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Risk: The Evolution of a Game

Dave Shapiro

December, 2002

A Little History

A Friday night in the fall of 1971 and it's time to pull another "all-nighter". Ah, the college days; the time when pressure was having a psych paper due just when you were on the verge of discovering a completely new method for solving differential equations of the third degree, a feat, of course, that would result in the total economic re-alignment of the free world and better sex for all. So what do you do? Pull an all-nighter. This was not to be the standard sit-in-the-library-until-you-are-comatose-all-nighter; this is special; this is important. We pack the car and make the 90-mile trek to Chicago for an intense, non-stop, weekend of Risk. Hey, if you can't change the world, why not just conquer it?

This is not to suggest that college was all play and no work but those Risk weekends were exceptional; on the order of a monthly game convention. Around campus the Risk freaks were viewed with disdain (this was, after all, the time of the Vietnam War) especially by the Chess players (but then, they thought "free love" meant that the local "ladies" were offering discounts). The poet Omar Kayam once penned: "a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou". For us it was air hockey, pinball and Risk (the engineering majors would have included cigars). Unfortunately, as with everything else in the universe, the law of entropy required that this come to an end; and it did. Soon it was a mortgage, soccer practice and a mini-van.

Gaming of any kind was relegated to the wee hours of the morning and usually consisted of a computer opponent or something on the internet. It just wasn't the same. It didn't take long to realize that the refrigerator was not intended for cooling beer and soda; it is a gigantic, master scheduling board with a zillion magnets holding as many schedules and reminders along with school art, pop star posters and Pizza Hut coupons. The only face-to-face gaming over this period, the only exception to the monitor opponent was GenCon. Attendance was required and we made it every year; no exceptions. Each year we would discuss the changes we would try to make to get back into weekly gaming but it simply never worked. And then one day in August of 2000, I walked out of the house and realized that something was missing; something big was missing and this was very important. Though there were now four cars in the driveway; there was no mini-van! The kids could drive themselves to soccer; the scheduling board could be used to cool drinks again. I had some free time.

Occasionally the universe falls into sync; it actually cooperates and Mankind takes another small step forward; this was one of those moments. I had the revelation about the cars/kids/refrigerator/free time while waiting to be picked up for our trip to GenCon 2000. The knowledge that I now had additional free time intensified the normal anticipation of going to GenCon and seeing more of old friends. (Note: there is physically more of them to see - it's true, muscle does turn.)

We arrived at GenCon, beginning our usual random walk eventually strolling to the exhibitors' area. Navigating the maze of vendors, Klingons and Darth Vader wannabees, we stumbled on the new Avalon Hill booth; and there it was. As that renowned singer/philosopher Madonna once sang: "like a moth to a flame... ", I was drawn. Forget the Bush-Gore campaign, Monica's dress, the price of gas and the irrational exuberance of the stock market; forget it all. The planets were in alignment, tachyons were doing what tachyons are supposed to do, the Attack of the Clones was being delayed again; the universe was paying back. I stood there spellbound; there it was, displayed in all of its oversized, demo board glory. My heart raced, pores opened and rivers of perspiration rolled as I reached out to touch it, to roll the dice.

Risk 2210 A.D. had arrived. The addiction returned.

A Trip to Middle Earth

Internet sites abound indicating archeologists have found Risk equipment dating to the time of Alexander the Great. I suspect their evidence is in error. The earliest evidence I discovered indicates that Joseph and his brothers brought it to Egypt with them and that the 6 player colors were derived from the colors of his coat. (I could be slightly off here as the Talmud is very cryptic on the matter and my Hebrew is rusty at best.)

Laying that aside, the question remains: where did it all begin? (At this time I suggest that the speilfreaks sit down so as to avoid hurting themselves in the event of a fall.) Risk originated in France (the first Euro?) in 1957 as La Conqueste du Monde, Conquest of the World. Parker Brothers introduced it to the United States, with slight modifications to the rules, in 1959. Parker Brothers renamed the game Risk: the Continental Game. According to legend, the R.I.S.K. are the initials of a Parker Brothers sales exec's grandchildren. Some time later the game was re-titled Risk: the Game of Global Domination.

