CMON's Rising Sun

I've now played Rising Sun the board game enough times to give an informed review of the game. I've played it in a variety of different settings - I've played with my family at home, my co-workers during the COVID, and with English and Japanese speakers at dedicated game clubs. Each playthrough has reinforced my initial impressions of Rising Sun as a fun game, easy to learn and play with multiple paths to victory. I actually bought the game for the excellent Japanese themed 28 mm miniatures contained within, so having the game turn out to be good is a great bonus.

For those conversant with Risk or similar area control games, you can play the traditional way strategic war games are played - build your forces, attack territories and defeat enemy armies. For those from a card gaming background you can look for bonuses and build a tech engine capable of generating victory points from non-warfare related activities. You can control shrines to gain resources, or gather virtues, strongholds or monsters whose value can be multiplied by specific tech cards. The goal is not to conquer this fantasy version of Japan - the goal is to have the most victory points at the end of the game.

There are elements of area control in Rising Sun, but several factors conspire to remove the sting out of it. You don't conquer territory to try and hold on to it - you conquer it to build "conquered" sets which give you victory points at the end of the game. Conquering 7-8 different territories gives you the maximum amount of bonus points at the end of the game. Once a territory is conquered there is little need to linger, and it opens up opportunities for those lagging behind to snaffle up easy conquests and stay in the hunt. It also means that having the strongest army doesn't equate to winning the game - in fact, a lightning fast force capable of redeploying anywhere is ideal. The clans are asymmetrical, and the Dragonfly clan, able to fly anywhere in an instant, is the best clan for this type of approach.

I've played this game with both English and Japanese speakers. In order to make the game more Japanese friendly I'd had to translate the tech cards into Japanese. Explaining the basic game - choosing mandates, and executing them - was not particularly taxing, but explaining the tech cards which give bonuses, monsters and so on was more challenging, more so because you can win the game by focusing solely on acquiring tech cards. In fact you need to be aware of the implication of some of the more powerful tech cards, and possibly even deny your opponents some of the ones they really want. That for me presented the biggest hurdle in presenting the game to Japanese players. The first time we played I spent a lot of time explaining the tech cards, and I'm sure my rambling, incoherent diatribes did little to illuminate the kind of choices my poor Japanese audience needed to make. The second time I brought copies of my Google translations for each of the players, and that made a world of difference. I could see players making informed rather than random choices this time around, and that made for a much better game.

Because the vast majority of the games I'd played were introductory, most players were very courteous towards each other in every game I've played. I still haven't seen the kind of vicious backstabbing that can happen with gaming groups that know each other well and accept, and even incentivize this behavior. Part of it is also how ritualized player turns are, which I feel gives it a very Japanese character. Making alliances is a formal process at the start of each season, and breaking one requires a specific mandate which may not be available to the players depending on what mandate cards they draw. Anyone who has ever spent any time in Japan will tell you that formality and ritual are a big part of their culture, and the structured turn order - making alliance, playing mandates, worshipping at shrines and then finally battling at the end of the season - captures this perfectly.

I was curious as to how Japanese players would react to Rising Sun, being a game set in a fantasy version of Japan but written and developed by a non-Japanese person and a non-Japanese company. I wondered if any elements of the game would be on the nose for a Japanese player, but so far all the Japanese players who have played it have been very complimentary and have expressed the desire to play the game again. The miniatures were instantly recognizable as Japanese monsters from Japanese mythology, and barring one hilarious fail by CMON, did not appear to stray too far from common conceptions of what mythological figures like oni, komainu, and ryu would look like. I think most responsible designers go into creating games from other cultures with the best of intentions, but sometimes making cultural faux pas is just inevitable. The biggest criticism is that there are some non-Japanese elements which are portrayed as Japanese, which my Japanese friends have pointed out are not. The tao used to signify alliances is Chinese, and the artwork used to depict the dragons are also clearly Chinese in origin. Then again however, it is a historical fact that Japanese culture adopted many Chinese elements (art, religion and writing system), and so a Chinese influence could be defended by a scholar more conversant with this historical period.

My Japanese friends also did not recognize the names of the kami (the "gods") portrayed in the game, which I had assumed were analogous to ancient Greek, Roman and Norse gods like Zeus, Mars, or Odin, just set in Japan. I displayed the model of Amaterasu, the Shinto sun-goddess, to the group and proudly said, "This is Amaterasu!" As far as I was concerned I was displaying a miniature of a Japanese equivalent of Zeus, and it would be instantly recognizable. All I got, however, were blank stares, and a polite, "Who?" Some people have accused CMON of acquiring their research from Wikipedia, and if you go to Wikipedia you would agree with them, because how Amaterasu is described in Wikipedia is how she is depicted in the game. Clearly, someone forgot to tell my Japanese friends, however. 

Cultural appropriations happens all the time, and it is not limited to cultures borrowing from other cultures. Culture cannibalizes itself, both as a way to renew itself, or to advance a political agenda. Like autophagy, it is an act both destructive and renewing. My personal stance in this is that it is OK to borrow, as long as you do your due diligence, and acknowledge your debt. Like the Book of Ecclesiastes states - "what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." In the case of Rising Sun, the designers chose to set a game in a culture not their own, and did so in a respectful manner, even if their research stopped at the pages of Wikipedia. But in some ways it's not their fault. Amaterasu is a Shinto deity, and she is depicted correctly in Wikipedia. It's just that Japanese people don't study the history of Shinto at school. My friend Sachino works as a teacher, and when I threw out the names of the gods used in the game she could recognize their historical roots and their names as part of famous temples and shrines all around the country, but that was it. She could not tell me the particulars of the myth surrounding each name, but she could guess that Fujin was related to wind and Raijin related to thunder because of their names. The Japanese players I played with found it fascinating that English speaking game designers conceptualized their folklore in the way they did. In a way, the designers of the game had created a mirror of Japanese mythology from which Japanese people could see elements of their own culture reflected within.

Cultural appropriation is a touchy topic, however, and the scale of offences runs from meticulously researched historical treatises, to ridiculous one note caricatures designed to dehumanize. On this particular continuum Rising Sun is very much on the benign side. It is a beautiful, elegant game, with ritualized turns and easy to understand mechanics enjoyed by English and Japanese speakers alike. Even if I hadn't played this game with Japanese people I wouldn't have had any quibbles about it. Having played it with Japanese people, however, I can say it is not considered offensive, just mildly inaccurate, and in spite of this, they love it because of how beautiful the game's components are, and what it reveals about elements of their own culture. So dump the cultural appropriation baggage, and enjoy the game. And betray more often, because that's fun.