My (Late) Journey into Legend of the Five Rings (Review?)

I grew up playing collectible card games, mostly Magic: The Gathering and the Lord of the Rings TCG, but I also tried out others and collected a few. Legend of the Five Rings was one I had simply never crossed paths with. I heard about it years later while it was still under AEG, but by then, I didn’t have anyone to play with (it was just my brother and me, and he doesn’t like head-to-head games), so I passed on it. When FFG relaunched it as an LCG, it looked really good. I had no idea how different it was from the CCG, but I still didn’t have anyone to play with. So I still passed.

But these days, I do have an opponent to play against. But there are also more solo variants to non-solo games than there used to be. And L5R has a few options and an official coop/solo expansion (which sadly was under-printed and was sold out almost immediately). So I took an inexpensive and shallow dive into L5R with one core box. I wasn’t looking to do any deck construction, just wanted to try it out.

The Late Start

My first game was a fan-made solo mode (found here). That was a difficult way to learn L5R. The rules are already a bit cumbersome, and the solo variant, it turns out, has some rules missing and some unclear parts. Learning the game (already complex) and the solo rules at the same time was a challenge. Still, it was fun. But I wasn’t yet sure if this was something I wanted to buy more of.

My friend and I played a 2-player game with just the suggested starter decks. He was learning the game, and to a certain extent, I was still learning it (it’s quite the learning curve). We both enjoyed it (though I did crush him handily) and looked forward to playing more. He also has a core box, so we figured we could at least build a more concentrated pair of decks.

Growing the Collection

For this past Christmas, I received some more L5R, and my one core box turned into Children of the Empire, Crane and Unicorn clan packs, The Fires Within, For the Empire, and A Champion’s Foresight. I printed some dividers and moved everything to the deluxe expansion box which was deep enough to hold the cards on their side. Also printed the re-done rulebook, though there were some weird printing errors (images not showing up), and for some reason, the “improved book” is missing any mention of action windows.

I played a second solo game after with a better understanding of the game. Still had some problems (the solo rules were still missing some things) but I was getting the hang of the system. I also bought a little more. Scorpion and Phoenix clan packs.

I’ve slowly been getting into the setting more as well and decided to try some more solo role-playing with the Scarlet Heroes system but using Rokugan as the setting. It worked really well, and I used some L5R cards to represent characters and scenes. I really need to get back to this, though much of my creative energy gets focused in other places (I have games to make!), so solo role-playing is tougher to tackle compared to games that are more just puzzles.

There was more stuff on sale, so I couldn’t stop myself from buying more (get while the getting’s good!). I mean, how do you pass on a $3 playmat and $5 card packs? So I bought the Crane playmat, For Honor and Glory, Breath of the Kami, and Elements Unbound. With all this, it was time to bring it back out for another 2-player game day.

The First Constructed Decks

This time, I built a couple of decks, one for me and one for my opponent (also using his core box). It’s Phoenix spells/ring manipulation against Crane dueling/honoring. They needed to be sleeved to help keep our cards identified (a tiny piece of paper in a sleeve with my friend’s cards). I did explain the decks before we played, but I think my friend needed a more detailed overview (not that I’m an expert who knew how to play the decks; neither had been played and I’ve only played the game a few times).

It was quite the crushing victory for Crane (me). My friend was still getting the hang of the rules and wasn’t really grasping the strategies of attacking versus defending. While making the decks, I thought Phoenix might have the upper hand because it had more tools, but I think in practice, Crane might be stronger because the deck is more focused.

And wouldn’t you know it, some more packs were on sale. So I grabbed The Ebb and Flow, Tainted Lands, All and Nothing, Campaigns of Conquest, and Fate Has No Secrets. I’ve completed the Elements Cycle! But now my collection won’t fit into the deluxe box. For now, Unicorn is in a couple of baggies. I’ll have to figure out an insert for the core box so it can hold cards on their side.

There were a number of really good cards in the new packs, especially for the two decks I made. But before playing with any of those, my friend wanted a rematch with the two decks we played last, but swap who has which deck (to see how I would play Phoenix). But since we don’t do 2-player game days very often (and I’m trying not to just pick L5R for game day constantly), I looked into us trying out a Tabletop Simulator mod for L5R so we could play online. I found one that has most of the cards (doesn’t seem there are any complete mods) and rebuilt the two decks.

It was a much closer game than the last one, and the closest we’ve had. Also the longest since there were more attacks being successfully defended. Of the two decks, it seems Crane’s deck is a little stronger, but certainly much easier to play, while Phoenix’s deck is pretty tricky. I won as Phoenix in the end (almost missed it because I forgot one of my other attachments was a fire card) but it took a lot more work to get there, in part because my friend was getting the hang of the game but also the Crane deck was a little more focused. But these were only the first two decks I’ve made, so we knew there would probably be some issues; just have to play the game more to get a better feel for what a deck should have.

I think one of the decks I’d like to make next is a Unicorn swarm deck. Might change the Phoenix deck to a rings/glory deck or try to focus the spells a little more, especially now that I have some really powerful ones. But I think we’ll also start using the roles going forward. I just wish I had access to a 3rd core box (I’m borrowing my friend’s core box to build decks with). Just might have to buy another one or print proxies…

The Fiction

In the meantime, I’ve also been reading more of the fiction. I found a list that puts everything into the suggested (chronological?) reading order. I have to say, the stories so far have been… okay. The two weakest parts, I think, are that none of it feels Japanese (they sure sprinkle in lots of Japanese words, though), and if you told me all of it was written by one person, I wouldn’t know. There just isn’t really a unique style to any of it. But knowing the setting more and playing the game at least makes them a little more enjoyable.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been enjoying the game a lot, but we both agree that it’s a high learning curve. Not only are the rules complex, but the cards can be really difficult to understand sometimes. FFG seemed to have this idea that a competitive game should target only the most hardcore players. This might be why all of their competitive LCGs are dead. A couple had decent life spans, but no evergreens, and L5R had a pretty short run. Though, the LCG model really was not a good fit for the game. At least most of it is cheap for me to come into now. At some point, I’ll probably also buy some of the old CCG since there are tons of that floating around for cheap as well.

9/10 Tough to get into, but a fun game

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