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Rise of the Dragon:
Design Notes

In the years before the First World War, the Imperial Chinese Navy went on a minor shopping spree for new ships, ordering cruisers and destroyers in European shipyards. But that was only the very thin leading edge of what would have been a massive order of dreadnought battleships and a fleet to support them. It would have been by a large margin the largest purchase made by any nation from foreign shipyards during the dreadnought era, and that was too good of an alternative-history hook to let pass by.

Great War at Sea: Rise of the Dragon is based on that 1908 Chinese plan to build a fleet of eight dreadnoughts and 20 new cruisers. An enemy was not specifically named, but Japan certainly loomed as a powerful threat - though Japanese corporations enthusiastically bid and bribed in an effort to get some of that Chinese shipbuilding business. Japan, meanwhile, squandered her naval budgets on rebuilding the hulks of Russian battleships captured during the recent Russo-Japanese War. With a new/old rival building a modern fleet across the Yellow Sea, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine that those funds would have gone to more useful ships to counter the Chinese program. So Japan also receives new ships in Rise of the Dragon.

I’ve really come to like the “story arc” approach to game design, whether it’s history (Fall of Empires) or alternative history (Second Great War at Sea). The scenarios are interwoven with the narrative to help move the story along, to illustrate the war or campaign under discussion. This approach is way more engaging and fulfilling from the designer’s perspective than the standard approach we used to use, unchanged since the 1970’s, and the players seem to like it as well.

The story in Rise of the Dragon takes place in the spring and summer of 1915, the period when Japan presented her “Twenty-One Demands” to China, an ultimatum that would have sharply curtailed Chinese independence. In our history, China was in the midst of post-revolutionary disorder and unable to fight back militarily, instead counting on an economic boycott and foreign diplomatic aid to mitigate the Japanese aggression.

In Rise of the Dragon, Imperial China’s ruling family and government have discovered a greater sense of responsibility to the nation, and have managed to retain power and build the proposed dreadnought fleet (rather than squander the money on marble boats and similar fripperies). Imperial China rejects the Twenty-One Demands, and mobilizes her new fleet and her rag-tag armies. Chinese patriotism surges and the Chinese will to fight surprises the Japanese. The Chinese people had the will, and the Chinese economy had the cash; it’s the Imperial family fulfilling their side f the Mandate of Heaven that’s the real alternative-history stretch here.

At sea, the Japanese seek to support their armies’ advance from southern Manchuria into China proper and from the recently-occupied German colony at Tsingtao deeper into Shantung province. The Chinese hope to interfere with these operations, and keep the Japanese off-balance by attacking their trade and supply lines. All of the action takes place on the map from Great War at Sea: Russo-Japanese War.

The Chinese fleet roughly balances that of Japan, which is convenient from a game design perspective (funny how alternative histories tend to work out that way). The improved Japanese fleet of Rise of the Dragon reflects Japanese desires and capabilities in the decade between the Russo-Japanese War and our story. Ship classes that historically had two ships now have four (as the Imperial Japanese Navy wished) and the more-capable versions have been selected and built rather than those constructed in our own reality as a cost-saving measure (so Japan’s Satsuma-class semi-dreadnoughts, for example, are true dreadnoughts and there are four in the class rather than two). I did not have to tweak things to get a rough balance between the fleets; if the Japanese had eschewed the expensive rebuilding of their Russian prizes, this is the fleet that would have resulted regardless of a Chinese challenge.

In our story, the Chinese are pretty aggressive, but Imperial China remains an economically dependent nation: they have a difficult time repairing damaged warships, and they are overwhelmingly dependent on foreign munitions suppliers. With a war raging in Europe, there is no spare capacity for China and every bayonet and bullet has been bought up long ago. Steadily, the Chinese armies are pushed back and while the fleet fights valiantly, every ship damaged is as good as lost. Japan wins this brief war, using the distraction of the First World War to extract even greater concessions than those of the Twenty-One Demands, and obtaining Western approval by making an even greater commitment to fighting the Central Powers. An even greater list of demands is presented and then abandoned, to allow the Americans to claim that they had supported their Chinese allies and saved them from an even greater defeat.

Ideally, I like for our expansion books (whatever the series) to be about evenly split between rules/scenarios and story. Rise of the Dragon hits that almost exactly, with 35 new scenarios (a dozen operational scenarios and 23 battle scenarios). The story-arc format naturally encourages more battle scenarios, as they help tell the story really well, and I’ve become determined to include a large proportion of these scenarios in all of our naval games and books, since they encourage more play.

We also included the small set of pieces from the old, long out-of-print Pacific Crossroads game, which added some American ships that intervene in the latter stages of the war and fight alongside the Chinese. Even so the peace is pretty harsh on the Chinese when it comes (since the outcome of the story is to greatly strengthen the Japanese Empire).

The War of the Dragons story fits into our Long War story arc (the one with Plan Z and The Emperor’s Sword) as a pre-cursor to the rise of the much stronger Japanese Empire seen there (and in Great Pacific War: Co-Prosperity Sphere). But its real purpose is to add more battleship action to the Russo-Japanese War map, and it does that very well.

You can order Rise of the Dragon right here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects. Some of them might have been good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold has learned to play hide-and-seek.