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Subject: Been a while...... rss

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Dave Maynor
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In my effort to ‘give something back’ and write reviews, I notice not a lot has been said about the Legend of the Five Rings CCG in quite some time. I have played L5R pretty consistently for the past few years after a hiatus of sorts, and let me tell you, the game just keeps getting better. 15 years now it has been around, only Magic: The Gathering is older in the CCG market as a big property I believe, so think it deserves a bit more love around here.

Some of you may say ‘but this is BOARD GAME GEEK’ not Collectible Card Game geek, but that’s the beauty of AEG, they do it all. And they do it well. This game, and it’s theme transcends most of those barriers, so I really want to cover a lot of what makes this game line special….. so……

Legend of the Five Rings

Overview:


First the basics. L5R is a collectable card game set in the Asian fantasy world of Rokugan. This property is huge by the way… and I don’t mean land mass. L5R is still the official setting for the Dungeons & Dragons Oriental Adventures setting, and also has it’s own Roleplaying Game which just released a beautiful 4th edition. There has been a miniatures battle game (short lived, but it was great) called Clan War, a Disk Wars game, new Board Games are releasing for it as we speak, and ALL of this is supported by an incredible player/fan membership network which has various real world games and challenges, all of which influence the actual story and development of the game.

If that seems like a lot, it is. And it is part of the reason that L5R has so many dedicated fans and has lasted so long in a tough marketplace. But for this review, I want to focus only on the CCG, and the support for the CCG, which in and of itself… is a lot…

The card game allows you to take up the mantle of a leader of one of the Great Clans of Rokugan. Rokugan is a fntasy land that roughly equates to real world Asia, with mythic and historic Japan as its primary theme, with a lot of China and some Mongolia and India thrown in. Each great clan has a distinct feel and role within the lands, and as a result has certain styles of play for their decks that can cater to all manner of players. The impressive part is this (mostly) stays balanced.

This land is populated by man and spirit, monsters and divine beings, dragons and spellcasters. It is certainly fantasy. Much of the tension is from inter clan struggles, and at times open warfare, but there is always the threat of the Shadowlands. Giant demons, ogres and goblins and all manner of foul beast come from the Shadowlands, always a constant threat to the Empire.

The game involves a Dynasty deck (your holdings and personalities), and a fate deck (strategies and items to use). You will have 4 provinces to defend, and can win a variety of ways. You can destroy all 4 of your opponent’s provinces (military victory), gain 40 honor (Honor victory), drive your opponent to -20 honor (Dishonor victory) or get all 5 of the elemental rings into play (Enlightenment victory). This in and of itself adds a level of complexity to the game that most other card games never come close to.

Adding to this is the fact that you fight battles, which involve melee and cavalry maneuvering, and can also involve ranged attacks or duels to eliminate key opponents, and there is a ton of depth here. Not every deck uses all of these tricks, and many use almost none of them. But the variety of options makes this game never feel stale, and your deckbuilding skills are really put to the test when you not only have to have a deck capable of winning, but also stopping your opponents from accomplishing so many types of goals before you.

Typical playtime is anywhere form 15 minutes to an hour, with official tournament time being normally 45 minutes. Multi-player versions tend to be longer, but everyone is normally involved during each players turn in some ways, so there isn’t much real down time.

On top of this great theme is some of the best art in any game. Period.

I will warn you… as a dedicated player, I have some biases, and they may peek through in this review. Fans are truly dedicated to this game, and those loyalties are pretty hard to keep in check. Just rest assured that everything I tell you is entirely true, and if it seems like an unfair opinion, then it is most certainly fact…

The Great Clans:

Here is an overview of the great clans in this game, and what themes they are known for. These themes often relate directly to a style of deck they can play and how they approach their path to Victory.

The Crab Clan: (Military) They are the big brutes of L5R. Less concerned with etiquette than swinging a heady hammer, they defend the Empire form the forces of the Shadowlands. Very military and siege oriented, they do have a merchant family of some renown.

The Crane Clan: (Honor, Dishonor) They are the artists, and the poets, and the courtiers of the Empire. Soft and squishy they are the most feminine of the clans (take that fanboys…). They do however have the single greatest Dueling school in the Empire.

The Dragon Clan: (Military, Honor, Enlightenment) Dragon are a great riddle. They have tattooed monks with mystical powers, investigators who are the L5R equivalent to a CSI team, and they developed the 2 sword technique known as Niten. Mystical warriors best describe them as a whole.

