Preview: Legend of the Five Rings

l5r01_featureIn the hotly competitive environment of Gencon it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd.

Making good games is a start, but a big marketing budget helps as well.

And they don’t come much bigger than the swollen coffers of Fantasy Flight Games (FFG).

FFG are best known for producing a wide range of games set in the Star Wars universe. These are consistently the best supported, and most marketed, games in the FFG library.

That often leads to concerns from gamers that some of their other intellectual properties, Android: Netrunner for example, are left to wilt in the shadow of George Lucas’ pop culture behemoth.

These concerns are understandable. Though so is FFG’s desire to make the most of access to one of the biggest merchandising opportunities there is.

The product announcements at this iteration of FFG’s annual Inflight Report followed a pattern that’s become familiar to industry watchers.

There are nods here and there to game systems such as Runewars or the Arkham Horror Card Game but the rest is all Star Wars. The big unveiling this time round was Star Wars: Legion; an infantry centric miniatures war game.

But this year, there was a buzz around an upcoming FFG release that was announced long before the Inflight Report took place and it wasn’t a Star Wars game.

FFG revealed, to only moderate fanfare, that they had acquired the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) intellectual property from AEG games back in 2015. Though there were a number of games under the L5R banner it was best known as a collectable card game.

The initial reveal was modest but the hype around FFG’s revival of the card game in their signature Living Card Game (LCG) format has been swelling steadily.

This culminated in the new iteration of the game’s pre-release at this year’s Gencon. Remarkably the game jostled for first place in FFG’s roster with the aforementioned Star Wars: Legion.

Kostas Adamopoulos, a highly rated competitive L5R player and former European Champion, believes that the enormously warm initial reception to the game has perhaps taken FFG by surprise.

He said; “I think they originally expected a standard LCG launch, maybe slightly augmented with the existing L5R fans, but they were taken aback and forced to up their game in basically every way through the sheer force of hype.

“I believe they didn’t realise that they wouldn’t just cater to the L5R players that were playing by the end of the collectable game, but also to the vast majority who played and like the game or world and quit at some point due to costs, circumstances or hit-or-miss mechanics.”

The game is attracting more than just veterans of the original, but clearly newcomers as well. FFG hosted the first tournament for the game at Gencon. With more than 700 attendees it was the largest competition FFG have ever held at the convention.

That the game is attracting a new generation of enthusiasts is exciting for older players. When it came to an end the collectible version was the oldest card game on the market with the exception of Magic: The Gathering. Considering how many competitors have been crushed under the wheels of that ever rolling juggernaut it’s a remarkable achievement.  

L5R is unique among collectable card games in that player’s successes or failures at major tournaments directly influence the future direction of the game’s overarching narrative.

Kostas believes this was, and will continue to be, a key factor in the game’s success: “I think the main reason for the appeal of the original game was the intricate setting.

“The clan system offered itself to loyal storyline players. Other settings, like Game of Thrones, lend themselves to the player base braking down in factions, but GoT is very much a world full of anti-heroes, while L5R is epic, inspiring, larger than life.

“Put that together with the rose-tinted glasses of a player base that has been in this for literally decades, who basically grew up together in a quite literal sense, and you can see why people held onto it for so long.”

This new iteration of the game won’t be a simple rehash of the original. Aside from changes to the mechanics of a the game itself the switch from a collectible game to an LCG is quite a fundamental one. No longer will players suffer the agony of randomised booster packs or a grossly inflated secondary market.

But, despite having been around for sometime now FFG still seems to regard the  LCG distribution model as somewhat experimental. Every game coming under the LCG banner has it’s own particular kinks that have yet to be ironed out and the communities around those games are all too aware of this issue.

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The former champ seems to think that this might not be entirely accidental on the part of FFG: “It seems to me that the business model they have stumbled upon is to not spend all their resources into keeping their games healthy and vibrant indefinitely, but rather to supplant and move the player base onto the next thing on a sort of rotating basis.

“Of course, we only have a small sample of LCGs, but it does feel like AGoT and Netrunner in particular are being overlooked a bit. Now, in competition to the other card games out there, I think that FFG is doing a much better job in almost every regard than most of them, and that is why, at least from a financial point of view, all their games have been quite successful.  

“I am not worried about L5R’s commercial viability, I’m more worried about the fact that FFG haven’t yet managed to find and implement a rotation system to keep their games fresh.”

When an LCG is in it’s embryonic stage there’s not really any way to predict its long term success, either commercially or as a satisfying game. Like all living things they shift and grow with time and may occasionally go through some difficult periods.

Only time will tell how resilient L5R really is. However, it’s clear that this game already has the advantage of a passionate and dedicated community behind it. As Kostas points out their enthusiasm has already had a massive impact on how the game was received at Gencon.

If that momentum can be sustained then Fantasy Flight could have a surprise, to newcomers at least, smash hit on their hands.

Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game will be available in the UK later this year.

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