Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Let’s Talk About Risk

“You are about to play the most unusual game that has appeared in many years.” — The instructions to my old Risk set

This is one of the great games. Maybe I’m being contrary when I say that– the hipster board gamer types like to slag on this one almost as much as they like to deride Monopoly– but really, this one is good. It actually gets played for one thing. It gets played again and again and again. Everybody has their own style of play and their own pet theories on strategy. People get serious about it, too. It actually matters who wins. This game is a big deal even to this day.

Yeah, the biggest problem with the game is how long it takes to play it. I remember when I was in middle school it seemed awfully hard to get through it. Several sessions got abandoned. I was delighted when I got a computerized version of the game for my Atari ST. I could play lots of games quickly in order to experiment with the different continents. Friends would come over and we could get a full game by having several computer opponents. We got a lot of mileage out of it.

There are of course many different variations. In the American rules, players take turns choosing their territories at the beginning and deciding how much to reinforce them. The value you get for trading in the cards increases with each trade-in… and the game ends up playing like a wave crashing on a beach, with each succeeding wave becoming more destructive than the one before. You might only just barely fail to take out an opponent… and then the next turn they’d cash in cards and wipe you out.

My group tended to prefer the European variant. In this one, starting position was random. The exchanges for the cards had a flat rate of value depending on the combination, so a three card set would always get you between four and twelve extra armies. It seemed to us that this combination of rules forced you to think a bit more… and also gave the game to the better player. (The American iteration makes the end game too chaotic to allow for the development of any real strategy.) People looking for a real hard core Risk experience will want to play by the original French rules: random starting positions, no reinforcements, and… no bonus armies for exchanging card sets. Ha ha! That’ll put hair on your chest!

Probably our favorite emergent property of the game would be the single territory that is defended by just one army. An opponent will often cruise in with five or ten and expect to just blitz on through…. But that lone defender will end up rolling lots of fives and sizes while the invader will strangely be unable to do the same. Due the rules, the defender is practically invincible due to this fluke of probability distributions…. I can imagine some people complaining about this side effect bitterly, but these units became heroes to us. We called them “Rambos” and we’d tease whoever ran into one mercilessly. This probably is another case where the group is providing the fun and not so much the rules… but I have a lot of fond memories of this sort of thing.

In a world of “roll and move” type games… this game would have been the first chance that a lot of people would have gotten to throw fistfuls of dice in anger. Oh yeah, there’s Yahtzee, sure. But Risk had you throwing dice to try to kill armies. That’s totally different. The probabilities were just offbeat enough that you’d think carefully  if the number of armies was anywhere close. Of course, in homes where role playing games got discovered, the Risk sets are liable to be missing their dice. Still, I think Risk is where a true love of dice got kindled for many a gamer.

And that leads us to the next thing about the game. Everybody will come up with their own variants, so it’s practically a tract for converting random people into game designers. As D&D was to role playing games, so too was Risk the progenitor of an entire family of games. I’ll use Dr. Lewis Pulsipher’s nine structures of game design to break down my favorite twists:

  • Theme-Atmosphere/History/Story/Emotion/Image — Larry Harris’s Axis & Allies keeps the same basic world map, but loads up on World War Two theme. David Cuatt adapted the game to the Norman conquest of Wales in The Marcher Lords. Steve Jackson went even further and used the area movement system to model the aborted rescue attempt of the hostages in Raid on Iran.
  • Player Interaction Rules and Number of Players — Two players seems to be a common move for transitioning the game to a more serious wargame. Moving to a three-on-two structure in Axis & Allies solves the pettiness and fickleness that tends to emerge in free-for-all type games such as Risk.
  • Objective/Victory Conditions — Adding sudden death type situations can both shorten the playing time and add to the game’s theme. This can be done by requiring players to protect certain capital cities or else by ending the game when a player or team obtains a certain level of productivity. Nobody wants to play to the last army, really.
  • Data Storage — Tools for this seem to emerge in response to problems created by the embellishments that are lathered onto the game. The “battle board” is maybe a trivial example, though a fun one. Even better are the army cards from Samurai Swords (aka Shogun) that also include a track for keeping up with your daimyo’s experience level.
  • Sequencing — This is one of my favorite changes of all time: players bid for turn order in Samurai Swords… and those that don’t bid “draw swords” to determine the their place in the sequence. This creates a tense political dimension that is a perfect fit for that game’s theme.
  • Movement/Placement — Axis & Allies is king here, with blitzing tanks, long range bomber missions, and craven submarine attacks. Every piece has its own character. The mobs and the sentries in Raid on Iran show how even very unusual situations can be modeled in game terms. The random set up of Samurai Swords yields a very tense development period as players attempt to gain experience for the daimyos at little cost. This long period of development contrasts greatly with the way that Axis & Allies starts at the most interesting point of the conflict.
  • Information Availability — The secret and simultaneous bidding of Samurai Swords  does a great deal to create a fog of war in a genre that tends towards having everything be public except a few cards.
  • Conflict Resolution/Interaction of Game Entities — This is usually going to be the heart of any Risk-like game that gets adapted to model a historical situation. Things to watch for are how naval battles get addressed and/or how amphibious assaults are handled. These are usually going to be simple dice-chucking exercises, but games like Raid on Iran demonstrate what can be done with more elaborate Combat Result Tables if they’re needed.
  • “Economy” and Resource Acquisition — This is a prime area for developing a “second heart” for the game. The most obvious move here is giving production points on the basis of territories instead of continents… and then letting players go nuts with their shopping lists. At the other extreme, you have Space Empires: 4X and its colony development process, its elaborate tech tree, and its mining and pipeline networks. A more unusual take on this point can be seen in The Marcher Lords where building castles is a central part of the game. The need for fuel in Supremacy is crucial to that game because you burn it up whenever you move or attack with your units!

