Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) is a collectible card game from Alderac Entertainment Group. L5R is set in the world of Rokugan, which is a fantasy setting drawing primarily from Japan and its myths, but also from other Asian sources (the setting also support the Legend of the Five Rings RPG). L5R has distinguished itself from what was once a CCG crowd by involving players in shaping the ongoing storyline of the world, both through CCG tournaments and other contests. L5R has been around for over 15 years now, joining Magic as the only two CCGs to achieve any sort of serious longevity without the backing of a cross-media brand.
The just-released Emperor Edition is the newest base set for the game, which launches a new two-year legality window (that is, most of the old cards aren’t legal in standard tournaments anymore, so it’s the cheapest time to get into things). This review will provide a look at the L5R experience for Emperor Edition, and is aimed at both new and lapsed players (if you’re an experienced L5R player who doesn’t need this sort of review, you can still pop over to the copy of this review on BoardGameGeek and thumb it to help increase its visibility and spread the love of L5R).
Full disclosure: I have played L5R a lot, and for a long time. I host a podcast and website that spends more time on L5R than the rest of gaming put together. So if I come across as if, before I ever flipped an Emperor Edition card, I was of the opinion that L5R is really good, that you should play it, and had a glowingly positive impression of the game . . . it’s because it’s true. Also, if you’re the sort who’s concerned about/interested in these things, be advised that I was a playtest team lead for Emperor Edition, and that Strange Assembly got a “review copy” of Emperor Edition (in this context, this means that we got a booster box and a starter box).
L5R is a faction-based game and world – there are nine Great Clans vying with each other for military, political, and economic supremacy (and perhaps who is best at being enlightened). The advertising copy for L5R often likes to say that Rokugan is a place where honor is a force stronger than steel – but many of the characters in the world would disagree. Each Clan has its own strengths and priorities, and may focus on glory in combat, honor in the courts, the ruin of its enemies, the safety of the Emerald Empire, the favor of the Divine Empress Iweko I, or perhaps just its own personal power. The world of Rokugan also has others forces, such as the Imperial families, but they are generally not factions represented by players.
In an individual L5R tournament, each player represents one Great Clan, and in official Storyline tournaments, they vie for the opportunity to have a (usually small) impact on the story or a future card. As a group, these can have a broader effect on the future of the story. For example, the broad strokes of the story right now that, after 25 years of peace (and a real life “time jump”), Rokugan is mostly recovered from the ravages of the Destroyer War. The Emerald Empire, under the leadership of the still-new Iweko dynasty (the choice of the new dynasty was the result of a prior “mega-game” story result), is for the first time expanding beyond its traditional borders. Over 60 “Kotei” tournaments this spring, each tournament winner will get to choose a piece of the Colonies to claim for his Clan (which will be recognized with a card in a later expansion), and each tournament will have a non-CCG contest, whose winner gets to choose the official name of that location. As a whole, these results will shape the future of the Colonies, and the position of the Clans there.
As L5R is a CCG, it will come as no surprise that each player comes to a game with a personally assembled deck (well, technically, pair of decks). Alternatively, if you’re just starting out, a box of Emperor Edition starter decks will give each player a pre-constructed, clan-specific deck, without the need to worry about customizing it just yet (the starter decks also come with some random rares and booster packs, so you can customize a little bit after a few games). L5R cards are, physically, high quality things, and if you get past the very casual stage, you’ll likely want to get some sleeves to get them all pristine. In L5R, each player has two decks of 40 cards each, plus three particular cards that aren’t shuffled in with the rest.
One deck is the Dynasty deck (it’s the one with the black backs). It primarily contains Holdings, the basic economic engine of a deck, and Personalities, through whom the player acts during the course of the game. The Dynasty deck can also have a (usually small) number of other cards, such as Events, Regions, and Celestials (which as might be apparent from the card types, represent various happenings, locations, and divine influence, respectively). The second deck is the Fate deck (it’s the one with the green backs). It primarily contains Strategy cards, which are mostly one-shot effects that can do pretty much anything, and various sorts of attachments (Followers, Items, and Spells) that are played on Personalities to enhance them. The Fate deck may also contain some or all of the titular five Rings – each with a special condition to get it into play, and with a special ability. Get all five into play via their own text, and you win the game (this is not common, to say the least).
