Bad Games People Still Play: Risk

Risk is another one of the board game classics for people too afraid to try new things. The game is overly long, tedious to play, and far too luck-dependent for a putative strategy game. It also gives an advantage to eliminating players, which means people will be killed early and excluded from most of the game. How is that fun?

Worse still, having more territories means gaining more reinforcements, and having more reinforcements means you can more easily capture territories – resulting in a feedback loop. Whoever’s feedback loop spirals out of control first typically wins the game. Unfortunately you can always see this coming 5-10 turns away, so there isn’t even a climatic feel to the endgame. The winner being known in advance deflates any suspense that might have built.

Well, at least they haven't flipped the board.

Well, at least they haven’t flipped the board… yet.

 But without continuing in too much detail about the shortcomings of Risk, I’d like to highlight a major source for many of the game’s problems.

There are two aspects to every game. First there is the narrative aspect: the game in terms of imagination, what players are supposed to be doing or imitating. Second, there is the ludic aspect: the actual rules and systems of the game, how its played and how it works. A good game will have both these aspects working in harmony. Though if either one is going to be focused on, it should be the ludic one, as players can always make up their own explanation as to what the game represents.

In Risk, these two aspects are at odds. The narrative of Risk is that all players are world leaders in an all out struggle for global domination. Fair enough. But this image is weakened by the way the game actually plays. World leaders begin for war by sprinkling their armies (sometimes at random) over the globe? As many as six different factions waging war at once? Why is there a bonus for holding a continent? The use of risk cards allows players to call in mass amounts of units at once, often doubling or tripling their army. What is that supposed to represent?

Now I’m not just poo-pooing the game because it isn’t realistic enough. The problem is that the narrative is broken in these areas of the game, but in others is strictly adhered to. For instance, the routes of attack between countries is well-fit for Earth, but makes for a poor game board. Asia is far to hard to hold for a measly seven reinforcements, while Australia and South America are too easily guarded.

Everyone's favorite hidey-hole.

Everyone’s favorite hidey-hole.

Essentially, if it’s meant to the ultimate pretend-version of global domination it could stand to shift in the narrative direction. It could be made more realistic, with less emphasis on dressing up a dice-game as high strategy. Contrarily, if it is meant to be high strategy, the narrative aspects could be lessened. The game board could be re-balanced  and winning conflicts and securing reinforcements could involve less luck.

Maybe when it was first designed in 1957 it was on the forefront of combining ludic and narrative aspects of play, but boardgames have moved on. Risk now stands awkwardly between these two poles, a bumbling dinosaur, a Frankenstein’s monster. Other better games are marching to take its place, and no amount of fortifying Indonesia will delay these conquerors.

Know any house rules that fix Risk?

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One thought on “Bad Games People Still Play: Risk

  1. Alex

    One thing that helps is including the option for NON-permanent alliances between players. Then you have exciting betrayals and bargaining and such. It’s still a game of “let’s roll dice until someone wins” however…

    Reply

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