The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Risk Revisited

Dave Shapiro

May, 2006

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If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?

Milton Berle

There are certain games that become so popular that sequels are inevitable; an even fewer number of these games become a franchise. Most of these are obvious to gamers: Risk, Axis & Allies, Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Clue, Empire Builder, 18xx; possibly Ticket to Ride and Commands & Colors and relatively few others. It appears that as long as players continue to purchase these variations, the game companies will continue to produce them... and everyone is happy.

A few years ago I wrote an article tracing the development and evolution of Risk. There were several reasons for selecting Risk over any of the other franchise games. At that time the game had been in continuous production for slightly more than 40 years (it is now approaching 50 years old). The game had history and stamina, having proven itself over so many years in so many different countries. In addition to this, the changes to the game were fairly easy to trace and the evolution of the system from one game to the next was apparent. Finally, it was the gateway game for many gamers. The article began with classic Risk and touched on the ill-fated Castle Risk before examining the critical junction in the Risk family tree introduced with the publication of Risk Édition Napoléon. This is not intended to rehash the information presented in the previous article but to examine the additional changes, the continuing evolution of the game. There is a theory that insects are land manifestations of crustaceans; that sometime, millions of years ago, some distant relative of today's shrimp or lobster, crawled onto dry land and stayed. The differences between the two branches of the Risk family tree are as diverse as the apparent differences between the insect world and crustaceans.

With the exception of Castle Risk, the only changes to the classic game in 40 years had been cosmetic. One of the most popular commercial games ever published lay fallow until Hasbro acquired Parker Brothers and determined to cultivate and expand on the game. The result was an experiment named Risk Édition Napoléon and it revolutionized the game, introducing new concepts and expanding on others. Unfortunately, only 10,000 copies were ever published and those were originally available in France alone. At roughly the same time, Hasbro purchased Avalon Hill. The confluence of these events altered the direction of the game, actually splitting the Risk family into two distinct branches: Avalon Hill and Parker Brothers The Avalon Hill branch produced the superb Risk 2210 A.D.; one of the most complex Risk game ever published, a true gamer's game. Risk 2210 A.D. included sea and lunar spaces along with a variety of commanders as well as action cards, money and auctions. The Parker Brothers division introduced Risk Lord of the Rings. This then is where the original article ended. However, there have been major additions and changes since then.

Avalon Hill followed Risk 2210 A.D. with a series of expansions through their Frontline program. It appears that this worked not only as a tournament model but served as a nation-wide playtest of potential expansions. Though none of the expansions were released commercially, they are often available on eBay. The expansions included a new map, Mars, and additional components, cards and other paraphernalia as well as instructions. Unfortunately, Hasbro, as with other large corporations is rather "tight-lipped" concerning whether any or all of these will ever be published commercially.

When Risk Lord of the Rings (later known as The Two Towers Edition) was originally published in 2002, there appeared to be a problem with the map. Some of the sea routes meandered off the board and specific, important locations such as Mordor and Gondor were absent. The following year, The Trilogy Edition of Risk Lord of the Rings was published which featured a full map. There were complaints of Hasbro gouging gamers. Hasbro explained that this was a licensed product and that the contract prohibited them from publishing any location or character that had not yet appeared in the film. This forced Hasbro to truncate the board in the original publication. To compensate gamers, when The Trilogy Edition was published, owners of The Two Towers version could upgrade at a minimal cost. With The Trilogy Edition, players were presented with the largest, single Risk board of any in the series (52% more territories than in classic Risk). In addition to this, Risk Lord of the Rings had introduced terrain to the map and team play. Risk Lord of the Rings was a step up in complexity from the classic version but significantly simpler than Risk 2210 A.D.. It was designed by Stephen Baker (Heroscape, HeroQuest, Axis & Allies Pacific, etc.). One oddity that occurred with the publication of The Trilogy Edition is that the version published in Europe included The Siege of Minas Tirith game. This was designed by Richard Borg (Battle Cry, Memoir '44, Commands & Colors: Ancients, etc.). Why The Siege of Minas Tirith map was absent from the North American version has never been explained.

