Warring families, politic intrigue, personal conflict, large scale battles, a massive wall keeping out horrific enemies, the struggle for power…
No, this is not the world of George R.R. Martin’s acclaimed “Song of Ice and Fire” series*, but the initial stage of Rokugan in Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), an exciting new LCG coming soon from Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). In just a few short weeks, this exciting new game will be coming to stores near you, the courtiers, shugenjas (think wizards or sorcerers) and samurai in the box waiting for you to tell stories with them.
So… what kind of player would want to tell these stories and engage in the battle for honour and glory? Well, here are what I believe are the most defining elements of the game.
Drenched in Flavour
By far the most defining aspect of L5R is the extent to which the flavour of the game is pushed. Beyond the scope of the game itself, FFG releases bi-weekly fiction detailing the story behind the cards (and it’s actually a great read) AND supports the story elements with their organised play. While you’re still going to be competing for the same cool prizes in every other game, there are two things on offer that you can’t get in any other game: ranks and story decisions.
When you place very highly in specific tournaments (called Kotei), you achieve a rank known as Hatamoto. On top of that, you also become a Hatamoto of the specific clan that you performed well with. You receive special prizes specific to that clan when you get promoted, and should you continue to represent that clan at other “Kotei” events, you’ll continue to earn even more rewards. Betray your clan by representing another, however, and that status is gone.
What this does is tangibly reward clan loyalty. When you go to play at a Kotei, your decision may no longer be only based on what the meta is, but also on which clan you wish to represent and be rewarded for being loyal to. Additionally, once you do become a Hatamoto, your performance at Kotei events contributes to story elements; if the clan you represent continuously performs well, they’re much more likely to earn the Emperor’s Favour! Loyally representing your clan at Kotei’s will also see you bequeathed with special prizes which you can keep to yourself or even offer as special prizes at local tournaments.
Additionally, aside from these physical prizes, FFG appears to be continuing the tradition of periodically tying major events to story outcomes. High performers will make decisions or cast votes on what happens next in the story. YOU get to be part of the history of Rokugan! At the recent Gencon release event, the top players were part of a vote that determined whether a particular form of magic would be forbidden or explored further! If you want to take part in an ever-evolving story, L5R offers what no competitor can!
Incredibly Deep Mechanics
I’m not gonna lie; L5R is a tough game. There are decision points EVERYWHERE. You decide how long you want your heroic (or perhaps less heroic) characters to stick around, you decide how many cards you want to draw (and how much you price honour at), you decide what you want to achieve from each challenge (there are five possible outcomes), and you decide how you want to win (three win conditions that are real possibilities in every game).
Every decision has real consequences; pay a lot of money for a character to stay around, and you’re likely going to be on the back-foot in the short term. Draw too many cards, and you may find yourself hiding your face in shame as your dishonourable conduct sees you exiled. Gain the benefit of chasing one ring, but in doing so you’ll find yourself at the mercy of the others. It’s a game that rewards more than just good deck construction, and even more than knowing your deck well.
L5R is a demanding game. It requires the implementation of a long-term strategy, seasoned with critical tactical decisions turn to turn. It requires flexibility as you realise that perhaps now is the time to switch from destroying your opponent’s lands to simply shaming them out of existence. It requires much, much more than the ability to just play your cards. Your return on all this investment, however, is an incredibly deep game that truly rewards high level play.
I’m under no illusions that L5R is going to be a game for everyone. Perhaps the mystical Japanese theme isn’t for you. Understandably, it may seem a little too heavy, and you’re just looking for some light casual fun. However, if you’re looking for a game with deep gameplay, a fiercely loyal player base (if the old game was anything to go by), and a story to lose yourself in, I suspect you’ll find what you’re looking for in the world of Rokugan.
*Interestingly, L5R predates the Game of Thrones novel. This means that, despite surface appearances, the parallels in the story are purely coincidental.