The Many Faces of 2010's The Tide at Sunrise: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-190503 Feb 2020 0
At first glance, Multi-Man Publishing’s The Tide at Sunrise (TaS) looks innocent enough; an old-school strategic level game covering the land campaign of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). It promises a low counter density, high solitaire suitability and beautiful presentation. As there really aren’t too many games covering this conflict, I picked it up as soon as I got the chance. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was actually buying into at least four different experiences. The bright smiling face of the advertised game concealed a complicated past and at least three additional ways to play, each one promising its own version of the conflict.
You see, TaS was actually a redeveloped version of the 1981 Japanese release Nichirosenso: The Russo-Japanese War from Epoch games. Rather than go the route of a straight reprint, MMP instead decided to rework some of the rules and give the game a fresh coat of paint when it brought Nichirosenso overseas as part of its International Games Series. Shortly after TaS’s release, an optional set of naval rules were published wholly online, adding a use for naval tokens that occupied half of the game’s counter sheet but also requiring players to print out a separate board to use them with. In the years since then, the small community of gamers that play TaS has gone out of their way to re-implement some of the original Japanese rules, reversing the changes made to the English release and reintroducing the original Advanced Japanese Naval rules.
I’m here to sort through this whole mess: Are all the ways to play TaS equally valid and fun? No, not really.
The Tide at Sunrise: As it Comes (with Errata)
The basic game of TaS is straightforward. Players fight for control over southern Manchuria and Port Arthur using counters representing divisions, battalions, cavalry, and artillery. The Japanese player must be decisive and push hard before the Russian player can gather steam. If they can break through the mountain passes and wrest control of Port Arthur from its stalwart defenders, then victory is achieved. If the Russian player can hold on, allocating reinforcements well and fighting hard in the mountains, they can use their growing resources to push the Japanese back. The naval game is abstracted through Russian decisions regarding sortieing their fleets and dice rolls. The outcomes of which allocate victory points and slow Japanese reinforcements. On the other side, the clandestine workings of Colonel Akashi in St. Petersburg are abstracted through dice rolls that may eventually hamper Russian reinforcements. It is quite a simple game that new players can learn in about ten minutes.
The main complaints of this version revolve around the immense difficulty facing the Japanese and the abstracted naval game. To achieve victory, the Japanese need 70 victory points. The objective cities total 70 points and points are gained and lost due to casualties and the random Naval Phase charts. Therefore, the Japanese player will need to capture every victory city, inflict losses on the Russians, and suffer few losses themselves just to scrape a win. These objectives and the rules heavily favour the Russians, especially if the Japanese player is less experienced. If both players know what they’re doing, the game is much more interesting, though victory still favours the Russians.
Reducing the complex and historically crucial naval component of the Russo-Japanese War was a bold decision, and one that many players took issue with. Each turn, the Russian player decides whether they will sortie their fleets in Vladivostok and Port Arthur. If they fail to send out the Port Arthur Fleet for two turns, Japanese landing restrictions are lifted and they can begin dropping troops far to the west. If they sortie, two dice are rolled and a chart referenced. The outcomes are a total Japanese victory, removing the restriction and scoring points, to a total Japanese loss, losing the Japanese some points, though the more common outcomes are less decisive. These random results can greatly influence the game, denying Japanese reinforcements at a critical time or else opening the way for quicker Japanese deployments.
Personally, I don’t mind them. If one takes the stance that they’re in command of the land forces, and not the naval, it presents an interesting problem that players must react to. If the Japanese fleet bungles the fighting off the coast and the Port Arthur fleet emerges victorious, then I, as the commander on the ground, must react accordingly. Some may be put off by the random swings, but it helps to make a more varied experience.
Overall, the basic game, ignoring the naval counters and sticking with the rules and errata, offers an interesting and simple refight of the land battles of the Russo-Japanese War. It is not entirely historical, but It IS enjoyable.
The Tide at Sunrise II: As it Comes + Official Naval Rules
This requires players to navigate to the Mutli-Man Publishing website in order to print off a battle board and the naval rules. Unfortunately, the naval rules are not as polished as the rules included with the base game, and they don’t line up one to one with the counters included. The naval game turns the single dice roll at the beginning of each game turn into an extended game of hidden movement and fleet engagements. It also offers an alternative means of earning victory points for the Japanese as naval engagements add or lose points from a ‘Togo’ track.