The final three cards are a player’s Stronghold, and two specific Holdings that are used to increase the economic production available to each player and get the game going faster. A player’s Stronghold is the most important card he has – it defines his Clan alignment, how strong his default defenses are against military attack, how much family honor he begins the game with, and it also produces Gold (the game’s currency). A Stronghold will also generally have abilities and traits defining, reflecting, and/or enhancing the sort of deck that is being played.
When setting up a game of L5R, you put your Dynasty deck on the left and your Fate deck on your right, with four Provinces in between. Each Province holds one Dynasty card, and represents some abstract location under your control – losing Provinces reduces your access to new resources, and losing all four loses you the game. The Fate deck forms your hand (6 to start; discard down to 8 at end of turn), as one would usually expect from a card game. In this way, the Fate deck functions as a more traditional deck of cards, while the Dynasty deck functions in a lot of ways like a pieces on a board – they are always on the table, and can move to different locations.
As noted above, the currency of L5R is Gold. Every card (except Rings) has a Gold cost listed in the middle of it (although for some cards, especially Strategy cards, the cost may be zero). A Holding, like the one pictured below, will produce Gold starting on the turn after you bring it into play. Most, but not all, Holdings will have some other possible function. As you can see in the Holding below, Gold Production is a “trait” – just a line of text that has some effect, which applies whenever applicable. Some traits may be global static effects like “enemy Personalities have -1F.” Some, like Gold Production, are triggered – whenever the appropriate condition occurs, you may (or have to) use them. The other types of card text are “abilities” (proceeded by a bold-faced word like “Reaction:” or “Battle:”) and keywords. Holdings are focused on in the first turn or two of the game and after that are mostly purchased when a player has some extra Gold around after buying Personalities.
Personalities, as you can tell, have quite a few more numbers on them than Holdings usually do. Most importantly, they have a Force (in the upper left corner) and Chi (in the upper right). Force is used to determine who wins battles. Chi may be referenced by other effects, such as iaijutsu duels or some spells. The number to the left of a Personality’s gold cost is his Honor Requirement – some Personalities just won’t join you, or will be more difficult to recruit, if you are not sufficiently honorable for their tastes. The number to the right of the Personality’s gold cost is his Personal Honor. Some card effects key off of Personal Honor, and it is possible to advance your own family Honor by recruiting honorable Personalities. Like Holdings, Personalities often have traits and abilities. They will always have keywords, sometimes a lot of them, which are bold-faced terms at the top of the text box. For the most part, they have no intrinsic effect, but many are frequently referenced by other cards (the more unique sounding one may also just be for flavor purposes). Most Personalities are Samurai, Courtiers, or Shugenja (spellcasters) – all are, thematically, members of the high-borne samurai caste, but are divided mechanically in the game. Other Personalities are more esoteric “professions,” such as Monks or Ninja.
Events, Regions, and Celestials are, as mentioned above, less common appearances in the Dynasty deck – typically no more than 5 total. Events happen and then go away. Regions are attached to a Province to change that abstract location into something more specific. Both Events and Regions only take effect at a particular point in time. A Celestial will come into play whenever revealed in a Province, but you can only have one at a time.
On the Fate side, the most common card type is the Strategy. They generally cost zero Gold, and are typically one-shot effects. Strategy cards have abilities on them, and are played as appropriate to the ability. Strategies may represent carefully considered political actions, or brutal savagery in the midst of combat. What sort of Strategy cards will feature in a deck will, of course, vary depending on what the deck’s goals are. (Disclaimer: I show you the example below specifically because it was the result of a Kotei I won, and it has my name on the side of it).
