Board Games & Me: Risk

I wonder if 1980s politics informed the design of this box at all: Asia and South America are overrun by vicious Reds, Europe is barely hanging on, Africa is inconsequential... who can stand against the Crimson Tide? Thank heaven for the U.S. of A. and their huge cannons!

The family’s 1980s version of Risk.

Hi there, friendly reader. Today I’m inaugurating a short series about the games that instilled me with my current love of boardgaming, and about trying them again years later. Be warned that these aren’t necessarily the most interesting games, or even particularly good games — today’s article is about Risk, for instance, which is neither.

“So why talk about it then?” Good question! I have a good answer to go with it: Because Risk was the first game I ever longed to play. And when I finally did, it taught me something important about the power of board games.

Board games weren’t a real presence in my early childhood. Mostly I did a lot of reading, played Sega Genesis, and ran around the backyard in a cape. Sitting around for any stretch of time was dull, and the few times I played one at a friend’s house usually ended with some excuse to leave early (“Did you hear that? I think I hear my mom calling,” was a common one). The over-enthusiastic commercials with kids squealing about rolling dice and the colorful annual grandma-trips to Toys’R’Us did little to convince me either.

Even so, they weren’t totally absent. I was raised in a stable Mormon home, so every Monday night we gathered in the living room and did our darnedest to imitate this picture:

Note that this may or may not have ever occurred. Ever.

Family Home Evening, ideally.

It’s called “Family Home Evening,” and I was never super jazzed about it — nobody in my family was, really. I even need to recant that “every Monday” bit, because we held it in spurts, bursts of enthusiasm quickly dissolved once we remembered that we already spent enough time together, thank you very much. We lived with each other.

When we did get around to having Family Home Evening, it usually ended with a game. This is where the bulk of my boardgaming experience came from — nuggets like Monopoly Junior, UNO, or the Game of Life. Real snoozer stuff. That’s what boardgames were to me: things you’d play when forced to do things you wouldn’t normally do with your family, as opposed to watching TV or just playing around together like normal human people. Board games were a duty, or a last resort for entertainment when camping in the rain.

Until one day, when my dad turned to my mom and said, “You think Dan’s old enough to play Risk?”

“No,” my mom said.

Naturally, that sealed it, especially when I learned just how much my mom hated Risk — so much that she would take lots of risks (oh ho!) to try to get knocked out of the game early and end up winning. So I begged to play Risk. I asked my dad incessantly for weeks. Finally, he relented. “You might think it’s boring,” he warned.

“No,” I said, “I promise.”

Really small by my standards today. In fact, all of that copy of Risk was small.

The elegantly simple board.

Dad was smart enough to not trust my kiddy promise, so he did everything possible to dress up our Risk Night. He invited over my uncle and his two sons, both of whom were a bit older than me and, thus, my heroes. We set up the game on an ottoman facing the television, and he popped in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for us to watch while we played. I guess he figured that two things years beyond my comprehension would equal one thing compelling.

Of course, I didn’t get either. Risk was slow, and I didn’t conquer Australia, and my cousins were old enough to get the rules but not mature enough to be nice about me not getting them, and the abstraction of dice rolling was a bit too hazy for a kid who fought his battles with LEGOs and a video game console. Furthermore, why are the Ugly and the Good fighting each other? I thought they were friends? And can I trade in these cards for more armies? Why not? William did it!

But I loved it. I loved it so much. Because board games can do that, can be more than the sum of their parts — friends plus the game plus conversation equals something far more than just the same old people playing a bad game and telling dumb jokes. By some sort of magical calculus, it equals splendid memories. I remember that night down to the smallest detail, and I don’t even know what grade I was in.

Oh, I thought he was The Ugly.

I didn’t remember the movie that accurately though.

I never played Risk again, at least for many years. The game itself wasn’t that memorable.

Flash forward to last week when my wife and I decided to sit down and try some of those older board games again.

The thing about Risk is that the early moments, when you’re trying to set up some sort of foothold while also punching your opponent’s toes out from under them — they take a couple spots in Europe so you stop building up in Australia to block them from achieving dominance there, then someone else takes Indonesia and damn it! — that part of the game is brilliant. You’re at war with everyone, everywhere, but you don’t have enough reinforcements to plug all the gaps, so it becomes a meticulous balancing act, placing just enough soldiers everywhere and then praying that the dice don’t screw you. Then screaming at each other when they do.

Yes, I *was* a thumb model. My career dried up when men's thumb rings went out.

Setting up the game is half the fun.

Then the magic dissipates. Someone consolidates enough to transform into an unclimbable wall of armies that will end the game after an hour of inevitable depressing slogging, and then they insist you might have a chance and no we shouldn’t end the game early. But they’re just saying it because they want the immaculate pleasure of grinding your empire to gristle. Why I still encounter people who say that Risk is their favorite game is a total mystery to me. Like running into people who hate the Japanese for WW2, it just feels like such an artifact.

And once again, playing with Somerset, the game itself was humdrum. But I can remember the jokes we told each other, the fun we had at Risk’s expense. And that — that was good.

