Wednesday, March 28, 2018


Rising Sun

Listen. Games industry. We need to talk about your Japan fetish. I'm not saying the feudal states period isn't compelling, but FFS, there are already multiple games specifically titled "Shogun". Legend of the Five Rings is in a fantasy Japan. If as much of the board game industry was based in Japan as video games, that would make sense, but that's not at all the case.

Why are so many historical avenues related to that region of the world ignored? Just focusing on eastern Asia, I could only find one game about Genghis Khan and a small handful about the Three Kingdoms period in China. How is that possible? Tecmo is up to Romance of the Three Kingdoms 13, and that's one video game company approaching the period in one way. Another ROTK-based series is Dynasty Warriors, which has nine installations, while Samurai Warriors, the Japan-based spinoff, only has one.

Basically, Japan is better at making video games about places in Asia outside Japan than America and Europe are at making board games about places in Asia outside Japan. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE.

Alright, Rising Sun. Impress me.

Rising Sun is the brand-spanking-new, miniature-happy Kickstarter release from CMON. The map of Japan is simplified relative to most games in this setting; rather than being broken down into numerous small provinces, with clever lines of attack and defense the key to victory, Rising Sun's Japan only has eight. Armies are small in number—a maximum of ten figures plus any monsters you might bring along, oh yeah, there are monsters, don't let me forget about that—but they fit the board well enough.

To get it out of the way, the minis are fantastic. The monsters are big and ferocious, which is becoming a regular thing for CMON to pull off. For the player armies, you get six bushi, three shinto, and one daimyo. Since your army is all similarly sized, and there are two separate types of bushi figures, they include white bases for the shinto and black ones for the daimyos. It's a smart way of differentiating the pieces from each other. 

(Picky bastard incoming)

Their naming could have been a little better; damiyos are the provincial leaders, so that's fine, and 'bushi' is effectively another name for samurai. People are not 'shinto', however, and even if you think of it as 'shinto warrior', that's like calling a Dark Ages European knight a 'Christian warrior'. The description is correct, because their religion is part of the deal, but the people themselves have different titles. If they're supposed to be some type of monk it would have been better to name them Ikko-ikki. It's more accurate and a way better name in general.

Whatever. Small things. That's what happens when there are too many goddamned games about 16th century Japan.

(Picky bastard exiting)

The game is played over four seasons, the last of which doesn't have any action (because it's winter), only bonus points. Quite a bit happens on each of the other three turns, though. 

First, players form alliances. These can come with whatever stipulations the players choose, but 'official' alliances can only be between two players, and each player can only be in one alliance. Having allies gives you bonuses when they play political mandates and lets your armies share territory without murdering each other, but betraying an ally costs you honor.

Next comes the deck of ten political mandate tiles, seven of which are used each season. There are two each of five types: Recruit, Marshal, Harvest, Train, and Betray. Starting the game, the player with the highest honor draws four tiles, chooses one, and places the rest back on the deck. Recruit lets you put new figures on the board (or shinto warriors from reserve on to temples), Marshal lets you move them, and Harvest brings in resources. All of these get you more stuff if you or an ally play it. Train lets you buy a card from the seasonal deck, which can have a number of different effects; it's one coin cheaper if you or an ally plays the Train tile. Betray is the only one that helps nobody except the current player. That player removes one unit each from two different opponents and replaces them with units of the same type (a monster can be replaced by another monster—I'm getting to the monsters, I promise). If a player is not in an alliance when they choose Betray, they lose no honor. If a player in an alliance does not remove a piece from their ally, the alliance is still broken and they still lose honor.

Three times during the political phase—after the third, fifth, and seventh mandates are played—there's a Kami turn. Whoever has the most shinto warriors on a temple earns the bonus (ties here, as everywhere else in the game, are broken by honor standing). These bonuses aren't enormous, but if you hold the same one for all three Kami turns, you get a pretty nice buff out of it.

Once the mandates are done, it's time to fight. Important note: War only happens in a certain number of provinces each turn, equal to the number of players plus two. If you have all the Kickstarter extras and are playing a six player game, every province will have a fight (which thins the board and keeps it, usually, from becoming choked with figurines). On the other hand, a three-player game is only going to see fighting in five provinces each turn. As these are chosen randomly at the start of each round, you can decide where to concentrate your forces, and calculate whether you can effectively control a battleground or if you need to find more peaceful quarters.