The remainder of most Fate decks will be made up of attachments – Followers, Items (including Weapons and Armor), and Spells. Attachments are, as the card type implies, attached to your Personalities – the Personality is leading the follower, wielding the Weapon, slinging the Spell, and so forth. Attachments can be cheap or more expensive than your Personalities, depending on what you’re going for. They are more fragile than Personalities, but they can have a more immediate effect on board position and will provide protection. Spells are restricted to Shugenja, but anyone can attach the other types. Followers have their own Force. Items have Force or Chi modifiers – they do not directly contribute to the fight, but rather increase the Personality’s contribution. Followers and Items have to be equipped before going to battle, but Spells can be pulled out of the scroll satchel and then used after the fighting has started.
The last card type is the five Rings – Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void. As mentioned above, each has its own way of getting into play, and a potent ability.
A turn of L5R is divided into six phases, although some involve considerably more action than others. “Reaction” abilities can be used whenever appropriate, but other types of actions are restricted by phase.
Straighten Phase: L5R is covered by the Wizards of the Coast CCG patent – you turn your card sideways (“bowing” them) to indicate that they’ve been used. At the start of your turn, you turn them all back right-ways.
Events Phase: The Dynasty cards that fill your Provinces always start face down. During the Events phase, they are turned face up. This is the one time that Events can happen and Regions can attach (an Event or Region card revealed at another time just sits I the Province waiting for the next Events phase).
Action Phase: One of the two meaty phases, the Action phase is basically where you’ll find almost all player interaction that isn’t combat. “Limited” abilities can be played during your Action phase (and only during your Action phase). “Open” abilities can be played during any player’s Action phase (but only during Action phases). Equipping your Personalities with attachments is a Limited ability. Some decks have very little to do during the Action phase – they maybe want to put some attachments out, and then go straight to combat. Other decks (especially ones that never plan on attacking) will make extensive use of the Action phase (including the opponent’s Action phase) to gain honor (or make the other player lose it), control enemy Personalities to keep them out of battle, engage in deck manipulation, or really anything else.
Attack Phase: This is where the samurai start swinging those three-foot razorblades at each other. A player may, but does not have to, declare an attack after his Action phase is over. Some or all available Personalities may be assigned to attack a particular enemy Province or Provinces. The defending player may then assign his available Personalities to defend. Battle consists of players flinging “Battle” abilities back and forth at each other, with the Defender going first. Abilities may destroy cards, modify their Force, remove abilities, bow them (so they can’t use their own abilities or contribute Force), send them home (that is, back to their player’s side of the board and away from the fight), gain honor, cause honor loss, dishonor Personalities, move Personalities other battlefields, or whatever sort of nasty thing you might feel like. When all the dust has settled, each player tallies up his army’s Force – highest wins, and the losing side is completely destroyed. Ties in battles are handled as ties are always handled in L5R – you both lose (and are wiped out). Go big or go home, as they say. If the Attacker wins a battle at a Province, and his margin of victory exceeds the Province Strength (that number on the top right of the Stronghold), then the Province is destroyed as well. Attacking armies, should any survive, return home bowed. Given their bloody nature, when and how to attack and defend is a critical decision – there is no such thing as a casual attack in L5R.
Dynasty Phase: It is during the Dynasty phase that Holdings and Personalities are purchased. Holdings come into play bowed, and so cannot be used until your following turn. Personalities can be used on your next turn for defense but are, given the timing of things, too late to help out on the attack this turn. Additionally, once per turn, a player can spend 2 extra Gold when buying a Personality from his or her Clan in the Dynasty phase to gain honor equal to the Personality’s Personal Honor.
End Phase: Draw a card. Discard down to eight cards in hand. Various effects played during the turn end, and that sort of cleanup.