The Lion Clan: (Military, Honor) Lion are all about honor, and the code of Bushido! That… and making sure you dye your hair gold and make 80’s butt rockers envy your amazing use of hair product. they have the greatest battlefield tacticians in the land, and revere their ancestors more than most other clans.

The Mantis Clan: (Military) Mantis started as mercenaries and pirates. Not much has changed they are known for their sailing abilities, which gives them the advantage of first strike in most battles, and they have the greatest archers in the empire among their numbers.

The Phoenix Clan: (Honor, Enlightenment) They are all about magic, and mastering the elements. They have the greatest Shugenja (spell casters) in all the lands.

The Scorpion Clan: (Military, Dishonor) There are no such thing as Ninja. Clearly they were just fairy tales told to scare children back to bed at night…. But if they DID exists… they would be a Scorpion. Scorpion have nearly as many Courtiers as the Crane do, and actors seem to number high among them. To say any more would put my life in jeopardy…

The Spider Clan: (Military) The Spider just became a great clan. They once summoned undead, and used goblins and Oni (demons) to do their bidding. Living within and controlling the Shadowlands, they were led by a dark god himself. But all that has changed now… they are squeaky clean and all redeemed now. Right?

The Unicorn Clan: (Military, Honor) Unicorn are the masters of cavalry. They traveled outside Rokugan so they often have issues with expected etiquette, but their Battle Maidens solve things with Scimitars no formal apologies.

Note, the suggested win conditions I listed here are not the ONLY options, just the most common for the clan, or the most readily available. But even within these suggestions, there are multiple ways to get to that end result. Crane gain a lot of honor outside of combat and can control their opponents, while Lion and Unicorn earn most of their honor by crushing their opponents on the field of battle. This game offer a ton of variety.

Playability:

Ok, there are tons of places to learn how to play this game. Right now as I type this, Emperor Edition starter decks are available, and these are some of the coolest releases yet. A full playable clan deck, 3 booster backs, send in options to vote on which personality will get an experienced version, etc… the release is stacked. And a new arc is starting (one comes about every 2 years) so you can get in at ground level and not have to try to get those 15 year old cards the long time players would have. So the playing arcs make this game way more approachable than you would think for an old game.

Is it easy to learn? Well, yes and no. the game itself is really easy. Currently there are printable demo decks available that keep the cards pretty simple, so learning is easier. Over time you will add more rules depending on what themes you want to build, and the game gets more complex, but you can actually learn in 10 minutes how to play with 2 simple demo decks.

I am not going to try to do a rules primer here. There are useful links right now, and I will put them at the end of this review, but suffice to say the team at AEG has gone above and beyond to make this game available to everyone to try and learn without spending a cent. This is great marketing on their part, because I firmly believe most people who try it will be interested enough to play more.

Getting Started:

Right now there are a few really good options for getting started with this game.

1- Free Trial: Yup, free. The links below will take you to pages on the AEG main site where you can download and print demo decks and the rules for the game. Currently all the Emperor Edition is legal to play in official tournaments by printing out the Kolat Edition cards also. This is as of Feb 2012, so when you read this, your mileage may vary.
2- Older Cards: We just moved into a new arc, which means older cards are no longer ‘legal’ for tournament play. But you know what, none of that matters at the kitchen table. Normally the cards of the most current 2 play arcs are legal, but the costs goes way down with retailers on those older cards. All you really need to learn and enjoy this game is 2 starters. The started are pre-built decks ready to play out of the pack.
3- Boxed Sets: you might even find some boxed sets like The Battle Of Kyuden Tonbo lying around. These sets are full 2 deck releases with starter rules. Now, those rules will be specific to that arc, but the game rules themselves stay very similar, so learning form an old set isn’t a bad move, and moving to a new set will be an easy transition.
4- War Of Honor: Now this product is a great idea. L5R already has decent multi-player rules, but this adds a strategic area control board game element to it and is a fantastic product. Not only that, there are organized tournaments (more on that later) dedicated to this format also. Buying this box has another advantage… 4 fully pre-built decks, each one focusing on a separate win condition. As a starter set, it is really hard to go wrong with this one.
5- Emperor Edition Starter: Or you can jump right in! The new starters really are a great release. Fully playable deck, 3 boosters to help you round out or personalize your cards some, online support cards, player tokens, etc… They have gone above and beyond.

There are lots of ways to get started. There are tons of online resources to help you out also. Each clan has at least one dedicated forum, and the Forums at AEG’s main site are very active. If you have local players at your FNGS, ask them about teaching you. We even take all our older cards and build new player decks. We have about 20 that we have built to give to new players to get them going, and we always build more to hand out.

