Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



The sleeper success of Legend of the Five Ringsshows gamers have a yen for Japanese fantasy

by Allen Varney

[Published in Gamer #3, Summer 1997. Copyright ©1997 Tuff Stuff Publications. Posted by permission]

Scene: The 1996 Gen Con Game Fair in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In front of the Five Rings Publishing Group booth, hundreds of gamers jammed the aisle, packed as tight as cards in a deck. Why? Because the publisher was giving away ten thousand starter decks of its Asian-fantasy collectible card game, "Legend of the Five Rings" -- absolutely free.

That kind of promotion would make other small game publishers tremble in their sneakers. But the Gen Con giveaway "was really the turnaround," says Mindy Sherwood-Lewis, convention and event coordinator at Five Rings' Seattle office. "Not all those gamers actually sat down to learn the game there at our demo tables. But when they got home from the convention, they looked at their deck, read the rules, and said, 'What a cool game!' Then they went to their retailers and told them, 'You've got to carry this.'"

Bold promotion and a strong national demo program have convinced many stores to carry "Legend of the Five Rings" (L5R), and the fans have responded. On the brutal CCG battlefield, where weak and unlucky games die inglorious deaths, L5R stands unbowed and stronger than ever. Why?

"First, it's beautiful," says co-designer John Wick. "Second, the mechanics work really well. We were one of the first games to have a non-simultaneous timing system. Third, the story. We wanted the players to interact with the story, an epic, sweeping story of Rokugan."

The Legacy of Bushido

Rokugan: an imaginary setting based on feudal Japan, with liberal seasonings of Asian mythology. For 50 centuries the Hantei Emperors peacefully ruled this Emerald Empire, supported by the great clans: Crab, Crane, Dragon, Lion, Phoenix, Scorpion, and Unicorn. Now the last Emperor lies dying without an heir. Long-suppressed rivalries erupt into bloodshed as each clan seeks to place its champion on the Emerald Throne.

This premise, which could easily provide the plot for an Akira Kurosawa film, places L5R in an honorable line of adventure games derived from Japanese fantasy. One of the first and best, Fantasy Games Unlimited's Bushido roleplaying game (1981), still has devoted fans. Over dinner in 1994 two of these fans, John Zinser and David Seay of the gaming magazine Shadis, fell to talking about how they missed playing Bushido. Because the early CCG boom was in full swing, they thought of a Bushido-inspired card game set in "a more fantastic Japan," the empire of Rokugan.

Almost the entire Shadis staff helped design the game. CCG editor David Williams took charge of game mechanics, Matt Wilson did the art direction, and new employee John Wick became "the culture Nazi," charged with keeping Rokugan pure. Wick had been a professional storyteller, with a wide collection of Japanese history and folktales. The magazine's parent company, Alderac Entertainment Group, joined with distributor Isomedia, Inc. to fund the game's production; Isomedia owner Ryan Dancey helped with initial development.

"Everyone contributed to all aspects of the game," says Wick, "and we think that's one reason why it's so popular and so playable. Everyone left their ego at the door."

900 Cards, Zero Broken Cards

No one in Rokugan checks his ego so easily. For the warring clans of the Emerald Empire, honor is more powerful than steel.

In an L5R game you control one clan with a starting total of 20 Family Honor points. Your stronghold, printed on the starter deck box, provides gold each turn, as do Holdings like Diamond Mines, Jade Works, Pearl Divers, and Sanctified Temples. Use your gold to hire Personalities -- samurai, shugenja (magicians), explosives masters, orators. Personalities who belong to your own clan increase your Honor when they join your cause. Each Personality can lead Followers ranging from Light Cavalry to Goblin Chuckers to a mean Marsh Troll, who devours one of your cards each turn.

Your armies defend your four Ancestral Provinces, which are staging areas or "windows" through which you can play cards. During your turn you can attack enemy provinces; both attacker and defender can invite aid from players uninvolved in the attack. This means that all players can act during each turn, so you always stay involved in the struggle for the throne.

Each card in a battle has a force number it contributes to its side's total. The army with the smaller force total is destroyed, and the winner emerges unscathed with 2 Honor for each enemy card destroyed. If the attacking army's total is large enough, a winning attack can destroy the defender's province.

You lose the game if you run out of provinces or descend to -20 Honor. You can win a military victory (being the last player left standing), an honor victory (reaching 40 Honor), or an enlightenment victory (putting into play all five of the "Elemental Ring" cards -- a most difficult task!).

Much of L5R's intriguing strategy derives from the unique specialties of Rokugan's clans: defense (Crab), gold and diplomacy (Crane), duelling (Dragon), fast combat (Lion), magic (Phoenix), cavalry troops (Unicorn), and the potent sorcery of the Twelve Black Scrolls (Scorpion). The game also gains flavor from its many attractively painted Action and Event cards, such as Solar Eclipse, Dead Walk the Earth, Geisha Assassin, Marries a Barbarian (dishonors the target samurai), and many Iajutsu Duels, suspenseful single combats between individual Personalities.

