20 April 2018
Legend of the Five Rings expands with an excellent area control spin-off. Or are we just bluffing?
Hot on the heels of its recent living card game revival, Legend of the Five Rings’ next major franchise instalment is Battle for Rokugan – a taut area control board game that stands alone as a truly fantastic experience.
If you’re already a fan of Legend of the Five Rings, you’ll find rough sketches of the seven competing clans’ broad strategies in their slightly asymmetrical special abilities and pools of combat tokens used for wresting control of the map’s various provinces – and the victory-sealing honour that comes with them. It’s just enough to root the conflict in a wider world that feels more believable and vibrant, without throwing off the careful gameplay balance or leaving total newcomers feeling lost.
Learning the ropes is easy, with combat largely coming down to a straight battle of numbers – attack with more strength than your opponent has defence, and you’ll claim that province. Each type of combat token has slightly different rules – armies must attack over land, naval tokens operate only along coasts, the rarer shinobi can strike anywhere and so on – and is placed facedown to signify its intent, before all players’ tokens are revealed and resolved simultaneously.
This is where Battle for Rokugan’s real joy comes into play, as where – and, crucially, when – you put your tokens down becomes a tense standoff and clash of wits between players. Could the token attacking your province be a powerful army needing to be fought off with ample defence? Or could it simply be a distraction to draw your forces away from a surprise attack elsewhere during the final placement? You’ll need to constantly guess and second-guess your rivals, especially as every player always has a blank bluffing token hidden with the rest of their ‘hand’ behind their screen, presenting a constant opportunity to mislead and deceive.
It’s a tight, thrilling experience that keeps up the pressure throughout its very reasonable running time and gets especially explosive during the fifth and final round, as players unleash a last-ditch effort to take over entire territories or block their rivals’ control.
Particularly brutal are the rare raid tokens, which completely decimate an area for the rest of the game and remove all combat and control tokens, while the equally uncommon diplomacy tokens permanently forbid all combat in – or out – of a region, safeguarding it from future attacks but potentially sacrificing a tactical advantage during future battles.
Taking over an entire territory can grant a huge advantage, as each collection of lands unlocks a single-use power for the controlling player to use. The abilities feel fittingly formidable and satisfying to execute, but are only held onto as long as that player has total control – meaning waiting to use them to their full advantage can be very risky.
Each player also starts with a very limited supply of scouts and shugenja that let them spy on some of their opponents’ tokens, plus a secret objective that’s revealed during end-game scoring for a potential last twist in the final standings. Funnily enough for a spin-off to a living card game, the cardplay is kept to a bare minimum, leaving the focus on the placement of tokens, but the small number, restricted use and great power of the cards means that every one lands with a huge impact.
The combination of straightforward basics, the chance for deceptive mind games, and just a smidge of luck and asymmetry works an absolute charm: Battle for Rokugan is 90 or so minutes of exhilarating Oh My God!-ness, air-punching triumph and head-in-hands regret (with laughter) as traps are sprung, plans go astray and big moments pop off in every round. That’s no bluff.
There’s no need to already be a Legend of the Five Rings fan to enjoy Battle for Rokugan as a brilliant game of planning, deception and strategy. The easy-to-grasp gameplay means the riveting showdowns between players get to shine, while the tight play time and differences between the clans and territory powers leave plenty of reasons to come back time and time again.
Designer: Molly Glover, Tom Jolly
Artist: Mathias Kollros, Francesca Baerald, Nele Diel, ShenFei
Time: 90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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