Legend of the Five Rings: Skirmish, Part 2

Developer Tyler Parrott on the New Skirmish Format


Last week, we published a designer journal by Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game developer Tyler Parrott, introducing the brand-new skirmish format for the game. You may have already had the chance to try this fast-paced and tactical variant, but whether you’ve played it or not, enjoy Part 2 of Tyler’s designer journal, as he delves into the specific changes made for the development of the Skirmish format and why those changes were made!

What Happened When I Challenged My Assumptions and Shot for the Stars

As a recap from last week, I wanted Skirmish to primarily address the main challenges that new players face when learning the Legend of the Five Rings Stronghold format, but without removing what makes the game fun. Battle Box had proven to me that the existing player base would enjoy a more streamlined version of the game, and that the game didn’t need strongholds or provinces to be fun. In order to achieve the format’s primary goals, I would need to address three major things:

  • Players should be constantly presented with interesting decisions, but each decision needs to have fewer options to prevent analysis paralysis.
  • There are a lot of automated game steps that are easy to forget. What can be removed?
  • Removing as many corner cases and exceptions as possible so that the game’s core mechanics are easily explained in a short period of time—and so that complexity/variance can come from cards, as is the objective in any card game.

When I first sat down to start working on Skirmish, I immediately deleted two card types from the game, just as Battle Box had done. The game could be played from two decks, using province tokens that had no game text instead of province cards, and players could focus solely on the cards that were being played, instead of also having to worry about hidden environments that would be attacked or defended. Where Battle Box had two blank province tokens, I increased the count to three so that the game would be closer to 20 minutes long (instead of five minutes). Where Battle Box had a pair of 100-card decks that both players drew from, I wanted Skirmish to be a constructed format where players could exercise their creativity. Eighty cards is a lot to select from, and “max three copies” can lead to a lot of redundancy, so I elected to draw from the Arkham Horror: The Card Game / Star Wars™: Destiny deckbuilding rules and reduce each deck to 30 cards (max two copies per card).

Then, I took a hatchet to every single automated game step that players had to spend energy remembering, allowing that energy to be refocused to the fun parts of the game. Gone were passing fate, unopposed honor loss, fate on unclaimed rings, and discarding cards from broken provinces. I knew this would change some of the game’s dynamics, but it was a change that players could adapt to and would make the game easier to learn initially.

I quickly realized that I was going to begin making a lot of changes to the game, and it would be difficult for existing players to learn those changes if there wasn’t a simple way to remember what those changes were. Additionally, a memory aid for the core rules of the game would dramatically assist new players in learning the game’s core numbers. As I had already established that each player had three provinces—and each province had three strength—I decided to try setting every game numeral to three. If players only had to remember a single number, then it would be easier to remember every numeral not printed on a card. Thus, the “Rule of Three:”

The Rule of Three solves a lot of problems. It fundamentally decreases the number of options available to each player at any given time by limiting the number of cards in their provinces and hand, decreasing the complexity load on new players. Limiting players’ options also means that each card has more value, making the decision to play or not play a card at any given time (thus, player skill) very important. Decreasing the number of cards a player has to worry about gives them more mental space to learn the ring effects, which is a significant hurdle for new players. It also makes it really easy for players to remember “how many” of a thing they would need: How many provinces? Three. What is their province strength? Three. How many cards to draw? Three. How many things can my character do each round? One of three.

One issue that immediately came up with “20-minute L5R” was the loss of mono no aware and the fate mechanic. If there are only a couple of rounds in a game, then the concept of ephemerality doesn’t matter, as the game ends too quickly. Therefore, to maximize one of the game’s core mechanics, I would need to dramatically reduce the length of each round and increase the number of rounds in a game. The answer to that question was immediately obvious: each player only gets a single conflict each round.

Rounds play out quite differently when each player can only declare a single conflict. If my character can only ever attack once and defend once, then the Rule of Three says it will either attack, or defend, or claim the Favor. It also means that, unlike the normal game, which is defined by alternating conflicts, Skirmish plays more like a game with “player turns,” where the first player is the “attacking player” and their opponent is the “defending player.” With only three province strength, provinces need to be defended and players can counterattack only if they have sufficient remaining characters after mounting a defense. What’s more, a single conflict lengthens the number of game rounds, because now a player needs at least three rounds to break all of their opponents’ provinces: thus highlighting the game’s core theme of mono no aware once more.

Finally, I wanted to optimize deckbuilding. Given the fact that I was already giving players six fate and six honor, it seemed pretty straightforward to also give each player six influence (two copies of your favorite three-influence card). However, roles presented a problem. The Keeper role granted significant extra influence while the Seeker role granted no meaningful benefit. Additionally, there were a lot of role-locked cards that either did nothing (Specialized Defenses, Scouted Terrain) or would cause major problems in Skirmish (Backhanded Compliment, Suffer the Consequences). In the end, I elected to take the simplest approach and remove roles from the equation entirely, thus also removing all role-locked cards as well. As role-locked cards represent only a small subset of the card pool, I have found that there are still more than enough deckbuilding options available to players who wish to play Skirmish. I immediately sat down and built nine different decks from my collection (admittedly I had a few extra Core Sets on hand) and did not struggle to find enough cards I wanted.

