War of Honor is a card/tile game by AEG set in the world of Rokugan (a fantasy Japan/samurai setting). For 3-4 players (the box says 2-4, but you shouldn’t be playing it with only 2 players), War of Honor places each player in control of one of four samurai clans as they battle and politic their way to victory. The game is very strategic and interactive, kind of a board game with cards. The cards in the game are also compatible with the broader Legend of the Five Rings CCG, but this review is solely based on the game as a stand-alone product, and assumes the reader has not played the CCG.
What’s In The Box?
For your $60, War of Honor brings you one 82 card deck (split into two portions) for each of the four clans, one board for keeping track of who’s winning, and five sheets of tiles/tokens (technically, the game comes with another five tile/token sets, but at present those are only useful for the CCG). All of the components are of very good quality. The cards have to be the same as the L5R CCG cards, so there’s definitely no concern about whether they’ll hold up well (they are, IMHO, of much sturdier stuff than what you usually get in a card game). The tiles/tokens are all heavy and thick.
There are basically two aspects of the setup for War of Honor – your decks, and the constructible board of hex tiles. Each clan gets a specific, fixed deck (you do not need to customize the decks with anything inside or outside of the box) divided into two 40-card portions – the Dynasty deck, and the Fate deck. The Dynasty deck mostly contains Holdings and Personalities. Holdings are the games resource-producer (the resource is Gold). Personalities are the individual samurai (or their spellcasting equivalent, shugenja) who will fight your battles, pray to gain honor, shame your enemies, and so forth. You access the cards in your Dynasty deck through your four Provinces, which each holds one card. They start face-down, flip up at the start of your turn, and can be discarded at the end of your turn if you want to get to something better. Provinces can be destroyed during the game, reducing your access to Dynasty cards. Each Dynasty deck also has a couple of Events, which are cards that just create some effect when they are revealed in your Provinces. Your Fate deck is a more traditional affair – you start with a hand of 6 cards, and you draw one at the end of each turn. The Fate deck is mostly Strategy cards, which are one-shot effects that cost no Gold. Some of the Fate decks also have “attachments” – Followers, Weapons, or Spells that you can equip on your Personalities (most attachments cost Gold). Each Fate deck also has some number of Elemental Rings, which are a specialized card type that I’ll discuss below.
The final two cards – your Stronghold and a Holding called Border Keep – start in play. They give you an initial push of Gold. Each Stronghold is clan-specific, and contributes to that deck’s win condition in a unique way. The Stronghold also defines the clan’s province strength (how hard it is to destroy the provinces), and who goes first. So at the start of the game you have your Stronghold, Border Keep, a hand of six cards, face-down cards in your four provinces, and two decks.
Then there’s the board, which is constructed each game out of hex tiles. One tile (representing the capital city of Toshi Ranbo) starts on the board, and the players take turns placing their Fortress and Plains (blank, basically) tiles down. The boards have to effects. First, the locations of Fortress tiles affect who can ally with whom in battles. Second, each Fortress tile has an ability for the player to use. There are three kinds of abilities, and one tile for each kind – Limited, Open, and Battle. You can take Limited actions during your Action phase, Open actions during anyone’s Action phase, and Battle actions during, well, battles.
On each turn, you flip up your face-down Dynasty cards. Then you get an Action phase, during which you can play some Strategy cards and take some actions printed on your Holdings or Personalities (like on the Fortress tiles, all of these actions are Limited, Open, or Battle). Putting one of those Followers/Weapons/Spells on your Personality is a Limited, so now’s the time to do that.