Collecting:

Ok, here is what kills it for everyone right? We don’t play CCGs because they are a constant money sink. I know the need to get the new great card gets frustrating for some, but let me clear up a few things with this one.

In L5R some of your best cards aren’t the rares. Many decks are not rare intensive, so getting those cards are a snap. Even if you do need a rare, the prices on these cards typically cap at around $5. Sure, some great cards may sell for $20 each (nothing in the $50+ range though) but often there is a common or uncommon that serves almost the same purpose. You don’t need to spend a lot to stay competitive. And if you are at your kitchen table, who cares about competitive in tourneys anyway?

Also, you will likely have 1 or 2 clans you favor. This means you can buy cards with other people and split those boxes pretty easily. Even if you buy alone, this gives you rares of other clans that become instant trade stock to get what you need. I think this is actually what makes this game work so well from a trading and collecting standpoint. You will never open a box of boosters and have only rares you play with. The trade stock element is built in, which actually makes that overall cost of collecting go down quite a bit. I don’t spend too much on each release, and normally get full playsets of all the cards I want for my clans/themes.

Why I Play:

Here is the overall opinion now. I know, long time to get here, but this is the real ‘review’ portion of this.

This game is a living game. Not in the living card game sense, but in a truly evolving storyline. And that storyline is directly influenced by the player base. There is a ‘fan club’ of sorts called the Imperial Assembly. Membership entitles you to vote on key events on the storyline, or participate in mega games whore outcomes are reflected in where the characters in the story go. Playing in major tournaments also typically has ramifications, like claiming a location, naming a character to a new title, or even recently the Spider clan was going to be dissolved, or offered great clan status, and it was through participation in tournaments, charity drives, etc… that great clan status was earned.

Yes I said earned. In this world, the actions you take actually gain rewards, and also lead to ramifications if you fail. The next roleplaying books, all new releases of cards, the story (yes, weekly stories are posted to the website) all reflect these changes. You are part of decisions in a living and evolving world. That’s pretty hard to match anywhere else.

I think on it’s own mechanical merits, the card game is amazing. I always hated card games… I was a bit of an RPG snob… but this ones theme and art pulled me in. Once I played, I was hooked. The evolving storyline is a bonus, but just sitting down with 2 decks at a kitchen table is a great experience.

I also love this game multi-player. We have a few different formats we play, and we now have War Of Honor to give it even more control and structure, and to me this is the most fun way to play the game. You can easily sit 4 people, and we have played as many as 8. It isn’t perfect with that many, but you can break up into smaller groups and run a mini bracket if it gets unwieldy.

Building decks is in itself a game. A massive puzzle with too many pieces to count. That’s the real draw to any CCG, how you build a deck, and then how it plays out against the opponents deck. As I stated earlier, decks need not have a lot of rare cards, which typically means your options for deck building are pretty huge. Some games there is one clear ‘best’ way to build a specific type deck within the card pool available. This is never the case with L5R, so there is always the playtest and then modify cycle which I love.

Summary:

Right now is a great time to jump in and try this game. It has survived… even flourished… for 15 years for a reason. It is one of the best gaming products out there today. The cost of entry is lower than it has ever been with the current print and play sets, and the web site makes the rules, the cards, the fiction, the whole community easily accessible.

What sells this game isn’t the cards. Just like the roleplaying game isn’t itself sold on it’s own merits alone (though they are both fantastic). It is the community that makes this game what it is, and I don’t think I am being too dramatic when I say the sum of these parts allows this to transcend any other basic gaming experience. We play Arkham games because we love Lovecraft, we try the Game of thrones and Lord of the Rings games because we love the stories. But in L5R, we ARE part of those stories.

Give it a shit. Maybe it isn’t your cup of tea, but for free you really can’t go wrong. And if you are pulled in (as I think many will be) you will be in for probably the most complete gaming support experience any company has ever provided.

UTZ!

Links:


Please note, I wont be posting these files under the game section until I get approval form AEG. These are very generous releases, and I assume once they are out on the inter-webs they will always be available. But until told otherwise, I will only link to their official sites hosting, and when they remove them we can consider them officially gone.

Free Print and Play decks….

http://www.l5r.com/images/L5R-FREE-Decks-Flyer.pdf

Full Kolat Edition release of the Emperor Edition cards….

http://www.l5r.com/KolatEdition.pdf

New Emperor Edition Rulebook

http://www.l5r.com/images/Emperor-Edition-Rulebook.pdf

All official rules….

http://rules.l5r.com/Main_Page

Not sure which clan you might like? Try the Which Clan Are You quiz!

http://www.l5r.com/quiz/




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Jaime Lawrence
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i3ullseye wrote:

Give it a shit. Maybe it isn’t your cup of tea, but for free you really can’t go wrong.