The most common form of win in L5R is a “military” victory – destroy all four of your opponent’s Provinces. Many decks, however, instead aim for an “honor” or “dishonor” victory. L5R is about more than combat, and force of arms matters little if your Clan has been shamed – or has been recognized as so honorable as to be untouchable. Players can pack their decks with effects that gain honor or cause honor loss – or they may avoid them altogether. Honor can be gained (or honor loss caused) in all aspects of the game – Action Phase, combat, Dynasty, whenever (ok, maybe not the End Phase). Many honor losses (and some honor gains) are inflicted by making enemy Personalities dishonorable (they are flipped upside down) – the shame of the vassal quickly becomes the shame of the lord. If a player starts his turn with 40 or more family honor, he wins the game (Clans start with from zero to seven honor). If a player reaches -20 or less family honor at any point, then he loses at the end of his next turn. This timing basically gives an opposing military player one last shot to crack all of his opponent’s provinces, and typically involves the game ending with a climactic battle, rather than a sputtering finish. Additionally, player can achieve an “enlightenment” victory by putting all five Rings into play, but this is uncommon.
The Great Clans are a big part of L5R – most players start off as fans of a particular faction or two and, even if they later move on to a broader play experience, often retain a soft spot for their original home. In Emperor Edition, each Clan has four “themes” – efforts to create distinctive play experiences within a given clan (these themes often, but not always, line up with the particular families within a Clan). You can also check out AEG’s descriptions of the Clans at http://www.l5r.com/the-clans/. You can check out the official write-ups for all of the themes at http://www.l5r.com/emperor-edition-themes/.
Lion Clan: Also known as the Right Hand of the Emperor, the Lion are probably the most archetypal samurai – honorable (sometimes to a fault) and quick to war. They have the highest family honor in the game, and are dedicated to Bushido above all. The Lion are extremely traditional, and often violently opposed to any sort of change. Lion decks are traditionally very aggressive, with lots of cheap strong Personalities.
– Paragons of Bushido: The best of the best, from a Bushido point of view, the Lion Paragons (usually from the Matsu and Akodo families) universally have high Personal Honor. The Paragons are primarily a military deck, but gain lots of honor from combat, and can also play honor effectively.
– Students of Akodo: Generals par excellence, the Akodo endlessly study the lessons of the Clan’s founding Kami, Akodo. Stamped with the Tactician keyword, they employ temporary Force pumps, card draw, and deck manipulation. This is a military theme.
– Shadow of the Pride: The Lion Scouts, most commonly from the Ikoma family, have efficient Force and are masters of Terrain (a specialized type of Strategy card). This is a military theme.
– Ancestral Reverence: Unique among the shugenja families of Rokugan, the Kitsu focus on directly communing with and summoning the spirits of their Ancestors. The Lion’s Ancestors will defend the Clan, while the Kitsu stay home in a support role gaining lots of honor. This is an honor theme.
Crane Clan: The other pillar of Rokugani society, the Crane are also known as the Left Hand of the Emperor. They embody all of the other virtues a samurai is supposed to possess – they are cultured, promote the arts, polite, dress properly and well, and are deadly in duels of honor. They are also not above using their political might and rice-derived wealth to enforce their cultural hegemony on the Empire.
– Political Warfare: This theme represents the Crane’s mastery of the courts of Rokugan. The Courtiers of the Crane work to prevent their enemies from every showing up at battle, or if that fails, then dishonoring them for doing so – and all the while gaining honor for the Crane. This is primarily an honor theme, but can also achieve a dishonor victory.
– Keepers of the Peace: The exemplars of Kakita’s one sword dueling technique, the Crane Magistrate Duelists gain honor for dealing with the scum of Rokugan (who are conveniently those guys your opponent controls), or potentially inflicting honor loss on the opponent for employing such ruffians.
– Protectors of the Temples: The only real pacifists in Rokugan outside of the Phoenix Clan, the Asahina shugenja are artists and dedicated to the element of air – the latter which they use to gain honor, and the former which they use to stay alive long enough to gain it. This is a dedicated honor theme.
