Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Jigoku wins? The death of L5R

Somehow, Jigoku cheated.

The Third Day of Thunder came around over nine hundred years early, and mortal man was unprepared. No descendant of Shinsei emerged to guide the Emerald Empire through the troubled times and, as a result, we must now enter the Seven Hundred Days of Darkness1 before the hope of a new dawn can arise once more...

For those of you wondering if I have lost the plot, I haven't - I'm referring to the announcements on Friday from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) and Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) that the latter has acquired the license to Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) from the former.

As FFG don't produce any collectable card games (CCGs), preferring the Living Card Game (LCG) model that they popularised with A Game of Thrones, some degree of disruption due to this announcement was not unexpected. What was unexpected was that the mechanical core of the game would be reworked, meaning that after the last set produced by AEG is released, there will be a two year gap before the first release by FFG.

I've taken a couple of days to think about this, rather than posting with my initial, emotion-laden thoughts. While I haven't played the CCG on a regular basis since the end of Samurai Edition, it is still something I like to keep an eye on. The game is one which has a fantastic community around it, through which I've met a bunch of people I'm proud to call my friends. I've played a lot of games with a lot of groups over the past fifteen years, but I think that I can say - hand on heart - that the L5R community is the one I have had the most pleasure in dealing with.

Having sat down and brainstormed my thoughts, I've come up with things about this which could be good, which could be bad, and which we don't know enough about to reach a conclusion about yet. Let's take a look at those points, and you can let me know in the comments what you think about them.

Potential positives

  • Economy (players) - There isn't really much of an argument here - collecting a full set of an LCG will be cheaper for players than trying to do the same with a CCG. After all, as a full playset of each card in a release is normally in the pack, you don't need to try to track down multiple copies of a given rare. Of course, later in the life of an LCG it can be more intimidating - consider a wall with the full display of A Game of Thrones, for example, and how much that might set you back.
  • No power promotional cards One of the issues I had with the CCG when I was playing it was the volume and power of promotional cards, as well as the Direct to Play sets. If you weren't keeping up with things like Test of Enlightenment in Lotus Edition, or attending enough events to get a set of Wyrmbone Katana for your kensai deck during Celestial, you were at a significant disadvantage. From what I have observed of the LCG model, this is unlikely to be the case in the future - while there are promotional cards given at prizes at events, they tend to be reprints of cards from the normal sets with alternative artwork.
  • A "clean" reset of power levels - The L5R CCG has seen fluctuating power levels in the game for as long as I've been observing it, partly brought about by the block structure - the last couple of sets in each edition would tend to be used in the following edition as well. If the power level had been high, making lower-powered sets for the start of the next arc would tend to lead to them not selling, while continuing at the same power level would distort the next environment (as was seen with certain Unicorn decks throughout Samurai Edition). Creating a new game under the same name should allow for the power level of the game to be reset, without the hangover from a previous edition.
Known negatives
  • No backwards-compatibility - One of the things that AEG had done which impressed me in recent years was producing the Oracle of the Void. Named for one of the positions within the L5R setting, it is an online card database which professes to contain every card printed, with their rules text updated to the current version. If you wanted to play a deck from Imperial Edition (the first arc) against a deck from Ivory Edition (the latest arc), it would be entirely doable, though I wouldn't want to think about the power level imbalances. While this has been a great tool for players and collectors of the L5R CCG, it is probably a safe bet that we won't see any way to convert existing CCG collections to templating to make them usable in the LCG - or vice versa, if you wished to use new cards in the CCG ruleset.
  • Economy (shops) - This announcement came out of the blue, and will have left shops with quite a lot of sealed stock, let alone the impact on those with a strong presence in the singles market. AEG have confirmed that they still intend to release their final set, Evil Portents, though it is unclear at present just how in demand it will be. Equally, this announcement will have damaged the L5R brand with some retailers, who may be less keen to support it when the brand returns in 2017.
Unknown unknowns
  • The future of the roleplaying game - While there was a reasonable amount of detail regarding the future of the CCG in the announcements, there was less regarding the roleplaying game2 (RPG). Given my first encounter with the L5R setting was a mixed 1st/2nd edition game back around 2005 playing a Mirumoto bushi, this saddens me. Having said that, I can't see FFG missing the opportunity to sell a fifth edition of the RPG down the line - though whether we keep the classic rules or move to something involving distinctive dice is anyone's guess.
  • Storyline involvement - One of the big selling points of Legend of the Five Rings is the degree to which the players are (or were, I should say) able to influence the story. I won't say that the player base always made picks I would agree with, but the fact they were able to set the game apart. The weekly fictions gave a way for some of these to be resolved, especially during events such as the War of Dark Fire. Do I expect the same from FFG? Unfortunately not, as it requires a lot of resources to be committed to it - but I'll be happy to be surprised.
  • Organised play? - I've acted as a tournament organiser/judge for X-Wing, so I have a passing familiarity with FFG's approach to organised play. The focus is likely to be on an escalating series of events, with Store Championships leading to Regional events, then Nationals and World's. What that means for Koteis,  the Jeweled Championships or the European Championships is anyone's guess. 
  • Maintaining the Clans in an LCG - This is one I see as being quite a big challenge for the new designers. L5R currently features 9 Great Clans, and was due to be adding the Naga again in Onyx (last I heard, anyway). I don't see the usual LCG big box starter covering this, and I can see it being difficult to manage semi-even distribution of personalities in the equivalent of Chapter Packs. Getting this right is going to be one of the keys to maintaining the L5R flavour in the LCG version of the game.
  • Dueling? Dueling? Wherefore art thou, dueling? - As with the Clan flavour, there are at least two mechanics that I see as being necessary to keep the LCG feeling like L5R - dueling3, and the eponymous Rings. While the mechanical influence of these has varied over the years, for me they need to be present for a game to properly call itself L5R. It should be interesting to see how the new designers handle them.
  • Outstanding tournament card prizes - This is quite a big question, given that we've just been through two Kotei seasons. Will FFG honour any promised card prizes that won't have been resolved with the release of Evil Portents? Answers on a postcard, as I have no idea either way.
  • Does this head off the Onyx Edition storyline? - Anyone who has spoken to me recently will know that I'm really not keen on the concept behind Onyx Edition, with its apparent let-the-world-burn-yet-again plotline. I'm currently holding out hope that FFG will rewind the plot far enough that the ideas behind Onyx can be avoided, whilst still keeping us at a post-Colonies position.
Just a few things to have a think about. I hope I'm being a bit alarmist, and that in two years time this post can be revisited to see which I was right about, and which I went a little overboard on. In the meantime, though, I suspect there's only one thing to do...

Wait and See - always a popular card on the old L5R forums when a speculative thread needed to be locked.

1 - Approximately, anyway. Given we have no idea what the general release date for the LCG will be, this seems as good a name as any for the waiting period. I may also need to trademark this term, so... DIBS!
2 - Well, other than confirming that the "Atlas of Rokugan" would be the final supplement released by AEG.
3 - Disclaimer: When I started the CCG towards the end of Lotus, it was with a Shiro Kitsuki Honour Dueling deck. One of my earliest fond memories of the CCG involves Kitsuki Nagiken popping out of a province to challenge a dishonoured Moto Chagatai to the death. And I'm not going to apologise for that.