Rising Sun is Eric Lang’s spiritual successor to Blood Rage. Published by CMON it has been one of the most talked about games of 2018. Set in feudal Japan, with a heavy dose of mysticism and mythology, Rising Sun is an area control game that is not won through combat alone. Forging alliances, teamwork and deception all play a part over the course of a single year which will decide which of the five factions will dominate the land. The player with the most victory points is the winner.
The board is a beautiful artistic representation of Japan, highly stylised yet easy to understand. Tokens and cards all follow suit with a distinct look.
Rising Sun comes with five asymmetrical factions with their own set of unique miniatures in three different forms. The Daimyo is the most powerful unit in your faction and is harder for other players to disrupt. The Shinto units are able to move off the map and go pray to one of four random Kami gods at the top of the board. At certain points during the year, if you have more Shinto praying for a particular god than another player, you gain a special ability. Finally the Bushi are your main warriors to battle other players or hold a region.
Over the course of the in-game year, moving through spring, summer and autumn, players make can decisions to ally with other players for mutual benefit or betray them entirely. Factions can be upgraded with new special abilities or gain access to a horde of awesome Monsters.
Combat is determined with a blind bidding mechanic, where gained coins through the season are spent on claiming particular bonus abilities prior to the main battle even takes place. All coins are placed in secret and then revealed. For example, the player that spends the most gold on capturing an enemy unit will be able to take another faction unit hostage from the battle, which could lead to power shifting into their favour. Honour is also an important aspect. If a faction has a higher honour rating than another, they will break all ties should a draw take place. Factions move up and down the honour track over the course of the game. Of course, some deceitful monsters also get more powerful if you have lower honour than your enemy…
Player Count: 3-5
Time: 90-120 Minutes
Two things about Guillotine Games' / Cool Min or Not's (CMON) Rising Sun immediately caught my eye, first was the beautifully sculpted miniatures and the second was that this is a game of conflict and warfare for three to five people that doesn't use dice.
Games that don't use or limit the amount of random chance have a particular interest to me as it means players win or lose solely on the choices they make and the strategies they employ. So, Rising Sun was a no-brainer, I had to get it and I was delighted with what I received.
Firstly, with almost 20 years of painting experience, I can say that no project has been as much fun to work on as the eight monsters that come in the core box. As soon as one was finished I had to dive into working on the next. I don't want to go into too much detail on the painting front but if you're a miniature painter looking for a new project Rising Sun will deliver a wealth of enjoyment.
Inside the Box
There are five playable clans made up of 10 miniatures, the Daimyo is the invincible leader of her clan who can wade into the battle safe in the knowledge that they are immune from being removed from the board. Three Shinto priests can help in the war or climb the mountain and worship one of the Kami, who watches over the battle and bring down their blessing on the clan. Finally, each clan has six Bushi in two different amazing sculpts that make up the army of each clan.
There are also eight monster miniatures that are truly impressive, not only do they have great table presence, they bring powerful abilities to the clan that hires each one to fight for them.
Each clan also has its own unique screen card that has reminders of important game mechanics and details that clan's special ability, income, and starting honour rank. These screens are also the best way of hiding what you're bidding on during combat.
The game board is rather on the small size, especially for five or more with the Dynasty Invasion Expansion, and can get really crowded with miniatures. However, it is beautifully presented, both it and the box art are reminiscent of traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e art.
The rulebook is a hefty 26 pages but much of that space is taken up by amazing concept art of the miniatures. It's also rife with visual examples of how rules work rather than relying on heavy blocks of text.
99 tokens of heavy card that pop out easily without damaging the print and are used to represent everything from clan strongholds, where you recruit new troops, to the Ronin you can hire to fight for you.
66 season cards are used to construct the upgrade decks during the three rounds of play and open a selection of tactical options that will help you win.
There are also 65 plastic coins which give a nice touch when spending in-game currency and two plastic clan tokens for each clan. These are used to track each player's current victory points and their honour rank which is used to break any ties that might come up while calculating many in-game conflicts.
Rising Sun is probably one of, if not thee game with the longest set-up time that I own. There’s a lot to hand out to each player, the season decks of upgrades need to be chosen, as do the shrines and their order for the Kami phases. You must work out which clan each player is using then sit them around the table according to that clan's honour rank, and yes this is important as it's part of the game's balance.
At random you have to draw which provinces are going to war and in what order, this is one more province than there are players, and the political mandate tokens are shuffled and placed in a pile face down. Then, if you're playing with a new group you have to explain a lot before the game can even start. Though there is a quick reference card for each player showing the options they can take for their turn, called political mandates, each one does need some clarification of how it will influence the game and its strategic value at any time.
Playing Rising Sun
Once the board is set-up, season decks are prepared, and everyone has shuffled around into the right order, play can finally begin. Rising Sun focuses on a single year of warfare in feudal Japan with winter being the season that victory points are counted and the winner is announced.
The other three seasons make up the gameplay and are broken down into several stages. The first stage of a season is called the Tea Making Ceremony, where everyone gets their clan’s seasonal income and it's the only point where an alliance can be formed, with players offering any incentives he or she wants to secure an alliance. Each player has a comma-shaped token, or a Magatama, in their clan’s colour that fits together with their ally’s token, so everyone can keep track of who's teamed up with whom.
