Top Of The Table – Rising Sun

by Matt Miller on Mar 09, 2018 at 03:00 PM

The more I play board games, the more I gain an appreciation for a concept you might call unity. These are the nebulous elements that tie a game together, weaving its theme with its mechanics, art with game design, and component pieces with gameplay flow. When done right, a highly unified game experience feels elegant and evocative, transporting players into their roles and objectives, and helping every element contribute to a sum that is greater than the constituent parts. 

Rising Sun is a game of clan warfare in ancient feudal Japan for three to five players, with its honor-driven gameplay amplified by magic, monsters, and constant shifting alliances and internecine strife. I like a lot of things about Rising Sun, the new game from CMON, designer Eric M. Lang, and artist Adrian Smith. But among all the things I like, the thing I love is its unity of purpose; everything in the game contributes to a singular vision, a magical escape into a world of Japanese legend, in which honor and clan alliances hold equal power to demonic Oni and godlike Kami spirits, all while feeling steeped in the tea ceremonies and epic battles that define our collective imagination of ancient Nippon.

A big part of that pitch-perfect vision arises from presentation. Quite simply, Rising Sun is one of the most visually breathtaking board games I’ve encountered. The board is as much a piece of art as it is a play space, depicting a map of Japan’s islands alongside watercolor-like depictions of diving sea serpents and a shimmering sunset. Cards, tiles, and board spaces depict kanji characters, and currency looks like yen coins. And in keeping with CMON’s reputation for excellence in this arena, the included unpainted miniatures are amazingly detailed, from the Shinto priests of the Dragonfly clan that look like they’re about to take flight, to the stunning intricacy of the massive river dragon figure. The combined effect makes for an impressive (if potentially overwhelming) table display, and immediately entrenches players in the mythic Japanese theme. 

CMON has cited the classic board game called Diplomacy as a distant conceptual ancestor to Rising Sun. While this newer game has nowhere near the epic session lengths of Diplomacy, the lineage is nonetheless apparent. Players each control competing powers, in this case legendary Japanese clans competing for supremacy. And like in Diplomacy, turns flow along a schedule of the passing seasons, as spring turns to summer, autumn, and eventually winter, when the clans settle their debts and a winner is declared. Most significantly, negotiation, alliances, and betrayal play a central role. As each season begins, time is set aside for a tea ceremony, during which alliances with another clan can be solidified, ensuring potent in-game benefits for both of you, but with the risk of either side turning on the other. As an aside, in one amusing house rule I played with, players share a drink of saké to solidify their alliance – a practice that could work equally well with some shared green tea, if alcohol isn’t appropriate for your gaming group. 

Even independent of any formal treaties, players are encouraged to use coins and other lures to bribe, cajole, or convince other players to act a certain way. No deals are binding, but someone will remember if you reneged on a previous agreement and may take it out on you in later battles or negotiations. In my playtime with a couple of different groups, I encountered mixed experiences with the negotiation gameplay. In one group, alliances formed early on and didn’t change much until late in the game, and very little small-scale negotiation occurred. In another group, the players were constantly changing sides, and delighting in tiny traitorous moves. Thankfully, I think the game holds up well to either playstyle, and flows well regardless of how much time you spend carving out new diplomatic ties, though it can be devastating if you never convince anyone to join their house to your own for at least a season or two.  

After a tea ceremony, the bulk of play unfolds as individual players declare new political mandates (represented by tiles that are played onto the board) which allow all the players to take a single action, but with a bonus for the declaring player (and their ally). You might be able to move your troops with one mandate, recruit new soldiers onto the map with another, or train your army and its leaders by picking up a new ability from a selection of cards available during the current season, among other actions. As mandates roll out across the season, you also occasionally resolve the influence of the godlike kami; send a priest to pray rather than fight on the map, and you might snag a helpful benefit, like extra money or the ability to move some of your units an extra space. There’s a designated number of mandates and kami turns in every season, letting you plan at least some of your actions, but with the knowledge that other players may not put the mandate you need into play. I got a kick out of the concept of the seasons passing that is communicated through these turns, which gives each player a chance to manipulate the queue of actions available to everyone else. 

