I’m trying to keep an open mind about this game. Mark Herman has a reputation as a top-of-the-line game designer (not that I’m entirely convinced of this myself), and the card-driven wargame format still has such great untapped potential.
But it’s hard.
It’s hard to work through a game with rules this poor and still keep up your optimism. How many really good wargames have had really lousy rulebooks? I can’t think of any. It’s hard to deal with player aids with multiple egregious errors and not have a sneaking suspicion that this is a game that is, at best, half done, and wonder if the designer and developer aren’t just wasting my time. And it’s hard to face the fact that your nice professionally-printed rulebook has become obsolete and replaced with stapled-together photocopies within days of actual players getting their hands on the game.
Empire of the Sun, like Mark Herman’s previous We the People and For the People games, is based on card play. Cards have either a simple numerical operation value or an event. The operations value of the card abstractly represents the level of preparation for an offensive: a higher value means both more units can be involved and they can come from further away – and also that the defender will have an easier time reacting to it. The defender can react by playing cards of his own, or can rely on die rolls; Allied security is pretty tight, and the Japanese will have a hard time reacting to most smaller operations, while due to the efforts of Magic, Japanese operations are about as secure as Internet Explorer, and the Allies should be able to intercept most of the time even without a card play.
I think this offensives procedure, the heart of the game, works very well. As an idea it’s simple, produces a historical feel, leverages the advantages of the strategy cards, and forces interesting choices. The difference between a 1 and a 3 ops isn’t as great as it is in Hannibal, so you don’t get the same level of tension – for the Japanese, even their small operations will tend to be easily intercepted, so 1 operations seem rarely useful – but it works well enough.
Unfortunately, even here in the heart of the game where things should be rock-solid, Empire of the Sun has rules problems. It takes a full page just to explain the very simple loss-allocation system, and the rules essentially admit that they aren’t really confident as to whether it works or not and if all the contingincies are covered (it’s right there on the bottom of the left column on page 19). The air movement rules are, when viewed in the best possible light, confusing. The procedure for doing an interception – basically, roll a die and roll less than the number printed on the card, with a single possible +2 modifier – should take about 5 lines to explain, but instead it takes about two over-wordy paragraphs, copied and pasted a couple times, and is then restated in summary a few more times (I count one paragraph-length explanation, 5.22, and then another two paragraphs dedicated to this in 6.25 C & D, much – but not all – of which is duplicated. Then we have overviews of the intelligence die roll again in 4.22 – which has a half column overview of an offensive – then again in 6.1, which dedicates another half-column to an overview of an offensive).
This is frustrating beyond a reasonable point, but ultimately tractable. What is more frustrating are the victory conditions. The Pacific Theatre is a hard problem, as Mr. Herman admits in the designer’s notes, and coming up with sensible victory conditions isn’t easy. But the ones in here are not particularly satisfactory.
To win, the Allies have to either invade and conquer Japan or accomplish three tasks: hit Japan with strategic bombers for four turns in a row; strip Japan of all but one resource hex; and have a B29 in range of Tokyo.
This might sound plausible, but much of it depends on pure luck. Strategic Bombing is just a die roll; if you roll a ‘9’ on the turn your first B29 arrives, when you only have one bomber, you’re out of luck and will have to do a far more difficult invasion of Japan. There are two resource hexes in Manchuria that the Western Allies are legally barred from taking, and can only realistically be taken by the Soviets (the Chinese are at least allowed to attack them, but they are so far away it’s a practical impossibility) … which requires a sequence of cards to come out in the right order – Tojo resigns, followed by the Soviet Manchurian invasion – cards over which the players have only the most minimal levels of control. I haven’t tried to figure the odds, but given the huge 80 card decks for each player, this is not a highly-predictable event.
So, whether you get to do the easy option or the really hard option is more or less a crap shoot. OK, so let’s say you’ve consigned yourself to invading Japan. This is not inherently a problem. However, the game also features an abstract War in Europe. As this heats up, the Allied army and army air reinforcements may be sent to Europe. The problem is, it’s entirely possible, through simple bad luck, to lose enough infantry corps in this way to make an invasion of Japan impossible, as happened to Milton in our game. What we saw was that as the war wound down, it became clear that the odds of the Tojo/Soviet cards coming out in time and in the right order were vanishingly small. So the Japanese just withdrew every unit in their order of battle and piled them into the Japanese mainland, stripped China of all of its replacement points, and waited. Since the Americans had lost all but two or three corps to the war in Europe, they were screwed. All the prior interesting play, and all the investment in the 30-page rulebook, had come down to a handful of dice rolls and card draws over which the players had essentially no control. And it should be noted, that even had the Allies not lost their reinforcements (or if the Olympic/Coronet card returned the units that were lost to Europe, which would only be realistic and fair), invading Japan is exceptionally dicey. The Japanese are likely to get a few turns of warning that an invasion is going to be the only way for the Allies to win, in which they can recall most of their units to Japan and dig in (a couple poor-quality reduced air units are all that is required to shield units using strategic movement from the wrath of the entire Allied carrier and submarine fleet, and there are no limits on how many Japanese units can be sea-transported). If they do this, the Allies have no chance to clear Japan given how attritional ground combat is and how bloody amphibious assaults are.
To call this endgame underwhelming would be an understatement. One of my fundamental rules of gaming is that player control has to go up with the rules and game length. For me personally, if you’re going to make me learn 30+ pages of rules and play for 8 hours, I really, really have to feel like my play matters. Preferably a lot.
Can the game overcome these problems? Possibly. The most promising angle is simply to admit that neither the first turn of the Pacific War (the Japanese surprise attack) nor the last year (where the Allies are simply trying to dismantle the outclassed, outgunned, and outnumbered Japanese in the most efficient manner possible) make for terribly compelling gaming for either player. So the real game here is ’42-’43, maybe through early ’44, and if we accept this than the hokey victory conditions for the full game can be ignored. In ’42 and ’43, the good parts of the game are predominant, and the balance goes from Japanese strength to Allied strength, but not in such an extreme way. And you have all kinds of things going on: the Central Pacific campaign, the Solomons, China-Burma-India, and China proper, all of which are interesting. Both sides have hitting power. The event decks have variety and seem flavorful and well-done, in general. And there is real tension in the operations card play in this period. All good stuff.
In the end, I haven’t played that much, so my judgement is not definitive yet. My enthusiasm for the campaign game has been significantly blunted now that I’ve played it, but I am still reasonably enthused by the middle war years. I think there is good stuff in Empire of the Sun, but the fact that it feels like the last round (or rounds) of playtesting are being done by the customer who paid $50-$75 is definitely demoralizing. Once things settle down, this may turn into a good game, but even then it’s still going to be a bit of a niche game in my opinion – one more for the technocrats, and I think it is, unsurprisingly, going to appeal to the same folks who liked For the People. For those of us who are waiting with growing impatience for the card-driven wargame that follows in the footsteps of Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage … I think I can safely say we’re still waiting.