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 supports 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 18 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 Ivory Edition is the newest base set for the game, which launches L5R on a new legality model (one that will be familiar to those who follow MTG) of only one year of cards rotating at a time, instead of two years’ rotating at a time. This review will provide a look at the L5R experience for Ivory Edition, and is aimed at both new and lapsed players (just look elsewhere on this website for more in-depth coverage of Ivory Edition and the competitive environment).
Full disclosure: I have played L5R a lot, and for a long time. This website and the Strange Assembly podcast and website spend as much time on L5R as the rest of hobby gaming put together. So if I come across as if, before I ever flipped an Ivory 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, in the interests of full disclosure, I’m copying as much as possible from my Emperor Edition review – it isn’t as much as you might think, given the rules revisions, but I’m going to save every extra word I can when I’m assembling a 15-page review.
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 still attempting to stabilize the situation in its colonies, which represent the first time Rokugan has ever expanded beyond its original borders. Over 63 “Kotei” tournaments this spring, tournament winners will get to choose past heroes of their Clan to possibly become Fortunes (minor gods), and players will earn points for their Clans in various ways, these points then translating into storyline goodies like killing an enemy’s clan champion. As a whole, these results will shape the future of the Empire and its 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 Ivory Edition starter decks will give each player a pre-constructed, clan-specific deck, without the need to worry about customizing it just yet. L5R cards are, physically, high quality things, and if you get past the very casual stage, you’ll need to get some sleeves to get them all pristine. In L5R, each player has two decks of 40 cards each, plus one or two 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 called Events, which represent various happenings in the game world. 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 and you win the game (this is rare).
The final two cards are a player’s Stronghold, and possibly a Sensei. 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 generic sort of deck for the Clan being played. Each Clan has its own Stronghold. Each Stronghold is a double-sided card, one for going first and one for going second. The going second side will have extra goodies to offset the advantage of going first.
Players may also opt to use a Sensei, which generally means a more specialized sort of deck. For example, the Crab Clan’s current Sensei option takes away the blanket Force bonus on their Stronghold in exchange for enhanced use of Follower cards.
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 (5 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. Strategy cards and Rings generally do not have Gold costs, but everything else does (although that Gold cost from time to time 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 (the little bowing samurai is the “bow this card” symbol). 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” (preceded by a bold-faced word like “Interrupt:” or “Battle:”) and keywords. Holdings are focused on in the first two or three turns 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 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 are, as mentioned above, less common appearances in the Dynasty deck – more than a handful is rare. Some Events happen and then go away, while others stick around. Like other card types, the abilities on Events have ability keywords that show when they can be activated.
On the Fate side, the most common card type is the Strategy. They generally cost no 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.
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. Attachments get equipped in the Action Phase.
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 three phases. “Interrupt” abilities can be used in response to another appropriate ability, but other types of actions are restricted by phase.
Action 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. Then you flip face-up any of the cards in your provinces that are face-down. Then you get to the meaty part, as 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 an Open 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. At the start of the battle players may use “Engage” abilities. 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 Proclaim one of the Personalities bought, increasing the player’s honor total by the Personality’s Personal Honor (the company you keep, as they say). After all desired purchases, the player can discard any remaining face-up cards – as always, Provinces refill face-down, and these will give new options to purchase next turn. Finally, you draw a card, and then discard down to eight cards in hand.
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 the 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. 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 ends his turn at -20 or less family honor, then he loses the game. Additionally, player can achieve an instant “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 Ivory Edition, each Clan has its general flavor, which is exemplified by its Stronghold, and two more distinct “themes,” each of which is (or will be) supported by a Sensei. You can find out more about the Clans on AEG’s website: http://www.l5r.com/the-clans/
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. The Lion Clan’s Stronghold exemplifies their dedication to honorable combat, granting a Force bonus based on Personal Honor. Their two more distinctive themes are their Scouts, who make effective use of Terrain cards, and an honor deck focused around veneration of ancestral spirits.
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. The Crane Clan’s Stronghold exemplifies their political and economic prowess, letting them enhance the Gold production or honor gain from a Holding. The Crane’s two more distinctive themes are their Scouts, a military force, and their control of the political battlefield through excellent dueling skills.
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. Their central flavor is a defensive honor deck based around Shugenja, with the Stronghold providing increased spell access. Their two Sensei-based themes are Samurai/Shugenja synergy based on their Yojimbo, and a destructive Fire Shugenja military deck.
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. The Scorpion’s Stronghold exemplifies their sense of control, letting them shut down valuable assets. The Scorpion’s Sensei themes are focused on dishonor – one on exploiting dishonorable enemy Personalities and one on causing the opponent to lose via dishonor.
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. The Crab’s Stronghold delivers their general flavor of tough resilience, handing out a Force bonus to all of their opposed Personalities. The Crab’s more distinctive themes are the Hiruma Scouts, who make excellent use of Followers, and the Kolat-infested merchants of the Yasuki family, who seek to bring dishonor to their enemies.
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). The Dragon’s Stronghold shows the clan’s mystical connection, letting the Dragon player start with one of the elemental Rings in play. The Clan’s two more distinctive themes are one focused around the Weapon and dueling prowess of the Mirumoto, and another around the Tamori shugenja (yeah, I said the Togashi are the most distinctive, and I didn’t even mention the Tamori, but I presume the Tattooed Monks will make their big return at the start of 2015).
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 move-in on the attack after the Defender has picked where to make a stand. Their Stronghold provides further movement, exemplifying their mobility. Their two other themes are Death Priests and the diplomats of the Ide family, who will form the backbone of an honor deck.
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. The Mantis Stronghold focuses, as to the Mantis, on cash money, turning that extra gold into card draw. The distinctive Mantis themes are the sublime archery of the Tsuruchi family (formerly the Wasp Clan) and the honorable nature spirits of the Kitsune family (formerly the Fox Clan).
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 several years, 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. The flavor exemplified by the Spider Stronghold is Scary Evil Guys, with their Stronghold generating a Fear effect. The two Sensei-focused themes are “Monksai” (the player shortening of Monk * Kensai), the sohei of the Spider Clan, and a courtier deck built around the tiny Susumu family.
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.
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 used to torment me every evening as I put my toddler to bed (these days Justice League is the preferred bedtime show), “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 bi-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!