.

This Glance is really starting to get to a length where the metaphor makes me feel like I’ve been staring at you for an uncomfortable amount of time, so I’m going to stop talking about the good and move on, but one last point – the role system is something I’m super keen on. Each clan has (at current) two roles they can choose between, and a supporter role they can take if they want extra influence from a specific other clan. The roles give them specific deckbuilding benefits and restrictions, as well as a tiny in game bonus when certain things happen. It’s a system which keeps decks fresh and rotating rather than just rotating cards out of a cycle, and I actually hope they embrace the roles element even more going forward.

 

The Bad

When I first played L5R I had a lot of trouble getting my head around action windows. Some phases have no windows, others have basically infinite, you can play some of the same cards either during a conflict or during a pre-conflict window. And the phase reference cards are really no help. Cards are quite freeform in how they’re designed, which can add some interesting interactions but can also cause some confusion in interpreting them. I really don’t think the action, reaction, interrupt explanation is anywhere near clear enough on the cards themselves. And the way general concepts and effects are worded (like how resolving rings really needs the explanation of being “as the attacking player”), means learning the game is a bit of a feat. While I’ve pretty much got my head around it now, I don’t find L5R pleasurable to teach at all. What it equates to is very much a clunky system. If it wasn’t for such high production quality from such a well known publisher, I’d have suggested this was maybe a rough draft of what would eventually become a much tighter game.

The makings of a great game are there, I just don’t think L5R is where it needs to be yet. More cards being released will definitely help, but I also think the fact the only really consistently viable strategy in the game at the moment is attacking strongholds. Trying to get to 25 honor is almost undoable (I get close, normally sitting between 20 – 22 at the end of the game) but there aren’t any cards which can help you close out and every clan can play around it quite simply. It’s my biggest frustration at the moment. Don’t make it a win condition, build my clan around attempting it, and then not support us with any cards released to accomplish it!

Very, very annoying.

I don’t think the clans are balanced at this point because I think some clans are missing key parts to make their viable engines run properly (Lions put your hands up). And look, I’m a player trying to use a somewhat niche strategy which L5R currently doesn’t have cards for, so maybe it’s a bit on me. I just find there are clans whose tools are so specific to themselves it can be hard to import those tools into support for another clan, and yet can take advantage of the tools of others. It was a similar issue in Android: Netrunner with Anarch. I wonder if L5R needed to start with seven of the clans in the game, since each clan clearly hasn’t gotten the same amount of care and passion put into them. They may have been better having three or four clans in the base game, then introducing more as the game went along. I know I run the risk here of people being upset about their clan maybe not being in the game (I spoke above about how passionately devoted to your clan you can end up being), and I know some players are upset they haven’t really gotten the Mantis clan in the game yet (I’m really hoping they end up being some kind of neutral faction clan, with maybe a specific Mantis stronghold which allows them access to more support or something. They’re essentially mercenaries so I feel like it would make so much sense. Anyway, back to my point –) I feel like less variety but more focus could have been really positive for the initial state of the game.

What about for casual players? For those who don’t want to play competitively? In my absolute honest opinion I think you should give L5R a miss (it pains me to say). It’s too much of an investment just to bring it out for a casual game. And more importantly, from the perspective of having friends and family around a table playing a game, there are other games which will be more satisfying. The mere fact you have to build your decks, and the fact FFG have AGAIN not released enough of everything in the core box to have full playsets means you can’t really just build two decent and fun decks out of a single corebox to play between a couple of you. The decks are just a bit random at that stage in my opinion.

 

Conclusion

Legend of the Five Rings has so much of what I want in a competitive LCG. But it feels very much like a prototype at this stage. Almost like an early access game or a print and play prototype while the designers are polishing some things off. I want L5R to become everything it’s got the promise to be, and given how much I fell in love with Android: Netrunner, I know they can pull it off.

I’ll stop glancing now… it’s been too long since I’ve blinked.

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