Hello, and welcome to another Newbie Corner. Today I’ll be covering the idea of Tempo in Legend of the Five Rings.
So, Tempo is a difficult concept – one I’m not going to be able to cover fully. Instead I’m hoping to give you at least some idea of how tempo applies in L5R, and how you need to apply it to your games. I’m not going to lie – in L5R, as in most strategic card games, Tempo is a very important and very difficult concept. Often understanding Tempo is the difference between a good player and a champion.
What is Tempo?
In short, it’s the back and forth flow of the game. Over the years Tempo has been defined in many different ways based on who’s writing the article. For the purposes of this article I will be looking at two primary facets of the idea: Game Tempo and In Battle Tempo. There’s also Action Phase Tempo, but it’s less common and when it occurs it plays out similarly to Battle Tempo so I’m not going to go into detail on it here.
But what is Tempo? It’s the flow of the game: it’s the back and forth tug of war to win the game. That back and forth, both of players’ turns and of actions during the action phases, is where we find Tempo: making the most of each action, making your opponent react to you instead of the other way around.
I’m still not doing a good job explaining this, so let’s take a different tack: in any Tempo battle there will be one player ahead and one behind. One player will be the aggressor and the other the defender. The key with understanding Tempo is that the aggressor wants to maintain and exploit their Tempo advantage while the defender wants to take the Tempo back, or at least minimize how much advantage the aggressor can gain. Basically, Tempo is who is directing the terms of the game: are you proactively advancing your victory condition, or are you trying keep your opponent from winning?
The basic Tempo of the game is who is controlling the flow. You’ll often hear that the reason Lion is so good is that they start with Tempo. This is true. You might have also heard of Lion sacrificing their Tempo for economy: by spending their third turn (in addition to the normal first two) buying gold instead of personalities they have given Tempo to the other player in exchange for a better economy.
Game Tempo manifests in a few ways, but is usually who has to attack and when. In a military on military match up Tempo is most often read by whose turn it is and the province count. The player with the most provinces, or the active player if a tie, has the Tempo. They are able to set the pace of when attacks happen and how many provinces the attack needs to threaten: you are in bad shape if you need to be taking two provinces at once. With honor/dishonor vs military it’s a question of how soon will the defensive deck hit their victory condition: this is the “clock” you may have heard of. If the honor deck will cross in 6 turns, the military deck needs to destroy their provinces first. Again, if you’re in a situation where you need to take two provinces in one turn you’re in trouble. And clock vs. clock it’s a question of whose clock is going better at the moment.
Again, game tempo is mostly about who needs to be attacking at any given moment and who has control of the game. While you can win without Tempo, it’s an uphill struggle to do so.
During battle, Tempo takes on a new meaning and it is often this Tempo that is being discussed when you hear the term in relation to L5R. During a battle, players have alternating opportunities to take actions until both pass consecutively. As with Game Tempo, battle Tempo is about who is winning the battle. In the case of the defensive deck “winning” might be simply saving the province, or it might include winning the battle so as to save your army too. Each game is different. Either way, each side has a goal to meet: whoever is meeting theirs has Tempo as it is on the opponent to take actions. While you have Tempo you want to take actions to solidify your Tempo: removing opposing units is a prime action as, without presence your opponent can never take Tempo from you. Meanwhile, if you don’t have Tempo you want to gain it back by taking control of the battle.
Also important in Tempo, at least for battle, is the board state. Tempo is not just about who is winning this second, but who is better able to control the board. While an army of small Tsuruchi might technically be losing the battle right now against an army of Hida, if the Tsuruchi all have ranged attacks that can kill the Hida while the Hida are blank force, the Tsuruchi might just have the Tempo in this encounter: it is on the Hida to take actions to ensure their victory before they are shot to pieces.
In this way, we see that cards that “cost Tempo” are ones that do not advance your board state directly. While straighten cards are good, they usually cost you Tempo if they do nothing else since you’ve taken your action without altering the actions your opponent can take. Unless the target of the straighten has an amazing ability that can give you Tempo back on your next action it’s better to save these cards for the late battle when most of the major Tempo swings have already been played.
Similarly, where the action is coming from might affect the Tempo usefulness: an action on a personality or follower, while it might have a higher Tempo cost, is still better played early since your opponent might (nay, should) remove that action from your available options. Meanwhile, presence is a strong definer for Tempo: an Honor deck defending with a few (or one) fragile personalities needs to make their actions count, as they are unlikely to get more than the number of personalities they have defending.
All of this should show the value of Sneak Attack/ Naval: they grant you, the attacker, Tempo right at the start of the battle when usually the defender has it. Similarly, Entrenched Position is strong since it returns the initial Tempo to the Defender. The Tempo is assumed to be with the defender since they would not defend otherwise. This obviously goes out the window on the last attack since they have no choice but to defend. In this case Sneak/Naval become major pushes for the Attacker to solidify the Tempo they have instead of an attempt to take it.
What to do if you don’t have Tempo?
As you can see, Tempo is about winning the game. If you don’t have it you’re in trouble. So how do you go about getting it? For Game Tempo, often the answer is to sacrifice a province. Let one go for free and take two back in exchange. Now you’re back on even province footing: one successful defense and you’re back to Tempo. During the course of a battle it gets trickier. Some battles have the Tempo flowing back and forth until one player is exhausted (out of actions to play) and the other player is therefore able to capitalize. Others are one-sided affairs where the losing player can at best do some damage for the long game. Part of being a good player is being able to recognize which situation you’re in. Often in the latter case you’ll want to save some of your resources in hopes of winning a later fight instead of spending them all now in a lost battle. Cards like Fall Back are great for this, as you get a minor boost (the straightened guy) and you get to save some amount of resources for a later battle. Similarly, in the back and forth sometimes it’s better to hold back. While you want to play your biggest Tempo swings early, sometimes it’s better to Rope-a-Dope, play enough to swing Tempo back to you so the other player has to act, but save your biggest swings for once they’ve exhausted themselves and you can take the battle by taking the Tempo. Books could be written on any of these scenarios, and they probably wouldn’t help you much. I’m a firm believer that experience is the best teacher: go out and play a bunch of games. Maybe find a mentor and ask them to show you their thinking on how to play out the situation. The most important skill is being able to read the board, and short of long paragraphs about pictures of game states there’s not really any good way for me to relay that information to you.
Hopefully at this point you have a better idea of what people mean when they talk about Tempo. If not, don’t worry. Go play a bunch of games and then re-read this article – or others like it – and you’ll likely have a better appreciation for the ideas presented. You may even see where I’ve gone wrong. (I assume there’s some amount of wrong in here since my highest placing was back in 06 :-P) Again, play, play, play. It’s the best way to get better at anything.
For next time, I’d like to do a Q&A, so if there are any burning questions you have feel free to ask them here in the comments, or send me an email: my gmail address is isawasteve, or you can use the strangeassembly gmail. Just include “L5R Newbie question” in the subject so I know to ignore it. I mean, answer it in the article. Until next time, Squeak!