War is straightforward. All pieces, unless otherwise noted by season card abilities you've purchased, are worth one power. You both spend money on different war tactics; whoever spends more is able to perform the tactic. Seppuku kills all of your people in the province, but earns you honor. Taking a hostage pulls one unit off the battlefield and earns you one gold at the start of the next round in ransom. Hiring ronin doesn't get you ronin based on how much you spend; rather, winning this lets you use your ronin and prevents your opponent from using any of hers. (Critically, ronin can be used in any and all fights you have that round—if you have the money to get them on the field.) Each ronin also counts as one power. Since highest power wins, a small pile of ronin can very easily swing a battle.

As can... MONSTERS!

Each season has a deck of cards that gets splayed out, purchasable when a Train mandate is played. Some of these cards are monsters. Certain monsters have useful special abilities, but most of them are simply stronger than the average unit. Some of those powerful monsters are oni, which become even stronger if you're a low-honor type of daimyo (e.g. two power normally, four power if you have less honor than your opponent). Like all other season cards, these stay with you for the whole game. Since the loser of a battle takes all their pieces in that province off the board, it's quite possible for a monster to be killed, but you can play it again with a Recruit mandate just like any other part of your army. 

I guess that description might not warrant the build-up I gave it, if you haven't seen the game. But look at this river dragon!

It is going to eat that guy!

So what's the upshot? Does it impress?

Mm... mostly. CMON keeps killing it with the figurines, but I'd like to play one CMON game that's good on a level where the figurines aren't the most impressive part. Rising Sun comes a lot closer to that level than, say, Massive Darkness. There's nothing wrong with the game, really. The way mandates and alliances work is really cool, the ability to use Betray both as a strategic alliance breaker and as a way to stick it to people who leave you out of alliances is good, and the subtle power of worshipping at the temples is quite nice. Using seppuku to get out of an unwinnable fight with something to show for it is a really thoughtful workaround to the frustration of getting swarmed, while the ability to win Imperial Poets (VP per unit killed) can let the loser really max out their gains, or let the winner get another victory on top of their win in the province. And while war reparations is only particularly relevant in larger games, it creates another scale to balance when deciding what to spend where.

There are two things that I don't find particularly compelling about Rising Sun. First, although I don't think the alliance bonuses are seriously overpowered (ie. I wouldn't suggest house ruling them in some way to be weaker), they're best suited to a game where all players are angling for a win. If someone wishes to do so, they can be seriously abused in a kingmaker capacity. Given that much of this game revolves around politics, kingmaking can be reasonably viewed as a suitable potential outcome, but some people hate that shit. 

Second—and I fully admit this is my own history as a gamer talking—it's very strange to play for the fate of feudal Japan on a board that never has any safe territory. Most games of this type give you a chance to build up a base that will be difficult for opponents to attack unless you leave it open, and your strategy revolves around the balance between maintaining your foundation and expanding. Every territory except Nagato has multiple points of entry, and you can't prevent anyone's movement; if there are two Marshal tiles played, anyone can move their troops into and then out of your turf.

In fairness, the game's scoring is based around this. A potentially large percentage of your points can come from collecting sets of different provinces that you've held through at least one war phase, so you want your army to be mobile while also being victorious. But it makes the feudal Japan aesthetic a strange choice, except from a marketing perspective. Ancient Japanese culture is popular among gamers, so if you're going to go big with a game like this, it's not particularly surprising to see that be the choice of setting. It just doesn't fit.

Last thing: The box is atrocious. Not only do you not get baggies for the punch-out pieces, if you do grab some baggies, you have to cram them into the box with the minis. Somehow they took the problem of 'where do things go' from Massive Darkness and made it noticeably worse. There will be people who have this on their shelves, want to play it, and decide on something else because they don't want to deal with the mess. That's not acceptable for a game this size from a company this experienced.

TLDR: most of the issues with the game are smaller or aesthetic in nature. I don't think I'll be the only person who thinks this game doesn't 'feel' quite right, without having much in the gameplay to seriously complain about. It probably needs several plays to decide if it's really for you or not, or how you should review it.

But, you know. Deadlines.

Score: Eight honor out of ten (dumb ninja got caught).

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