Legend of the Five Rings: Skirmish, Part 1
Developer Tyler Parrott Introduces a New Legend of the Five Rings Format
Alternate formats and variants are an important part of any game, giving players new ways to engage with the game and explore everything that it has to offer. Every once in a while, however, a new format comes along that offers something truly special—and today, developer Tyler Parrott is proud to introduce one such format with the Skirmish format for Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game.
Read on for Tyler’s own thoughts on designing this format!
How I Learned to Stop Doubting My Instincts to Make a Really Fun Game
A friend who plays Legend of the Five Rings once asked me: “If you could make a second edition of L5R, what would it look like?” I didn’t put much thought into it, because when would that really happen? But some adjectives that might describe it are: tactical, challenging, and swift, a game with finite resources that each player is trying their best to maximize. It would be approachable, not overwhelming, and have very strong storytelling potential. Most of all, it would highlight the best elements of Legend of the Five Rigns: the mono no aware of the fate mechanic and the challenging strategy of conflicts.
I never would have imagined, then, that I would be writing this article in which I announce and publish a new format, Skirmish, which is the most fun I’ve ever had playing Legend of the Five Rings. This is not only my favorite version of Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game, this is one of my favorite games, period.
What is the Skirmish format, then? It is an alternate rules set for Legend of the Five Rings that presents the game as a streamlined, accessible, and most importantly, short game experience that feels fun, tactical, and meaningful. There are fewer moving parts, but there are also fewer obvious decisions. A game can be over in 20 minutes, allowing players to better learn and adapt to their opponents’ strategies. It highlights the heart of what makes the game fun without asking players to work for it. While it sacrifices perhaps 30% of the card pool in the process, it is fully compatible with each expansion that is already produced and can be played as early as today.
To empower players who wish to begin experimenting with and sharing this format, three documents are now available: a Learn to Play (13 MB) for players who have never played Legend of the Five Rings before and want to begin with the Skirmish format, a Rules Sheet (3 MB) for players who know the current “Stronghold” format well, and a set of Reference Cards (2.1 MB) that players can print and sleeve alongside their collection. These reference cards provide valuable summaries of the round structure, important phases of the game, the Skirmish ring effects, and a number of changes between the Stronghold and Skirmish formats for existing players.
As much as I would like to keep gushing about how much fun this format is to me, personally, Skirmish has also been an incredible learning experience in its development. Therefore, I would like to share some stories behind its inception and explain why Skirmish is what it is.
Legend of the Five Rings has a small, but passionate, player community. The long game length has been a hurdle for many potential new players, especially in the context of long tournaments. The many variables that a player has to track during a round makes sustained play difficult for many players, even as those variables add to the variety and depth of the game’s many compelling decision points. Legend of the Five Rings was designed to be chess, but with magical samurai, and chess is often a long, mentally involved game by design. But chess doesn’t have to be that mentally involved, if you’re a new player, because it’s easy to explain the basic rules of the game and to learn the complex strategy over time. By presenting the game’s tactical depth-via-high-complexity up front, a lot of players who wanted to play Legend of the Five Rings were turned away.
This taught me an important lesson: if a game can be easily understood, it can reach a much wider audience.
This is why, during the summer of 2019, I started exploring the idea of changing the rules of Legend of the Five Rings to ease the learning curve. In gathering my data, I made a number of observations about the challenges that new players faced when learning the game:
- There are a lot of card types that all work slightly differently.
- Players are immediately presented with a lot of cards they can play, which requires a lot of reading and comprehension effort.
- Five ring effects that new players must remember makes ring selection—and thus conflict declaration—incredibly difficult.
- There are a lot of automated game steps that are easy to forget.
- There are a lot of triggered abilities that are easy to forget.
- The number of decision points in a game—when every decision is made between several options—makes getting through a player’s first game a slow process.
- The outcome of a game often is the result of accumulated small decisions made throughout the game, which are invisible to new players. This produces the feeling of “I lost, but I don’t know why,” which discourages repeat play.
My goal with any major rules update would be to keep as much of the core identity as possible, while cutting what it didn’t need. The obvious first step was the automated game steps. What would the game look like without unopposed honor loss, the Imperial Favor, fate on unclaimed rings, or discarding cards in broken provinces? Other changes were explored in this process: if players had too many options, was there a way to further incentivize low bids and move away from “Bid 5 meta”? Could the fate mechanic be better communicated so that it wasn’t such a challenge for new players?
One issue with making major rules changes is that they would invalidate existing cards and potentially alienate the players who currently love the game—if I do that, and fail to capture a new audience, I would only succeed at shrinking the game’s audience. When I decided to implement a major rules update to the standard Stronghold format at the end of 2019, I erred on the side of changing less rather than changing more. That update succeeded at cleaning up the game’s rules, but did not succeed at making it easier to learn. To do so would require fundamentally overhauling the game’s rules, and that was a risk I didn’t believe would pay off.
Little did I know, there were some innovative players in Canada who wanted to play a game of Legend of the Five Rings with their sealed 60-card Dynasty Packs.
At Winter Court this past November, I ran side events for a new draft format that I had created earlier in the year. While I was running these drafts, some Canadian players told me they had invented a wacky version of Legend of the Five Rings that could be played in five minutes. Considering a game of normally takes 45–90 minutes, I was both interested and dubious. Could a five-minute version of Legend of the Five Rings be fun?
It turns out, yes, it absolutely can be. Not only was this Battle Box format a functional five-minute game, it was actively very fun, and it succeeded at cutting most of the things that I had outlined as hurdles for new players. This was a game that anyone could pick up and start playing quickly and feel like they (mostly) knew what they were doing. And despite my trepidation about players not wanting to play a simplified version of the game, Battle Box was a breakout hit among the community throughout the weekend.
While I enjoyed playing it several times over the course of the 20 minutes that the Canadian players demoed the format with me, its highly randomized nature (which sees both players playing from the same 100-card dynasty and 100-card conflict decks) made it difficult to stay hooked. It was a fun distraction, but it lacked a lot of the depth that made standard Legend of the Five Rings so attractive.
Nevertheless, Battle Box taught me another critically important lesson that set me down the path towards making Skirmish, which is a lesson I will carry with me for the rest of my game design career: if you make a game that is fundamentally fun, it will create its own audience.
If I were to make a game whose “target audience” was “new players who want a simpler and faster version of Legend of the Five Rings,” and it was fun enough, even existing players would be willing to give it a chance and find it enjoyable. At that point, the idea of a “target audience” really doesn’t matter. I could make the version of Legend of the Five Rings that I had wanted back in the summer: easy to learn, but hard to master. And if people wanted to play this new format, then perhaps they could introduce it to their friends, and now their friends could become Legend of the Five Rings players as well.
After Winter Court, I believed that “20 Minute L5R” could be a success. But what would it actually look like? The answer to this question required months of brainstorming and iteration, beginning with the foundation that Battle Box had provided. As that story is a whole separate article on its own, I will be exploring it next week in another designer journal. If you are interested in reading a discussion of why I made each of the changes from the Stronghold format to Skirmish, then I encourage you to return next Friday to learn about it!
I believe Skirmish has a bright future, and I’m super excited to share it with the community. But just to be clear, Skirmish is not a replacement for the game that people have been playing for the past couple of years. It is a format that I hope ends up being an equivalent and enjoyable alternative for people who may not want to play the Stronghold format, or for longtime players who want the ability to play Legend of the Five Rings in 10-30 minutes.
Skirmish has been both an invaluable learning experience for me and one of the most fun games I’ve played in recent memory. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I have!
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