Published by Five Rings Publishing Group
Designed by Seay & Zinser
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
The Battle of Beiden Pass is the boxed, starter edition of one of the older and best established collectible card games on the market - Legend of the Five Rings. The latter achieved notoriety in the Siggins household as the game we tried to play five times, on the basis it looked so tempting, and failed badly on each occasion. Beiden Pass is Five Ring's attempt to emulate Chaosium's excellent Mythos starter decks and to get more people, including me (!), playing the game. Unlike Mythos which costs a very reasonable £10/$15, it comes in at twice that price which as it contains but two packs of playing cards seems destined to put off more than it attracts, but I for one took the bait.
L5R, aside from Magic, is probably the greatest stayer of the still immature CCG market. It appeared ages ago, has steadily built up a loyal following while never making a big noise, and the game development has always been of the first order - unlike Magic, there are no banned or deleted cards, nor are there any timing problems that we could discern. Its real selling point, aside from gameplay, is that it is deemed the best multi-player system, bar none. The net result is that L5R bubbles away in the top five of many gamer's lists, is nearly always mentioned as the top also-ran in the press, and therefore has all the signs of the classic sleeper title. One of the reasons it may not have achieved top billing, its share of fame, or indeed rave reviews, is that in common with Magic it is not a licensed deal. From memory, all the other big hitters (Star Trek, Star Wars, Middle Earth, Netrunner, Battletech) are existing partly on their background, whereas L5R has devised its own - and a good job was done, with new additions appearing all the time.
The theme is a medieval country, in almost all respects an alternative Japan/Nippon, with the added ingredient of magic. Those of you who know the Bushido RPG will see many similarities, and I can now see why so many people pointed out that Gamewright's Honor of the Samurai has the feel of a downsized L5R. The clever part of the L5R universe is that it has been neatly divided up into factions, each with their own special characteristics, strengths and conflicting aims. In turn, each starter pack contains cards related to one of these factions - the Dragon, Lion, Crane and so on, so when you buy a pack of Warrior Monks or the vile Naga, you are well on the way to getting a functional range of cards. Each player takes the role of one clan leader and can use cards specific to that faction, and others if an alliance card is played.
In what is a quite involved game system, it may be easiest to start with how to win, and work backwards. Stay with me on this... You can win by playing all five of the eponymous ring cards, but since I haven't even seen one yet in six packs, that would seem a tad difficult to pull off. [Ken: This is odd, as I picked up all five just by buying one pack for each clan...] Next, you can win by being the last survivor; this is known as a military victory. Finally, you can accrue 40 honour points which is called, logically enough, an honour victory. So how do you get honour? Starting with your specific stronghold, you will surround it with holdings (which produce income and sometimes honour), personalities (who lead, cast magic and fight for you) and followers, who are the armies and paeons. Items, spells and events all add to these basic structures. The cards are laid out in the prescribed fashion, surrounding the 'provinces' which are the heart of the game system.
Each turn you will take a fate card into hand (these have different coloured backs), which will be something useful and flavoursome for later play, and you fill your four provinces with the 'dynasty' cards. Any events that turn up are implemented (a nice touch, this) and any holdings or personalities can be paid for or discarded. Gold is usually enough to add new cards to your empire, but sometimes there is an honour requirement as well - they will not serve your family if you are dishonourable. The rest of the game is largely one of attack and defence - with you aiming to take out all four enemy provinces for a military victory, while trying to defend your own and build up honour through recruits and holdings. What is good about this phase, involving as it does infantry, cavalry, shugenga (magicians) and sundry ninjas, is that unlike many of the arbitrary duels of Magic and Battletech, it feels like an ongoing war. Cavalry are more adept at flexible attacks, infantry are always needed to defend or seize ground, leaders make a difference and there are plenty of period details - duels between samurai, ancestral swords, tactical cards, war machines, goblin mercenaries, ranged fire and so on.
All this is depicted in time honoured CCG fashion - with a selection of artwork that varies from outstanding (Scout, Ogre Bushi, Naginata, Hida Sukune, anything by Alexander and Hoover) to the mediocre (Earthquake, Blood of Midnight), but unlike many sets there are few really weak pieces. The cards are graphically cluttered, rather more so than traditional Japanese design might dictate, but they are good looking and, comments about the numbers aside, functional. There is everything in here that you could ever hope to see in a Samurai game and, if you keep it quiet, there is very little stopping you using the cards for a broadly historical deck. I am not sure you would win without magic, Zombie Troops, Oni and Goblin Mobs but, as with Mythos, you can largely do what pleases you in L5R. As ever, you are free to collect as many cards as you want, but the good thing about Beiden Pass is that you get two well tuned decks which at least lets you play. Again I question the price and the airbox, but the package is still a tempting one - it would be an irresistible bargain at £14 or £15 (~$22).