– Iron Crane: The Crane Scouts are largely drawn from the Daidoji family, and have for a thousand years defended Crane lands against larger enemy forces – most often those of the Lion Clan. The sometimes employ . . . unorthodox tactics, but don’t tell the rest of the Crane that. The Iron Crane is a purely military theme.
Phoenix Clan: The Phoenix are a Clan of shugenja – the real power in the Clan lies not with their Clan Champion, but with the Council of Elemental Masters. They seek knowledge and are highly pacifistic. They must also combat their own hubris, which has nearly led to the Clan’s destruction on more than one occasion.
– Elemental Destruction: The greatest spellcasters in the Empire, the Shugenja of the Phoenix can rain death and destruction upon their foes when angered. Most frequently Fire and Water Shugenja of the Isawa family, this theme combines mobility and firepower. Elemental Destruction is a purely military theme.
– Inquisitors: The Phoenix Inquisitors are Magistrates, but unlike normal Magistrates, they do not focus so much on mundane matters of the criminal or dishonorable, but rather on more secretive conspiracies against the Empire. In particular, they hunt Ninja, those bearing the Taint of the Shadowlands, and members of the blasphemous and treasonous Kolat. Usually Air or Earth Shugenja, the Inquisitors can win through dishonor or honor.
– Order of Chikai: Out of all the Kami, Shiba was the only one not to end up ruling his Clan, instead bending knee to the greatest mortal shugenja (Isawa) in order to secure his aid at the Dawn of the Empire. The Shiba continue this tradition to this day, picking up the Yojimbo and Duelist keywords to defend their charges in battle and in court. This theme primarily uses Samurai, but they are enhanced by the presence of a few Shugenja. The Order of Chikai is a military theme.
– Path of Man: One of the more esoteric aspects of Rokugan, the Henshin are a secretive sect of Monks who travel along the Path of Man – a belief system that promises that man can be perfected, and become a god himself. They can wield the power of mystical Kiho, and are a purely military theme.
Scorpion Clan: Sometimes known in whispered voices as the Underhand of the Empire, the Scorpion are all that is low in a samurai – they are courtiers who wield lies and blackmail, ninja skulking in the shadows, and tricksters on the battlefield. And they do these deeds on behalf of the Empress, so that her hands need not be sullied with such matters. At least, that’s what they’ll tell you before the slip the knife in your ribs.
– Political Warfare: The Scorpion’s Courtiers are the primary rivals of the Crane in the Courts. But while the Crane curry favors and allies, the Scorpion have only enemies and patsies. A dedicated dishonor theme, the Scorpion in court will seek to dishonor, control, and sometimes destroy his enemies, in or out of battle.
– Shosuro’s Shadow: Any sensible Rokugani will tell you there are no such thing as Ninja. And the Scorpion would love for you to keep on believing that. The Ninja of the Scorpion Clan trade in stealth, deception, and general trickiness. They are a purely military theme.
– The Underhand: Much like their Courtiers, the Scorpion Magistrates are a dark mirror of the Crane. Any justice served is merely incidental to the Scorpion’s use of their authority to advance themselves and the Clan, and destroy their enemies. Scorpion Magistrates can win via military or dishonor.
– Paragons of Loyalty: Of all the virtues, the one the Scorpion do favor – and favor above almost anything – is loyalty. The Samurai of this theme (all sporting a lot of keywords – Paragon Loyal Yojimbo) are enhanced by the presence of the Courtiers they protect. The Paragons of Loyalty is a military theme.
Crab Clan: The Crab stand guard against the darkness outside Rokugan. If the Crane make life worth living, the Crab make life free from the denizens of darkness possible. If the Lion are seen by some as the undisputed masters of war, it is only because most of the Crab’s armies would never turn their back on the evil of the Shadowlands simply to engage in petty squabbles with the Lion. The Crab’s endless struggle, however, has left them lacking in some social graces.
