If you watch Strictly Come Dancing for enough series (I know! Bear with me), you’ll spot that there is always a range of of ages among the contestants. Alongside the youngsters there is always a sprightly older celebrity. Dismiss this oldster at your peril! What you’ll probably find is that they’ve got chops, they’ve got moves and they can hold their own against these pretty young things. I’m talking about you Debbie McGee, Danny John-Jules, Pamela Stephenson!
In a world of big box games with high concept themes and bags of miniatures, it can be easy to underestimate an old hoofer like Risk.
Originally published in 1959, Risk (Once known as The Conquest of the World) has proved its longevity and can look proudly down from its seat at the head of the table at all its offspring: Lord of the Rings Risk, Star Wars Risk, Halo Risk, Walking Dead Risk, versions of Risk for all different geographic territories and historical periods - even the moon! They all share a common DNA and spring from the ‘classic’Risk version.
Originally set more or less during the Napoleonic Wars when, for the first time, the whole world was dragged into conflict, Risk is simply a game of conquest. The winning player will be in control all the world with their armies. Brushing aside any ethical qualms about colonialist military expansion, let’s look inside the box.
The cover art for Risk shows a charging cavalry officer, swinging his sabre, with a battle scene in the background. There are cannons, muskets and plenty of action. It pretty well introduces the theme of the game. When you unfold the large board, you’ll see it's based on a map of the world (missing some minor details like Antarctica and New Zealand).
The continents are identified by colour. Asia is green for instance. Each continent is subdivided into territories. These territories can span a group of smaller countries (Egypt seems to extend all the way to Libya) or subdivide larger nations like USA. There are literally armies of plastic soldiers coloured to identify which player they will belong to. The soldiers come in three versions: infantry representing a force of one; cavalry represent a force of five units; and artillery which represents 10.
You’ll also see two sets of three dice which are used to resolve combat and two decks of cards. One deck shows secret missions – more on that story later; the other are called Territory Cards. They show a territory from off the game board and one of the soldier types. These are used to recruit armies.
The world map and the soldiers place you solidly in the thematic era and are pleasingly immersive. It's easy to persuade yourself that you’re a general in his war room with his maps laid out and with a grand strategy in mind.
Play is for between two and five players. A two-player option with a third ‘neutral’ non-player nation is available. There is no mechanism for it, but the game does encourage alliances, truces and ganging-up in the meta-game, all of which is much more satisfyingly complex with a higher player count. During the set-up for Risk you take it in turns to claim territories, by placing one of your army pieces in it, across the game board until all the territories are claimed. Then play begins.
Play takes place in turns consisting of four parts:
1) Recruit new armies. This is based on the number of territories and of full continental sets of coloured territories you control and can be boosted by playing sets of three territory cards.
2) Combat. Players may move armies into adjacent enemy held territories – remember to leave a garrison of at least one army behind – to initiate combat. The combat mechanism is quick and effective, although some may find it unsatisfying random. You roll dice equal to the number of armies involved on each side then rank the dice in order. Players compare the dice values to see which army won. Essentially, if you throw more troops into battle, you have more chance of winning, yet a (p)lucky singleton can theoretically hold out for ever. Its all down to the dice rolls.
3) Fortify your territories. Players may move troops between interconnected territories.
4) The final action is to draw territory cards. If a player has taken control of a territory this turn, they may draw a territory card. Territory cards bear a picture of one of the troop types (infantry, cavalry, artillery). If you have a set of three, you may play them for extra reinforcements during the first phase. Now, here’s the smart bit, so pay attention. The number of reinforcements you get amplifies based on the number of previous sets played. The first player to lay down a set of three territory cards gets four armies, the next to lay down a set of three gets six, then eight, 10 and soon you’re drawing twenty or more extra armies. This means that a player who is trailing, but who manages to collect and play a set late in the game, may suddenly become a force to be reckoned with. Hey Presto! Back in the game. This is a neat catch-up mechanism.
At the end of the turn, play passes to the next player who has been keenly watching as his friend invades and expands his territory. Gameplay passes round the table. Territories are invaded, armies grow and shrink. Players claw together continental sets of territories to boost their recruitment.
Playing the long game (or not)
Games of Risk can take a long time. A lo-o-ong time. Some players report eight-hour epics as fortunes wax and wane. The final few hours can have that Monopoly feeling of slowly watching one player dominate and then gradually win as your own supplies slowly drain away in the face of their supremacy. Recent versions have included Mission cards. Playing the Mission cards version can really help to overcome this.
At the start of the game, each player takes four mission cards. They say things such as, “Control a territory in three different continents.” There are four levels of mission difficulty. As you reach your final mission, you must show it to the other players so they can attempt to manoeuvre to block you. In the Mission Cards variant, the first player to complete all four missions wins. This means that the players can be working in parallel to different objectives making the game much less of an all-out battle-fest.
Final Thoughts on Risk
Risk is an old veteran. Its past has made it stronger. The variants such as mission cards make it a better game. The tactile soldier miniatures, the epic sweep of the board prefigure many of its modern rivals. Some may be frustrated by its long playing time and reliance on random elements but it is still much loved and held in nostalgic affection. To return to my Strictly analogy, this old entertainer has seen some changes, but it can still show the youngsters a trick or two.