27th Oct2017

‘The Legend of the Five Rings’ Card Game Review

by Matthew Smail

L5R-box

Among all of the settings that I’ve come across in gaming of all kinds, one of my personal favorites is the feudal age of Japan. From the beautiful architecture and manicured gardens to the subterfuge, suppuku and all out war, it’s a time and place filled with intrigue and potential, especially from the perspective of a Westerner. Relatively few tabletop games have captured this theme, but The Legend of the Five Rings Collectible Card Game (CCG) is set in exactly such a setting (called Rokugan) and has been a popular alternative to Magic: The Gathering for many years.

Recently however, due to its acquisition by Fantasy Flight Games, The Legend of the Five Rings has been reimagined as a Living Card Game or LCG. Unlike a CCG which is expanded using blocks of booster packs (alongside starter packs and so on), LCG’s are expanded in large expansions that remain tournament legal indefinitely. In effect, LCG’s maintain a level of predictable cost and eliminate the somewhat ridiculous secondary market that can plague CCG’s like Magic: The Gathering (MTG) and Yu-Gi-Oh, whilst also presenting a less complex landscape for new players to come to terms with.

With the switch from CCG to LCG and a change in publisher, The Legend of the Five Rings has experienced a number of changes in the way it plays. Rather than explain them here (I’ve only played the original game briefly), I’ll just give an overview of how the new version plays. Broadly speaking, The Legend of the Five Rings is a relatively complex card game that trades the simplicity of games like MTG for greater strategic depth and, dare I say it, less variance due to luck. The game features several mechanics to ensure that the influence of card draw or resource drought/flood are addressed in fair and interesting ways.

The game begins with players placing five facedown provinces, which represent their holdings within the land of Rokugan. Of these, one is placed beneath their stronghold, which is placed face up on top. On each of the other four provinces, players play a facedown card from their Dynasty Deck. Any number of these cards can be discarded and replaced before play begins. Players then draw honour tokens from a shared pool equal to the value shown on their stronghold, then determine who will play first. The second player receives a single fate token by way of compensation.

Fate, which acts as the primary resource in The Legend of the Five Rings, is drawn at the beginning of each turn based (again) on information on each stronghold card. As you can probably imagine, your choice of stronghold is really important, although in the starter box that I’m reviewing, all five strongholds appear to be evenly matched. Province choice is just as important, because when the opposing player attacks any one of them, it will usually add a benefit or bonus to the cards that the defender assigns to protect it. This includes when the stronghold itself is attacked, and I think it’s great that you can pair provinces and strongholds differently in each game so that your opponent never knows what bonus you will have until they are already committed to an attack.

Before any attack is made, players take turns to spend their fate on deploying cards from their provinces and into play. An interesting feature of The Legend of the Five Rings is that characters remain in play for just one turn if only their base cost is paid. Any number of additional fate counters can be added to a character when it is first played, so if you pay a cost of four fate and then add three fate counters, you’ll remove one of those counters at the end of each turn until none remain, at which time the character is removed from play.

The next unique feature of The Legend of the Five Rings relates to a bidding mechanic that places honour as a secondary resource. Each player uses a dial to bid an amount of honour against their opponent, with the player that scores highest drawing the difference in cards from a second deck (known as the Conflict Deck) between the number they bid and the number their opponent bid. In return, they must pay back the difference in honour tokens. The primary victory conditions means that the first player to score twenty five honour wins, so bidding high is a risky tactic even if it does result in a better/larger hand of Conflict Deck cards.

Conflict itself is also interesting and surprisingly deep. Up to two conflicts (military and political) can be declared by each player on each turn, with the players drawing and placing elemental discs on their opponents provinces and then resolving the conflicts in turn. During conflicts, players may use cards from their hand of Conflict Deck cards to influence the outcome. This deck contains characters, attachments and other cards that buff and debuff the opponent, force their characters to withdraw from combat and so on. Any attacking player that wins combat takes the benefit of the elemental disc that they used (which may mean bonus honour, for example.) If their victory is great enough, they may also break the defending players province. Should three provinces break, then the opposing stronghold can be attacked directly. Unsurprisingly, breaking the opponents stronghold is another way to win.

With so many systems in place, The Legend of the Five Rings is daunting at first, but it soon becomes second nature. The box contains enough cards to make a deck for each of the five clans in the game, assuming you don’t mind reusing the neutral, province and occasionally, stronghold cards. Serious players will need to buy several starter sets or wait for Dynasty packs to be released in order to optimize their decks, but as an out of the box experience, I loved The Legend of the Five Rings. It’s worth noting that I haven’t covered every single rule here, so for example there is the Imperial Favour mechanic plus several other minor features that are all explained very simply in the manual.

The artwork on the cards in The Legend of the Five Rings is absolutely stunning, with beautiful detail and exceptional use of colour that really captures the theme. On that note, the interweaving of fate and honour mechanics with the hidden provinces, stronghold and combat systems is also fantastic. Although it is absolutely just a card game, The Legend of the Five Rings presents the feeling of being much more because of how players will set up their provinces in such a way that there is a sense of ownership and presence on the table.

Whilst it is perhaps slightly harder to teach than MTG (and certainly harder to teach than the likes of Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokémon), The Legend of the Five Rings is probably a more rewarding game for the home gamer. With the cost predictability it offers and the focus on constructed decks rather than drafting or deck building, it’s also likely to be more fair on average. On that note, you’ll rarely lose a game due to luck, which is another feature I really appreciated about it. It comes as something of a surprise to me to do so, but I highly recommend The Legend of the Five Rings and as a result, I’m giving it a:

**** 4/5

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