– Sons of Hida: Hida was the founding Kami of the Crab Clan, and the Sons of Hida are the toughest individual warriors of the Crab. Bearing the Berserker keyword, these Crab have massive Force and are really, really hard to kill or deal with. Sons of Hida is a purely military theme.
– Hiruma Snipers: The descendants of Hiruma, one of Hida’s lieutenants, the Crab Scouts reinforce their cheap Personality base with Followers and archery talent. The Hiruma Snipers are a purely military theme.
– Siege Warfare: The Crab’s Kaiu family are the Empire’s masters of siege warfare, and this deck excels at manipulating province strength – creating insurmountable obstacles to attack, or rendering an opponent’s provinces subject to being blown over by a slight breeze. The Kaiu bear the Siege and Tactician keywords, and have the ability to achieve a military victory or fall back into a defensive posture and eventually win through honor.
– Economic Warfare: The Crab’s Yasuki family is tasked with using any means necessary to keep the Crab’s armies fed and supplied. This is a dedicated dishonor deck, with the ability to interfere with an opponent’s Gold production. The Yasuki typically have the Courtier and Merchant keywords.
Dragon Clan: Mysterious and mystical, this Clan of individualists is widely recognized by all as the very best Clan (well, that’s what this old Dragon thinks should happen, anyway). The Dragon are best known for their monks, whose numerous tattoos give them supernatural powers, but other families stand out as well. The Mirumoto are the only family to embrace a two-sword fighting style of both katana and wakizashi, and the Kitsuki magistrates have embraced bizarre notions of evidence in their investigations, over more traditional methods of just taking all samurai at their word (before she became Empress, Iweko the First was the daimyo of the Kitsuki).
– Warrior Monks of Togashi: Kung Fu comes to Rokugan with the Togashi, who employ martial arts in addition to their tattoos and mystical Kiho. They are a varied bunch, but of late have leaned towards spreading through the Empire to teach their fellow citizens the ways of enlightenment – whether their fellow citizens want it or not. The Dragon Monks are a military theme.
– Masters of Niten: The followers of Mirumoto’s two sword niten technique are Kensai – weapon masters – and excel when equipped with them. They are a straight-up military theme.
– Kitsuki Investigators: The Kitsuki are not only Magistrates, but also pick up the Courtier keyword to represent their role as the social face of the otherwise introspective Dragon Clan. They also sport the Duelist keyword, giving them many Fate deck options. Like the Crane magistrates, they can achieve either an honor or dishonor victory.
– Defenders of the Mountains: The small Tamori family serves as the shugenja of the Dragon Clan (the former Dragon shugenja, the Agasha, having run off to join the Phoenix). Although a dedicated honor theme, these earth shugenja are blunt and abrasive – they do not hide at home hoping their honor gain holds out long enough, but instead rush into defend and prove their honor in combat.
Unicorn Clan: The Unicorn are the free spirits of Rokugan, and spent centuries away from their homeland learning about the ways of the gaijin outside. They are still considered barbaric by some clans, with unusual behaviors such as shaking hands or eating red meat. They are the premier horsemen of the Empire, which is mechanically represented by an ability to assign on the attack after the Defender has picked where to make a stand.
– Lords of the Plains: The Unicorn stand beside the Lion and the Crab as the greatest military forces in the Empire. Their ranks secretly bolstered by Moto from the Burning Sands, the Unicorn have gone toe to toe with the Lion on more than one occasion. With the excellent mobility that Cavalry provides, these Unicorn Commanders will go around your armies, and then through them, on their way to a military victory.
– Battle Maidens: One of the most feared military forces in Rokugan is the Battle Maidens, whose massive steeds stand taller than even the mightiest of other Unicorn horses (which, in turn, tower over the ponies that most Rokugani are stuck with). Dedicated to purity and compassion, the Battle Maidens of the Utaku are still more than willing to ride to battle against their enemies. These Paragons can win through either military or honor.
