Rising Sun is the latest dudes-on-a-map game from CMON. It was designed by Eric M. Lang, the designer of Blood Rage (among many other games), who is now CMON’s resident designer. It was on Kickstarter last year where it received a staggering $4 million in funding from over 30,000 people.
While it didn’t make my personal list, it is easily one of the industry’s most anticipated games of 2018. CMON have a reputation for delivering high quality miniatures in their games and looking at the Kickstarter, you could tell they weren’t going to disappoint on that front.
Well, the game has started arriving at people’s homes all across the world, and the big question is, ‘Does it live up to the hype?’ Is the game actually that good or were people overawed by the miniatures? Let’s have a look…
The setting (as you might have guessed from the title) is Japan. Feudal Japan, to be more precise: the time of the samurai. Oh, and they’ve thrown a pile (and I really mean a pile!) of mythical monsters into the mix for good measure.
Each player takes control of an army of Japanese warriors and attempts to move from province to province, conquering territory and scoring points. Although fighting is a significant part of the game, the winner is not the player who conquers the most territory, but the player who gains the most points.
In fact, it has a remarkable number of what you might consider Euro mechanisms in it for a dudes-on-a-map game. This has become something of a hallmark of Eric M. Lang’s designs in recent years. The success of Blood Rage has prompted him to continue with this formula: Rising Sun could be seen as a spiritual successor to Blood Rage.
The central mechanism is a Puerto Rico-style, action-selection mechanism where players take it in turns to pick a main action that everyone gets to do. However, the person who chose the action gets a bonus.
This mechanism has been used to great effect in a number of games now, most notably Twilight Imperium. The twist in Rising Sun is that each player has an opportunity to ally with exactly one other player prior to each season of the game (the game is played over three seasons) and they will also gain the bonus whenever their ally chooses an action.
This makes allying very lucrative. With an odd number of players though, there will always be at least one player who isn’t able to form an alliance. To balance this, there is one action – the Betray action – which is very powerful and frequently only a viable option if you’re not in an alliance. More on this later.
The actions themselves are fairly typical for this kind of game: deploying new troops on the board, moving troops around, harvest resources from conquered territories, etc. One interesting action though, is the Train action, which allows players to buy from a selection of upgrade cards.
These cards are many and varied: some will improve the strength of your troops; some will provide you with special abilities; some will give you end-game victory points; but some will allow you to gain monsters!
The miniatures in Rising Sun are stunning.
The monster miniatures in Rising Sun are stunning. Each monster immediately joins your army on the board when acquired and they each have different special abilities, which are as varied as the sculpts. They add an interesting tactical element to the game (you always have to be aware of your enemy’s monster abilities – they can be very powerful!), they inject a big dollop of theme, and they provide a spectacular table presence.
There’s one action that’s conspicuously missing however: combat. You can’t decide to fight someone and you don’t automatically fight when you move into another occupied territory. Instead, combat happens everywhere at the end of every season. So it only happens three times during the whole game.
You might think this is rather limiting, but it actually provides a great sense of build up and anticipation. Someone might move a large number of troops into a region you were hoping to win, but then they might just be moving through en route to somewhere else. You can never quite tell until the combat begins.
I said combat happens everywhere, but actually, there are always a couple of regions each season where no fighting will take place. The regions that will see combat are randomly decided at the beginning of each season, which focusses people toward these hotspots.
You gain points for winning these territories when the combat happens, but crucially you get lots of points at the end of the game for winning as many different territories as possible. This is a great mechanism. It means that you always want to keep your troops moving to conquer new territories and you’re not too bothered about losing territories you’ve won in a previous season. It makes the game very dynamic.
There is no dice rolling.
Combat itself is both straightforward and tactically rich. Whoever has the most troops in a region wins the combat (although some units such as monsters might be worth more than one troop) and everyone else’s units die. There is no dice rolling. The thing that stops it being deterministic though, is the bidding.
Prior to each fight, every involved player secretly places coins on several actions behind a screen. The screens are revealed and whoever places the most coins on each action gets to take that action. As you might expect, these actions can be pretty important.
One action allows you to capture an opposing troop (if you capture a monster worth 3 troops, that could easily swing the battle!). One action allows you to add hired ronin to the battle to increase the number of troops you have. One action even allows you to commit seppuku and kill all of your troops! Why would you ever want to do that? Well, if you are faced with an overwhelming force, killing your own troops in this way gains you victory points and honour.
Honour is very important in Rising Sun. There is an honour track, a bit like a player-order track, which you can move up and down depending on your actions in the game. Some actions (like committing seppuku) allow you to increase your honour and some actions (like choosing the Betray action while you are allied with someone) will cause you to lose honour.
Honour is important because it breaks every tie in the game. And there are a lot of ties. If you have the same number of troops in a fight, the highest person on the honour track wins. If two players bid the same number of coins for a combat action, the most honourable player wins. It keeps cropping up again and again.
So what are my final thoughts on Rising Sun? I’ve gone off dudes-on-a-map games in recent years, so Rising Sun came out of left field a bit for me. I know lots of people have been expecting it to be great, but I wasn’t. However, it’s great! It truly is.
I think it might be the best dudes-on-a-map game I’ve ever played. It solves so many of the problems that I’ve had with these games in the past. There’s no incentive to slowly build up your forces and gradually expand your territory – you really want to keep moving. Combat is never a foregone conclusion: even when you lose, you can often use the situation to make significant gains.
The shifting alliances work really well, but there’s no overt backstabbing. The Betray action allows you to replace two opponents’ troops with two of your own anywhere on the map. This can make a big difference in the right situation, but you have to replace the troops of two different players so no one player feels picked on.
Bidding for combat actions is all about trying to out-guess your opponent. If you can predict what they’re going to do, you can pull off some spectacular victories even when they have a stronger force. I love it!
What do you think? Have you managed to play it yet?