Whenever the conversation turns towards board gamers with people who are unfamiliar with the hobby, a normal response appears to be ‘Oh – you mean like Cludeo/Monopoly/Risk …’. After explaining that my games tend to be a bit less mainstream and a bit more involved, I then consider the games mentioned. And one of them chills my bones to their core. No – it’s not Monopoly despite the misgivings of many of my peers. To me the game that scraps the bottom of the gaming barrel is and always shall be Risk.
Risk originally released in France in 1957, brands itself the World Conquest Game. At its very core the game provides you with a map of the earth and divides the various areas of the map between players via random cards. The players then have to place a number of armies in these locations from their central pool and attempt to defend the territories they have, whilst conquering new ones. The ultimate objective is to wipe away all the other armies and conquer every location on the board (although you can also play Secret Mission Risk in which you are dealt a card at the start of the game that outlines your victory conditions).
Risk’s fights are entirely based on dice. The attacker can roll up to three dice and the defender two, depending on the number of armies involved. Dice are then paired off – attacker’s highest verses defender’s highest and so on. The loser of each paring has an army destroyed. If a defender is completely removed from an area, you can move your armies in and have won the territory. If you have captured a territory, you can claim a Risk card which allows you to reinforce later in the game.
Each turn you can add extra armies depending on a number of factors – size of territory; number of continents held and by trading in matching symbols on your Risk cards. These can reinforce dangerous areas or provide you with new avenues of attack. And that is the basics of Risk.
So why do I dislike it so much? I guess the main problem that I have with it is that despite presenting itself as a game of strategy, there is far too much of a luck element involved. The setup is completely random. Your progress in the game comes down to how high you can roll and whether you get the right cards. I am not opposed to luck based games and pretty much every system has a luck element one way or another, but you should not attempt to obfuscate that. There can be arguments made to the positioning of armies and capturing the right location, but when it comes down to it, whoever rolls highest will win.
Secondly games of Risk are incredibly long affairs. This is also not something I am opposed to, but there needs to be something that keeps the game interesting for that period of time. A game of Eldritch Horror for example, has a constantly changing board state with a new card being turned over every turn to introduce a new challenge or reward for the players. Risk sees the same rules in operation each and every turn. And this length of game also links into its cardinal sin – player elimination.
Where the entire point of the game is to remove the other players and you combine this with a long game length, you create the perfect storm of awful. A player is settling down to a game with their friends and they are knocked out after 30 minutes. Their remains players then carry on for another hour or two whilst the first eliminated players looks on. It’s painful and the game also allows for players to very easily gang up on one player and knock them out very quickly (if this does happen to you, probably get better friends). The fact that there is no real penalty for this gang up or mechanics for this player to fight a desperate rear guard and find a way out of it (other than being very lucky), to me is just poor game design.
There are a lot of variants of Risk which does make the market place muddied somewhat. Some of these versions are just make overs with a license put over the top and a new map to play with. Others introduce additional mechanics, such as Risk Legacy which changes the board or cards each time you play, or the new Star Wars Risk which recreates the Battle of Endor in three separate locations at once. People have attempted to sell me on these versions to me by saying, ‘They are nothing like Risk’ which is in part an admission that the basic game of Risk is poor.
Risk does deserve recognition for its longevity and there are players out there who still enjoy its challenges to this day. For me it shows that just because something is a classic doesn’t always means it stands the test of time. If you want strategy board games, there are much better out there for you.