Thank you, Risk, for showing me that board games can be about more than just the game itself. Even a tedious game can make for a fun night, given the right company. Now let’s never speak again.

Next time I’ll talk about what happens when we mix in an actual fun game.

Posted on December 20, 2012, in Board Game, Retrospective and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Pardon the nostalgia:

    Risk was certainly my first boardgame experience.

    All my asian geography, I learned from risk: siberia, erk-toosk, yak-toosk, cam-chack-taw,
    Psi-yam…

    my dad’s must have been something like a second edition: the armies were irregularly cut wooden cubes-black, pink, green, yellow, red, turquoise. There were no fivers–only tenners that were cool sort of truncated triangular hot-dogs very yummy-candy-looking…the game board had a ship on it and also a smiling whale with a square jaw in the indian ocean wearing a sailor hat.

    games went long and it was always somebody finally getting a huge match and dropping 50 armies into iceland, and back and forth

    we didn’t finish the game in one sitting-he would carefully pick up the board without knocking pieces and balance it precariously on the corner of his tall dresser.

  2. I have a copy of Risk. One of the slightly more modern ones with the plastic riflemen, cavalry and cannon. I played a game with several of my family about 10 or 12 years ago. It was never finished. A couple of players got knocked out and the rest of us were fairly well stalemated, I think. We had an independent party (Mrs Pariah, who wasn’t playing) write up which cards everyone had and where they controlled and how many troops they had in their territories.

    The paper is still sealed shut in the Risk box to this day. We’ll never continue playing Risk (these days I have too many games that are actually really good) but the time we spent playing that part-game of Risk was pretty good fun, lots of laughs were had.

    The moral of the story? I dunno. Don’t play Risk? Except maybe Risk: Legacy.

  3. We got half way through a game of Lord of the Rings Risk just last night. My brother in law loves it so we always end up playing it when we visit for the holidays. For our family it always turns into a large diplomacy battle that can get rather ugly. Its personal when your brother teams up with your brother in law to take out your continent.

    We are getting him Summoner Wars for Christmas.

  4. But the most important question – have you watched “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” again?

  5. Ah man, I enjoyed reading this post (found your blog through someone or another’s post on facebook). Good ol’ Risk lol.

    On a side note, have you ever played a newer and more gamer’s version of Risk? The one my son and I own and play is Risk: Halo Legendary edition. We get through a 2p game (yes, it has a 2p mode) in about an hour to an hour and a half. It and some others definitely have more “gamer” qualities with things like alternative paths to victory (in the case of Halo Legendary, each player has 3 hidden victory objectives).

    I feel silly even recommending a different version of Risk since obviously you can skip Risk altogether and go straight to games like Dust, Magnifico, Clash of Cultures (which you reviewed), etc. But I was pleasantly surprised by Halo Legendary. It was, well, actually a fun version of Risk 😛

    • Thanks for stopping by! (Out of curiosity, what FB page brought you here?)

      I haven’t tried the Halo: Legendary version, though I do own Risk: Legacy, which is supposed to be amazing. What sets the Halo version apart for you? I’m not adverse to trying a better version of Risk — I really do mean to try Legacy at some point, and maybe do a series on it because of the way the game changes with multiple plays, but for some reason my group never gets around to it.

      • I went and looked and it was actually Z-Man games’ facebook page that mentioned your Clash of Cultures review 🙂

        As for Risk, I never enjoyed the original. I didn’t play it before getting into designer games, so you can imagine the “bleh” of trying it after experiencing games from Fantasy Flight, Z-Man, Days of Wonder, and other more “indie” companies lol.

        For me, what sets R:HL (not to be confused with the previous Risk Halo “collector’s edition” that apparently isn’t that good) apart are the hidden objectives. Each player draws 3 campaign cards, one easy, one “hero,” and one “legendary.” If you finish your objectives first, you win despite who has the most territories or whatever. For me, it’s more fun to operate your forces with an eye towards a hidden objective instead of merely an eye towards owning the entire board (though you can win that way, too).

        The real gem offered by R:HL is the 2-player mode. You use a smaller board and take turns not only placing your units at the beginning, but also placing the “Flood” (the alien baddies; I know NOTHING of Halo lol) as fodder on the board. Although they don’t attack, you do have to fight through the Flood when they’re in the way. It’s not terribly deep, but there’s some real 2-player goodness in this mode. My son and I have had some epic sessions.

        Make no mistake, like all versions of Risk, it’s still Risk at heart and so it perpetuates some of the weaknesses that any game true to Risk will always have, especially luck of the dice. It’s closer to a gamer’s game, but it’s still not Dust, or 1812: The Invasion of Canada, or Cyclades, or War of the Ring, or other games down the evolutionary ladder from Risk where dudes fight for territories on a map.

        But it does manage to be better than Risk and 2nd Edition Risk, actually an enjoyable game, and a good choice when you feel like beer and pretzels or just don’t have the energy to prepare big meal if you know what I mean 🙂

      • Thanks for the answer — that doesn’t sound bad! If anything, it motivates me to get around to Risk Legacy. I keep hearing great things, and it *looks* excellent.

        And that sure is nice of the Z-Man folks! I’ll have to send a thank-you note or something. 🙂

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