Then the player with the highest honour rank takes the top four political mandate tokens and picks which one they want to play, this is placed on the track on the board and the other three and put back on the pile face down and after applying its effect the pile is passed to the left.
Each mandate, except betrayal, has an effect that all players carry out and one that is only applied to the player who chose the mandate and their ally. Also, playing a mandate lets you carry out its effect last, with training being the exception, where you get first to pick of that season's upgrade cards that you wish to purchase. This gives you the chance to react to what your opponents do.
After three mandates are played it's the Kami phases where working from left to right along the shrines players who have sent the most Shinto priests to worship there will receive a small bonus or additional action. With the Kami Unbound Expansion this will also earn the top worshipper a very powerful model to add to their forces.
There are another four mandate and two more Kami phases before we get to the final phase of the season; the war phase.
On the back of the mandate reference card, there are the war advantages and players with models in a province at war bid on these in secret to use their effects and possibly still score plenty of victory points even if they lose the battle.
Each model, or Ronin token if the player wins the “Hire Ronin” war advantage, is worth a set amount of force, with monsters typically the only things worth more than one, and the winner of the war is simply the player with the most force in a province. The winner will collect the war token for that province in this season. Losers kill off their models and discard any coins they used to bid, while the winner's coins are divided between the losers as war reparations.
After all warring provinces have been completed unspent coins are returned to the bank, Ronin tokens are returned as well, alliances are broken, and the game moves onto the next season.
Phew, that's a lot going on and that was the simple version. There are a wealth of smaller rules and I didn't even break down what each mandate or war advantage does. Thankfully, the rules are individually simple, adding up to make a more complex whole and most interactions between abilities are clear, though some in the expansions did need clarifying in the FAQ.
This is something I love about the game, once you manage to make it through the first season inexperienced players have been introduced to all the game's concepts. You'll suddenly see subsequent turns fly by as people cement in their minds how to play. So much so that sometimes it can feel like the game is just heating up by the time winter arrives.
While it may seem like Guillotine Games threw every mechanic and the kitchen sink into the game, nothing feels like it doesn't belong. Each aspect feels finely polished and brings a nuisance of strategy that when combined feels almost like a game of chess, with each player trying to think ahead of his foes.
For instance, if you're the starting player you might ally with one of the last players to take their turn, giving you an opportunity to influence the start and end of the season. Or you may know you won't have enough coins to bid in the war phase, so you put a few Bushi, basic soldiers, into a province that will be calculated at the start of the war phase to gain any gold the winner bids with as war reparations.
One of the misconceptions I had after my first play-through was that Rising Sun is all about winning war tokens. You get a big victory point bonus if you collect more than eight of them and it seemed like that was the only way to win. However, as I played more games with different numbers of people I started to realise the strength of different paths to victory.
Gaining the Form of the Kitsune card from the Autumn upgrade deck gives you three extra victory points for each Stronghold you've built by the end of the game. One of the monsters gives you two victory points for every Oni you control when you win a war token with it. Or you can ensure you win the Seppuku and Imperial Poets War advantages, which will kill all your soldiers in that war, but you'll gain two victory points for each.
There is a myriad of paths to conquering Japan that you sometimes feel you're cheating when you introduce people to Rising Sun. You have this foreknowledge of what's going to happen and it's quite easy to look like you're trailing behind only to jump up 50 or so victory points in the final season. Don't let that put you off though. Once your group has their first session under their belt they'll see through all those like tricks you pulled the first time and subsequent games will be much more competitive.
Not only that, but being beaten didn’t put off my group, I played this with a group that prefers heavier games, they all enjoyed how the careful planning for the final season could lead to a big pay off in victory points. They were also impressed by the number of slight changes that can lead to significant difference in gameplay, for example, the same four Kami shrines in a different order will require a completely different approach, or simply playing another clan from what you’re used to.
We were all impressed that even though every clan was in play it never felt like there was any downtime. Even if it’s something as simple as collecting a coin each mandate has something that all players get to do, so you always feel like you’re taking part.
Final Thoughts on Rising Sun
Rising Sun is an epic game of conquest and negotiation, which on the surface may seem shallow but soon reveals itself to have hidden depths. I’ve had a lot of fun with it both as a painter and a player and it’s one of those games that keeps pulling me back, constantly thinking of new strategies or planning the next paint scheme I want to use.
It lends itself to competitive play so well that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rising Sun tournaments being held and with the Kami Unbound, Dynasty Invasion, and the Monster Pack expansions there’s plenty to add to the game as your interest starts to wane.
Still, a game of this scope is not without its problems; the set-up is long, though once everyone is familiar with it he or she pitch in to help and at the same time it feels like the game is just be getting started, even though you’ve been playing for some time, once Winter arrives and victory is calculated.
Though for its faults, Rising Sun is a game that excels at what it does, uniting a selection of great mechanics to make an exciting and engaging game that drives players to think ahead and negotiate for their own advantage in the fight to become the ruler of all Japan.