Avalon Hill logoFollowing Risk 2210 A.D., Hasbro transferred Avalon Hill from their East coast division to the West coast, placing the old war horse under the direction of Wizards of the Coast. A team led by Mike Selinker (Pirates of the Spanish Main, Gloria Mundi) developed a new Risk, a derivative of the Risk 2210 A.D. system infused with traits for which Wizards excels—cards. Every Risk game is an epic battle, a struggle among the powerful; a fight to the death. What more epic struggle could one invent then that of a battle between mythological pantheons? Risk Godstorm delivers just that. Employing a modified Risk 2210 A.D. system, the commanders have grown into mythological gods with equivalent increases in strength. The power of the gods is found in the cards with one deck for each type of god. Manipulation of these cards is critical as the game pivots violently with their implementation. Where Risk 2210 A.D. flowed in an almost linear fashion, Risk Godstorm radically readjusts the balance of power every turn. Magic: The Gathering players are well aware of the importance of card combinations and this same critical card manipulation has been introduced into the Risk system. In addition to this, there were other complications introduced, the first was the inclusion of terrain effects first found in Risk Lord of the Rings. Strategic planning required that one consider choke points on the map as well as areas that were out of play during the game. Initially the inclusion of the Underworld map board drew significant criticism from Risk players, especially those familiar with the Lunar map in Risk 2210 A.D.. Play in the Underworld first appeared to be an afterthought; some suggested that it was broken. Selinker's team however, had altered the Lunar concept in Risk 2210 A.D. and produced a map that worked as a critical resource center during the game itself and served as an additional scoring source at the conclusion of the game. The combination of the cards, the terrain effects and the Underworld resulted in a unique experience for Risk games. Risk Godstorm is a complex and difficult game with a significant learning curve, surpassing even Risk 2210 A.D. in the complexity of some of the decisions. Risk Godstorm has received mixed reviews as the powerful card combinations serve to create dramatic swings in power that, depending on the player's point of view, can be considered quite chaotic or challenging. Since Risk Godstorm, there have been no additional releases in the Avalon Hill line of Risk games.

Forty-six years after the original game first appeared, a quiet revolution occurred. Risk aficionados were the only ones to notice that the 2003 edition of Risk had different, modified rules. Prior to this edition, other than cosmetic changes, there had never been a revision of any of the rules for the classic game. What had first appeared as a minor revision created an uproar in the Risk community and the affects of one particular change is often debated at tournaments. Hasbro assigned Rob Daviau (Risk 2210 A.D., Queens Gambit, Heroscape) the task of modernizing Risk and the result is the 2003 edition. The change to the classic game that caused so much consternation among some of the players was his revision of the redeployment rule. Since its inception, the redeployment rule allowed players to re-deploy armies at the end of their turn from one territory to an adjacent territory only. The new rule allowed the same redeployment but expanded the available terminal territories to include any territory that could be reached through an unbroken chain of the player's own armies. No longer would pockets of armies remain isolated, islands in a sea of their own colors. Though it may seem a minor change, it is significant (and in my opinion, an improvement) however some players continue to consider it akin to sacrilege.

Daviau did not stop with this revision of the classic version of Risk, but tackled the Mission Risk version too. Mission Risk was introduced (in North America) with the 1993 edition. Risk Mision cards Each player received a card with a specific mission which ranged from holding pairs of certain continents to eliminating a particular color army from the board. There were two advantages to the "mission" game versus the classic game; playing time was considerably reduced and, as each player had a different goal, the strategies required to win varied with the combination of cards in play. When any player completed his mission, the game ended. Daviau explored new areas with his revision. Gone are all of the "Remove all armies of color X" type missions. He devised a system where each player receives four missions of increasing difficulty and the game ends when one player completes all four. The new Mission Risk is shorter and more dynamic than the classic game and seems to be the preferred game for conventions. Under a different moniker, Mission Risk could have been released as a "Euro". In addition to the revisions of the classic game and the Mission Risk system, the 2003 edition includes rules for team Risk and a new 2-player version that is both challenging and well balanced; it could have been released as an independent game. (For fans of the game or those who play only on occasion, I highly recommend the 2003 edition.)

