It’s almost impossible to describe the bar Fantasy Flight Games set for itself two years ago when it announced the purchase and reboot of the second-longest continuously running collectible card game of all time, Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), as a brand-new game in its LCG (Living Card Game) format. How could a reboot possibly measure up to a game with over twenty years of history behind it and legions of devoted fans, many of whom had canonically affected the path of the game's official storyline? As it turns out, the answer is a combination of devoted care to preserving the spirit and feel of the original mechanics, story and setting, and a willingness to brilliantly and creatively depart from all three when called to do so. I recently returned from the first Winter Court World Championships in FFG's headquarters of Roseville, MN, where it became clear that they unquestionably succeeded. Players with a long and proud history of playing “old L5R” mingled and played on even footing with first-time visitors to the world of Rokugan, and the nearly 500 competitors present showed that the L5R LCG is every bit the worthy successor to its forerunner and a modern classic in its own right.
As an LCG, L5R is sold in a Core Set (MSRP $39.95) containing at least one of every card available. Players can divide a core set to produce two sets of truncated decks with which to learn the game, but to many players' consternation, a tournament legal deck will require you to own at least two Core Sets, and the expectation is that players will purchase a full playset of three. Compared to the cost of entry of a competitive collectible card game, this is a significantly lower bar, but it may very well be a turn-off to a casual player just looking to sling some cards on a Friday night with a friend. That said, L5R is brilliantly complex, and someone who gets into it with the intention of casual play may very well find themselves heading down the rabbit hole of organized tournament play, which Fantasy Flight Games has gone to unprecedented lengths to support.
As to how the game itself plays, there is no way to do more than merely scratch the surface here. Each player assumes the role of one of the seven Great Clans of Rokugan, a fantasy empire based on a stylized and fantastic reimagining of medieval Japan. Each clan has its own lore and unique style of play, from the political machinations of the honorable Crane and underhanded Scorpion, to the military might of the Lion armies and Unicorn cavalry, to the elemental mystery of the Phoenix. As a player, you build two different decks: a Dynasty deck, containing the characters and holdings you’ll call to your banner, and a Conflict Deck, containing items, spells, events, and other characters that you’ll use to overcome your opponent.
One of the most intriguing and unique elements of L5R is the concept of mono no aware, literally “the pathos of things”, or the embrace of impermanence. In the game, every character you purchase using your Fate tokens (of which you receive a constant amount every turn) leaves play at the end of the turn. You may, when you play the character, choose to pay additional Fate to stall their departure, but eventually, every character will strut and fret their hour on the stage and then be heard no more. This leads to a fascinating rhythm of characters entering and leaving play, and a need to avoid putting all your eggs into one basket. Characters have political and military skill, indicating their strength in those two different forms of conflict, which will take place at the different provinces controlled by you and your opponent. Depending on the element of a conflict, the spoils of victory can range from gaining card advantage and sapping fate from an opponent's character (causing them to leave play that much sooner), to stealing some of their precious honor. Additionally, if your margin of victory is sufficiently high as the attacker, you can break your targeted province. Once a player has suffered three broken provinces, their stronghold becomes vulnerable to attack. Breaking your opponent's stronghold is the most common (but not the only) route to victory.
L5R is a great puzzle of a game, and while you’ll pick up the nuts and bolts of play quickly, the strategy is as deep as, and possibly deeper than, any of FFG's other Living Card Games, such as Android: Netrunner or A Game of Thrones. You can expect your first 5-10 games to go 2+ hours, and you will wonder how a tournament round can possibly be only an hour long. But you’ll want to stick with it, and by your 20th game (and you will end up playing enough that it will come sooner than you think) the patterns and lines of play will become familiar. Then you’ll want to play 50 games, and 100, and every one of them will be pitched, challenging, and rewarding.