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An Empire of the Sun SneakPeek

Designer Notes

by Mark Herman

My history with Pacific War games.

The Pacific War has always fascinated me. Twenty years ago when I was running Victory Games I did my Pacific War design, which examines the war from an Operational point of view. That game was intended to play out famous campaigns with the strategic scenario a necessary, but fundamentally unplayable addition due to its length. Ever since then I wanted to do a game that covered the entire conflict in one, albeit long, sitting.

I created the card driven game (CDG) genre to enable me to portray the political nature of the American Revolution in my We The People game and bring historical uncertainty and tension back into gaming. When I did For The People, I expanded my CDG system by increasing the detail associated with the military dimension of the war over my previous effort. At that time I developed the desire to do a more traditional military wargame, where my CDG system could bring the military uncertainty back into more traditional hex-based games. This would allow me to introduce the interesting political and military events whose rule burden usually overwhelms many strategic designs. It was the combination of this desire and my earlier goal of doing a strategic-level Pacific War game that has led to what you now hold in your hands.

Major Design Challenges

The key challenge in the game was how to deal with the victory conditions. The historical reality is the Japanese never had any chance of winning the war. The U.S. never devoted more than 20% of its overall resources to the Pacific War, so once Germany was defeated it was only a matter of time until Japan would be defeated. The solution was in how to define Japanese victory. The Japanese intellectually, if not emotionally, understood that they could not defeat the United States in a long war. They felt that if they could make the U.S. pay a prohibitive cost for its inevitable counter-offensive they could coerce a negotiated settlement that would allow Japan to 'legalize' some of its key conquests.

As unrealistic as this notion appears in historical hindsight, it was the ultimate solution to this design issue. I was also persuaded by research into the development of the A-bomb that although the U.S. would inevitably solve the design and engineering issues required to create a weapon from nuclear theory, it was not a forgone conclusion that it had to occur on the historical timeline. In addition the extremely secret nature of the Manhattan Project kept its existence from the military planners. Consequently, the Allied player must play the game with the understanding that they will probably have to invade Japan to end the war.

The Allies can still avoid the invasion of Japan, but they have to perform militarily on par with their predecessors. If not, the development of the A-bomb is considered to be delayed by six months forcing the invasion of Nippon and the possibility that the U.S., if faced with a very successful defense, would fall off of unconditional surrender, if only by a little, giving the Japanese a face saving 'game' victory. Although it is possible that the Japanese earlier in the war can defeat the Allies through superior play and force an early negotiation, this will usually not be the case.

Once I had sorted out the 'how do the Japanese' win issue, I then focused on the types of strategies and decisions the players had to master to win. The military portion of the game focuses on major axes of advance. Empire of the Sun is a strategic game. The player is not focused on the battles, but on resourcing and prosecuting the major axes of advance across the Pacific. For the Japanese it is the Southern offensive to secure the resources of the Dutch East Indies and its environs while creating blocking positions in the West versus the British and the East versus the Americans/Australians that dominates their thinking. For the Allies it is the fight across the Central Pacific (Nimitz), Southwest Pacific (Macarthur), and China-Burma-India (Mountbatten). In the earlier incarnations of the game I had a fully articulated China front. However, the amount of special rules and decision-making took too much of the focus away from the main event, so I abstracted it into the current system where the key resource decisions were preserved, but for much less work.

This set of design decisions then led to what card events would represent in the game. In some ways this was the knottier issue, since in my earlier CDGs most of the events were political or auxiliary military events. It was clear that the major use of the events in Empire of the Sun would fall into several categories. For the Japanese, the events would be the ability of the Japanese to manipulate U.S. Political Will to reduce the Allied push for unconditional surrender and the military situation in European to delay the Allied buildup in the Pacific. For the Allies the events would primarily be the large Offensives that will take the Allies across the Pacific and prosecute the War in Europe, so it does not divert resources from the Pacific.

Once the big pieces of the design were in place I focused on what were going to be the major dimensions of the military game. The most important feature of the Pacific conflict was the importance of land-based air power. The pace and objectives of the historical axes of advance were focused on the ability to push the air units forward to cover the next advance. Much of what players will concern themselves with are which bases are they going to attack or defend heavily. Players will quickly discover why the battles in the Pacific were fought where they were, due to this need to advance the air umbrella. In fact in one playtest I discovered a graphic error from my original map because I couldn't figure out why I couldn't get some of my land based air in range of Leyte until I realized that Ulthi had been left off the map.

The other big issue was the brittleness of Japanese air units and their military in general. By 1943 the U.S. has deployed a new navy to replace the one that they started the war with, while the Japanese get almost all of their naval forces on the first turn. The Japanese get few if any replacements, so economy of force operations are critical to Japanese success.

I modeled the two sides' air power very differently. The Japanese get new units throughout the game and in the aggregate have more total combat factors than the Allies if you add up the unit strengths, but it is irreplaceable. The Allied air units represent the key air forces that supported the major axes of advance. The Allies get less air units, but they are for all intents and purposes immortal. Allied air strength remains fairly constant over the course of the game; with improvements in aircraft represented through die roll modifiers. The Allies must regularly conduct air offensives to reduce Japanese air units just as they did historically over the Solomons. The Allied units quickly recover full strength, while the Japanese get weaker over time. If the Allies fail to be aggressive and use up their replacements, they will face a stronger than historical Japanese air force at the end of the game. This both captures the nature of the two sides military philosophies and forces the players to fight the historical air war. If the Japanese hold too much air power back to preserve it, they allow the Allies to re-conquer Asia ahead of schedule removing the need to invade Japan in order to win. The outcome of the game turns on how the two sides prosecute their air strategies.

While I am on the subject of combat, it is important to understand what the air, naval, and land battle system is portraying. This is a strategic game and combat is a necessary way to show who has done a better job at resourcing their offensives. Empire of the Sun only handles operational and tactical considerations in the most aggregate of terms. Combat in most cases represents numerous engagements that occurred in a geographical area over the course of months. Consequently it is meant to reward the player who can maintain a combined arms force with more mass than your opponent to be victorious. How I handled the intelligence element of the conflict was adapted from my earlier VG Pacific War design. This intelligence system combined with the two-tiered combat process seems to capture in the aggregate the broad brush combat outcomes that I was looking for with as little mechanical overhead as possible. This lets the players focus on the critical strategic decisions needed to prosecute their offensive drives, while not being distracted by unnecessary tactical details.

The one other minor consideration that I wanted to put in the design was interservice rivalry. This affected both sides in similar ways and hopefully will yield some historical insights on why some less than stellar decisions were made during the war.

Lastly, I would like to thank Stephen Newberg for agreeing to develop this game with me. Stephen and I go way back to my days in SPI, but we have never had an opportunity to work together. What started out as two old friends joking around on Consimworld has led to a very enjoyable collaboration. As always I want to thank my beautiful wife of 25 years, Carole and my children Lara and Grant, who have supported a lifetime of Dad being down in the Batcave (my downstairs office) doing what I love most, being a game designer. I hope you enjoy my latest effort.

Mark Herman
Potomac, Maryland
August 2004