I have to say, Risk is largely underrated. It occupies a sweet spot in terms of theme and weight and adaptability much in the same way that Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors system does. The economic aspects of the game provide the perfect bridge point for borrowing concepts and mechanics from the eurogame side of the hobby… and also an entry point for introducing those sorts of gamers to wargames and direct conflict type games in general. And unlike “real” wargames, it’s going to be much easier to find players for a Risk-like game. It’s just about the perfect crossover game and its descendants are likely to remain popular for some time to come.

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12 responses to “Let’s Talk About Risk

  1. Pingback: The “Learning Game Design” Online Course from Lewis Pulsipher | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  2. Jason Packer January 21, 2014 at 10:20 am

    It’s interesting – the “American” variant where every card set gets more and more valuable has much the same feel as the Free Parking Money house rule for Monopoly. It gives anyone a chance to bounce back and succeed. Is it that we’re averse to realistic conflict, or is it a can-do, support the underdog sort of thing, do you suppose?

    • jeffro January 21, 2014 at 1:01 pm

      I’m pretty certain that my blog goes off the rails whenever I venture into such armchair speculations. But as far as the rules go, Free Parking money keeps the weakest player in the game… but escalating armies for card sets seems to capture the tensions of the cold war. It’s very Clint Eastwood.

  3. Role Play Craft January 21, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I’ve never heard of the European variant. That sounds like it’d solve the main problem of the game for me, that is the longer the game goes on the more likely someone will get the lucky boost of a millions troops and sweep everyone else away.

  4. Alex January 21, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Probably one of my favorite ‘variants’ isn’t really a risk variant at all but simply borrows heavily from the core mechanics. Britannia is basically Risk with fixed starting positions, taking place in England, and recreating all of the major invasions of the British Isles starting with the Romans and ending with the Normans. The invading cultures are split up fairly well so that, baring truly bizarre ahistorical circumstances, there weren’t many conflicting victory conditions within a given ‘color’. But similar to Risk, one lucky group of picts or caledonians might just be impossible to displace, or a few really lucky or unlucky die-rolls can stop the Normans dead in their tracks.

    • jeffro January 21, 2014 at 1:02 pm

      Funny you should say that. This post was an assignment for a class taught by the designer of Britannia.

    • Lewis Pulsipher January 26, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      “Britannia is basically Risk with fixed starting positions, taking place in England . . .”

      I beg to differ. Risk (American) is a rush to the cards, which are a kludge added to get the game over in a reasonable amount of time. (I liked to play the cards as 4-6-8 armies and repeat, but that made for a VERY long game.) No cards in Brit. But more, Risk is a conquest game, a game that encourages and rewards almost-constant attacking. Good play in Brit requires players to recognize when NOT attacking is best, and anyone who plays it as a conquest game is going to lose. As such, the mindset is entirely different.

      I’m working on three new versions of Brit, and the simplest and shortest (85-120 minutes) fits the Risk niche. (As Rob Daviau put it, “Risk fills a space when a group, probably male, wants to outwit each other, bond, talk trash, and generally be boys. Pick up basketball and poker probably also fits this mood. But Risk has that nice blend of awareness, familiarity, time-tested rules, etc. to make it a ‘go to’ option.”

      Players sometimes trash-talk when they play this new short version. Trash-talk is hardly ever heard amongst standard Brit players.

      Lew Pulsipher (designer of Brit)

      • Alex January 27, 2014 at 10:53 am

        Well, that was just my ‘short sell’ of it. You are correct; it’s a much more nuanced game, especially since one has to rely entirely on current holdings and the invasions table for reinforcements (especially rough of cultures whose regions are by and large hill-country). Like Risk, persistent lousy die rolls can always overcome strategy, but moreso in Britania given the lower piece count. An unlucky debut for any of the smaller raider races (the Jutes come to mind especially) can be quite a damper for that color’s player.

        Still, I’d like to say thank you for creating such an awesome game that’s given me countless hours of fun in my childhood!

  5. justme January 23, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    I went through a phase with some buddies where we made our own risk maps and had a few variants, there was a greyhawk map, a civil war map, a known world map (we didn’t know it was mystara yet).
    One of the variants I liked best was a capital territory, lose that territory and you are out of the game.

  6. PeterD January 24, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    I didn’t realize there were different rules. We always played with random assignment of territory, followed by placing armies, and then with ever-growing reinforcements for card trade ins. Made for very swingy games. Fun, though, but it took freaking forever so I never get to play anymore. Too long.

  7. Ashley R Pollard February 5, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    My current fave variant of Risk is the Dalek Invasion version.

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