#Wargame Wednesday – First Impressions of Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (@Hollandspiele, 2021)

For the longest time I have been a naval wargamer. It goes back to my early days of wargaming with titles like Jutland (Avalon Hill, 1967 though I own the 1974 Second Edition) and Flat Top (Battleline First Edition, 1977) as well as my Harpoon series of games from Admiralty Trilogy Games. So when I saw that Hollandspiele was publishing a game that covers the naval conflict in the Pacific at the start of World War I it was an auto-buy for me. Now that Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (Hollandspiele, 2021) has landed on my gaming table what do I really think about it?

Spoiler Alert: I like it but the message is mixed….

The Telescoping Game

Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (hereafter simply Empire at Sunrise) is designed by John Gorkowski and illustrated by Jose R. Faura. The ad copy for Empire at Sunrise claims it, “depicts the struggle for control of Pacific sea lanes during the opening months of World War I.”

Well, not exactly. I mean, “Yes, but….”

Although the naval struggles makes up a large portion of Empire at Sunrise, there is also the land battle around Tsingtao (all the placenames are drawn from the period). Thus, the game becomes one that is more about the downfall of the Pacific Empire of Imperial Germany as they struggle to defend their possessions in the Far East in the opening weeks of World War I than simply a “struggle for control of the Pacific sea lanes.”

To deliver this Pacific-wide view of the conflict, Empire at Sunrise uses three different “telescoping scales.” The game is played across three maps that depict, “the area around Tsingtao at six miles per hex, the fight over the Asian Pacific at 240 miles per hex, and the entire Pacific Ocean at 1440 miles per zone.” Game turns are weekly and the 19 game turns represent the time from August through December 1914. Both land and naval units are depicted.

Three Maps, Two Games?

At first glance, Empire at Sunrise looks like it is actually two games in one; a land combat game centered on Tsingtao played on the Kiautschou Insert – KI map and a second naval game played out on the Asia Pacific Map (APM) and Pacific Chart (PC). The three-map telescoping design of Empire at Sunrise creates two immediate design challenges: First is a mechanical challenge to ensure the game “flows” between the three maps and the second is to depict the impact of the wide ranging conflict that spans both land and sea yet connects them in a manner that creates a set of meaningful decision points for the players.

Mechanically, the solution to the flow between the maps is very simple with easy to understand movement rules and only minor changes to combat. The solution to the second challenge is just as simple – Victory Conditions.

Keep Your Eye on the Target

A close study of the Victory Conditions in Empire at Sunrise shows that it creates both tension and hard decisions for each player throughout the game. Victory Points (VP) are scored both during and at the end of the game. During game play, the Germans score VP for:

  • +3 if the Australian Troop Convoy is Delayed or Destroyed (but it doesn’t enter until Turn 12)
  • +1 per Allied (“Anglo-Japanese Alliance – AJA”) Land Unit step Eliminated
  • +1 per AJA Naval Unit Destroyed
  • +1 if the British call any or all of their Atlantic Units into play
  • +1 per successful Commerce Raid (limit one per Turn)
  • +1 for each step of Naval Units in PC Zone F11 (enroute to the Falklands)

At the end of the game the AJA score VP as follows:

  • -5 if they control Tsingtao
  • -3 if NeuPommern controlled
  • -2 if Samoa controlled
  • -1 for each of the German possessions at Ladrone, Lamotrek, Palau, Yap, Truk or Wolea controlled

If the VP score is negative the AJA wins otherwise Germany wins. The maximum score for the AJA is 16 points meaning if the German scores 16 VP or more they will automatically win.

Hopefully you can see the immediate conflict in objectives for each player in Empire at Sunrise. For Germany to win they need to try to maintain their possessions but if they can’t (and given their lack of Land Units they almost certainly can’t) then they need to resort to naval warfare to gain VP by sinking enemy ships while not getting sunk and raiding commerce while at the same time they are trying to escape. Also, the most “valuable” German possession is also the one furthest from where the naval squadrons need to go to get points. On the other hand, the AJA player needs to grab possessions but also avoid losing too many ships as they hunt down the German fleet units.

Put together, what may be the greatest challenge in Empire at Sunrise is for player to manage their time. The Germans need to hang onto possessions as long as possible and sell them dearly but avoid becoming bogged down or cut off from escape. They need to take advantage of the turns before the Japanese enter to score a reserve of VP. They need to get to Cape Horn on the eastern Pacific but it may be worthwhile to also be near Australia when the troop convoy sails. For the AJA player seizing the German Pacific possessions is easy but it takes time; time to move on the Pacific Chart and time to actually take a possession. At 19 turns Empire at Sunrise looks like a long game but once you start playing you quickly discover that time is precious and never enough. The game is full of tensions that forces players to tie their play of both the land and naval game together and not bi-furcate their efforts by weighing one too heavily at the expense of the other.

New Age of Warfare? Hardly….

