Rise of the Dragon:
Design Notes

There are a lot of things I wish I’d done differently. Some are big things, some are small. One of the small things is the little Enhancement booklet, Great War at Sea: Rise of the Dragon.

I had this idea, and it wasn’t a bad idea, to craft a series of small, limited-edition game supplements called Enhancements. We would print the booklets simply (comb-bound in our own World Headquarters) and include laser-cut pieces, because we can make those at any quantity we wish, including very small quantities. We’d sell them only to the Gold Club, for a limited time, and then retire them. I liked this plan.

Players liked the Enhancements, way more than we anticipated. Sales have pretty much overwhelmed our ability to print, bind and assemble them. As a result, we won’t be making this type of product again. If we want to make a small game supplement – and we plan to make a lot of them – it’ll be in book form, so we don’t have to print and bind them. And then we can sell them just like our other products.

Now I sort of wish we’d used that format for Rise of the Dragon. The scenario set and story line turned out so well, it would have had far greater interest among Great War at Sea players than I anticipated.

Rise of the Dragon is based on the 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 the 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.

That determined the mix of pieces, which fit pretty much perfectly in the number allotted, And the story line also fit together pretty logically.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve really come to like the “story arc” approach of game design, whether it’s history (Broken Axis) 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 unchanged since the 1970’s approach we used to use, and so far 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, a list of demands 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.

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 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) but reflects Japanese desires and capabilities in the decade between the Russo-Japanese War and our story. 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. 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 of unseen violence war raging in Europe, there is no spare capacity for China – 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.

There are eleven scenarios (we promised ten, but this game goes to eleven!), and they tell the story pretty well; I don’t think I would have added many additional scenarios given more space. But I would have liked to have the space to tell the background story and work it into one of our alternative history story arcs. Thanks to Daily Content, we can still add all that background material, so it’s not lost. I’d just have preferred to sell it to more people.

I initially saw Rise of the Dragon as a one-off product that didn’t really fit into the broader stories we’ve been trying to tell with lines like Second Great War at Sea. It didn’t strike me until well after I’d started writing it that, as a one-off, rather than being an oddity it could be fit into the Second Great War or Long War story arcs pretty easily. And doing so would have helped with an element I wanted to work into the Long War arc and in particular an upcoming book supplement for Great Pacific War.

Strategic-level games based in the Pacific Theater of World War II have never satisfied me: the Japanese cannot win. They can eke out of “victory” based on getting the Empire smashed to pieces a little later than happened in the actual war, but that’s about it. Given the reprehensible acts carried out in the name of Hirohito, it’s not a bad thing that Japan (much like Nazi Germany, no matter what the apologist fanboys say) never had a chance to win the war. But that doesn’t make the best game situation. Manchuria and its resources falling under Japanese control a generation earlier definitely increases the Empire’s ability to fight the Americans on an even basis, though still more unlikely events would have had to go Japan’s way.

And it also opens the possibility of American intervention to thwart the vae victus-style peace terms. And there we have a whole new volume in the story line.

Don’t miss your opportunity to put Rise of the Dragon on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it for your own collection.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.