– Children of the Four Winds: More subtle than the brute force of the Commanders theme, this Unicorn Tactician-focused theme is more subtle, with many of the Tacticians commanding from the tent, drawing cards and enhancing front line troops. This is a military theme.
– Shi-Tien Yen-Wang Priests: Once only gaijin gods of the Moto, the death deities of the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang have since earned a proper place in Rokugani cosmology. There primary followers are, however, still found among the Unicorn, and are exemplified by these death priests. All Water Shugenja, the Personalities in this theme focus on movement and interaction with dead or discarded Personalities. The death priests are a military theme.
Mantis Clan: Each of the seven Clans listed above was founded by a Kami, a god fallen to earth. Not so for the Mantis, whose founder – Yoritomo – wrested recognition for his Clan out of the Empire when the Empire was in one of its times of greatest need during the Clan War. The Mantis (composed of several former Minor Clans) are a small Clan, but are brash and benefit economically from a willingness to sully themselves by direct involvement with money and commerce. The Mantis are a seafaring Clan, and their Personalities frequently feature the Naval keyword, which lets the Attacker go first in battle.
– Economic Warfare: Of all the Clans, the Mantis are most blatantly focused on economic matters, and their economic warfare theme shows it off. While the Yasuki tend to interfere with the opponent’s production, the Mantis excel and maximizing their own. The Personalities for this deck, who are often dirty Magistrates, will pay off the enemy and then attack in for the win.
– Children of Thunder: While the Phoenix are masters of traditional elemental magic, the Mantis have recently developed the destructive power of Thunder. Their Shugenja (often of the Moshi family) tend to have relatively few abilities printed on them, to compensate for the power of being able to use Spells as a Naval action.
– Tsuruchi’s Legion: Before joining the Mantis Clan, the Wasp Clan (under the leadership of Tsuruchi) had become the preeminent archers of Rokugan. Although they no longer universally break their katana to emphasize the point, the Tsuruchi remain the best Ranged Attack machines in the game. Sporting the Scout keyword, the Tsuruchi excel at hunting down those who have drawn their ire (or whose capture draws a paycheck, as the case may be).
– Spirits of the Forest: The most recent addition to the Mantis Clan, the Kitsune (formerly the Fox Clan) have deep ties to the mystical woods in which they make their homes. Most Kitsune Shugenja, upon entering play, bring with them some manner of nature spirit (Bear, Snake, Sparrow, etc.). The Spirits then mount a defense of the sacred forest, strengthened by the Kitsune. This is an honor theme.
Spider Clan: The most recent addition to the Great Clans of Rokugan, the Spider have been controversial – both in the story, and among L5R players. They are, effectively, the Evil Clan – the man who would found the Spider was a practitioner of blood magic and the inventor of a blasphemous morality who would go on to murder two Emperors. They only became a Clan within the last year, recognized by the Empress after they helped drive off the forces of Kali-Ma during the Destroyer War. It’s kind of like Doctor Doom getting invited to join the Fantastic Four after helping chase off Galactus.
– Paragons of Shourido: Shourido is an invented morality, intended to subvert the tenets of Bushido. While Bushido concerns itself with one’s proper role in society, Shourido is concerned only with personal power. The dark Paragons embody this morality, strengthening themselves and crushing their enemies. It is a military theme.
– Iweko’s Conquerors: In the jungles of what was once the Ivory Kingdoms, the Commanders of the Spider Clan lead their Followers to battle – or just slaughter, if they can get it. The Conquerors get in your face with a lot of brute Force, and then stay ready to do it again on defense. This is a military theme.
– Sohei: While most of the Spider are relegated to living outside the Empire proper, the warrior Monks sometimes known as the Order of Venom are free of the Taint, and are permitted inside the borders of Rokugan. This gives them both less and more freedom than other Spider. Unlike other Monks, the Spider Sohei are trained as Kensai, and are experts in a variety of Weapons. This is a purely military theme.
