Rising Sun Review

Even though Rising Sun is releasing into retail this week, we’ve had our grubby mitts on it for a while thanks to CMON’s phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign. But maybe you’re seeing it on store shelves for the first time. So naturally, you came to your favourite source for board game opinions, and opinions ye shall receive. Three of them, in fact; we’re trying a review structure that’s less formalized article, and more of a discussion between us. As such, you’re not going to get a thorough explanation of the rules here – but you’re spoiled for choice if that’s what you’re looking for in a review. Instead, we’ll cover the broad strokes, and then continue to rant about the things we like and dislike about the game.

If you’re hungry for more, we also had almost an entire episode of our podcast devoted to Rising Sun after our first few plays, so please check that out as well!


Neilan: Hi, guys. So, Rising Sun, huh? I guess let’s open up with, on a very high level what your very first impression of the game was. What drew you to it?
Mark: I didn’t dive too deep into researching it initially. There was just so much hype that I figured buying it was a no-brainer. When it finally arrived, I was struck by how beautiful it was – the board looked wonderful. Loved the color scheme. The minis also looked great though, and I hate to say this, some of the “Wow!” was mitigated by the fact that I was sort of expecting basically exactly what we got, based on Blood Rage.
Kalen: I backed Rising Sun within the hour of it’s Kickstarter release on the hype of three things: First, Diplomacy-like gameplay according to the designer. Second, the Japanese theme. And finally, Eric Lang and the success of Blood Rage. It wasn’t so much a question of if I would back, it was a question of how many copies I would acquire.
Neilan: Right, I think what Kalen mentioned is a lot of what attracted me too. Blood Rage never quite spoke to me, but I’ve always had fun with it. Adding the mythological/feudal Japan theme and the promise of more negotiation made it seem right up my alley.
Mark: It’s certainly more attractive as a complete package.
Kalen: I think I actually prefer the minis in Blood Rage. The ones in Rising Sun are just a bit too gruesome for me. But that’s a personal thing. I also went wild when the Turtle clan strongholds were unveiled… they are so cool.
Neilan: Oh, man, yeah. Everyone loves the turtles. It’s a real pity they’re only in the Kickstarter. So let’s talk about about the meat of the game. It’s divided mostly into two main phases, with three “seasons” of each. The first phase each season is the political phase, and each one opens with a tea ceremony, where you make alliances. I’ve gotta say, this was a bit of a let down for me in how I imagined it, versus how it played out. It felt kinda like it was unclear why you wouldn’t want to be in any alliance you could get.
Kalen: It’s challenging to talk about the tea/alliance phase without getting into the meat of the action phase. Rising Sun uses a action selection system, except only you and your ally will get the full benefit of an action that you select. This means that you are looking for allies that will be needing to perform similar actions to you like, getting more troops on the board or moving troops around… However, this makes the “alliance” feel less like an “alliance” and more like a mutually beneficial relationship where you mooch off each other.
Neilan: Right. It’s almost like “alliance” is the wrong word for it.
Kalen: Rising Sun is closer to Scythe in my mind than it is to Diplomacy. It does feature a tremendous amount of combat, but the amount of free-wheeling trades and negotiation in my plays of Rising Sun has amounted to one or two trades. It’s a lot more, “Don’t go there or I will attack you”, than it is real diplomatic gameplay.
Mark: I agree that calling it a successor of Diplomacy is completely misleading, but I think you’re being too quick to dismiss the, “Don’t move into here”, aspect of the game. That is negotiation. There’s always some cajoling in the tea ceremony, too. Again, it’s nowhere near what you have in Diplomacy or even other negotiation games, but that would have made a two hour game into a four hour game.
Neilan: I think I’m with Kalen in that the negotiation aspect of Rising Sun is a little undercooked. You just don’t have enough resources to make most trades feel worthwhile – that said, I think our games have had a fair number of traded favours, and the game does encourage that.
Neilan: So let’s look at the core action mechanic – mandates. You spoke about this briefly, Kalen. In order, each player picks a action that everyone gets to do, variants on the “move, recruit, upgrade, gather” you might expect for the genre. These have extra benefits to the current player and their ally, but there are only 21 of these in the whole game! It’s ridiculously tight, no?
Mark: Yup, super tight. Always feels too tight, which I take as a good sign.
Kalen: They potentially feel too tight to me. The idea that there are seven of them per round means that players won’t get an even amount of them. Every decision is agonizing, which is good. But it never feels like you are thriving – you never get that moment when everything is purring. The game is super great. I think it’s greatness comes from the battle phase and not what comes before.
