Classic Card Game 'Legend of the Five Rings' Is Resurrected

The game of intrigue, honor, and might will continue with Fantasy Flight. But will it recapture the magic?

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Apr 24 2017, 9:00pm

courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games

When John Zinser announced that he was selling Legend of the Five Rings, the biggest game his company, Alderac Entertainment Group, had ever made he said, " L5R is and will always be our first gaming love, but over time, we've changed our company focus further and further away from those roots."

L5R was my first gaming love too. I was taught to play by the first woman to whom I would ever say "I love you." The friend I drove across three states with to play in a tournament in an American Legion Hall would, more than a decade later, stand next to me when I made vows to my wife. [Hi Art! -Austin] 

Now, L5R is reinvented, resurrected, and is asking me to return to a land from my past and re-fight old wars. I've moved on, so has everyone I ever knew who played the game. But L5R wants us back.

All Legend of the Five Rings images courtesy of Fantasy Flight

Legend of the Five Rings, as a collectible card game, was born out of the boom created by the blockbuster success of Magic: The Gathering in the mid 90s. There was a lot to make it stand out from the crowd in 1995: the setting (a mystical pan-Asian samurai pastiche), the promise that players could affect the ongoing storyline of the game, and the unique look of the game in play on the table.

L5R was mechanically complex. It asked players to build two decks each and to navigate a mosaic of possible interactions between a hand of tactical, magical, and political "fate cards" and provinces full of "dynasty cards," which represented the people and places of your fictional samurai clan. This, along with as many as six victory conditions, could lead to some dizzyingly complicated board states and a reputation as the "chess of card games."

Unfortunately, after 20 years of publication the tide began to turn. In the shadow of a combination of unpopular storyline decisions, frequent balance changes, and marketing that could never seem to get enough new players to replace the ones that drifted away, Alderac Entertainment Group decided to get out of the CCG game entirely and sold the rights to L5R to Fantasy Flight Games. The gaming has just released the first details about the relaunch.

Fantasy Flight has a tricky balancing act to pull off when resurrecting this game. On one hand they want to make a familiar and recognizable game to try and win over the existing fans of the property. On the other hand those people weren't enough to keep the game afloat before so they need to bring in new blood. They've kept the two decks (albeit with renaming fate cards "conflict cards") and the provinces. They've cut down the victory conditions to three and eliminated a few things in the original game that led to snowball victories.

The new mechanic that interests me the most are fate tokens: When you bring a personality—that swordsman with a taste for vengeance, for instance—into play you pay for them using fate tokens, any extra you pay over the printed cost are placed on the card. At the end of every turn any personality with no fate tokens is removed from play and then one is removed from every remaining personality. This discourages prolonged periods of disengaged board building, pushing players to interact. From a flavor perspective it's an attempt to evoke the idea of mono no aware, a Japanese term for the impermanence of things.

Just like blossoming flowers, your resources in this game will not last forever and you are encouraged to enjoy them while they last.

I worry that in being this excited for the L5R revival that I am also trying to grab at something ephemeral. That it's not so much that I want to play in this world again as much as I want to be a 20 year-old college student again. To be a 24 year-old moving across the country on a dream. To have the kind of life where playing card games on a friend's kitchen table until after midnight an hour from home is an acceptable choice.

None of those things are probably going to be in the box when Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game releases in the fourth quarter of this year but I'll definitely be there trying.

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