This might be the most unnecessary review of all time. You’ve already backed Rising Sun on Kickstarter, you’ve already pre-ordered it or you know someone who has. Collectively the tabletop hobby has had this game on everyone’s minds from announcement until now. We’ve discussed it ad nauseam. We’ve lusted over the minis and decried the lavishness of the production. We’ve dismissed it and we’ve praised it. Rising Sun is one of the most successful Kickstarter board game campaigns of all time to the tune of four million and change. That kind of success buys a certain amount of mind share.
You are going to play this game eventually. You don’t need this review to make a decision because your decision has already been made. It was probably made the moment you saw the Kickstarter campaign and saw the words “…from the makers of Blood Rage.” But reviews can serve a dual purpose; they can inform you before making a purchase or they can confirm your opinions.
“Did this critic feel the same way I did?”
“Am I the only one saw the brilliance on display?”
“Am I crazy or was that trash?”
So what about Rising Sun? Is it brilliant or is it a box of miniatures and not much else?
Let’s take a look.
Rising Sun takes place in a mythical version of Japan. You lead a clan striving to displace the current Shogun, who has gained the displeasure of the Kami (the gods of the land).
The game consists of four seasons (although the last season, Winter, is mainly end of game scoring). In each season, there are four phases. The first is the setup where the contested provinces will be determined, the cards that can be obtained this season will be displayed, and players get their seasonal income and any figures that were abducted during the last season’s war.
The next phase is the Tea Ceremony, where players form alliances. Players can form alliances based on position on the board, position on the victory point track, or simply because someone doesn’t like the cut of another’s jib. You might think to yourself, Lotus Clan is awfully close to my territories maybe I should ally with them, I might even have to sweeten the deal with a coin or two. Being in an alliance increases the frequency of bonuses in the next phase.
In the Political phase, players will pass around a stack of ten mandate tiles. There are five tiles with two copies of each. The active player will take the four tiles on top of the face down stack and choose one to play, placing the chosen tile unto the appropriate space and returning the unused tiles back to the top of the stack.
The recruit tile allows you to summon a figure out of your supply for each your strongholds on the board. If you’re the active player, you (and any allied player) may summon one additional figures. Figures can range from the common Bushi; the Shinto, who when summoned can be sent to Kami tiles to worship them and request their aid; the Daimyo, the leader of your clan, who can’t be held hostage or removed from the board by means of betrayal or abilities on cards; and finally, monsters, who can be lured into your clan through use of the next mandate tile, Train.
The Train mandate is the way players can obtain new Season cards. Cards are the way to enhance your abilities or gain monster allies to fight for your side. The active player and any allied player pay one coin less for their upgrades. Season cards have five different types. Enhancement cards give you additional abilities. Virtue cards give you an additional way to get VPs, Ronin, or coins. Monster cards, obviously, allow you to expand your roster with Monsters. War Upgrades give expanded abilities in the War phase of the game. The last type of card is the Winter Upgrade, which unlock bonus scoring conditions for the final season, Winter. The Train mandate, along with the Betrayal mandate are the only mandates where the current player carries out the action first.
The Marshal mandate allows players to move their dudes around the map with the current player and their allied player gaining a bonus of paying three coins to place a new stronghold on the map. Players can move each piece one time either over an adjacent border or along a shipping route which connects far flung provinces.
The Harvest mandate gives all players one coin each with the current player and their ally gaining additional rewards from their controlled provinces. Harvesting allows players to gain coins, victory points and/or ronin.
The final mandate is Betrayal. When the Betrayal tile makes an appearance, if the active player is allied, the alliance is now broken and the dirty rotten scoundrel loses honor, which is significant because honor is the tiebreaker in every situation. The active player then removes one figure from two different players and replaces them with matching figures from their own supply (Daimyo being the one type of figure that is immune from Betrayal).
The mandate turns are broken up by Kami phases. In the Kami phases, another example of the area control that this game is seeped in, players will gain specific actions or resources, based upon who has the most force on each Kami card. At the start of the game, four of seven possible Kami tiles were placed on the board. The Kami abilities include things like moving to the top of the honor track, getting two ronin tokens, an extra chance to acquire a Season card, etc.
After a sequence of three mandate phases, a Kami phase, two mandate phases, a Kami phase, two mandate phases, and a final Kami phase; we get to the main course, the War phase. In the War phase, players battle for a set number of territories, the number of players in the game plus two. At the onset of each season, tokens corresponding to different territories came out unto series of numbered slots. Those numbers determine in which order the territories will be contested. In ascending order, players check to see if there are figures from two non-allied clans. If there’s only one player with force in a region, they just take the token. If there are two allied forces, then the player with the most force (with honor being the tie breaker) takes the war token and neither player removes their figures. Hooray for non-violent conflict resolution! If there are figures from two or more non-allied clans then violent conflict resolution, also more commonly known as battle, takes place.
In the battle resolution step, players take their war advantages board, place them behind their clan player screen and go through a hidden simultaneous bidding phase. The players take their coins (coin amounts are public information) and place them unto the the different war advantages they desire and when both players are done, the boards are revealed and the battle is resolved from left to right. Seppuku, the first advantage, allows the highest bidding player to kill all their figures in the territory and gain one VP and one honor for each figure. Take Hostage allows the winning player to take one of the other clan’s figures and remove it from the map until the setup of the next season. The player who wins the Hire Ronin advantage may add the total force value of their Ronin tokens to the battle (these tokens aren’t spent but they do go away at the end of the season). Then the total force of all players are compared and all the figures of the losing clans are removed from the province. However the battle resolution isn’t over yet, the winner of the final advantage, Imperial Poets, gains one VP for every figure that was killed in battle. The winner then takes the territory token. The final step is War reparations, where the losers pay any coins on the War Advantages board to the bank and the winner pays their coins, divided equally, to the losers with that you’re on to the next battle.