Neilan: I think what you’re describing as agonizing in the mandate phase is really delicious to me. When you get to the last two actions of a season, it’s incredibly tense, and a lot rides on getting the specific actions you need. You can’t let your attention lapse for a single mandate decision – because there’s often a lot of discussion about what’s coming up next too. This is one of my favourite systems, actually, which we haven’t mentioned yet. After you choose a mandate, you know what three of the four potential options for the next player are. Did you guys often find yourself thinking heavily about what the next few players might choose, based on what you saw?
Mark: Absolutely. It’s terrifying when you see that hand of great actions and you know you’re about to pass them off to an opponent. And it’s such a relief when you do the same action, but pass them off to your ally.
Kalen: I don’t know, guys. The strategy there seems partially overblown. You almost always will get to do what you want to do. The times that you don’t get access to a mandate feel particularly screwy and not in line with the type of game you are playing.
Neilan: That’s rare though, the numbers are such that every tile is available every season, so it’s about posturing and positioning yourself to get the actions you need, at the times you need them. I mean, there are definitely times when no amount of strategy will get you out of an incredibly unlucky mandate draw, but I think those are definitely the exception.
Mark: I would say that the chance that you get completely and “indefensibly” screwed out of the mandate you need is quite low. Furthermore, it’s actually a pretty nice way to introduce luck into the game. The game offers, via negotiation, a way to mitigate that outlying possibility that you get a terrible draw. You don’t get what you need? Well, too bad, but see if you can talk your way out. Rough situation? Yup, but if you think you’re good, you deal with it. There’s definitely, definitely a place for deterministic games, but I don’t mind a bit of luck thrown in, even when it can adversely effect me and especially when I’m given the chance to talk my way out of it. Man, I’m getting myself pumped up to play more Rising Sun!
Neilan: Well, if you’re all fired up then it’s as good a time as any to talk about the war phase. So, at the end of each of the three seasons, after all your carefully laid plans, anyone in the battle provinces (randomly selected each season) has to fight it out. Rising Sun uses this really great blind bidding system where there are four major actions to bid for the right to take. Also, the winner of each battle gives the coins they bid to the losers, so the consequences of each battle flow into the next in a really grueling way. How do you guys feel about it? Personally, I love it.
Mark: The best part of the game. I know that it’s, to some degree, a re-implementation of similar systems, perhaps most notably the one found in Cry Havoc, but it’s just so, so stressful and tight and great. Think, double think, triple think!
Kalen: I will echo that it is the best part of the game. Many combat systems feel unnecessary… as in with the forces present 85% of the time one side will win. In Rising Sun, there are so many options for what can happen, that each battle feels important and flows into the next one. Nothing is a foregone conclusion. Maybe your opponent wants to lose…
Neilan: Cry Havoc is definitely the closest approximation, but in practice it feels completely different. That system felt a lot harsher by comparison, more reactionary. I know blind bidding isn’t for everyone but I think it really works here. It’s a mix of strategy and psychology that’s really enticing.
Neilan: So let’s wrap this thing up with some final thoughts, who wants to go first?
Kalen: Sure. Rising Sun is awesome. If you don’t have a lot of games in this genre, this is a good one. The Japanese theme, the minis, and the cool combat system make this worth checking out.
Neilan: This might seem like a turnaround, and I don’t mean it to be, but I’ve maybe come down on it a little on subsequent plays. It’s a very good game, but I think the sheer volume of interacting systems leads to a game that can feel a little chaotic on a higher level. It’s also really opaque for your first few games – some of the victory point cards in the third season turn the game around to alarming degrees. I had the same problem with Blood Rage, and I think it’s actually bad design, but I might be in the minority. I don’t think I’d ever turn down a game, it’s really, really good… but for me, Cthulhu Wars and Inis are still the games to beat in the genre.
Mark: I think I’m the opposite of your position Neilan. I went in, excited to try it out, but with relatively low expectations and I’ve been enjoying the game more and more with each play. I don’t think it’s reached the level where it’s in my top 10 games of all time or anything, but I feel like it’s certainly on the climb. I do agree that there’s a lot you don’t “get” in that first play or two. That said, Rising Sun is definitely a game I’ve been pleasantly surprised by, and one that I find myself more and more eager to play.
Neilan: So, recommendations all round? I’m happy to leave it there, then. It’ll be available at retail by the time this posts, so go, with our blessing!

Note: We played and reviewed the Kickstarter version of Rising Sun, but without any gameplay extras, so while some of the depicted components may differ in the retail release, you’ll get the same gameplay experience.

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