Parker Brothers logoWhile the Wizards division has not released another Risk game since Risk Godstorm, Risk under Parker Brothers continues to grow, expanding on the base system while remaining firmly in the family level of complexity. In 2005 Daviau and Dan Sanfilippo (In Pursuit) took the Risk system in yet another new direction. Risk Star Wars - The Clone Wars introduced a type of action card that allowed the player several options. The cards can be used in a fashion similar to that of the classic game—obtaining additional armies, purchasing battle ships (a new type of unit) or granting the player certain advantages. These cards are the soul of the game and offer the players many interesting options while increasing strategic possibilities. As with every version of Risk save the classic game, there is a built in timer that brings the game to a conclusion. Risk Star Wars - The Clone Wars is a team game similar to Risk Lord of the Rings.

And for the immediate future? When the Risk Star Wars - The Clone Wars edition was released, Hasbro announced that there would be another Risk game set in the Star Wars universe and that it would be released sometime during 2006. All that is known is that the game is to be called Risk Star Wars—the Trilogy Edition.

Recently Parker Brothers in the United Kingdom released Narnia Risk Junior. The game is set in the world of Narnia and is presented as a method for introducing new and younger players to the Risk system. In yet another unusual approach, Narnia Risk Junior has one player opposing the combined efforts of all of the other players. Narnia Risk Junior was designed by Richard Borg and this is his third game in the Risk family. To date, Hasbro has not announced when (or even if) the game will be released in the North American market.

It is interesting to note that since Hasbro acquired Parker Brothers and the rights to Risk, there have been more dynamic changes than in the previous forty years. To their credit, they have not simply recycled the same game with a different veneer but retained gifted designers to create the new games while continuing to include some of the established traditions.

Seedlings

Your descendants shall gather your fruits.

Virgil

One advantage of role-playing-games is the ease of creating additional scenarios. Once the base system is learned, the potential number of new scenarios is unlimited. With the advent of the internet, user-created adventures have flourished. Unfortunately for boardgamers the ability to create at will is quite limited and only a few have managed to provide the players with the opportunity.

Squad Leader enjoys an enormous number of user-created scenarios as well as a significant number of commercial presentations. Fans of Battle Cry have developed several additional battles including a two-map Gettysburg scenario. (I assume it won't belong before Memoir '44 and Commands & Colors: Ancients continues this tradition.) Of all of the many games published, Settlers of Catan appears to lead the pack in the number of user-created variations. There have been so many variations that a book was published that included not only the variants but the required components. Of course this is in addition to the many official versions of the game which take players from the stone age to outer space.

Risk also enjoys a number of player-created scenarios in addition to the commercial publications. Hyborian Risk Though not as numerous as those for Settlers of Catan, the Risk variants are certainly as diversified. Many of the variants are simply rules modifications or additions (The Nuclear Scenario for example). Some player-designed variants require additional units or a different map (Risk 2042). As with Settlers of Catan, other game designers have produced Risk variants. Lewis Pulsipher (Britannia), designed a Risk variant set in the world of Conan the Barbarian known as Hyborian Risk (published in The Space Gamer #37).

Of the many "unofficial" variants, the most recent is also the most interesting. For more than 25 years a Risk card game had been rumored to have been under consideration. Designer Richard Borg had contracted with Hasbro to design card versions of Risk and Stratego although neither of his designs were ever released, at least, not in that form. The Stratego card game became Kosmos' Hera and Zeus while the Risk card game followed a slightly more convoluted path. Alan R. Moon had also been interested in designing a Risk card game. Eventually the two designers compared their notes and developed several different Risk card games. One version, known as Busho, was to be published by GMT games but ultimately, never was. Warriors cover art Fortunately for Risk fans, the two reworked another design into Warriors and an expansion named Dragon Hordes, published by Face 2 Face games. This is the Risk card game in a fantasy setting. The combat system has been lifted from the classic game but the continents have been replaced with a variety of fantasy armies. Warriors/Dragon Hordes is to Risk what San Juan is to Puerto Rico—it is portable and plays in a shorter period of time while retaining a fair amount of the parent game. As with every other incarnation of Risk, it has its proponents and those who wail about it, suggesting that it is another indication of the collapse of Western Civilization.

...and that is the status of Risk today.