The rules for Empire at Sunrise are what I describe as “simply complex.” The rules mechanically are easy to learn and simple to play but the strategy you need to execute with those rules is a whole other level of complexity.

Take for example Naval Movement in Empire at Sunrise. Naval Movement is different on the three maps but moving from one map to another follows a very simple set of rules. The most important aspect of Naval Movement is actually Naval Interception. Phasing Units (i.e. on your turn) need to be in the same hex on the APM or zone on the PC to intercept. However, when you are the non-Phasing Player you can try to intercept a moving group of enemy ships every time it enters a new hex or zone if you already have ships there. As simple as that sounds it creates a wonderful tension as it behooves the German player to “escape” from the APM where they risk intercept every hex into the larger PC where they chance intercept only once on during their opponent’s turn (unless they enter a zone with enemy ships during their own turn).

Naval Combat in Empire at Sunrise is also simple but not what many longtime naval Grognards may expect. Here ships are not rated simply for “weight of fire” like so many ships of the day were judged, but instead ships with longer ranged, heavier batteries get to fire first. Thus, the Japanese 3-10-7 (Firepower – Resilience – Movement) Kongo BC fires first and damage is assessed before the British 2-9-7 Good Hope CA can return fire. Combat itself is very simple – roll 2d6 and beat the target’s Resilience with each hit causing a step loss. If you score a hit and roll doubles while you’re at it that scores two hits and sinks the enemy ship outright.

[This event specifically lead to one of the more spectacular moments in my first game. While destroyers are below the level of detail depicted by naval units, designer John Gorkowski put the German S90 Destroyer in the game since it historically scored a luck torpedo kill on the Japanese coastal defense ship Takachiho. In my game, S90 was trying to break out of Tsingtao just as the fortress was falling but was intercepted by a British Task Force led by the British pre-dreadnought HMS Triumph. The S-90, rated 4*-7-8 (the * means torpedoes only against ships) took on the 2-9-6 Triumph and, being rated 4, fired first. In order to score a hit a 10, 11, or 12 on 2d6 was required. Sure enough, S90 rolled “double boxcars” and not only got a hit, but the lucky two hits that sunk Triumph outright. To add insult to injury, none of the other ships in the British Task Force proved capable of hitting the elusive S90 and it escaped to live another day. Speak about a real narrative moment!]

Commerce Raiding in Empire at Sunrise is another deliciously simple rule that has an outsized impact on a players strategy. The rule is very simple; at the end of movement if a German Naval Unit is south of the Tropic of Cancer it can roll to destroy commerce. Each ship rolls 2d6 and ADDS the number of movement points expended in the turn; if the result is 16 or greater than 1 VP is scored (limited to once per turn). Thus, it again behooves the AJA player to hunt down every German naval unit and don’t give away free points.

The land battles in Empire at Sunrise are just as simple. Counter density is very low so stacking rarely becomes an issue. There are no zone of control rules; to attack one just needs to be adjacent. Seeing as this was the era of defensive supremacy it should come as no surprise that the few rules for trenches or Fortifications heavily favor the defender. The Japanese player does have Siege Artillery which destroys trenches and Fortifications but it is slow moving and takes time to relocate. Thus, the “Battle of Tsingtao” plays out much like one expects a World War I battle should – slow and cumbersome with strong defenses being difficult to dislodge.

An Untold Story

The most educational aspect of Empire at Sunrise is admittedly what the designer does not include. Empire at Sunrise, like it’s name tells us, shows the huge contribution that Imperial Japan made towards the defeat of Imperial Germany. Try playing this game without the Japanese forces and see what happens. The designer makes no explicit statement about the affects of Japanese contribution after the war; the players are given the game’s title and then left to discover it for themselves outside the game. For me, a wargamer who has battled back and forth across the Pacific of the 1940’s (and occasionally the 1920’s or 30’s), the geography was familiar but the situation was much different.

In many ways, Empire at Sunrise is a a good “bookend” game to use to see the rise of the Imperial Japanese Navy across the Pacific. Then place it against Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977) to see the other “bookend,” or downfall of the Imperial Japanese Empire across the Pacific. Together they make a good story.

Slicing up the Mahanian Orange #Wargame – Mark Herman’s Plan Orange: Pacific War, 1932-1935 (@RBMStudio1 Nr. 29, 2016)

MARK HERMAN’S PLAN ORANGE: PACIFIC WAR, 1932-1935 (C3i Magazine Nr. 29, 2016) is a challenging game. The challenge is not in the game design; mechanically the game is not that complex as it is another implementation of Mr. Herman’s (@markherman54) wonderful Card Driven Game (CDG) series. Nor is the challenge that it is a monster game; though derived from Empire of the Sun (GMT Games, 2005, 2015) it covers nearly the same area of conflict but in a much narrower focus. It’s that narrower focus that is the challenge, because if one goes into Plan Orange expecting to play Empire of the Sun you will get a rude awakening. This is because Mr. Herman has focused the game design of Plan Orange around Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Mr. Herman tells us what he is doing in the Player’s Notes to Plan Orange:

This is still the era of the battleship. Jutland was the battle of record and deeply studied in this period. So, while planes had firmly gained a role as long range reconnaissance and raiding elements in naval warfare, the arbiter of decision was still large caliber rifled guns carried by the battleships. What you will notice is the smaller zones of influence (ZOI) and combat power of the land based air reduces them to a supporting role in the war. This one factor makes Plan Orange a very different experience than Empire of the Sun.

