Rise of the Dragon:
We’ve brought back 10 of our previously limited-edition supplements in new, full-distribution editions. And while we had sound business reasons for doing so (at least I think they’re sound), I had another less sound reason: an excuse to re-make Great War at Sea: Rise of the Dragon.
Rise of the Dragon began simply enough, as a Great War at Sea one-shot variant based on the 1907 and 1908 Chinese initiatives to build a fleet of modern dreadnoughts to challenge the Japanese. I never expected to return to the “War of the Dragons” setting (the “timeline,” as alternative-history fans insist on calling it). As I crafted the scenarios, I realized that they could be nestled into one of our existing settings, the Long War (that’s the one with Plan Z and Co-Prosperity Sphere). But by that point, we had already committed to Rise of the Dragon as a limited edition.
Given a second chance, we’ve re-worked the original Rise of the Dragon into a full-sized book supplement, 64 pages like High Seas Fleet or Dreadnoughts. This is way closer to what I wished we’d had to work with the first time around, and allows space for many more scenarios (30, instead of 10) and a lot more story.
The original had one half-sized sheet of laser-cut playing pieces. The artwork was already quite good; I’ve substituted one drawing because I just never really thought it captured what I was trying to show. And I adjusted the mix slightly, removing two Japanese small battle cruisers and adding two Japanese battleships.
That last became necessary when we went from limited-edition to full-release. Since the original edition only went to the very hard core naval game fans, we could craft scenarios to draw on a number of products for pieces, in this case, Russo-Japanese War for the map and a handful of pieces, and other pieces from Pacific Crossroads and Central Powers.
Since then, Pacific Crossroads has dropped permanently out of print, and Central Powers is temporarily out of print pending the release of Mediterranean: Ultimate Edition and some heavy revisions to bring it in line with the new base game. Players other than the hard core dislike drawing elements from multiple sources, so I decided that I wanted to do away with those requirements. First by adding the two battleships needed from Central Powers to the Rise of the Dragon sheet, and then by just including the Pacific Crossroads pieces with Rise of the Dragon – we have plenty of them in storage.
That change does add some additional ships to the mix: some older Japanese battle cruisers that were never built, three modern Japanese battle cruisers and two dreadnoughts that were actually built, plus some cruisers and destroyers. And there are Americans, who in Pacific Crossroads battled the Japanese in a 1919 campaign that never happened in the Central Pacific.
Since we have more ships, we had to have more scenarios for them; in the original Rise of the Dragon the Chinese actually had a slight technological edge that’s now redressed. The War of the Dragons now lasts a little longer and is a more intense naval conflict, with even more battleship action (you can make those changes when it’s alternative history – just alter the reality to one that matches the game you want to design).
Since the Pacific Crossroads pieces include American pieces, the story has to change to include them because they’re there and for that reason they need to be used. The Long War background initially made reference to a brief naval war between Russia and Japan following the War of the Dragons, as the Russians sought to lessen the advantages gained by Japan from the war. That was always a little awkward from the warping-history perspective, since Imperial Russia had plenty of other problems in 1916, but I have a fat file of proposed Russian battleship and cruiser designs that I had hoped to use in some sort of Tsushima 1914 story arc.
I’ll have to figure out some way to use those ships elsewhere. Weaving the Americans into the story is a more natural fit; they intervene on the side of the Chinese at the very end of the conflict, helping to exact a few concessions for the Middle Kingdom but not in time to fend off defeat. And such a conflict, brief though it may be, will help sow resentment among the Japanese and stoke tensions a generation later.
The American forces from Pacific Crossroads are well-suited to such an intervention: five battleships (all of them actually built) plus two more purchased from Argentina (which did not actually happen, but the U.S. Navy had an option to do so), and two battle cruisers based on the 1910 design for a well-protected but relatively lightly-armed ship, and of course supporting cruisers and destroyers. They arrive to support the Chinese, but things don’t go quite as planned in Washington and while they delay the result, they do not change it.
Adding the Pacific Crossroads pieces also gives an opportunity to make better use of them in scenarios than we did in the original Pacific Crossroads game. The map wasn’t really suited to the battleship action we needed for a Great War at Sea introductory game, though the pieces were. I think we’ve done better on that score in Rise of the Dragon, including plenty of mass-battleship-action battles as well as cruiser raids, amphibious assaults and convoy actions.
The larger format also allows for more storytelling, which I enjoy writing and , surprisingly, the audience seems to enjoy reading – our Second Great War background book has been very popular, and we’ll be looking to publish more such books and to increase similar content in the scenario books. The War of the Dragons fits neatly in the narrative of the Long War, helping to propel Japan toward economic and military primacy in East Asia even faster than did the Russo-Japanese War.
And it fits the sort of alternative-history turning point I like to weave into these narratives, one decision or event that actually could have turned out differently. Societies move slowly and deliberately, and a different outcome of X battle or Y election rarely has the decisive impact that may seem obvious at first glance. We are stretching a little in this alternative: Imperial China could still generate a good deal of government revenue in 1907 and could have afforded a dreadnought fleet, and had made steps toward building the infrastructure necessary to man and support the big ships. To complete that project, and put that fleet to use to defend Chinese independence from the Japanese, would have required a society-wide commitment. Signs of that appeared and helped drive the revolution of 1911; we’ve posited that the Imperial government not only spent its money wisely but also managed to harness growing Chinese patriotism into effective movement. And then lost, because the good guys don’t always win.
As re-constructed, Rise of the Dragon meets all of our requirements for a good expansion book: it draws on just one game, it tells a compelling story driven by good scenarios, and it includes nice components.
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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.