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Holiday Guest Blog 4: Rob Daviau “Elements of Risk”

December 30th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Board Games, Guest Blog

Rob Daviau has been a friend of the podcast for a while, and a friend of Julian Murdoch even longer. He works for Hasbro and his appearance on Episode 144 to talk about his design of Risk: Legacy was one of the more popular shows of 2011. Risk gets a lot of flak on the podcast, so Rob wanted to explore what we meant by “strategy game” when applied to parlor favorites.

Sometime in the past few years I realized that I’ve designed, or co-designed, more Risk games than anyone else. Some right now might be feeling bad for me. Risk seems to be a flashpoint for people. I can tell you that everyone has an opinion on it. But the question remains, have I actually designed a strategy game?

I have no idea.

Instinctively, I say “yes”. A better Risk player will beat a less experienced one most of the time. But there’s a lot of luck in the system. Well, a lot of luck in one key part of the system. I once read that Risk is less a game and more of a psychology experiment of how people react to finding themselves in the thin end of the bell curve. Which is true in many ways. But how many wars or battles have been won not by strategy or planning but dumb-ass luck? More than a few. So luck alone does not make something a strategy game or not.

I think, in games, we like to think of strategy and luck as being some sort of continuum, a zero-sum game where you must trade one for the other. This probably isn’t the case. A better linear system would be to create a line that runs from luck to control. At one end is an entirely chaotic system with no control. The other is a perfectly controlled system with no luck. As long as you have some control, you can develop a strategy.

This means I’m taking the word strategy and using it define “how you approach a game to win it”. Not “how much control do you have in the game”. I have complete control in a game of Go. I have no strategy for it. Control is what the game gives you. Strategy is what you do with that control. I have a strategy for the 100% luck-free game of tic-tac-toe. No one is calling that a strategy game, despite the fact that has as much control as chess. It’s just that the strategies to victory, or to avoid defeat, or easily grasped and applied.

So is a strategy game one that gives you multiple paths to victory? One that has difficult nuances to master? A game that makes you change tactics mid-game to keep your strategy relevant? Tie-tac-toe isn’t a strategy game where chess is. Scrabble is probably a strategy game. In fact, it might not be a word game in some ways. The World Champion a few years back didn’t speak English and had no idea what any of the words meant that he played. He was memorizing patterns and using these patterns to conquer territory.

But what of Risk. Risk…might be a strategy game? It is more than tic-tac-toe despite having a lot less control. Is it more than checkers, another perfect control game? Where does Monopoly, the great gamer scapegoat, fit? There are probably two or three different strategies to victory in Monopoly. I can run the table in Monopoly 95% of the time against non-gamers so there is something I’m doing that they aren’t. But against gamers, I’d like to think it would be more competitive. I say “like to think” because gamers refuse to play Monopoly. But having a lack of control of where you land and where opponents land adds chaos. Too much chaos for many. But Monopoly’s biggest sin to gamers is its popularity, not its design.

But when it comes down to it, in my mind, Risk is a strategy game. At least, you can apply different strategies to it. In most parts of the game, there is a lot of control. The only luck is the resolution of battles. But that’s the heart of the game so control is taken away from players at a key point. Drives many people crazy. What’s interesting is that Scrabble probably has a similar amount of control. The tiles you draw play a huge part in your final score. The control is how you use them. But I’ve never seen Scrabble derided as a luckfest. I think that moving army men on a map wants people to feel like they are in control. And more control is something that many (most?) other wargames give them.

So what is the ‘strategy’ to Risk? “Roll high” is the throwaway answer. Other obvious ones are to start in the southern hemisphere, plus the usual tropes of this genre – balancing offense and defense, a nod to supply lines, achieving smaller goals (continent bonuses) in order to get bigger goals (winning). But these are easily learned by teens (side point: the game is designed for middle-schooler, teens, and father-son play). But that’s probably not the real strategy. Just like poker is not a card game but a people game played with cards, Risk, in person, is a people game played with dice and little army men. The real strategy to Risk is to be in second place but convince everyone you are in third place.

Until you bust loose and win.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Dave

    Thanks for the rumination, Rob. I love your latest game – have a sealed copy stashed away that I’m pretty sure will pay for the one I’m marking up.

    Your comment on the ‘people game’ aspect is dead on. You can’t win if you make it obvious you’re winning.

    I think that gamers don’t tend to be social animals, and don’t want to play a game where success hinges in part on how well you can schmooze your opponents. Hence the fondness of multiplayer solitiare games like Agricola.

  • lesslucid

    No, the sin of Monopoly is not its popularity. The design is simply awful; half an hour in the winner can be obvious and yet hours of die rolling and paper shuffling will be required before this result is made final. That it’s popular just has the unfortunate side effect that millions of people think they “hate boardgames” because their main experience of them is with a profoundly terrible one.

  • CraigM

    Risk is… well a bit tricky for me. I have a love/ hate relationship with it. Many great memories of epic all night games in high school with paper alliances and betrayal (mostly against me, my friends would all call NATO whenever they were about to singlemindedly attack me). On the flip side vanilla Risk is really quite terrible.

    That said I do honestly love Risk 2210 and Lord of the Rings Risk (haven’t played Legacy, likely never will unfortunately). I know you did work on 2210, but didn’t on LotR (at least according to BGG) and can say that the few tweaks to the core game move it enough along the control side for my liking.

    I get your argument of luck vs control being a better analogy than luck vs strategy. I do disagree, slightly. For me it’s all about luck, and my ability to mitigate it’s impacts. In vanilla Risk South America and Australia were almost brokenly powerful. Being able to secure them so easily made them important, and if you didn’t start in them you were facing an uphill battle. Meanwhile the friend who drew 3 territories in Australia is laughing maniacally. In 2210 there is the waterways (expanding their access, reducing their ability to hide), leaders to help break assaults, and the cards. Someone all fortressed up in a continent, draw some leader cards to beef up the attack vector of your choice. Someone running amok on the moon, assassinate the space leader, and then watch his units get stranded.

    It’s still a fair amount of random, but I have things I can do to counter the random element, and shift things in my favor. Basic Risk lacks that, Monopoly lacks that, and that is why they are derided. It’s the reason Axis and Allies is a better game IMO, the die can come up all 6’s but the fact is that I know 3-4 tanks backed up by a handful of infantry can steamroll most land battles not in Moscow. Sure the die are a factor, but much less than in risk because of unit strengths. Legacy sounds like it has those same elements that work for me.

    Random note, I also liked your work on the Star Wars Epic Duels, one of the first hobby games I ever played.

  • Maerlande

    40 years ago Risk made me a gamer. Monopoly was annoying even then. But risk led to Panzer Blitz, Squad Leader, Star Fleet Battles and on and on. I feel it’s clearly a strategy game with clear limitations. But it wet my whistle and from there well. I went on and on and on.

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