Legend of the Five Rings and its world of Rokugan are one of the most beloved fictional setting in gaming. With eight great Clans and several minor houses clamoring for position to become the Emperor, the mythology is full of military stratagems and posturing, political intrigue, and danger around every turn.
It found success as one of the most successful collectible card games outside of Magic: The Gathering, as well as a role-playing game, amassing a huge following over the years. When Fantasy Flight Games announced that they were planning on reimagining the game as part of their Living Card Game system, both loyal fans and newcomers alike were overjoyed with the news.
Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game is a ‘living card game’ for two players that takes between 60-90 minutes to play.
Players construct a deck using cards from one of seven clans, splashing in cards from another clan and generic cards. Each player has four provinces that serve as the staging area for cards coming into play, and are the target for attack by their opponent. Cards on provinces can either be characters, attachments that enhance characters in play, or attachments that enhance the province they are on. Each player also has a stronghold province that provides players with fate tokens each turn and is more difficult to defeat.
Turns of the game follows the following sequence of steps:
Dynasty Phase: Players turn cards played on provinces face-up, collect fate tokens and bring characters from provinces into play. Character cards enter play by paying their fate cost, with extra fate spent and placed on the cards either to keep them in play for more turns, or to activate card powers.
Draw Phase: Using a dial, players secretly bid how many cards they wish to draw. Players reveal their bids and draw their cards, and whoever bid higher has to pay the difference in honor points to the low bidder.
Conflict Phase: Battles start when a player declares the type of attack (military or political), identifying which province is being attacked, and what element is being used in the attack. After defenders are chosen, players alternate in playing cards from their hand and activating other card powers, with the player with the higher stat claiming victory in the battle. If the attacker wins by a margin greater than the province strength they were attacking, that province is broken. In addition, a victorious attack provides varying rewards for that player (drawing cards, honor points, etc.) depending on which element was selected at the beginning of combat. Each player gets to initiate an attack twice per turn.
Fate Phase: Character cards without fate tokens are removed from play and each character then has a fate token removed from their card.
Regroup Phase: Face-up cards on provinces may be discarded from provinces and all the cards used in the turn are readied.
The game ends when one player attacks and breaks their opponent’s stronghold, when one player gains 25 honor points, or when one player loses their entire honor.
Legend of the Five Rings has some interesting mechanics integrated into the gameplay. The bidding system for determining the number of cards drawn adds a good amount of strategic tension to the game, by forcing players to balance their own need for cards with their assessment of their opponent’s and own cards in play and the cards in hand. A gross overestimation or underestimation of the board state and associated draw bid can either lead to a wealth of possible card choices in a full hand, or a large transfer of honor from one player to another.
Game tension is added when province cards are targeted for attack. Since they are played face-down and only available for viewing to their owner, their powers are unknown to the attacker and revealed only when they are declared as the target. Upon reveal, provinces activate abilities that can have significant impact on combat, such as providing bonuses and penalties or switching the type of attack (military vs political). It makes attacking an unknown province a bit of a gamble, forcing players to probe their opponent’s defenses before committing an overwhelming attack force.
Unfortunately, while some mechanics may be interesting, they do not support a game that is exciting to play. The gameplay is extremely repetitive, with the above aspects the only bright spots in our experience. Conflict resolution is especially boring, being a simple comparison of attack vs. defense value and the limiter on victory being the person who runs out of actions and cards to play first.
Further, in every game we played, whoever played their ‘champion’ (the strongest character in their deck) first, ultimately was the victor. Finally, in the games we played, breaking the other player’s stronghold was the only path to victory, as the number of honor points gained and lost over the course of the games had no impact on victory. In the end, game play was unsatisfying despite the integration of two interesting mechanics.
The Legend of the Five Rings IP has a vast and detailed mythology, having a history going back to 1995 with a collectible card game and roleplaying game. With influences from all over Asia, the game’s theme is expressed through the card titles, powers, and art. To those with exposure to the world of Rokugan and previous players of L5R, we imagine that the game would be dripping with the theme that would be present throughout gameplay. However, with our limited exposure to the mythology and backstories, we found the characters unfamiliar and uninteresting (but we appreciated the story in the Learn to Play guide nonetheless).
The final, and perhaps greatest, detractor to L5R is the game itself that is provided in the box. With a single box, players simply cannot create complete decks, or even somewhat larger decks that could provide a game experience that is marginally (if not significantly) better than the experience we had. We could not experience a full game with full rules in the way the designers meant for the game to be played, which was exceedingly frustrating. Others have suggested that an easy fix is to purchase another box, or to print out proxies of cards. Neither of these solutions change the fact that the game is, as presented and sold, incomplete. We are sure this led to the negative impressions we had while playing.
Combining a few interesting mechanics and a property with a rich history do not necessarily make a game that is fun and exciting to play. The sampler platter that is provided in the Legend of the Five Rings box does not inspire us to want to order anything else off the menu.
Score: 2.5 Stars – This could possibly be higher, but not with the game that is provided in the box.
• Incomplete game requires multiple boxes to fully experience
• Unexciting conflict resolution
• Gameplay is tedious and repetitive