The Sun Also Rises
I’ve always been suspicious of that oxymoron called “big minis games.” You know, specimens like Cthulhu Wars and Assault of the Giants, wherein the little people’s gentlemanly war is interrupted by beasts twice their size and quadruple their strength, slammed onto the table with a diminutive rumble that could ripple water or quiver jello. With all that mass lumbering around, who’s going to work up the nerve to say that your game is too small in the areas that count?
It was Eric Lang’s Blood Rage that persuaded me that such a game could exist, and be worthwhile as a game, without leaning all its weight on its toy factor. Big monsters and cool sculpts, yes, but also a solid sense of what made for a good time. Brawny and brainy in equal measure. Big monsters who land heavily and earn their place.
And now Lang has crafted a spiritual sequel in Rising Sun. Brace yourself, because this one’s got some sharp edges.
At our current point of board game saturation, I shouldn’t have to explain Rising Sun’s background conflict. It’s Sengoku Japan, there are mythological monsters fighting alongside the humans, the biggest jerk wins. If your eyes are rolling around your skull in utter bewilderment, this might not be the hobby for you. It’s a war, mkay? War.
Of greater interest than Rising Sun’s overdone setting is its pedigree. Blood Rage was apparently descended from Risk, though so faintly that squinting too hard could give it an entirely different shape. But the comparison isn’t entirely distant; your only verbs were killing, being killed, or preparing for more killing. By contrast, Rising Sun is apparently the distant descendant of Diplomacy — as in, it’s the sort of game that wants to get you talking, often out of both sides of your mouth.
And here it is, the point where this particular sun will either rise or set. Unlike its predecessor, which (appropriately) contained more yelling and stabbing than communicating, Rising Sun is very much in love with notions of honor, the kept or broken word, and alliances both fragile and sturdy. Every round opens with a tea ceremony, a fancy-pants term for players haggling over who gets to enter into an alliance. It’s a crucial moment despite being short and almost informal, and could very well represent the eventual success or failure of your clan.
But first, in order to understand why alliances are so important, you need to understand the turn-by-turn process of Rising Sun.
The war portion of this game about the art of war only arrives at the end of each round. Everything that comes before is the burning of a fuse or the rising motions of a complicated dance, the little steps and flying sparks that set the hairs on your neck on end and give the final explosion of violence a sense of stark relief. It’s a sensation that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s waited in the hall while their parents met with their teacher to discuss a report card. When that door opens, you’ll take your lumps. But at least the wait is over.
In Rising Sun, nearly all of the gameplay occurs during those prickling moments of waiting. At the outset of every season, a handful of regions will be slated for the coming conflict. After a set number of actions, those regions will devolve into violence and the strongest and slyest within them will prevail. In the meantime, it’s up to you to recruit troops, marshal your forces across the map, and maybe pick up some cards or harvest extra bonuses. But beyond every one of those preparations lies the battle, always looming.
What sets these preparations apart from nearly every other game about war is that they’re only available when they want to be available, and they’re not always running on your schedule. When your turn rolls around, you can’t simply choose to betray your ally. No, just because the moment might be perfect for betrayal doesn’t mean you can backstab your buddy willy-nilly. Instead, your turn consists of drawing some tiles and picking the one that best suits your needs. If what you’ve drawn doesn’t mesh with your strategy, you don’t get a redo. If all your soldiers are already on the table but aren’t in control of anything important, then you only draw recruit and harvest actions, well, too bad. You’ll still be declaring a recruiting drive or ordering the peasants to strip the fields.
Even more aggravating, everybody at the table gets to take your chosen action. Choosing to buy a new card when somebody has a lot of cash means you’ve just enabled a rival to buy something cool. Probably a dragon that will snack on your troops later.
But this is why alliances are so important. When you’ve made nice with somebody, any action selected by you or your ally gets beefed up. An extra soldier when you recruit. A discount when you buy a card. The ability to construct a fortress when you marshal. Points, ronin, and cash when you harvest. The only downside is that betrayal will now diminish your honor, but that barely seems like a penalty at all when you’re swaying somebody’s forces onto your side.
The point being, to stay competitive you’re going to have to be friendly to someone. Not that friendliness is easy in a game where most battles conclude with all but one side dead, an early lead can be leveraged into long-term success, and betrayal hits fast and hard. It’s a testament to the confidence of Eric Lang’s design work that the game’s shortest phase can often be its most pivotal one.