When you reach the endgame (Winter season) players return any hostages, the same as is done at the beginning of every season then players tally their final scores from Winter upgrade cards, points from War Province tokens (one, two or three points depending on which season they’re from), and finally points based upon sets of War province token (each province having a different color). Whoever has the most VPs is the winner, with honor breaking any tie. Congratulations, you’ve earned the favor of the Kami and are the new Shogun. Looks like someone is picking up some sushi at 7-Eleven to celebrate tonight, eh?
So…I know what you’re wondering, “What’s the verdict? Is it a masterpiece or is it as pain inducing as that 7-Eleven sushi?” Good question. Nothing is as pain inducing as 7-Eleven sushi but the answer to the former is a bit more complicated, it’s also impossible for the answer not to be informed by the Viking shaped shadow in the room, which is Blood Rage, the previous “dudes on a map” collaboration between designer Eric Lang, artist Adrian Smith, and publisher CMON. Eric Lang himself had connected the two while simultaneously differentiating the two by claiming that Blood Rage’s distant ancestor was Risk while Rising Sun’s was Diplomacy. Functionally that comparison is true, negotiation is an important part of Rising Sun, whereas in Blood Rage where you determine the efficiency of your actions by manipulating your order of actions to maximize your main resource—rage, in Rising Sun there are only seven actions per round. Each player, depending on player count, will only be selecting anywhere from 1-3 actions per season. This makes it difficult to execute all the mandates necessary to accomplish your goals without a little help from a friend, cue that Joe Cocker song. Being in an alliance gives you more mandates where you’re receiving the all too important bonus.
Negotiation is important, not just in the Tea Ceremony, where alliances are made but also during the main part of the game. Maybe you really need to harvest this season because you’d really like some Ronin and coins from the territories you currently control for the upcoming war but you don’t have a Harvest mandate and this is the last mandate you’re selecting this season. Nice! Your ally has the final mandate of the season, maybe offering a share in the spoils of your harvest will persuade them. Having someone on your side increases the efficacy of your actions. Though negotiation in the Tea Ceremony is important, it’s worth noting that the importance of finding an alliance is impacted by the player count. In games with even player counts there isn’t a huge frenzy to find a dance partner in the Tea Ceremony because after the initial alliance is made whoever is left over can just resignedly ally with each other. In games with odd player counts, the Tea Ceremony can resemble the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, with voices rising in desperation, “…TWO COINS TO ANYONE WHO CAN HELP ME CONQUER EDO!” When the negotiation mechanic has teeth, it’s a sight to behold.
Rising Sun takes the sheer testosterone of Blood Rage and adds the elegant art of negotiation, an at times subtle ingredient that brings the whole experience together. The other reason I consider Rising Sun to be the superior game is the differences in the way battles are resolved. In Blood Rage, battles resolve by calculating total force of the figures in the battle and then all participants play a face down card to add force or affect the battlefield in some way, which is a excellent implementation of the “take that” thematic aspect that gives battles in Blood Rage the potential for sitting on the edge of your seat moments. In contrast, Rising Sun has the War Advantages board, which is essentially an area control mechanic inside the greater area control that is Rising Sun. Each coin is like a figure and each Advantage is like a territory. You use the coins/figures to win advantages/territories. This is the Inception of board games. It’s a brilliant mechanic that appeals to the kind of mind that wants to math out all the possible outcomes. You know how many coins and Ronin your opponents have. The tension of this kind of mechanic is thrilling in a different, and in my opinion better, way than the “What card is my opponent about to play!?!” feeling of Blood Rage. The in numerical order resolution of battles coupled with the mechanic of winners paying the losers is also beautifully done. Do you go all in against an opponent for this battle, considering that you’re fighting them in another battle this season? You could but any money you pay just strengthens them for the following battle. Or do you lay down for this battle hoping they will go all in and thus ensuring that their loss will be fueled by their own largesse. This is a game that manifests moments of brain burning calculation in ways that Blood Rage could never do, although Rising Sun can never capture the pure raw aggression of Blood Rage. I suppose, the question that determines which experience is the one for you is understanding if you want to have your heart pumping like a Viking warrior backed into a corner ready for Valhalla or if you want to have your brain burning like a Daimyo attempting to politic and outmaneuver your enemies on the way to power?
Rising Sun is a brilliant game, although I know for some, the inclusion of miniatures can be a turn off, a warning sign, as if the existence of all this monstrous plastic screams that nothing consequential lies in the Rising Sun box. That simply isn’t the case in regards to Rising Sun. All that plastic belies the fact that there is a very solid and well designed game here. I would argue that you could replace all the plastic figures with little slips of paper and it would still be fun and engaging because the joy of Rising Sun doesn’t lie in pushing huge minis around a map of Japan; the joy of this game lies in the negotiation, calculation, and timing. When you’re able to combine all that into tense, masterful moments; the results are amazing, almost as amazing as the fact that Rising Sun, against all odds, lived up to the hype.
(Writer Jin Kim is one of the people we love to game with-we are looking forward to more input from him in the future on the games he likes!)