For those cave dwelling gamers who have never played Risk, a short synopsis is in order. Two to six players face the challenge of being the last-man-standing. It is the board game equivalent to a Battle Royal in Smack Down. There is never any doubt concerning who wins a Risk game; the game ends when there is only one player remaining, every piece on the board is the same color. The board is a stylized map of the world divided into 42 territories. Players receive armies in order to attack adjacent territories and add them to their empire. When the last territory of an empire is lost, that player leaves the game. Cards are won and sets formed to gain additional playing units. This is the earliest example of area control and set collecting, (so often found in today's Euros) in a board game. Conflict is resolved by die rolls. Risk is a non-linear game and requires a smattering of statistical knowledge in order to play competently or as some have suggested, "Be pretty damn lucky".

Mission cards in RiskThat's the core game; the same game as is found in Toys-R-Us and Wal-Mart today. In the past 43 years it has sold millions of copies and continues to sell to this day. At one point in the late 70s the game was so popular that Playboy magazine included it in a strategy guide they published. Numerous variants and house rules have been developed. The major portion of these involve alternate set-up or alternate objectives. In later editions of Risk, Parker Brothers included some of the more popular variants in what is known as "mission Risk".

In 1986, Parker Brothers introduced Castle Risk; the first new Risk in 27 years. The core system remained but everything else had changed. Radical alterations included a new playing map that covered only Europe, hidden armies and special cards including spies, marshals, generals, admirals, and a diplomat. The castles were strongholds and a naval component was added. (The original print run included a nifty plastic boat that was missing from subsequent printings.) The game was never well received. Though there were some interesting ideas, the game was simply too chaotic with no real defensive positioning possible. The game tanked, however many of the ideas introduced here would re-emerge later.

France, 1999 saw a mutation of the Castle Risk game. Published jointly by Tilsit and Hasbro, Risk: Edition Napoleon was released with a print run of only 10,000 copies. The game was intended for two to four players and the map covered basically, the same area as Castle Risk. The general cards, first introduced in Castle Risk had grown to full units. This appears to have been an attempt to crossover into the war game market as the general units were given historical designations and historical variants based on Napoleon's campaigns were included. Later an expansion was released that included a map overlay and two additional sets of player pieces.

Sometime during this period, the Hasborg cube assimilated both Parker Brothers and Avalon Hill. Deep in the confines of the entity, the borgites reworked the three previous Risk titles and mixed in concepts from modern gaming. Then in 2000, under the Avalon Hill label, Risk 2210 A.D. was released.

Risk 2210 A.D. was not a revolutionary game; it was evolutionary. An expanded version of the original map had returned, this time though, it included sea areas and additional route connections. The game of global domination became the game of global domination and beyond with the inclusion of a second map board representing the moon. What began as cards in Castle Risk, evolved slightly for Risk: Edition Napoleon had become full-fledged playing pieces in Risk 2210 A.D.; the commanders. There are five commanders: land, naval, space, nuclear and a diplomat. Five decks of commander specific cards accompany the units and this change alone logarithmically increases the strategic options presented the players. The castle/strongholds of Castle Risk had evolved into space stations; last-man-standing was gone, victory being determined by a point system based on board position and cards.

Four devastation markers, placed prior to the start of the game alters the map board itself for every game; no two games can be the same, ever. Added to these changes was a time constraint; the game lasts but five turns. No longer can a player wait, amassing a huge force, trying to alter positions in a single turn; each turn is an intense struggle to gain as many points as possible. The Hasborg had assimilated Risk and the Euro-style game resulting in a product, which in many ways is superior to both.