Great review, tremendously entertaining typo...
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Dave Maynor
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Doh... and now that you have pointed it out I have to leave it there......
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BrentS
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i3ullseye wrote:

Give it a shit.


My immediate response was "I do give one"....... but I was pretty sure it was a typo, too

Great review. L5R is a wonderful gaming experience and among all its many great qualities as a game, immersion is what elevates it above all others in the field......unfortunately immersion = time which was something I could no longer spare, and it's sadly been downgraded to casual involvement for me.

Brent.
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Yiorgos Golfinopoulos
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If all games but one should vanish from the face of the Earth, I would really hope that L5R was that last remaining game. And I don't even play it anymore.
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Adam Kazimierczak
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I've been out of the L5R loop for a few years now, but it's good to know that the game and community are alive and well. It is truly one of the best CCGs ever. I'm tempted to check out the new decks for my old favorites the Dragon and Scorpion, but a deficit of time and players makes me leery (game group currently hooked on Dominion and euros).

Tempting though...
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Just wanted to say that, although I don't have much interest in L5R itself, you've written an excellent review and that, if you happened to write a review of a game I were interested in, I'd certainly pay attention to it.
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Todd Rowland
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David N wrote:
although I don't have much interest in L5R itself,


You need to work on that, bro.
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Eddie Drood
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The game does rock. Nice review, if unintendedly amusing in a couple of places.

*sigh* One day I'll have enough time to get back into this game. Rogokan will probably remain one of my all-time-favorite settings. I love how AEG has taken care of it over the years.
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Jack Bennett
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BANZAI!!

Good review. Leaving in 5 minutes to head to our draft of the new set.

Emperor edition is a great way for new players to start. And with WoH you can play multiplayer with your friends as well. And with the kolat edition you can try it for free.

Other than being an amazing game, as well as a really fun fiction, I also can't say too many good things about how AEG treats its player base. I think that the theme of the game, the lack of prize money at tournaments, and the precedent that AEG has set in how it treats people all go into making the L5R player community really amazing as well.

There are too many good reasons to play this game.
 
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Todd Rowland
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I just wanted to leave this link here as well:

http://www.l5r.com/story/small-charms/

It was a recent Friday Fiction, but it contains so much subtly about some of the Clans that it ranks as one of the best fictions in recent years. If you piece together some of the things that occur you can see what I'm referring to.
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Doug Bey
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While I agree that L5R is one of the greats, I found that over time it became unbalanced amongst the clans... IE: Unicorns were both rich and FAST, to the point where in games we played, round two almost always consisted of "I'm attacking, where are you defending?" while the unicorn player smiled evily with his attacking cavalry card quickly destroying the undefended province. The Unicorn is too rich to have so many cheap and powerful cavalry.

Great clans like the Phoenix had no chance anymore. By the time you had shugenja on the table with appropriate spells attached, you've already lost one or two provinces from attacking cavalry.

Don't get me wrong, we still bring out the old cards once in a while, but it just isn't as balanced as it once was in the old days.

PS. Luckily my Crab and Rattling decks can still give the Unicorn a run for their money, but others like my Phoenix, Scorpion, Toruri, and Ninja were left in the dust. (sniff)
 
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Snotwalker wrote:
While I agree that L5R is one of the greats, I found that over time it became unbalanced amongst the clans... IE: Unicorns were both rich and FAST, to the point where in games we played, round two almost always consisted of "I'm attacking, where are you defending?" while the unicorn player smiled evily with his attacking cavalry card quickly destroying the undefended province. The Unicorn is too rich to have so many cheap and powerful cavalry.

Great clans like the Phoenix had no chance anymore. By the time you had shugenja on the table with appropriate spells attached, you've already lost one or two provinces from attacking cavalry.

Don't get me wrong, we still bring out the old cards once in a while, but it just isn't as balanced as it once was in the old days.


Actually this is real misnomer. The game was admittedly somewhat busted in the "old days" when Lion ran away with everything that Crane didn't, and clans like Unicorn just sat around watching it happen. Following that Toturi Blitz dominated until Phoenix Enlightenment won almost everything.

The "old days" suffer a bit from rose colored glasses in L5R. ;)

That said, the game is more balanced today than ever before, if you judge purely on outcomes of tournaments, players making the cut, etc. The last Gen Con had every single Clan in the top 16 IIRC (perhaps one didn't make the cut). That's about as good as you can hope for balance wise.
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