It’s a shame, then, that Rising Sun doesn’t find more room for discussion elsewhere. While the alliance-making of the tea ceremony lays fertile ground for loaded conversations, there’s little to talk about once the games moves on to other phases. Certainly there’s some of the usual wheedling, the “Which action should I take?” and “If you don’t invade here, I won’t invade there” that sneaks into many other titles of this stripe. Even Blood Rage occasionally featured such player-driven moments, at least among my peers, and that was about yowling Vikings talking with their axes instead of their words. Beyond that initial tea ceremony, Rising Sun’s potential negotiations seem to exist primarily to draw out the proceedings rather than add anything beneficial to them.
Contrast this against the other recent mythological Sengoku Japan game with a Diplomacy heritage, Battle for Rokugan, which plays like an hour-long debate over who should take advantage of whom, and it’s immediately apparent which is more dedicated to evoking the chicanery of its shared predecessor. Between all of Rising Sun’s multilayered and otherwise-fascinating systems, there often isn’t enough room to get in a meaningful word edgewise.
As long as I’m being nitpicky, this game also suffers a little in the monster department. Where Blood Rage’s Norse horrors lent themselves to board legibility, their size acting as an easy indicator of their strength, Rising Sun’s menagerie is all over the place. A haunted tree of hanged corpses or spider-bodied geisha is the same size or larger than a snake beast or corpse mannequin — there are enough corpses in this game to make the Vikings seem well-adjusted — but this isn’t reflected in their respective strengths. Asking, “How strong are you in that province now?” every time somebody recruits, summons, or marches their forces might technically qualify as conversation, but something tells me it isn’t what Rising Sun was going for.
Furthermore, while there are already a number of expansions to choose from, I’m unconvinced that they actually add much other than clutter. There are some pre-game preparations that ensure that not every card is used every game, but the pool is still large enough that the gameplay crashes to a standstill whenever it’s time to purchase an upgrade. It’s reminiscent of buying a power in Kemet — there are loads of cool options that manipulate nearly every aspect of the game — except there’s no gatekeeping whatsoever, leaving each season’s offerings available all at once. The result is a sprawling buffet of options that’s as likely to cause choking as a pleasant fullness of the belly.
The thing about Rising Sun, though, is that while these problems are significant enough to mention, they feel downright puny alongside the cleverness of everything else the game has to offer.
Take battles as an example. Only once a fight starts will you pitch your faction shield, hide your coins and ronin tokens, and attempt to run circles around your rivals militarily. It’s a simple system, letting you spend your coins on four options, but conceals plenty of chances to get ahead — or at least mitigate the prospect of a losing battle. There are four options to bid on, ranging from committing ritual suicide for some pity points to hiring mercenary ronin to boost your strength, and every last one of them has the potential to let you get something out of a fight. You can, for instance, capture a vital opposing piece, totally crumbling a rival’s edge in the fight, or watch as two stronger armies wipe the floor with each other and then write the imperial poetry about how prettily their blood spattered across the snows of Hokkaido. It’s rare to commit to a fight where you don’t have some sort of potential to emerge satisfied.
Then there’s the way each faction stands apart from the others with a dash of asymmetry that feels totally broken but probably isn’t. There’s the faction that can deploy or move anywhere, which is absurd. There’s the team that can buy any upgrade card for a dollar, which is ridiculous. Some of the subtler options quickly reveal themselves to be similarly overwhelming when leveraged properly, like the ability to use money as ronin — a renewable source of mercenary firepower, essentially — or mobile strongholds mounted atop turtles.
Those powers only grow more outrageous as the game progresses and factions begin accumulating the right upgrades and monsters. Even as provinces become cluttered with miniatures and you’re forced to clarify everyone’s fighting strength every five minutes, the game lends itself to breezy ah-ha! moments as new combinations and opportunities reveal themselves. Even if it did nothing else right, the way it doles out little moments of surprise and empowerment would be worth at least one try.
The combination of all these systems, all those faction abilities and upgrades, and, sure, all that plastic, is a supernal area control game that knows how to propel its players from one crescendo to the next. It offers a tense waiting game full of daring maneuvers, one-upsmanship, and incremental upgrades, then rewards them with hand-wringing bids and do-or-die clashes for supremacy.
In the end, Rising Sun may not feel as honed-in as its spiritual predecessor Blood Rage, but in many ways it’s the more ambitious design, willing to take risks and hope that its players make the most of them. For the second time, this genre has proved that it has a spot among my collection.