Then two years later Hasbro did it again. With the release of Risk: Lord of the Rings in October 2002, the game evolved again. (Note: Risk: Lord of the Rings was released one year earlier in Europe; the North American edition is the same with minor rule changes.) Once again back under the Parker Brothers label Risk: Lord of the Rings is a refined, less complicated version of Risk: 2210 A.D. In several areas it is a combination and extension of 2210 A.D. and Edition Napoleon. The map of Middle Earth has only 42 territories (as does classic Risk) and the five commanders have been reduced to one leader unit. Event, mission and power cards have replaced the five packs of commander cards. As the fellowship progresses through Middle Earth (and they move quickly), the game ticks down the turns. It is possible that with a full complement of four players and no one slowing the movement of the fellowship, the game would last little more than three rounds. Winning is dependant on territories controlled and the cards collected during the game though it is still possible to win by the total domination of Middle Earth.

The mechs of Risk 2210 A.D. have been replaced with orcs, elves and other generic representatives of Middle Earth. Missions have returned as well as strongholds. The game is intended for two to four players (ala Risk: Edition Napoleon) and, unlike most other Risk games, Risk: Lord of the Rings plays very well with just two players. Some have noted that the map of Middle Earth missing two significant areas found in the books. [Speculation: As with Risk: Edition Napoleon, an expansion was offered later that completed the map of Europe and included the pieces for two additional players. The map of Middle Earth extends to the very edge of the board, i.e. there is no border and there is a sea route that leaves the present board; I suspect that there is an extension planned that might appear if sales of this game justify it. The game as it stands, concerns itself with the areas found in the first two books/movies. It is possible that Hasbro is considering an expansion, to be timed with the release of the third movie, that would include the balance of Middle Earth and units for two additional players.]

It is inevitable that players will compare the near endless supply of Lord of the Rings games that have been released in the past few years. This game is Risk in Middle Earth; it is not Lord of the Rings with a Risk twist. It is an aggressive game (the players must play either the good or evil faction); it is definitely not cooperative.

Risk has evolved unlike any other game with the exception of Settlers of Catan. Both have evolved into more complex games, gone to space, offered expansions for additional players and sold in the millions of copies. Settlers of Catan has two variations not found in the Risk universe: a card version and a religious version. Though the planned card version of Risk never materialized, it may resurface. A religious version...? Both games are sold around the world and are published in a variety of languages. Risk has outsold Settlers of Catan but then it did have a 40-year head start. What is the magic that these games have, why do so many find these games so appealing? I believe the answer is twofold: first the mechanics of the systems are simple; they can be taught in a matter of minutes and allow for a tremendous number of different strategies. Second, there is continuous player interaction; every turn involves other players. (Consider the amount of player interaction in Settlers of Catan and Risk versus Carcassonne and Princes of Florence, both considered to be multi-player solitaire games.) It is the intricate and perfect combination of the systems and the player interaction that has resulted in games that should be in every game freak's library. (Note: I did not include Magic or Dungeons and Dragons because they are not board games.)

Bits and Pieces

The first two printings of Risk offered wooden cubes in two sizes (something the Euro's still have), each color having its own container. In the 60s Parker Brothers downgraded the components to plastic. Three editions of Risk pieces All of the units involved were generic. There was a print run in the 1980s in which the plastic "stars" were replaced with Roman numerals (I, III, V, X); this is now a coveted prize for Risk collectors. The 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition presented metal miniatures in three shapes: infantry, cavalry and cannons. The plastic boxes to hold the units were replaced with "velvet-like" bags. This edition was special not only for the limited run, the new units and the quality but for the fact that there is an error on the board itself. While redrawing the map for this edition the artist missed one of the connection routes to Africa. The same error can be found on the early printings of Risk 2210 A.D. (it's an error Hasbro employees have acknowledged). All of the editions of Risk now have miniatures; the metal versions are gone, plastic rules again. Avalon Hill introduced eight new plastic molds with Risk 2210 A.D. There are three sizes of mechs along with five different commander molds. The packaging is improved as there are bins to hold the pieces versus the old throw-everything-in-the-box method. Two new maps are included with good but not outstanding graphics.

