Legend of the Five Rings is dead. Long live Legend of the Five Rings.
By now, you’ve probably read that Fantasy Flight Games has bought the intellectual property for L5R from Alderac Entertainment Group, who has owned the rights to the feudal Japan-inspired world since its creation in 1995.
FFG will scrap production of L5R’s 20-year-old collectible card game and reboot it in 2017 as a living card game, similar to how Fantasy Flight has treated Netrunner and A Game of Thrones. FFG’s new version of Legend of the Five Rings, though, will not be compatible with the existing game.
So far, reaction to the buyout has been more hopeful than might be expected. We in the geek community have a tendency to have knee-jerk, negative reactions to big changes in the properties we love. But a look at comments about the deal on Reddit and Board Game Geek show that fans have reacted with cautious optimism.
One question keeps bubbling up, though: why couldn’t AEG transition the game from CCG to LCG itself? After all, the company has produced Doomtown: Reloaded as an “expandable card game” since 2014.
The answer is probably that AEG couldn’t make the changes L5R needs internally. The company has too much history with the L5R brand.
L5R’s Dead Mechanics
While L5R has continued to foster a rich and vibrant community and storyline, the game’s mechanics have been on life support for years. From an abstract point of view, L5R never made sense as a collectible card game. Its basic rules, while innovative, left its creative team with little design space.
How many variations of a two-force, two-chi samurai can the design team make before they’re all the same? This problem became starkly clear when AEG introduced the “soul of” trait with Gold Edition in 2001. This trait barred players from including a character in their deck with another character who had the “soul of” that character.
While this makes thematic sense, it represented a quiet admission from the game’s designers that they were running out of ideas. And the creative well remained dry.
I haven’t played L5R since shortly after AEG introduced “soul of” cards. I saw their introduction as the beginning of the end for a game I had once been fanatically devoted to (I even once had an AIM name that included the name of a Scorpion Clan personality). Since then, I’ve been continually surprised every time I learned that L5R was still around.
After the Fantasy Flight announcement, I looked up a card list for the Twenty Festivals set released earlier this year. I found almost nothing that I didn’t recognize from when I stopped playing. Compare that to the mechanical whiplash Magic: The Gathering players feel when they look at a new set for the first time in 15, 10 or even 5 years.
No One to Blame
Don’t blame anyone working at AEG currently; the game’s core mechanics simply didn’t allow for much creativity. Nor can you blame the game’s original design team; in 1995, nobody knew what it took to build a collectible card game that could endure for decades. Richard Garfield’s bare-bones design for Magic: The Gathering amounted to a brilliant stroke of luck.
Nor can you blame AEG’s leadership. Holding the rights to an enduring, successful game with no practical room for expansion, the company made the smart business decision to leave the game mechanically stagnant and do everything it could to service the game’s existing fanbase. They focussed on story, and on letting players help determine that story.
But the problem with focussing exclusively on an existing fanbase is that, without new blood, the fanbase is all but guaranteed to shrink.
And the problem with knowing that something you’ve been in charge of for more than two decades needs to change is that sometimes you’re incapable of making that change.
Fantasy Flight, however, can make the changes that L5R needs. No one knows what FFG’s spin on the game will look like, but the odds are that it will maintain the spirit L5R players have come to expect with mechanics that refresh the experience — and maybe give it the longevity to last another 20 years.