No matter the flow of political machinations early in each season, spring, summer, and autumn each end with a battle phase, where combat erupts across Japan between the competing clans. One of the coolest elements of these fights is how they’re telegraphed ahead of this phase; players can reference the board on each turn to see where and in what order battles will unfold, so you can position your forces accordingly to claim the greatest rewards. 

As battle begins, players use their accumulated coins to secretly bid on actions they might take, representing their combined wealth, influence, and ability to shape the battle to their advantage. One army might commit seppuku, leading to honor in defeat. Another clan could sway masterless rōnin to fight in their name. Or take an opponent hostage. And win or lose, you might bid your money and power to control the epic poetry that emerges after the fight, shaping public memory of what happened. This combat mechanic has the exciting advantage of being truly unpredictable. You might be greatly outnumbered as the combat begins, but smart predictive bidding can sway the outcome of a fight, or transform a loss into a startling twist in which you come out ahead in several valuable ways. 

Hanging over the political one-upmanship, competing offers to the kami, and unpredictable battles is one all-important feature: honor. Clan honor serves a conspicuous role in every aspect of Rising Sun’s gameplay, and is made manifest by a constantly shifting track that depicts which clan is currently held in the highest esteem. When your honor rises, another clan must fall, and numerous actions across the game can dictate a shift. Ties between competing forces are extremely common across the game’s many systems, and ties are always broken with victory by the clan holding the highest status. A constant pressure lingers in the background of every action – sure, you might be able to outwit and betray your buddy across the table, but how will it affect your honor? And how many other conflicts might you lose because of that lowered stature? 

Rising Sun arrives later this month with high expectations already attached from the dedicated hobby community. This same team brought us the celebrated Blood Rage just a few years ago, and many are thrilled to see a new game from the same creators. I’m happy to say that Rising Sun exceeds my expectations, with a sophisticated exchange of interlocking systems backed up by world-class presentation. Is it a game for everyone? While its rulebook is clearly written, and its gameplay flows smoothly, Rising Sun simply has too many moving parts for beginners to the board gaming hobby, not to mention a runtime that can feel overwhelming if you play with especially deliberate players. And the potential for betraying alliances and breaking deals might rub some players the wrong way. But these are simply features of the game, not problems. Rising Sun boasts compelling tactical choices at every turn, a rich and rewarding implementation of its legendary Japanese theme, and some of the best-looking game components I’ve seen. It also features surprisingly deep replay value, whether through learning each clan’s unique capabilities, or trying out new combinations of card sets to include, which can dramatically change the tone of a given session. 

If that significant replay potential isn’t enough, you might be a candidate for one of the expansions, which are going to be available as soon as the core game launches in the next few weeks. CMON gave me the chance to check out how these additional boxed sets change the game, and I’m impressed by the potential. A monster pack expansion adds several awesome new monsters (and their miniatures) into the game. The Dynasty Invasion expansion is an ideal choice if you play with a big group, as two new clans (and their figures) can be added into the mix, and the max player count expands from five to six players. But my favorite of the expansions is certainly the Kami Unbound pack, which dramatically changes the game by bringing the gods down into the fight; favored clans receive the aid of the actual kami that they’re worshipping, and that figure descends onto the board to join the fight. I love game expansions that change the strategies and structure of the core game for an optional twist, which is just what the Kami Unbound pack does.

If you’re not quite ready for the intricacies of Rising Sun, I’d encourage you to dive into the backlog of Top of the Table recommendations, many of which offer great gameplay at a lower threshold of complexity. If you have additional questions about Rising Sun, or you simply want some personalized gaming recommendations, feel free to drop me a line via email or Twitter. I’d love to help guide you to a great evening of gaming with friends and family.