Rising Sun, the latest game from designer Eric Lang, is billed as a “spiritual successor” to his earlier game Blood Rage, but one relying more on diplomacy among players than on outright combat. Set in feudal Japan on a map with just a few territories, the game allows players to create alliances to try to seize the specific regions that bring the controlling parties rewards in each round—but to function smoothly it requires at least four players.
Although the game comes with elaborately designed miniatures, including unique figures for each player and several monsters or demons that can be summoned to help in battle, Rising Sun is at heart a game of area control with some light card drafting mechanics built in. Each player begins the game with a home region, with a specific skill or benefit unique to that player. The game then progresses through three rounds or ‘seasons,’ each of which has seven player turns that rotate around the table—meaning that in four- or five-player games, players won’t all have the same number of turns in the game.
On a turn, a player draws four Mandate (role) cards, and chooses one, returning the rest to the top of the deck. All players then take the Mandate’s main action, while the active player and his/her ally gets some bonus action as well. Actions include summoning a figure—typically another fighter—to one of your Strongholds, moving any or all of your figures one space, buying a Season card for use later in the game, collecting money, or the Betray action, where you replace any two opponents’ figures with your own, also breaking your alliance in the process. Three times per round, the neutral shrines at the top of the board get a ‘turn’ and award benefits to the players with the most forces on each shrine. The shrines vary each game, and players can move certain figures off the board to the shrines to try to gain control of them for a round—but the figures are all removed at the end of each round and start fresh for the following one.
The two core aspects of game play are the Season cards and the war phase if there’s a conflict in any territory. Collecting Season cards is absolutely critical to the game, and we found that selecting that role on your turn—which allows you to buy a card for one coin less, and thus possibly getting one for free—was the most popular option early in each round. The cards are all positive and touch every aspect of the game, giving players extra points for certain actions, or extra coins, or additional summoning powers (including summoning the unique monsters), or boosting your strength for war, or, for certain cards in the Autumn round, giving significant game-end point bonuses.
Then there’s War, which is fun when it happens but isn’t guaranteed to occur. At the start of each round, a subset of the territories are randomly chosen as War Provinces that will be worth points at the end of the round to whoever controls each of them. Players then spend the round marshaling troops and resources, setting up alliances, possibly betraying each other, and moving troops into position for potential fights. The War mechanic is a game unto itself, as players then bid coins on four different “war advantages,” with the highest bidder getting to execute that specific action, after which the strengths of the different forces are measured and a winner is declared. The war advantages include getting to use Ronin tokens to boost your strength, taking one opposing figure as a hostage, or committing seppuku, forfeiting the battle but gaining one victory point and one honor point (a relatively unimportant metric in the game that can determine turn order and helps break ties) for each of your own figures you choose to kill.
The game suggests it’s for three to five players, but with only three players it runs into two problems. One is that any round will inevitably become a two-against-one setup, which will hardly seem fair to the one and doesn’t make for a particularly fun or challenging experience. The other is that the map’s size and the random selection of territories that bring rewards in that round mean that you can easily go a round or two without any conflict on the board. If the territories, also selected at random, that are worth points in that round happen to be far from where the players’ pieces start the round, you may not have any fighting at all because it’s impractical or even impossible to get enough pieces into a disputed area. The number of War Provinces in each round is tied to the number of players, and thus limited when there are only three players going, but if you either made more provinces available for points or made their selection non-random, you would increase the probability of War in each round and make the game much more interesting with the smaller number of players.
Rising Sun has a more extensive rule set than what I’ve described here, so the learning curve for new players is likely to be steep; the rhythm of game play itself is easy to grasp, but you may lose time sorting out technicalities, especially as Season cards and Monsters enter play and increase the complexity of conflicts. It’s a smart, well-designed game, but it’s not to my personal tastes, given its length and the layered rules that kept us going back to the book repeatedly during each play. There’s a definite market for this kind of game—high interaction, including negotiations, with very little randomness anywhere in game play, along with very high quality components—but it’s somewhere at the top end of the tabletop market, which the game’s MSRP of $99.99 seems to support too.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.