– Minions of the Shadow Dragon: The Shadow Dragon – the corrupted form of the original Elemental Dragon of Air warped by the power of The Nothing – is an “ally” of the Spider for now, as it seems to suit whatever purposes the being may have. His minions, faceless and shapeless Ninja, are at present willing to go into battle on behalf of “their” Clan. These Ninja can be just downright strange, with their own variations on deception. This is a purely military theme.
In addition to the normal Great Clan themes, players can also play as Ronin, or as the Shadowlands Horde (although the Ronin will never be tournament functional).
Multiplayer: Normal L5R is a two-player game. At some point I was trying to work on some team variants at one point, but random free-for-all multiplayer L5R just doesn’t work. On the other hand, War of Honor is pretty great, and you can play normal constructed decks with it as well. You can check out the Strange Assembly War of Honor review here.
Art: L5R overall has some really good art, as you can see from the cards above. There are quite a few artists, so there’s some stylistic variety.
Game Length: Tournament L5R requires that you get done in 45 minutes. How long a casual game will take depends on the matchup in question, and how aggressive any involved military decks are. Early on, don’t be surprised if games stall out and take longer as you try to work on your strategy.
Opinions and Judgment Calls (or, Why I Like L5R And You Should Too)
To paraphrase DJ Lance Rock, whose incessant singing torments me every evening as I put my toddler to bed, “L5R . . . is . . . AWESOME!” Let’s run down the list:
– Great theme: L5R has been developing a thriving game world for over 15 years. It’s got lots of detail, and a variety of factions to take a fancy to. It’s a fantasy theme, but not just your normal D&D-esque setting, and it’s a setting where being able to cut the other guy to pieces matters a lot – and so does whether or not your honor remains intact in the process.
– Strategic: L5R has a lot of depth to it. This is not just flinging creatures back and forth and each other. It’s easy to declare an attack, but takes a lot of practice to know exactly where and when to do it, which Personalities to use, and how to invest your economy in this attack vs. future development. Once you’re in the battle, taking the right actions – and hitting the right enemy cards with them – is vital.
– Story: Yeah, you can go read the L5R weekly fictions for free on www.l5r.com whether or not you play the CCG – but it’s much cooler to be playing in the world, instead of just reading about it.
– Factions: Just like factions in a more standard board game, factions in L5R (and also Strongholds) mean that each player can choose a distinctive play style. You want to go for the throat right away? Play Lion. You like to turtle up and control the board? Play Courtier honor. You like to grief on your opponents? Play Scorpion dishonor. You want it, we’ve got it.
– Faction Loyalty: Getting into L5R can give you a pass into some pretty tight-knit communities. Not just the overall L5R playerbase (we won’t bite, we promise), but also into particular clan-centric communities, who gather to discuss the game and the story, online and in person (for example, there are nine Clan Dinners every year at GenCon).
– Customizable: I wouldn’t want every game to be customizable, but there’s real fun in building a deck (or an army, or whatever), and then getting to take your creation into a game, instead of always just having the specific pieces specified by the rules.
– If you hate CCGs, this isn’t as bad as you might think: Because of that whole “L5R makes you think” thing, the tournament scene is not just populated with kids and/or high schoolers. And due to the factional nature of the game, it isn’t nearly as expensive as other long-running CCGs – an awful lot of card are good, but only for a few themes, so there are few super-chase rares (sorry, no $100 mythic rares here), and lots of opportunity to trade. I’m not going to pretend that putting together a high-level tournament deck is cheap, but it isn’t bad.
What about downsides? Well, from a design perspective, the tendency of almost all Strategy cards to cost zero can make it hard to balance them against each other. And if you really do just not want to deal with the CCG model, there’s no getting around the fact that L5R is still a CCG. And it’s not great if you want to play something multiplayer with younger kids. Or if you hate samurai. Or only play cooperative games. But other than that – AWESOME!