Gaming evolution: Risk

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The classic game of Risk, set up for play.

Throughout this blog I would like to focus on how gaming has evolved over the past few decades, and what makes games of today more fun and approachable than in decades past. To this end, these gaming evolution posts will talk about games you may know, and how newer games have refined these ideas.  

Risk is one such classic. A world conquest game that is a household name and has made players feel like strategic generals for nearly 60 years. As a recap, Risk has players battling each other in order to control territory, which in turn allows them to command larger armies and consequently control more territory. However, players must be careful not to spread their armies too thin as their opponents are always eager to exploit a weakness in enemy lines.  While it had some great ideas for its time, Risk fell into a trap like many other early board games of providing something that was fun at first, but that stretched on for far too long given the lack of depth or interesting decision making. I recall one game of Lord of the Rings Risk that was set up at my first job out of college, with players pledging to take turns between tasks at work. The game stood mostly as a monument, as no one actually took their turns, and some players actually left the job before the game was completed.

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Game of Thrones: The Board Game has a bit more secrecy and betrayal than Risk, hence the card board screens for each player.

The good news is that several designers took the core tenants of Risk, and reduced the more negative aspects of the game. The first of these games is A Game of Thrones: The Board Game. This game captures a similar feeling to Risk, as you use naval and ground units combined with clever strategy and card play to conquer your opponents castles. However, it immediately fixes one of the problems that plagued Risk: play length. As games have evolved over the last few decades, designers are focusing more and more on making sure the game ends before the enjoyment does. So, while Risk has the ultimate goal of eliminating your opponents, Game of Thrones has a more attainable victory condition. If any player controls 7 castles at the end of the round, they win the game. If no player reaches this goal, within ten turns the game ends, and whoever controls the most castles wins. This simple change of adjusting the goal of the game results in a play experience that is both shorter and more engaging.  Of course, there is also plenty here for a fan of books and show. Each player controls a major house from the series, complemented by a unique set of cards and abilities representing the house’s most well known characters.

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Small World is colorful and family friendly, but also has a lot of strategic depth.

Another game that has improved upon the Risk formula is Small World. Much like Risk, the game is about controlling territory and conquering foes with a a bit of a fantasy flair. Each player controls a rotating cast of creatures with unique special abilities that will help you wrest control of the board from your opponents. However, unlike Risk, conquering territories doesn’t require any dice.  Everyone can enjoy the roller coaster ride of dice from time to time. Whether its the thrill of a great roll, or the despair of snake eyes, dice are inherently fun. But constant dice rolls in a game increase how random it is, and can prove frustrating when a brilliant strategic move is undermined by a couple poor rolls. Small World solves this by having combat be deterministic. If you have two more units than  your target, you take over that territory. No attack rolls or defense rolls, just simple math. In this way the game becomes more about how you use your units and various special powers versus how your dice rolls went at any given key moment. 

Risk is a perennial classic that defined a genre of conquest style games. Its influence cannot be denied. But it was also introduced to a world before video games, the internet, and a bounty of movies and media were commonplace. For modern board games to bring people to the table with so many other entertainment options available they need to provide a play experience that does not outstay its welcome, or relentlessly punish an unlucky player. A Game of Thrones: The Board Game and Small World both streamline the experience Risk introduced while simultaneously adding depth and variety to the genre. However, even these examples are not standing still. The world of designer games is ever evolving. A Game of Thrones: The Board Game is actually the second edition of the popular title having adjusted and improved from the original printing in 2003. Small World has expanded by adding more fantasy races to play and ways to build the map anew every game. After all, if games don’t evolve, they end up like that ill fated office game of Risk unplayed and ultimately forgotten.

8 thoughts on “Gaming evolution: Risk

  1. You should review the 2 classic geek games. Survive and Catan. I keep introducing these games to friends and they fall in love with them. It’s so much more fun than the mainstream games like Risk.

    • They are on my short list to touch on at some point. Survive is actually a design from the 80s that hold up pretty well against more modern peers. It helps that the new edition by Stronghold is a work of art!

  2. Ikusa (formerly Samurai Swords) adapts the basic Risk engine and puts it in a game setting where it actually makes sense.

      • Probably only because of my limited imagination! Classic Risk is a bit too large scale with continents, rather than between nations or, in Ikusa’s case, states/provinces. However, once you stop looking at Risk as the Earth’s continents and as just a challenging map board with limited access points it becomes more interesting.

        I love your blog and am a HUGE ware-board gamer and collector. Very much appreciate your efforts here!

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