Back in August, I volunteered to act as a presenter for the Legend of the Five Rings Living Card game at my friendly local game store. Throughout the afternoon, I was only able to demo two games but this offered me the opportunity to read through the cards and the rules a few times. People were more interested in the larger group games or more popular card games like Pokemon, Yugioh or Magic: the Gathering.
I used to be very fond of the game. My first exposure was through the 1st edition of the RPG. We played a very long campaign started in my late teens until my early adulthood. At one point we had up to 6 players, 2 more than our regular table. We played through many of the published adventures and the City of Lies boxed set. One of my proudest moments in gaming was no scoping the source of the thefts in the city based purely on speculation. The GM was stunned when I exclaimed to him: “It’s a monkey!”
I played a bit of the original CCG in Jade but only got into it during Gold and the start of Diamond editions. While I enjoyed the parody work of Rich Wulf, his work as the main writer along with Shawn Carman was atrocious. I really loathed the changes and the direction of the story. The release of the 2nd edition made the game very boring for starting players who would struggle to accomplish anything. Combat was even worse as whomever lost initiative would simply go full defensive and nearly make themselves entirely impervious to attacks because opponents would flail helplessly against the increased target number unless they got a lucky roll.
My friends and I both abandoned the game and its horrible story. Although my best friend later purchased the 4th edition of the game based on positive reviews of the gameplay mechanics. When I read the news of the purchase of the game by Fantasy Flight Games(FFG) from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), I went back and read the metaplot… it’s no wonder the game slowly died. It read like a Wikipedia article on ongoing comic book stories. Lots of things seem to happen but little of it makes any sense to someone going in blind.
Thankfully FFG had the presence of mind to retcon all the nonsense away and revert back to the 1st edition’s time period pre-CCG. However, this was not done entirely without some changes. The Unicorn clan’s foreign aspect appears to be played up while its Kolat connections appear to have been removed with the change of the clan champion for an entirely new character in that role. The Crane clan champion was “gender bended” in what appears to be a transparent attempt to even out the male/female clan daimyo and also throw in some wank material for guys because they kept in a romance with another character to now have it be a homosexual (read lesbian) relationship. When I told my friend who is into hentai and stuff about the change, he immediately approved of the idea because of the raciness. I am not opposed to the inclusion of homosexual relationships in fiction (in fact I invite it) but it removes a subplot centered around their son from the original story line and could have easily been accomplished by making a completely different character or characters fulfill the role of inclusion. Other minor changes are a recent typhoon devastating the Crane clan’s lands along with the consequences and the rise of a religious cult. Overall, I like the changes.
The game comes with base cards for each of the 7 great clans or factions you can play in the game, with some neutral cards that can be used in all decks. Thus, you are forced to buy multiple boxes to do so. This is counter to the whole concept of the Living Card Game genre. It should allow you to be able to actually play from the onset with future expansions granting different play styles or inevitable power creep into the game. This wouldn’t be too bad if the game didn’t come with a slew of additional tokens and some status cards. It feels like a waste of cardboard. I’d rather they charge a more expensive price to include enough in the base box than the waste we currently have to deal with. Thankfully, there are game rules for playing with just the cards available in a single starter deck for one and two players.
I do appreciate all the clans inclusion in the box so players can pick and experiment with the different cards and play styles to find which clan suits their preferences.
The game’s artwork, with a few exceptions, is fantastic. Each clan seems to have its own art direction. The Scorpion clan characters are often dimly lit or drawn at night to give a very sinister aesthetic. The Unicorn on the other hand are often in movement, or shot from afar with a bit of an impressionist painting style. It gives a lot of personality to each and I think most inexperienced players to card games or the setting in general will easily find one or more clans appealing based on the art alone.
The artists are also far more progressive than previous iterations of the game. There are no overly gratuitous hints at nudity or ridiculous situations where women are wearing lacquered armour directly over their large exposed breasts.
Sadly, one of the elements that gave the previous versions of the game flavour were quotes or descriptions on cards as flavour text. Very few cards contain this and it isn’t for lack of space. Simple and straightforward cards will have large blank spaces below the description of their game play effect. While not part of the artwork, it definitely lacks in the presentation departments.
In comparison to the CCG, the game is far more interactive between players. The interval where you are the active player is much shorter. Back then, I would play my full turn, then my opponent(s) in order. Now, both players take turns playing a card, activating a card in play or resolving an action. This is a definite improvement and makes the game feel more vibrant. I never felt bored or became distracted while playing which can sometimes happen while you wait your turn. Here, the most you might wait is half a minute to a minute depending on the skill and knowledge of the opponent. The mid to late game remains quick because cards put in play are removed at the end of each turn unless players pay additional resources (thus limiting them in playing more cards) for more than a couple of turns. Unless players use a lot of cheap (and usually weak) cards, it doesn’t seem there is any true incentive to have more than 5-6 cards in play.
One of the more rewarding aspects of the original game was the number of different victory conditions available. It’s been stripped down slightly to three: military, honour, and dishonour. Military victories are achieved by crushing your opponents, driving them into the ground and hearing the lamentation of their women. Unlike the CCG, this seems to be the easiest method to win as even clans who are more known for their political acumen can “attack” your provinces using political might as opposed to force of arms. Both games I played, we were nowhere close to achieving a non-military victory.
Honour victories involve raising your honour to 25. the average starting honour is about 10 but making up that 15 appears quite difficult. I am certain it will change once more expansions are released and more cards become available. Dishonour victories involve disgracing your opponent by reducing his honour counter to 0 and thus forcing him to lose the game. Only one clan has this as a viable strategy although we didn’t have a chance to test them out to see if it works in practice.
Each clan does appear to have its own theme to make them very distinct. The Lion clan remain the military powerhouse they were. The Crane are a political power. The Unicorn seem to be built around moving cards in and out of confrontations and being very fluid and unpredictable. Conversely, the Crab are very much a defensive lot and will make you pay for taking aggressive stances against them.
Overall, I am cautiously optimistic about the game. The designers seem to have done an excellent job of making each clan distinct. The mechanics are solid, fast, and fun. The art direction and artwork is superb. If FFG can continue in this vein while addressing the issue of flavour text and continue to have solid writing, I think this game has a lot of potential.