I just spent a month revisiting GMT’s Empire of the Sun. Released in 2005, it ranks as my most anticipated game of the last decade. I can still remember the day it came in the mail. Like a sumo wrestler waiting for the all-you-can-eat BBQ place to open, I was so anxious to get my hands on the prize I actually drooled on the box.
EotS covers the whole PTO at strategic level, is playable in a day, was designed by Mark Herman – of For the People and Washington’s War fame – and traces its lineage to Victory Games’ superb Pacific War.
How could it not be great?
And it is, but in a zen sort of way. It has one rather large problem and hence its share of haters. More on that in a moment.
After playing it a couple dozen times in its first and second editions I put it away, as its replay value is average at best and I became convinced the U.S. couldn’t lose, barring very bad card draws. But that's realistic enough.
When rules version 3.0 was released in mid-2015 I was curious to see what had been changed and/or fixed. Not that there was anything particularly broken once the second edition addressed some gamey rules aspects and cleaned up the more problematic cards (it also added a mounted map, which is not a plus in my book).
Empire of the Sun, being a novel and unconventional system, was going to face the inevitable griping about poorly written rules. And it certainly did, but really, it's all there. Every wargame rulebook could be better written/organized, but we’re dealing with a product that sells in the four-digits, you can’t really hire an editorial team to work on optimizing the rules and still have a viable business at these volumes.
The revised 3.0 rules are not just a reorganization, though they are that, there are also new things introduced such as “overland logistical range” and roads you have to pave in Northern India that were previously pre-paved. Can't say the new rules are better, they are different. Since it is now easy to get searchable PDFs, cockamamie organization or lack of a good index isn’t the deal breaker it once was.
But on to the game ... the crux of why EotS is somewhat polarizing is that it requires different thinking from your standard counter-pusher or even card-driven design. If you think the retreads of 30+ year old SPI titles Decision Games stamps out are the pinnacle of wargaming EotS may not be your cup of sake.
But me, I often get that little “this is way cool” tingle in the pit of my stomach when playing EotS. Few games manage that these days.
Looking out over the entire Pacific with a couple cards in my hand trying to put together an operation just feels way cool. Will my opponent be able to intercept? Will my task force be pounced upon by a flotilla of battleships? Or will I achieve tactical surprise and blast them to hell before they know what hit ‘em? One die roll stands between these diametrical outcomes.
You don’t just move all your assets and capture every island you can reach. You have to think operationally with each card play. Each card is a potential operation to advance your cause. You have X assets at your disposal. Card + assets = operation.
What can you achieve with the combination? How can you maximize your chances of grabbing that island, airfield, port, strategic location? Once you decide what and how, you set the thing in motion and pray. And here’s the big problem with the game: Praying is essential.
That is to say you need the god of luck on your side. More so than other games, luck can sucker punch you repeatedly to the point that you actually beg to play Kriegspiel. Some rolls being much more important than others. The better player will not always win.
This loss of control is more on the surface in EotS and it just rubs some people wrong. I’ve felt it too after losing a bunch of ships because I rolled a 9 on a d10 and failed the interception. Good play can mitigate this to some extent. But you can’t escape it. If you miss a key interception (always at least a 10% chance) bye, bye carrier task force … port … fleet ... maybe even game.
You can do incredibly stupid things and achieve brilliant results (not to say that’s unrealistic, but man is it ever annoying). Or play well and be denied success at every turn. This is especially true for the Japanese player. If a couple large battles go pear-shaped on you, or you can’t draw an Interception card to save your life, your life will be rather short, brutish and bloody.
Since essentially no one playing EotS will have WW2-era Japanese dedication to the war, I’ve rarely seen a game go to the bitter end. The Japanese usually give up, the average gamer's morale just breaks before he has technically lost. They are not hopeless, there’s a small window of opportunity early in the game for the Japanese to score an automatic victory. Once this shuts you begin to see why starting a war with an economy the size of the U.S. is a very bad idea.
Each side has an 80+ card dedicated deck so occasionally Japan will get all its hosers early (multiple War in Europe cards for example) while the Americans are stuck with Chinese offensives, that also gives the rising sons a chance at victory by delaying defeat.
But more commonly you get to the point of many, many, U.S. carrier task forces staring Ito in the face. They might not be Death Stars exactly but the effect on the Japanese navy is similar. For the last five turns the U.S. get +3 in air/naval combat so the sons of Nippon go flying off the map in great number. And some U.S. operations automatically grant surprise. If you have no reaction card the U.S. gets to blast you into next week before you can say Konichiwa. It can be veeeery frustrating.
And if that’s your first experience with EotS it's easy to see why you wouldn't want to hit yourself again with that hammer.
To like EotS you have to accept that your fate is far from entirely in your hands and enjoy it for the journey. Meditate on it. Contemplate. The game requires some Zen-like mental mechanisms to fully enjoy. It's not for the hypercompetitive.
The end tends to be historical in my experience. Given that, breathe deeply, try to think of nothing. Then take the Allies. And pray for luck.
Empire of the Sun
Kriegspiel Wargame Reviews