Rise of the Dragon:
Great War at Sea: Rise of the Dragon is an expansion book for Russo-Japanese War, based on the plans of Imperial China to build (actually, to purchase) a dreadnought fleet in the years just before the First World War. This of course leads to war (so that you can play with all of those new ships), as the Chinese deploy their fleet to resist Japanese aggression.
That war brings initial defeat for the Chinese, leading to a brief American intervention. The United States had trade interests with China dating to the 1840’s, and at the end of the century pushed the “Open Door” policy demanding equal access for all nations to Chinese markets. American hostility toward Japan had already been stoked in rivalries over the Philippines and Hawaii; American President Woodrow Wilson faced pressure to defend China from both religious societies eager to convert the Chinese to their form of Christianity, and business interests eyeing a market of 400 million potential buyers of laundry soap.
Wilson sent a balanced fleet to the Far East, large enough to prop up the Chinese and extract a peace settlement acceptable to the United States, but small enough to avoid sparking a wider trans-Pacific conflict. At the core of the fleet are seven battleships and two battle cruisers, plus supporting light cruisers and destroyers.
Let’s take a look at them.
The three brand-new dreadnoughts of the New Mexico class are the heart of the American battle line. In our reality, these ships were laid down in 1915, launched in 1917 and commissioned between December 1917 and March 1919. In our story line this takes place a little earlier, as American battleship construction increases in reaction to the expanded Japanese program, itself a reaction to the Chinese naval program. Political acts (and naval construction, with its long lead times, is very much a political act) often have domino effects.
The New Mexico design was a political compromise; the Navy’s General Board, which made recommendations for new ship types, wanted a new ship even larger than the 31,000-ton Pennsylvania class then under construction armed with a new-model 16-inch gun that would give American ships a substantial edge over the 15-inch guns of the newest British battleships. Faced with complaints over the vast cost increase, the Navy instead built a modified repeat of Pennsylvania (the 16-inch design would be built as the class to follow New Mexico).
New Mexico carried a dozen 14-inch guns in four triple turrets, just like Pennsylvania, with the same “all-or-nothing” armor scheme and a new turbo-electric drive in New Mexico (her two sisters retained the geared turbines of Pennsylvania). They looked very different, with “clipper” bows to improve their seakeeping and most of their secondary battery moved one deck higher. Two ships, New Mexico and Mississippi, were funded under the Fiscal Year 1914 appropriations with a third, Idaho, covered by the sale of two pre-dreadnought battleships to Greece.
The two ships of the Wyoming class represent an older American dreadnought design practice. They carried a dozen 12-inch guns and were an incremental improvement over the preceding Florida class with the older armor scheme that attempted to protect all of the ship. They burned coal where New Mexico was powered by oil, a much more efficient fuel producing 55 percent more energy for the same weight.
The Americans also have a pair of battleships that never actually served under the stars and stripes. Argentina ordered two dreadnoughts from the Fore River shipyard in Massachusetts, which sub-contracted one of them to New York Shipbuilding. The contract gave the U.S. Navy an option to buy them should they be offered to a third nation, and in the summer of 1914 the Argentines came very close to selling them, entertaining offers from Russia, Greece, the Ottoman Empire and Italy among others. American officers had closely monitored the ships’ design and construction, and found them wanting compared to new American ships. With the Navy rejecting the ships, the government instead successfully pressured the Argentines to keep them rather than allow American technology to pass into the hands of another naval power.
Since the U.S. Navy never acquired the ships, they also were never assigned American names. They probably would have been christened Idaho and Mississippi, but since those names are already present in the game they became Alaska and Hawaii.
The U.S. Navy studied battle cruisers, but did not actually order any until the 1916 program. The earliest proposals had been based on the series of large armored cruisers the Americans built in the early years of the 20th Century, with bigger guns (or more of them). The 1910 design was based on the Wyoming-class battleships, lengthened and reduced from six gun turrets to four to yield a speed of 26 knots.
Since Japan included battle cruisers in her naval program, we included two of the proposed American ships as part of the U.S. Navy’s answer. They feature heavier armor than most contemporary battle cruisers, as the Americans held to the design principal that a warship should have sufficient protection to resist her own guns.
During the first decades of the 20th Century, the U.S. Navy stationed its big armored cruisers in the Pacific rather than battleships. There’s just one of them included in Rise of the Dragon, Seattle, a Tennessee-class ship carrying four 10-inch guns and sixteen 6-inch weapons in her secondary battery.
Alongside the 1910 battle cruiser, the U.S. Navy hoped to build a new class of scout cruiser – the fleet had many new battleships and destroyers, but no useful light cruisers. The General Board asked for a ship armed with six to ten 5-inch guns and two torpedo tubes, with a sustained sea speed of 26 knots (the same as the proposed battle cruiser) and oil fuel (the battle cruiser, like her battleship analog, would have burned coal) to provide substantial endurance. The scout would have no belt armor but would have a two-inch-thick armored deck. The Board hoped that the ship could also lay 25 mines and could carry either a seaplane or a small dirigible.
That cruiser would never be built – the U.S. Navy would not fill its need for a light cruiser until the Omaha class. We included three of them in Rise of the Dragon, all named for cities in the Philippines.
The Americans enter the fray in the second half of the Rise of the Dragon story, after the Chinese have already suffered substantial losses and the Japanese are pressing for total victory. It’s their task to prevent this, and while they have some very fine ships and sailors, there are a lot of Japanese.
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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.