Risk Timeline

1957 Publication of La Conquete de Monde by Albert Lamorisse.
1959 Parker Brothers publishes Risk in North America.
1982 Castle Risk
1999 Risk Édition Napoléon (France)
2000 Risk Édition Napoléon Ottoman Empire Expansion (France)
2001 Risk 2210 A.D.
2002 Risk Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers)
2003 Risk Lord of the Rings (The Trilogy Edition)
Risk Lord of the Rings Expansion including the Siege of Minas Tirith(U.K.)
2004 Risk Godstorm
Warriors / Dragon Hordes (Face 2 Face)
2005 Risk Star Wars - The Clone Wars
2006 Narnia Risk Junior (U.K.)
  Risk Star Wars: The Trilogy Edition (Announced but unpublished as of this date.)

In Defense of Risk

The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.

Mark Twain

Most gamers will acknowledge that they learned to play Chess in their youth and, when pressed, admit that this did not lead them further into gaming—Chess is an oddity in this. When quizzed, these gamers respond that their first foray into serious gaming was Risk, Magic: The Gathering, The Settlers of Catan or Dungeons & Dragons. All four of these games have solid systems that have seen expansions, include a fairly strong random element, have sold millions of copies and continue to sell well. One other aspect all four games have in common is that they are often the brunt of attacks or derisive comparisons. For some reason many gamers and reviewers feel obligated to berate these games as inferior.

Good-humored elitism has long been part of the gaming scene: wargamers suggest role-players "engage in make believe"; eurogamers frown on anything lacking a German title and everyone bashes the collectable card players. However, in the past few years the tone of these jibes has become more serious and considerably more exaggerated. For all of the benefits of the internet, there appears to be equivalent disadvantages. In years past, gamers were more tolerant of the tastes of others. The hobby was smaller and gamers of all types were welcome. Now that gaming enjoys a more mainstream position in society, the gaming family is becoming somewhat dysfunctional. Many reviewers don't simply review games but attempt to persuade potential gamers to follow a specific path, denigrating competing forms of gaming. How far have we wandered from the early GenCons when players attended and tried all of the new demo games? Today we accept without reservation reviews by authors who openly admit they refuse to play an entire genre of game. Consider the effect on sales of Puerto Rico if every Chess player in the world posted dozens of negative comments about it on the BoardGameGeek—how many new players would be willing to give it a try? What is to be gained by successfully depriving potential gamers of a different gaming experience? Though all four of these games suffer from these attacks, this is an article on the state of Risk today and so it is appropriate that a defense be offered. It is with this in mind that I offer the following response to the most often criticized elements of the Risk system.

  1. Elimination - Players can be eliminated. Yep... they sure can. In the classic version of Risk, this was the sole purpose of the game—eliminate all of your competition. Classic Risk is unforgiving; there are rarely second chances and this serves to increase the tension—it provides a different gaming experience; almost the same feel and experience found in single-elimination tournament play. Many gamers have indicated that playing in a tournament is uncomfortable and rarely, if ever, enter one. For these gamers, the classic version of Risk would not be entertaining. However, those gamers who do enjoy the tournament setting, the winner-take-all competitiveness, have minimal justification in complaining of the elimination aspect of any game. Classic Risk is a macho, do-or-die experience.

    It should be noted that it is only the original version of Risk that concentrates on elimination; all the other versions have alternate victory conditions making elimination a less viable path to victory. Elimination raises the "stakes" for the game; it benefits the good player and punishes those less competent. In today's environment this is not acceptable; no one should lose, everyone should be able to win no matter how poorly they played! Of course one could study the game, practice and play until he becomes proficient but that would require effort and time which bumps up against the other mantra of gaming in recent years: instant gratification—strategies that are so shallow that a game can be dominated from the first play. An alternate view suggests that elimination is a merciful method for liberating a player from a game he cannot win rather than forcing him to continue playing an untenable position.
  2. Confrontational - Yeah... no farmer in the field for two points here. The object is to dominate, to be bigger and better than your opponents in every area possible. Victory in Godstorm, Lord of the Rings, 2210 A.D. and Narnia are based on points but this is accomplished by dominating territories and areas. To my knowledge, no one has ever suggested that Risk games were not confrontational. Risk does not pretend to be "politically correct"—it is in-your-face gaming. This isn't Carcassonne, it's Risk. It's loud and raucous. Strategic advice, intimidation, manipulation and negotiation are all elements of the average Risk game. It is a raw, emotional experience. From the Risk Godstorm rule set:

"Table talk, including alliances, threats, coercion, whining, pleading, backstabbing, invocation of the divine wrath of your ancestors and other verbal tirades is not only allowed but also encouraged."

