The door opens and Campfire’s lodger, Gordon Bloodthirster, comes in. “There’s some fella out front,” he says. “Says you wanted to talk about Japan? I’m off to the gym.”
You’ve got to love a game that takes its theme seriously. Take Netrunner, for instance: a game where your deck, the cards you play and even your discard pile are different partitions on the same hard drive–and can all be hacked into by your opponent. Or what about Lord of the Rings: The Card Game–which is so dripping in theme it’s easy to forget you’re playing cards and not off on some adventure in a spider-infested forest.
Or what about bowing in Legend of the Five Rings? You know, bowing? When you tip the card over exhaust its powers?
“Oh, you mean tapping.”
No, I mean bowing. Legend of the Five Rings is set in a sort of alternative feudal Japan where honour means everything; characters in L5R would never do anything as uncouth as tapping.
L5R is one of the old boys of the collectable card game world. Released two years after Magic: The Gathering, it’s the only other game that weathered the early CCG gold rush to still be with us today. Subtler than Magic, L5R took the emphasis off direct combat and placed it on political, cultural and spiritual machinations. While warfare still erupted between players, they could also vie for honour, enlightenment or drag their opponent’s names through the mud for a dishonourable victory.
With victory conditions so thematic there’s more to L5R than a simple Magic clone. Played from two decks–Fate and Dynasty–players generate gold, throw spells and assemble armies–but there are greater wheels at work here: deceits and trickery that can catch an unwary player off guard. L5R isn’t so much a card game as it is a simulation: it’s the fantasy world of Rokugan brought to life on the tabletop, where every card represents a military tactic, a rumour in the palace courts, a hero leading forces to victory, a new legend.
Even players are drawn from the real world into Rokugani politics, to become part of the empire’s grand history. The Emerald Empire is split between the Great Clans, each of which has its own culture and preferred style of warfare. As L5R’s senior brand manager Todd Rowland puts it: “Knowing them is knowing how things work.” Players join these Clans and by playing at L5R tournaments, shape Rokugan’s destiny.
“Most decent sized tournaments have a story element that can affect the plot, characters and future cards,” says Rowland. “The Jimen/Noritoshi blood feud was brought about at the finals of a Gen Con tournament, ‘Test of the Emerald Champion’. The two players knew each other and actually worked out the game they wanted before they started playing. Jimen won, and became Emerald Champion, but only by blackmailing Kakita Noritoshi. Their actions started a blood feud that’s threatening the safety of the whole empire.”
As well as the card game, the L5R franchise also encompasses role-playing games and novels. “The characters and locations appearing in the RPG and CCG are constantly crossing over,” says Rowland. “There is a free-flow back and forth. Most of the locations in the location chapter of the RPG’s Book of Void have appeared as Regions, Strongholds or other cards in the CCG. Spells in the Book of Air have often found their way onto CCG spell cards.”
Now in its fourth edition the Legend of the Five Rings role-playing game paints Rokugan as a lush and lively world–something only hinted at in the CCG’s cards’ flavour text. Whether playing as a samurai or peasant, the core manual and source books go into minute detail concerning Rokugani life–life that’s evolved in surprising directions over the last sixteen years, as victorious tournament players have left their stamp on the world.
With the fate of the world in their hands it’s unsurprising players become so vested in their Clans: at conventions Todd says it’s common to hear players say “I’m a Crab” or “I’m a Spider” rather than talking about which Clan they play as.
Each of the Clans has a certain set of morals and behaviours; choosing which Clan to join is almost like taking a personality test. Me, I’m a Dragon: strange, reclusive, distant, an enigma. The L5R RPG says of the Dragon Clan: “There is little they do that is considered normal to the other Clans”–that sounds about right, wouldn’t you say?
These character traits carry over into the way you play the card game, and are further augmented by the kinds of card you fill your deck with. Following the card game’s story-lines, the families at the heart of each Clan rise and fall in prominence, offering players new tactical options with each new cycle of cards. A Crab player might be attracted by the Clan’s loyalty and brute strength; at the game table they could play the Hida family for defensive force, Hiruma for recon units or Kuni for spell-casters–Shigenja, in the game’s terminology. They can add Personalities from each family to their deck and potentially change the course of Rokugan history in the process.
In the last couple of years publishers Alderac Entertainment Group struck gold with Thunderstone, the hugely popular deck-building game and its many expansions. Following in Thunderstone’s footsteps L5R is aiming at the board gaming market with War of Honour and Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan.
War of Honour, released earlier this year, is a new twist on the L5R card game designed to revitalise its existing multiplayer and be a gateway to Rokugan for new players and older, lapsed players alike.
“The existing multiplayer was pretty much a king-making contest,” says Rowland. “If an honor player was able to construct a deck that gained 20 honor in a turn, they became an instant target for everyone and rarely survived another round. One-on-one that’s not so bad, as the opponent is going to be attacking anyway–but in multiplayer it hurt.”
With the focus on fair, fun multiplayer gaming, War of Honour recreates an area of Rokugan on the tabletop using tiles similar to those found in The Settlers of Catan that change the set-up of the game every time you play it. As well as giving each player access to special actions, the positions of the tiles determine who you may attack or ally with, forcing you to seriously consider your options before bundling armies together for a ruckus at the centre of the table. In addition, new victory conditions and well-constructed decks make the game as fair as you could hope for. The basic L5R gameplay might still be at the heart of the game, but this is a CCG as balanced for board gamers.
Due out in October, Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan is a stealth board game that pits a single Scorpion ninja against an entire castle full of samurai. There is a twist, however: one of the samurai is a traitor working in cahoots with the Scorpion to complete his goals. Working in secret–on a private map separate to the game’s board–the Ninja and his accomplice must sneak, find secret passages and drug their way past guards while the guard player stays ever vigilant for sight or sound of the intruders. As well as being a new direction for the L5R franchise, Ninja marks quite a departure for fantasy action board games, which have traditionally leaned toward a more confrontational nature.
But that seems to be L5R’s remit: do the unexpected. When CCGs were dropping like flies L5R stood its ground; today it’s more popular than ever, and with these new additions expanding the franchise I asked Todd: what’s next for Rokugan?
“We have a lot in the works, but not a great deal we can talk about right now. Our primary focus at the moment is on Emperor Edition, which is our next major arc for the CCG. The nice thing is that all the starters are fully pre-constructed–save for two random rares–so they’re a great addition to War of Honor and an easy way to try out the Clans that never made it to the box.
“I wish I could say more, but almost everything is deep in the development process and not allowed into sunlight just yet.”
Words, I think you’ll agree, that are very befitting of a ninja.
Email Campfire – he’s ready to hear from you via firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more information about the rather fabulous L5R, visit the official site: http://www.l5r.com/