Indications are that with Risk: Lord of the Rings, Hasbro has taken note of the Euro market. The artwork on the map, the rulebook and the presentation is significantly improved over every other edition of Risk. The game box holds a formed insert that has a spot for each component; the four armies, the cards, the ring and five molded positions, one for each die. (There is even a bin that, I assume, is intended to hold taco chips.) To complement these improvements there are eight new molds for the units: two different leaders (shields), elven archers, orcs, riders of Rohan, dark riders, eagles and cave trolls.

Risk: Lord of the Rings is the finest presentation of a Risk game to date. We can only wonder how long it will be before Franklin Mint jumps in on it.

Origin of the Species (or This Ain't My Father's Risk)

Few game franchises have been as successful or spawned as many derivatives as Risk. Many of the games listed below owe more than a simple nod to the game; in many cases they are Risk variants.

  • Risk
  • Empires of the Ancient World
  • Castle Risk
  • Vinci
  • Risk: Edition Napoleon
  • Shogun (Samurai Swords)
  • Risk 2210 A.D.
  • Conquest of the Empire
  • Risk: Lord of the Rings
  • Diplomacy
  • Amoeba Wars
  • Gnomes War
  • Wizard's Quest
  • Global War
  • Armada
  • Summit
  • Wallenstein
  • Emperor of China
  • El Grande
  • Domination
  • Supremacy
  • Fortress America
  • Axis and Allies

...and a host of others.

The Art of Gaming

Gaming is a great hobby. The diversity of product is matched only by music, art, literature and film. It is an art form. At times, games mirror life and at other times it can be a refuge from life. With a good game, each playing offers something new; an experience, an insight, something different. Over the past 30+ years of gaming (and no, my son is not correct, I did not play cards with Abe Lincoln), I have witnessed repeated instances of the introduction of a new game followed quickly by a plethora of knock-offs that glutted the market and just as quickly relegated to rummage sale status. There are more games that have "come and gone" than there are games on the market today. It is not vital that a competent gamer know the history of a game or particular system but it enriches the experience. Do we need to know the history behind Beethoven's Third Symphony, Eroica, in order to enjoy it? No, but it certainly enhances the experience knowing that it was originally composed as a tribute to Napoleon and later re-titled following Napoleon's self ascendancy to emperor. Is knowledge of the Spanish Civil War required to enjoy Picasso's Guernica? Having lived through Watergate and the Vietnam period, movies such as All the President's Men and We Were Soldiers have greater intensity for me than for my children who view these much as I would view a film on the Crimean War.

The gaming experience is similar. It is interesting to play Knizia's Ivanhoe and note the kernels of Taj Mahal buried in the game; to play Medici followed by Modern Art and then Ra; or Schotten Totten/Battle Line followed by Samurai. Each game stands well on its own but observing the growth, from one game to the next, enhances and enriches the experience.

Risk is one of the foundations of modern gaming. For many of us it was the gateway to strategy gaming, far more than Chess or Tactics II. The influence that this game has had and continues to exert can be seen in the multitude of genetic derivatives offered each year. (The designer of Armada has suggested that the game is a tribute to Risk.)

There have been revolutionary games (Settlers of Catan, D&D, Magic) but most are derivative; they evolved from some existing game system. As with any art form there is a history and games are an art form. The very next time you gather to play El Grande (in my view the very best of the Risk genre) note the influence; it will add that "little something extra" to the experience. One day 20 plus years from now, when you sit down with your grown children to play Mordor (the 12th game in the Tikal, Java, Mexica line), you can present them with a little history behind the game. Be prepared though to hear: "Yeah dad, right, you made that all up."

- Dave Shapiro

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