  1. Length - "Risk takes too long. There is too much downtime between turns." Allow me to be brutally honest: any Risk game that runs six or more hours (as some have suggested) is being played by gamers who have misread or misinterpreted the rules, are thoroughly intoxicated or are complete buffoons. Consider the most complex of the Risk series, either Risk 2210 A.D. or Risk Godstorm: assuming the full complement of players (five) and five minutes per turn per player, this results in only 125 minutes for a complete game. Even the addition of an extra hour only brings the total to about three hours (shorter than the average playing time of Die Macher, Civilization or World of Warcraft.) Of course it is a matter of preference but a two to three hour game is not, in my view, excessively long.
  2. Dice - Battles in Risk games are determined by die rolls as well as card modifiers. Dice are the perfect, portable random number generator. One of the advantages of dice over card draws is that the results fit a predetermined range that never, ever changes. Once one has examined the possible range of results and becomes comfortable with the probabilities, it is easier to comprehend the limiting factors created by the dice. Consider Settlers of Catan with its two six-sided dice which are rolled each turn. Dice On average, the most productive tiles are those numbered 6 or 8 since these numbers are statistically the most probable of results (there are no tiles numbered 7). If one were to instead select 2 and 12 as an initial starting position, the player had better be a damn good trader (or beggar) since these numbers are much less likely to be rolled. Dice follow the laws of probability and are, in most cases, more restricted than card or tile draws. The Risk combat system employs a variable set of possible dice, increasing the complexity of the calculations. Universities study this system. The calculations required for calculating the possibilities and probabilities in Risk are exponentially more complex than that for Settlers of Catan and simply beyond the capacity (or desire) of most gamers. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." A similar concept applies to the Risk combat system—the complexities are sufficient that the average gamer will conclude the results are entirely random. In our age, what one does not comprehend is either wrong or bad—and that is an unfortunate statement.
  3. Too Competitive - Of all of the arguments against the game, this borders on the ludicrous. Competition is the heart of gaming. Games without competition are known as puzzles. Competition is not the possibility for winning; it is the probability of losing. Consider a Chess game with a grand master opposing my pathetic knowledge of the strategies in the game. Will he win? Is there any competition? If one cannot lose, then the game is not competitive; it is simply an activity that passes time. To suggest that a game is too competitive is equivalent to complaining that a book has too many words or a song has too many notes. For those opposed to competition on a personal or philosophical basis, there are the new, fashionable co-operative games. Where Risk is closer to a sport, the co-op games tend more toward a group social activity. Neither system is better or worse than the other, it's a matter of taste.

Risk, Settlers of Catan, Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering will survive the criticism; they are established and part of the culture. All four have given birth to entire families of games and provided memorable experiences for many. They are foundation games, gateway games and should be promoted, it's unfortunate that it has become fashionable to attack them. Bashing a game because it's poorly designed or broken is a service; trying to influence a player's choice as some sort of overseer or censor is abhorrent. What purpose is served? What gratification does one receive? Is the purpose is to inspire guilt in the Risk player for not recognizing a superior product? Games are very similar to music in that different types appeal to different players just as different musical genres satisfy different people. So which is the "correct" music—Tom Jones, Mega Death or classical? I suggest it is time to call for slightly more thought and tolerance prior to reviewing games; a bit of self discipline is in order.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies.

Juvenal

Thirty plus years ago I was introduced to classic Risk. Over the years I have played hundreds of times. I was fairly well-ranked in the (now defunct) World Risk League and have entered many tournaments. That was then; today I play far more eurogames but I never refuse to play Risk, especially with teens—the game appeals to young males. Many of those same players have now moved on to other games—it's one of the great gateway games.

- Dave Shapiro

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