All these cards carefully sustain an atmosphere at once fantastic and authentically Asian. And there's no banned or restricted list!

Universal Themes

Another of L5R's lures is its exciting and surprising two-year storyline. Since the October 1995 release of the first 303-card Imperial Edition of the basic game, the epic war has developed ominous new directions with each expansion set. Fans scrutinize each new card's flavor text to learn the latest developments.

Already at war, Rokugan found still deeper trouble in the 153-card "Shadowlands" expansion (1996). When the Crab Clan abandoned its long defense of the empire's borders to seek the throne, the monsters of the barren Shadowlands invaded, led by the fallen Clan Scorpion. But after a long sleep, the serpentine Naga returned to fight for Rokugan. This set introduced starter decks for Clan Scorpion and the Nagas.

The 150 cards of "Forbidden Knowledge" (1996) displayed the full terror of the Twelve Black Scrolls, dangerous rituals that co-designer Dave Williams calls "ridiculously powerful spells, big nuclear stuff." A corrupted Elemental Master weakened the extradimensional barrier imprisoning the Dark God, Fu Leng, and unleashed powerful Elemental Terror spirits on the empire. "Forbidden Knowledge" also introduced Regions, cards that enhance and individualize Provinces.

Shortly after this expansion, Five Rings released a second edition of the basic game, called the Emerald Edition. Then came the hammer blow. "Anvil of Despair" (1997), another 150-card expansion, brought starter decks for the ragtag peasant army of the disgraced Lion Champion Toturi and the hideous Shadowlands commander Yugo Junzo. In this, Rokugan's darkest day, Fu Leng possessed the body of the dying Emperor himself.

The fourth expansion, "Crimson & Jade," is said to introduce yet another bombshell into the already explosive L5R storyline. But at this writing the 150-card expansion still awaits its spring 1997 release, and the designers won't breathe a word about it.

"The clan war [story] we're telling touches on a lot of fundamental levels," says John Wick. "As the story started, it was very individualistic; it had a lot to do with 'my clan.' On toward 'Forbidden Knowledge,' it involves the temptations of power and the dangers of taking the darker path. 'Crimson & Jade' is about what it means to be a hero. I think those are big, universal themes."

The story is rapidly building toward its promised end: the 300-card expansion "Time of the Void," scheduled for Gen Con in August 1997. "L5R is the card game that stuck to its guns," says Five Rings marketing director Danny Landers. The designers "set out at Gen Con '95 saying the story has a definite beginning and end, and we're sticking with that."

Bountiful Harvest

That's bittersweet news to L5R's many players, but they can still look forward to enough new Rokugan-related gaming material to choke a naga. In summer 1997 Five Rings publishes Wick's "Legend of the Five Rings" roleplaying game, set in Rokugan before the clan wars. An ambitious support program includes boxed campaign sets describing the setting during and after the wars.

Also due in summer is the Obsidian (third) Edition of the basic card game. This premium edition packs 20 Pente-style glass counters with each 60-card starter deck, plus an oversize rulebook and new card art, all for $10.

And though August 1997's "Time of the Void" finishes the card game's story, Five Rings isn't done with cards. Wick says, "We're going to have a prequel to the L5R card game, and" -- here his voice rises -- "due to player demand, and we would not do this if our players didn't call us every day and demand, 'Don't let it end!' ... we are doing a sequel, a different story set in Rokugan. There will be familiar faces, [along with] a horde of new characters. But it may not be the direction fans thought we would go."

In today's tough game market, the acclaim for "Legend of the Five Rings" is one of the industry's most welcome surprises. And it seems Rokugan, and Five Rings, still have plenty more surprises in store.



Getting Started with "Legend of the Five Rings"

"Legend of the Five Rings" plays pretty well from a single starter, and with the right strategy you can tune a good deck with few rare cards. The only big complaint people have with L5R is its length. Games work best with four to six players, and such contests can easily last two hours or more. But if you've got the time and the opponents, try a trip to Rokugan.

The best introduction to L5R is the "Battle of Beiden Pass" boxed set, which offers two fixed decks and a Basic Training guide for newcomers. Then consider joining the Imperial Assembly, the official L5R fan club. Members get special cards, the quarterly Imperial Herald newsletter, and clan newsletters updating them on developments in their favorite clan. Call 1-800-45RINGS to join.

Every weekend brings five to 15 L5R tournaments nationwide, especially on the coasts and in Chicago. This summer Five Rings Publishing plans to run a Pro Tour and hopes to start an in-store league, the Skirmishers League. Over 200 stores may participate in this "Omni" format league, where each player competes using the cards in a single starter and two boosters.

Don't forget to save your Koku, the symbols on every starter (3 Koku apiece) and booster (1 each). You can redeem these symbols for popular cards (20 Koku apiece), a T-shirt (250), or even a costume-quality katana (2500).

Look on the World Wide Web for, then follow its links to many other good pages. The Usenet newsgroup features lots of L5R traffic.


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Copyright ©1997 Tuff Stuff Publications.