“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.