9781591140375.jpgDoubling down on this difference, the victory conditions in Plan Orange emphasize the vision of the times that a naval conflict between the United States and Japan would be decided by a giant clash at sea. This really was the thinking of the day, especially for the Japanese as Sadao Asada explains in his book From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2006). When talking about the course of study at the Japanese Naval Staff College in the 1930’s, Mr. Asada points out:

Student officers were schooled in the tradition of Mahan. Taking a leaf from Mahan’s Influence, their manual, the Kaisen yomurei, (Naval Battle Instructions) held that “war once declared  must be waged offensively, aggressively.” Day in and day out they conducted war games against the American fleet that culminated in a decisive Mahanian engagement in the manner of Tsushima. In commencement exercises officers conducted war games in front of the emperor, simulating a magnificent main-fleet battle based on the principle of “big battleships and big guns.” Mesmerized by Mahan’s strategic doctrines, officers developed an obsession with the decisive fleet battle that would annihilate the enemy armada at one stroke. Their bible was the aforementioned Naval Battle Instructions, initially developed by Lieutenant Commander Akiyama Saneyuki at the Naval Staff College and sanctioned in 1910. Reflecting Mahan’s doctrine, it stated, “The battleship squadron is the main fleet, whose aim is to attack the enemy’s main fleet.” “The key to successful naval operations is initiative and concentration.” This manual, though revised five times, essentially remained intact until the mid-1930s. (Asado, p. 163)

In Plan Orange there are five ways to win, two of which are directly influenced by Mahan (but don’t be fooled, the others are too):

  1. Capital Ship Ratio: If at the end of Turn 4 (Jan-Apr 1933) or later, the US has 2 times or more battleship steps on the map than the Japanese have on the map, the US wins an Automatic Victory.
  2. Capital Ship Ratio: If at the end of Turn 4 or later, the Japanese have 1.5 times or more battleship steps on the map than the US, the Japanese win an Automatic Victory.
  3. Surrender: If Japan surrenders due to conquest of Honshu or blockade of the Home Islands the US player wins.
  4. Control the Philippines: If at the end of Turn 6 if either side controls all three Philippine surrender hexes, that player wins.
  5. Outlast the Americans: If at the end of Turn 6 no player has met any of the above conditions, the Japanese player wins.

I played Plan Orange twice this weekend. As I’m playing solo (and CDGs are not the best for solo play) I generally chose a ‘strategy’ for each side at the beginning and try to stick to it. For the Japanese I tried to follow Mr. Herman’s ‘Fabian strategy’ he mentions in the Player’s Notes where the Japanese conquers the Philippines, close out the US western bases, and set up defenses to delay the US advance. The Japanese need to hold onto the Philippines and take any opportunity they can to knock out the US Fleet Train when possible.

In the first game, for the US I tried to implement a quick ‘drive for home’ strategy focusing on hanging onto Midway and Wake, then trying to “strike for Japan’ via Marcus Island and Iwo Jima in order to impose a blockade. This didn’t work from the beginning in great part because I concentrated on bringing the US carriers in first. As a result, I had fewer battleships available and the Japanese hand was full of Zengen Sakusen (Attrition Strategy) cards which ended up taking away precious steps of battleships. This forced the US into a catch-up game and some degree of hesitancy as they were unwilling to risk the decisive battle without a clear battleship advantage. Although the US avoided a Japanese Automatic Victory they also failed to threaten the Philippines and never blockaded Japan. Clear Japanese victory.

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I reset the game for another go. Keeping the same general Japanese strategy, this time I dedicated the Americans to a true central thrust through the Marianas to get to the Philippines. Battleships and troops were given priority. This strategy almost worked, and probably would have if not for a heroic stand by the Japanese Army at Manila/Corregidor. As luck would have it, the Japanese hand for Turn 6 included Samurai Spirit which is the only card that gives the Japanese any sort of real bonus in ground combat. It was enough to disrupt the final push on Manila. The Japanese won, but just barely.

I absolutely love the strategic tension the victory conditions create in Plan Orange. The American player must attack and try to retake the Philippines. If they don’t the Japanese win by default. The Japanese in turn will have to defend, but usually have to decide where and when is the right place to make a stand because in a war of attrition they cannot afford to lose too much. By the same token the Americans must attack but cannot be reckless lest they hand the victory to the Japanese. Although both sides want to preserve their fleet, they must risk their fleet for a win. All this in a relatively short two years, or six game turns.

Awesome game.


Feature image courtesy C3i Ops Magazine