Why I think Rising Sun really matters.

I played my copy of Rising Sun for the first time this weekend and I was very pleasantly surprised. Last year I played the much lauded Blood Rage at long last and hated it. I hated it almost immediately and spent my entire play of it wanting to leave the table. By all means, I should have passed on Rising Sun, but a few things won me over.

Firstly, I'm more interested in Japanese mythology than viking mythology. That, perhaps, has more to do with the wanton ransacking of the viking theme by euro cube pushers, but still, I prefer Japan. Secondly, the game's focus on the strategic layer over the tactical layer appealed to me. And finally, I'm a red-blooded consumer. I saw the sheer volume of miniatures, upgrades, and exclusives for Rising Sun. The value was too great to pass up, so in I plunged. 

Despite having a few weeks of immature fun mocking the wait to receive Rising Sun, when it did arrive, I unboxed it, read the rules, and got it to the table immediately. And, big sigh of relief, I really liked it. I liked it from the rules, from the first action, and right up until the end when I just barely lost by 7 points. I think it's a real winner. 

But, this is primarily a design blog. You don't need me to review this - others will trip over themselves to do so. Instead, I want to talk about why I think Rising Sun is important. I think it does a lot of things very right, things I myself will learn from, and I wish to discuss them.

The Plodding Nature of Control: Most genres in design have ugly nubs marring the elegance of their limb, holdovers from ancient times that seem to linger forever. I think every tactics game has some lousy version of line of sight, which is one of the worst, most cumbersome, and tedious rule items of all time. For great solutions, look to Mice and Mystics (Melee = Adjacent, Range = Anywhere on the tile except through black spaces) or Wartime (Certain objects are impossible, simply count "around" them, which reduces damage or puts people out of range). Examine Descent and all the clear descendants of Descent (and there are many). All hold tightly to this tedious line of sight rule.

I've made my points. I think the ugly nub for area control is territory control. I think few games do this more problematically than Cry Havoc. It has the notion of uncontrolled, controlled, and contested. It has content that utilizes all, some, or none of those states. And, it has the possibility for one side to control it that isn't even in the battle that makes it contested! But, you have other tedious rules in this vein from many games. Such as:

  • You cannot enter or pass through regions controlled by an opponent.
  • You can enter, but you must stop.
  • You must leave at least one unit behind (Risk), or you can leave it empty. 
  • You can recruit to regions you control.
  • You can't recruit to regions you don't control.
  • You can't (or can) recruit to regions you control, but are contested.
  • You can build a structure, but not where you have a structure.
  • You can build a structure, but not where you have a structure of that type.

Rising Sun does none of this nonsense. It removes the facet of control entirely, and I think for the better. Where can you move? Anywhere within your movement range. Where can you recruit? Anywhere you have a stronghold. Where can I buid a stronghold? Anywhere. Who fights in the region? Everybody that is there. 

These ugly nubs often exist in the name of theme, or simulation, or being accurate. But, rarely do they serve the design itself. Rarely do they make it fun - for most people - or more intuitive - again, for most people. You know what's important in Rising Sun (and most area control games)? Recruiting, moving units, and fighting. You know what Rising Sun puts in the way of those goals? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It strips away the notion of area control and says "Have at it." It's so much better.

Clean Asymmetry: I have a love, but mostly hate affair with asymmetry at this point. The love began with games like Android: Netrunner and Rex (Dune), but more and more I've just fallen out of love. I can point to Dogs of War, from CMON, where you have a really clean area control design stymied by a bunch of tiny, seemingly insignificant, but totally not asymmetry rules. I've been frustrated watching how asymmetry in Cry Havoc has split the community, creating real and perceived notions of balance and fairness, but also, how it has made the game 1000% harder to learn, which affects its sales and rating. More than anything, I hate one simple experience byproduct of so many asymmetry games. You ready for it? It's this one question:

"Hey, what can you do again?"

The number one barrier to tabletop are rules. Full stop. So often asymmetry adds not one rule, but one rule per player that has expontential complexity based on the variables that introduces. It constantly stops the experience, lets people feel they don't have mastery, but also telegraphs your intentions to an opponent.

"Hey, can you lose that figure? No reason, just curious if it's possible for that guy to die. If, you know, somebody wished to do that. I don't. I'm just writing a wikipedia article on the topic if you must know."

To me, the gold standard of asymmetry in a multiplayer game is Rex. Every player gets one, clear, obvious power that does not come into play surprisingly or with a take-that like feel. One player gets paid for cards. One player recruits for free. One player gets more traitors. One player gets bigger units. The powers are clear, and obvious, and intuitive. 

Rising Sun follows in these footsteps. Every player gets one, clear, special item. Yesterday, I had turtles that provided one force and could move. Megan could dump any action and choose any action. Matt bought all cards for $1. Antonio could use his money to count as units. This meant there were no surprises or cheap "ah ha!" moments. This is also smart because the game also lets you gain cards that let you further distinguish your army with powers. 

Folks who probably haven't played Rex (Dune) should look at Rising Sun as a good example. If you're going to do asymmetry, knock it off. Keep it simple, be focused, be intuitive, and be fair. Because the asymmetry isn't so pervasive in Rising Sun, I wager far more people will just accept it as balanced as opposed to showing up with pitchforks. Maybe, maybe not. I think the team got it right here.

Nothing Subtle: This is something I've been trying to do with my designs and it has a very clear improvement. The differences between Solstice and Imperius are night and day here. SPQF is much simpler with every action providing value. But, again, I think Rising Sun does a very good job here. As a designer, this is the thing I'm working hardest to change about myself.

Firstly, all of the actions are painfully simple and provide obvious value. Marshal lets you move and/or build more strongholds. Recruit lets you add units. Harvest gives you coins and other benefits. Train gives you new cards for your tableau. And betray lets you screw someone over and place units on the board. 

Everything makes sense, and there are almost no questions for how anything is useful.

Secondly, all the cards provide clear value. This unit gets bigger. This event gives you points. This gives you money. The game doesn't have subtle and varied opportunities and trade offs. This means you can focus on the grander strategic play, alliances, and the social layer. This means the math of the conflict is clear in your eyes, which lets you focus on good play and strategy.

In some of my designs, mistakes have been made here. In Solstice, many of the events were very subtle, or had contextual or future payoffs that may provide value. In Cry Havoc, every first time Machine player uses Shred Drones to prevent battles, as opposed to using them to win battles. It's a subtle distinction, one some people appreciate, but one many will miss. Many people aren't sure why to take a prisoner versus killing someone. It leads to hesitation and AP.

It really comes down to focus. Something I tell every person who approaches me for design advice is to pick a goal, focus that, and downplay everything else. It is clear what Rising Sun's goals are, and it is clear the team knew this as there is no fiddly nonsense complicating or confusing it. Trade offs are clear. Opportunities are clear. But, this doesn't mean decisions are easy. No, it just means acquiring the data to make the decisions is easy, which is important. 

I really enjoyed Rising Sun and think it's one of the best area control games to come out in a while. I think it does a lot of really smart things and does away with much of the baggage of the genre. You can see the designer learning from Blood Rage, and Chaos in the Old World, and much of his other work to create something that's stronger than his previous efforts. Give Rising Sun a look, but also, seek to learn the lessons it can teach you as a designer. Simpler does not mean dumb or stupid. In this case, I think it opens up to a much richer experience.