Five Rings: An Honorable Game

May 29, 2018

There are a lot of reasons to play games. To laugh, to think, to keep your hands busy, to justify heavy drinking, oh… and to win. When I picked up Legend of the Five Rings from Fantasy Flight Games, I found a new reason to play. I discovered a one-vs-one card game that I play to connect with my opponent, and with the game itself.

Legend of the Five Rings invites each player to align with a Great Clan of Rokugan—a fictional empire roughly based on feudal Japan, with cultural sprinklings of China, Korea and Mongolia. Each Clan plays an important role in the empire, and thus excels in that specific area of gameplay. For instance, the Crab Clan, defenders of the Carpenter’s Wall along the southwestern border of Rokugan, are based heavily in defensive characters and tactics. The Scorpion Clan show their loyalty to the emperor through cunning and subterfuge. The transient Unicorn Clan boast the greatest cavalry in the empire, and demonstrate unpredictable mobility in the game.

What Makes the Gameplay Unique?
The mechanics of the game were enough to fascinate me from the get-go. The game takes place over a series of conflicts that players will declare against each other’s home provinces. Those conflicts can be military in nature, but they can also be political, representing attempts to discredit and dishonor the opposing clan.

How do we resolve these conflicts? By sending out characters to oppose one another! At the outset of each new turn, each player has an opportunity to play characters from their provinces, using their most valuable resource: Fate. Each character has a fate cost, and once that cost is paid, the player can decide to add additional fate to keep that character around for longer.

The idea of fate as a resource created a small explosion in my head. Characters don’t have unrealistic hit points that are going deteriorate and mean nothing until they’re dead; they are instead fated to play a part in the struggle between clans, until the time comes for them to die or retire or be shamed into exile. That part of the story is yours to imagine, all you have to do now is decide how much of your clan’s future you’re willing to invest in this particular character’s story.

The Gritty Efficiencies
I’ll admit—I love a game that makes me think, and think hard. Legend of the Five Rings has (arguably) six separate resources that players manage over the course of the game: Cards in hand, Fate, Honor, Characters in play, the Five Rings, and Provinces.

I can be ahead on fate and honor, but if I let myself fall down to 1 card to my opponent’s 10, I’ve probably lost. And conversely, I might find myself with a hand full of cards I can’t play, because I only have one character in play, and they’ve already participated in their one conflict for the turn.

Every game I play, I learn little lessons on how to keep myself ahead on a resource, or how to catch up where I’m behind. Winning is great, but I would greatly prefer to lose honorably, having learned valuable lessons, than to win in a manner that made me feel like I tarnished my opponent’s experience of the game.

And that’s what really sets this game apart for me.

The Role of Honor in Legend of the Five Rings
Sure, Honor is a resource in the game itself (if your run out of honor, you lose immediately), but the sentiment of honor is built into the game, all the way down to the competitive rules.

As soon as the round timer reaches 0:00 in a tournament, any players who are still mid-game have an official opportunity to accept that they are behind and concede to their opponent. How incredible is that!? You get a chance to say, “Dear opponent. I respect you enough to accept that you will best me in this endeavor. Rather than make you stress and play out the rest of this game—which might end in a draw if we don’t play fast enough—I will instead fall on my own sword and wish you good games in the coming rounds.”

Because of this infusion of player-to-player respect and the meditative thoughtfulness that goes into each turn, I don’t know any way better way to transport yourself back to Feudal Japan short of breaking out the Shogi board. –>

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Andy B

Andy B is our Master of Events and Online Wizardry, and that's why you see his picture at the bottom of most posts and events! You'll see him and his beard at all our locations, often with his nose at a computer, creating pages just like this one. His favorite games include The Grizzled, Tash Kalar, Guild Ball and Legend of the Five Rings.

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