After the Action phase it’s time for battle in the Attack phase. Attacking is optional, but if you Attack then you pick a particular player as the Defender, and can assign your Personalities to attack one or more of the Defender’s provinces. Depending on the Fortress tiles, either side may be able to invite other players to join in as allies (a very political aspect of the game). Battles, ultimately, come down to comparing the Force of one side (a stat on each Personality, Follower, and Weapon) vs. the Force of the other side. Whoever has more Force wins (if it’s a tie, you both lose); loser dies. If the attacking army has more Force than the combined total of the defending army’s Force, plus the province strength, then the province is destroyed. Of course, it can take a lot of Battle actions before you just count up Force. Battles are the most interactive aspect of the game and, along with the decision of when/who to attack, probably the most strategic.
After the Attack phase comes the Dynasty phase, which is when you purchase Holdings and Personalities out of your provinces. Early game this may involve strategic decisions about whether to invest in more resource-producing Holdings, or just go for it with more Personalities. Later in the game you may – depending on how things have gone – just have enough Gold to buy everything.
Then you draw a card and check to see which players (if any) have advanced along one of the four Paths to Victory – Honor, Military, Dishonor, and Enlightenment. Each Path has five steps, and a requirement to advance a step. If you meet the requirement on a particular turn, then at the end of that turn you advance a step. You advance on the Honor track by gaining honor (various actions say that they gain Honor, and you can gain Honor if you pay extra to buy a Personality). You advance on the Dishonor track by (gasp!) causing other players to lose Honor (via card effects, or by killing dishonorable Personalities). You advance on the Military path by destroying a province. You advance on the Path of Enlightenment via the Elemental Rings (which I will continue to push off discussion of). You can never advance more than one step on a particular Path in a turn, although you can advance multiple Paths in one turn. Get to step 5 in a path, and you win. Each of the four clans is focused on one of the Paths – the clans may happen to advance on other Paths (which helps your tiebreakers, and gets you bonus mid-game effects), but they are highly unlikely to win by another Path. In addition to winning via the Paths, a player can lose by having all four of his Provinces destroyed – if you happen to be the only player left, you win regardless of Path status.
Each clan has its own theme, style of play, and (just to repeat myself) Path to Victory.
The Lion Clan (Military) – The Lion are archetypal samurai – warlike, proud, honorable, and dedicated to Bushido (the samurai moral code). Although they have a substantial ability to gain Honor and advance on that Path to Victory, the Lion deck will ultimately win (or not) based on its combat prowess and ability to destroy provinces. The Lion Fate deck includes Followers to help beef up the Lion army before it attacks, and the Lion tiles give extra Force or the ability to send home defending Personalities. The Lion’s stronghold “bows” enemy Personalities (a bowed Personality doesn’t add Force and mostly can’t take actions, but is still at the battlefield to be destroyed if his army loses) and can Honor if you have Bushido Fate cards to fuel it. The Lion are the most aggressive of the four decks – they always go first, and they will almost always want to attack.
The Phoenix Clan (Honor) – The Phoenix are a clan of shugenja (the samurai spellcasters of Rokugan), and their Stronghold helps them more effectively use the Spells that are included in the Fate deck (while the other clans are stuck playing attachments only during their own Action phase, the Phoenix get to attach and then immediately use their spells during any Action phase or during battle). Although their Spells can cause a lot of damage in battle, the Phoenix deck is a purely defensive deck focused on winning through the Honor Path to Victory. Their tiles play into this theme, sending home attacking Personalities and gaining Honor. The deck has some ability to gain Honor through battle or on other player’s turns, but its biggest strength is that once it gets going it is virtually guaranteed to advance its Path to Victory on each of its turns. The Phoenix deck therefore often acts as a hard clock on the game, because it will win if the game stagnates.