Instead of the Russian player declaring a sortie and the Japanese player rolling two dice, the Russian player must secretly allocate ships from each fleet to sortie. The Japanese player does the same, then beginning with Vladivostok and then Port Arthur, sorties are revealed, players choose to fight or run, and battles occur. There are some interesting mechanics here. Deciding how many ships to allocate to each fight can be fun, as can trying to figure out what your opponent might do. Unfortunately, this means the game is no longer suitable for solitaire play.
The actual fighting is messy and the counters don’t match one to one with the included rules. For example, Destroyers and Cruisers, though double-sided counters, will only ever use one side, adding damage tokens when they are hit. Battleships will flip their counters instead before sinking. As armour isn’t represented, destroyers can take more damage than battleships before going down. In addition, there is no real tactical decision-making. Players are given two sets of three counters each that represent maneuvers. Before each battle players secretly choose two and compare them against a matrix of 36 possibilities to determine how long a fight lasts and whether or not one side has an advantage. We quickly learned that one player could dictate how long battles lasted by throwing down the same two counters every time. It offered little in the way of tactics but certainly frustrated. There are also some unused counters.
It really felt as if these rules were rushed, which is odd considering they weren’t included in the box itself but only emerged online later. After a single game with them, we returned to the abstracted method. It simply wasn’t worth adding 20-30 minutes on to each turn for what was offered.
The Tide at Sunrise III: Return to Nichirosenso (Original Japanese Version)
There are a few crucial changes to the TaS rules necessary to play the Japanese version of the game. The most significant change is that Russian reinforcements coming onto the board cannot move the turn they arrive unless the Japanese are three hexes away, in which case they can move half. Smaller changes just make the game flow smoother. Artillery can no longer fire without an army attacking, Disrupted Units are not forced to leave Zone of Control, and the type of attack that will allow the Japanese to bring on their powerful siege artillery is changed.
I appreciate these alterations, the balance they bring, and the elimination of some of the more finicky rules that players tend to forget. In practice the game flows much the same but the Japanese player has some more breathing room. The Russian forces cannot so quickly take up position, but as the Japanese advance the Russian player still gets to react accordingly. The delaying action in the mountains will not last as long in this version, but the fighting over the major cities situated on the railway will tend to be more interesting. Chinese territory can be entered at a significantly smaller cost to Victory Points and so opens a flank for the player willing to use it.
I found this version of the game to play better and offer a more dynamic feeling battlefield.
The Tide at Sunrise Director's Cut (Original Japanese + Advanced Naval Rules)
The Japanese naval rules are also quite complicated when compared with the straightforward land game, but the Japanese rules are more comprehensible. The major downside to trying to use these rules is the fact that the naval counters, which already aren’t entirely correct for the English naval game, need to be individually modified for use with the Japanese Rules.
The same issues with scale and complexity plague this version as well, but combat uses a more reasonable chart that combines firepower with dice rolls compared to target armour, which at least feels less ridiculous than terminator destroyers rolling well and downing battleships with their guns over and over. There is still a secrecy component in how many ships each player will sortie, but a search mechanic means that these fleets will not always engage. As long as the Russian player sorties a significant enough force from Port Arthur, Japanese restrictions remain in place. There is an entirely new segment where the Russian Occidental Fleet sails around the world to reach the battlegrounds. This adds a bit of fun where the Russian player rolls to see what mishaps befall the fleet as it edges its way closer. When it arrives, a ‘Battle of Tsushima’ is fought which can impact the last stages of the game.
This is the superior naval set, but I cannot help but feel that it too is unnecessary. The added work doesn’t pay off the way it should, and the effort that one must go through to get this up and running isn’t very fun. If my opponent wanted to use naval rules, I would, but I wouldn’t suggest it myself.
So which is for you?
If the players are dedicated enough, any of the above ways to play The Tide at Sunrise will work, but if I were to make a recommendation, it would be to dispense entirely with the Naval side of the game. This hurts me to say, it really does. Pre-dreadnought encounters are fascinating, and the Russo-Japanese War represents one of the most interesting conflicts these types of ships fought. But, as a game, TaS excels when it leans heavily into the simplicity and manoeuvrability of the base game.
It's not especially historically accurate, but the rules, especially with the original Japanese amendments, allow players to battle over the mountains and plains of Manchuria with an ease that few games can match. It’s a fun game, especially if players are willing to roll with the punches of an abstracted naval experience.