[Ken: Sorry to keep busting in, Mike, but I have some specific suggestions about what was missing from the Beiden Pass box: a card to represent the Imperial Favor, small markers or chits to use as 'tokens' of various sorts (the game requires a plethora of these - to track bonuses on individual cards, count down spell durations, track honor, etc), a set of compact turn sequence cards that each player could refer to. All of these would have been cheap to produce and would have been genuinely useful.]
The only reason I have not played L5R before now is its inaccessibility. This manifested itself mainly in the quite appalling rulebook in the first edition, which this starter set obviously intends to correct, and also through the cards which, while appealing graphically, are not exactly intuitive. There are several numeric factors scattered across the card face, and no real guide as to what they mean. One is forced to rely on positional memory and constant referral to the rulebook. This charge could be levelled at many CCGs and, almost without exception, the problem goes away with familiarity. But, when learning a new system, especially one with confusing rules, it is just another obstacle that you really don't need. It also makes one less inclined to return to the game. Compare the approach with Star Trek cards, on which all factors are clearly marked, and you will see my point.
So how does Beiden Pass solve all this? Firstly you get a basic training manual which is linked, rather cleverly, to the two special decks of cards provided. These are pre-stacked (don't go into instinctive shuffle mode), so that each card deals off in sequence as you learn, step by step. Impressive job by the designers and collators. Then, you get a master rule book which has been substantially re-written, and is much larger than the itchy text we are used to, but which I still found opaque. Now I am not being harsh here, I must have read hundreds of rule sets and am no dimwit, but there is something about these rules that makes you glaze over and fail to comprehend the message. But at the end of the trial game, a re-read and another solo playthrough, I finally got on top of it and by game four, we were there. I am sure there will be the odd rule which I have missed or twisted, but it runs smoothly enough and, like Middle Earth, the rest can come later. I also feel I could probably teach someone else, which is half the battle. Shades of Up Front here. Sadly, no changes have been made to the cards - understandable, as they need to be backward compatible - so the old problem remains. Added to this is a slight dose of Sim Cityitis. Some cards, for instance, add strength to lots of other cards, so it can be tough to follow which card is affected by which others.
Unusually for me, it has been quite difficult to come to a comprehensive conclusion after just a handful of games of L5R, and especially since I still have the feeling that I'm only 80% up the learning curve. And since I can see that L5R's nuances will not become apparent without as much time as I have put into Middle Earth, I am keen to play this one a lot more. Nevertheless, I have seen enough to know that this is a very interesting system, more so when played multi-player which is undoubtedly its main draw. Taking its systems and overall flavour respectively, it is not as good as Netrunner or METW for me, but then they don't work at all well with three or more players. The theme is undoubtedly excellent, and all the cards fit in neatly (they have that elusive 'browse' quality where you look at each card and see what it might do for you, with very few being superfluous), it is a great idea to have a country, history and 'clan' allegiance which immediately distances L5R from the generic milieux of Magic, while the multiple routes to victory are also a welcome change.
Ken Tidwell recently raised the point that CCGs can excel at portraying wide, sweeping vistas of empire, space or politics. This is highlighted admirably in L5R (and gives me great hope for their forthcoming Dune CCG [Ken: Dune is definitely sweeping - you complicatos out there will love it.]) and there is, more than most, a feel that you are part of the action. The cards that appear make sense, there is a clear and logical chain of command and income streams, it is good fun juggling your resources, and it all gels nicely. There is also plenty of variety as is the way of these games. On the other hand, it suffers from the same CCG drawbacks as all the others, and eventually you will need to rebuild and tailor decks. Fortunately, I don't detect any great problem with needing lots of rares to have a good, balanced game. So, all in all, a sleeper of the first order, a sound system and one that continues to grow. Recommended, and I shall be playing it often.
The illustrations contained herein are taken from Crimson & Jade, the latest expansion for Legend of the Five Rings and are courtesy Five Rings Publishing Group. Thanks, guys! Isawa Tomo artwork is copyright Rob Prior. Ogre Outlaw artwork is copyright Matthew D. Wilson. L5R logo is a trademark of Five Rings Publishing Group.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Mike Siggins