Testing the Waters

This was where playtesting started for Skirmish, and it was an immediate hit. There were, of course, a few stray cards that caused problems, but they were easily dealt with via a simple banned list. At every turn, I took to heart the lessons I covered last week and challenged myself to question everything: if I didn’t have to worry about the Stronghold format, what changes could I make to Skirmish to make it better? I was worried about making Skirmish too much of a departure from the standard Stronghold game mode, but as I believe that Skirmish will only succeed as a format if it’s fun on its own merits, I elected to embrace greater changes in the interest of greater fun. Thus, I embarked on a quest to challenge every existing rule and find out if it could be improved upon.

One point of confusion for new players has been playing cards in hand during the dynasty phase—you can play events, but not attachments or characters. It would be much simpler to say, “during the dynasty phase, you play cards from your provinces, and during all other phases you play cards from your hand.” I couldn’t exactly do that, as it would be equally strange (and problematic) to make all dynasty events uncancellable, but preventing Actions from being taken from hand not only simplifies the dynasty phase a bit but it also removes certain problematic interactions from occurring (Way of the Crab, I’m looking at you).

Another point of unneeded complexity was the Imperial Favor’s two sides. While it might make more sense in a game with four conflicts per round, setting the Favor to a side is yet another decision players make that rarely matters, and it decreases the value of the Favor overall. It is much simpler to say: “If you have the Favor, you get +1 skill in each conflict that you’re participating in” which is the case for Skirmish. If the Favor is going to still be in the game (and I do want it in the game), it needs to matter more rather than less.

Dueling did not necessarily need changing—it’s a simple enough mechanic to explain, though it’s a bit overly math-intensive in practice—but it’s a mechanic which has been… contentious since the game’s release. Dueling presents a compelling mini-game, but one which is easy to skew one way or the other by outside forces and thus make the mini-game element obsolete. While playtesting the 2019 Stronghold format rules changes, I playtested this version of the mini-game (where you never get more than a +1 bonus from your character’s skills) and found it to be very fun, but at the cost of significantly weakening dueling as a strategy. It proved to be a contentious enough change that I chose not to include it in the Stronghold game mode, but when dials never go above three then the dueling mini-game actually becomes very interesting. Most duels are still likely to be 1-1 bids, I expect, but the fact that the lower-skill character can steal a win on a bid of three forces the duel’s initiator to at least consider bidding higher if they think their opponent is willing to stake that much honor on stealing the duel’s outcome, and thus players’ bids are often quite varied.

The biggest change I hesitated to implement was changing the ring effects. Ring effects are a core component of the game which get resolved repeatedly in every game and thus are easily internalized by players. However, the rings are not made equally, and two of them had asymmetrical effects that proved to be quite difficult for players to learn initially. In the interest of making Skirmish as fun as possible, I elected to change the Air and Water Ring effects to ones that are easy to comprehend and remember, even if they are different from the Stronghold format.

Because the honor and dishonor win conditions are not equivalent in the Stronghold format—players start with less honor and lose honor throughout the game via unopposed conflicts—the Air Ring intentionally gains honor faster than it makes the opponent lose honor. Skirmish presents both honor and dishonor win conditions as being equivalent, so the “gain two honor” option proved to not only be unnecessary, but problematic. Thus, in the interest of simplifying the Air Ring, that option was removed for Skirmish.

The Water Ring has always suffered from seemingly having a single effect (ready or bow a character) that is made much more complex because one half has a condition while the other does not. Simplifying this ring so that both halves function the same way was very important to ease the learning process. Additionally, the complexity issue of a new player attempting to ready their participant only to see it bow during conflict resolution, a mistake often made by new players, is easily resolved by only allowing the ring to affect characters in players’ home areas—which is where the ring is used in almost every case anyway.

After playtesting with these two simplified rings, and after seeing how important each card is in Skirmish, something new became immediately apparent: the Earth Ring was clearly the strongest ring. With the Fire and Water Rings both providing a choice between two options, it was clear that the Earth Ring could be brought in line with the other rings by also making it a choice between two options.

Start Your Skirmish

The more I’ve played Skirmish, the more I love it. Its short game length allows it to provide a “best two out of three” tournament format (and we’re planning tournament support for Skirmish as a side event later this year), alleviating the concern of losing to variance in a tournament setting or getting a bad matchup (as “best two out of three” also allows for a ten-card sideboard). Its simplicity makes it easy to pick up and play, but it does not lose any of the tactical depth of the standard Stronghold game mode. It’s even expandable to other formats with ease: you can easily add up to three additional players without meaningfully changing any of the rules (the draw phase has an easy adjustment for three or more players). If you want to draft, you can now build a Skirmish draft pool that does not require draft starter cards at all—simply sleeve up some extra Wandering Rōnin and Good Omens as extra neutrals for players to use, establish that each player gets to mix all of their cards of any two clans, and you’re good to go. Team play is straightforward, as you can either use a variant of the Team Conquest rules where players attack and defend together or you can play a “free for all” style game where player allegiances are predetermined and players win/lose the game together even as they attack and defend alone.

If you have not already explored this new format, I encourage you to download either the Rules Sheet  (3.0 MB) or the Learn to Play  (13.0 MB), both of which explain the rules for the format and both of which are available on our website. I’m excited about its future and cannot wait to see what kinds of decks people build!

~Tyler Parrott

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