The Scorpion Clan (Dishonor) – The Scorpion are underhanded samurai, manipulating the law and bushido to shame their enemies. As such, they pursue the Dishonor Path to Victory. The Scorpion tiles all focus on this goal – dishonoring Personalities, directly causing players to lose Honor, or targeting dishonored Personalities in battle. The Scorpion Stronghold causes honor loss to players who have lost provinces (something that the Scorpion player has to rely on someone else doing, since this is not an aggressive deck). The Scorpion Fate deck includes Weapons, which have a bit of a thematic disjoint because their primary synergy with the deck is that (in addition to boosting Force) Weapons boost another statistic called Chi, which represents mental or spiritual power. Many of the Scorpion’s actions compare their Chi against the Personal Honor of enemy Personalities (thematically, its harder to convince people that such an honorable person really did whatever crime you’re trying to frame them for), and the Chi-boosts from the Weapons help the Scorpion bring low even the most honorable of Lion samurai. The Scorpion deck is not aggressive, but it is not as passive as the Phoenix deck – the Scorpion can cause Honor losses in battle, so while the deck isn’t focused on destroying provinces, it does want to show up to battles to advance its win condition. It still acts as a clock on the game, however, because as the game drags on the Scorpion will eventually be able to advance their Path to Victory on every one of their turns as well.
The Dragon Clan (Enlightenment) – The Dragon clan are kung-fu monks focusing on martial arts moves and spiritual enlightenment. Unsurprisingly, the deck is focused on the Enlightenment Path to Victory. Enlightenment is advanced by putting into play one of the Elemental Rings – Air, Earth, Flame, Water, and the Void (the Five Rings of Legend of the Five Rings). Each Ring has a unique, specific condition – you meet the condition and *poof* you get to drop the Ring into play. Because you can only advance one step per turn, you can effectively only play one Ring per turn. What the Dragon deck will be up to will vary depending on which Ring its trying for. Most of the Rings require getting into battles, making the Dragon deck the second-most aggressive of the decks – although, unlike the Lion, the Dragon may not care whether they actually win the battle, so long as they can put a Ring into play. Given the inherent combo nature of achieving Enlightenment, the Dragon Stronghold and tiles are focused on card access – drawing cards, discarding cards you don’t like of your deck, and so forth. The Rings of Flame (killing Personalities), Water (chaining Battle actions), and Earth (destroying an army or province) require going to battle. The Rings of Air (play several mystical Kiho) and Void (play lots of different Strategy cards) don’t require going to battle, giving the Dragon deck a potential ace in the hole. Generally, however, the Dragon decks need to get into battle (but not necessarily win) gives them – along with the Scorpion – an incentive to ally in intriguing ways, which keeps the game flow more interesting.
War of Honor provides a solid multiplayer, competitive, strategic experience. The time listed on the box is about right – I’d say 60-90 minutes to play most of the time. It is a heavier game than most other card games (much more thinking involved than the popular deckbuilding game craze), so I’ll repeat myself and again use the phrase “board game played with cards.” Not a really heavy board game – you’re still drawing off of a randomized deck, so there’s a lot of luck (does that make it an Ameritrash board game played with cards?) – but a lot more ongoing strategy than the current crop of deckbuilding games (a genre I’m quite fond of). Each of the four decks plays in a distinctive way, and all four seem very balanced. With the randomization of a card game, and those four distinctive styles, War of Honor looks to have a lot of replayability. Except for the relatively passive Phoenix deck, all of the decks must interact if they want to win. I do want to emphasize the “multiplayer” aspect of the game – there is definitely politics and definitely king-making that can take place. It also should be played with at least three players, I think – two players may be functional, but I don’t think you’ll get the same experience. Four is the best number – the four decks are not only balanced, but the distinctive way each of them approaches the game contributes to the experience, and that experience will change based on which of the four decks isn’t there.
The game is also definitely a standalone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure AEG will do expansions if War of Honor sells well (because that’s how the industry works these days), but is a very good package as is. It also does not need any infusion of cards from the CCG. I’m sure AEG would love it if people like War of Honor and then try out the CCG, but the game stands alone. You can also buy two sets of War of Honor, if you want more than 4 players or more than one player wants the same Clan, but we haven’t tried it that way yet.
In sum, War of Honor seems like a solid choice if you’re looking for a moderately strategic game to try out with 3-4 players.