Objective (adj.): not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased — Dictionary.com
1.) a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck. — Google.com
2.) a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators. — Dictionary.com
3.) a physical or mental activity or contest that has rules and that people do for pleasure — Merriam-Webster.com
My current definition of a good game:
A good game must:
1.) Provide a level of competition between equally skilled opponents who have an understanding of the game.
2.) Enable players to develop their playing skill on a variety of levels.
3.) Have players of high skill consistently defeat those of lower skill.
DPM: decisions per move; the number of choices a player is capable of making when it is their turn.
SDPM: significant decisions per move; the number of choices a player can make during their turn that is actually beneficial to them; moves that experienced veteran players who have an understanding of the game would make, disregarding others.
I have to admit, my initial hopes were to show that Risk is not a good game objectively speaking. That sounds a bit subjective of me, but that doesn’t mean someone can give an objective critique for subjective reasons. It’s our own subjectivity that drives us to do what we do after all, but we must also face facts and consider that our subjective stances might be wrong once we analyze something from an objective point of view.
Anyway, onto Risk. Risk has several variations in its style of play that have evolved over the years. If evolved is the right term. At it’s core, it’s a game about gaining victory by taking chances. Up until a few days ago, I hadn’t played this game since I was a young teenager. And I don’t remember my last plays being all that entertaining. The game took forever. Plus I hated the random nature of the dice, especially when you have a force that outnumbers another force by at least 2-1, maybe even 3-1 or greater, and yet that force manages to hold off. It evoked the emotion that, while war can be won by skill (the way units are placed, where to put reinforcements, etc.), it can also be won by luck. It rubbed me the wrong way, so within the first 2 years of joining BGG, I initially rated Risk a 1 out of 10.
I decided to take a second look at the game, from a more objective viewpoint.
Versions of Risk
So coming to the different versions of vanilla Risk (the only version that will be covered in this analysis), the main difference is with the cards and the timing of the reinforcements the cards provide, and how many reinforcements the cards give each round.
*The original version of the game (made in 1959) has players choose their starting territories by having the first player choose a territory and place a unit in it, the next player doing the same, and this process continues until all territories have been claimed.
*The original version rewards a player 1 card out of 3 possible types if they conquer at least 1 territory during their turn. If they get 3 of a kind, or 1 of each type, they can turn in the cards for a certain number of units. The number of reinforcements that can be gained with these cards increases each round (up to 60). There were no territories listed on the cards for secret objectives in the old version.
* If you have 6 or more cards, you must turn them in for reinforcements immediately, even if in the middle of a turn.
* Wipe out all of a player’s forces, you get all their cards, which could potentially get you reinforcements immediately (see previous point).
I’m going by this ruleset, and going by the strategy pointed out in a very good review from BoardGameGeek.com.
Image from http://www.dicehatemegames.com/
First the biggest issue, the dice. There are several online articles that go very in-depth with the statistics. But long story short, if the attacker has more troops than the defender, the attacker is more likely to win. If both players have a respectable number of units (let’s just say more than 3 each), if the attacker has just as many or more units than the defender, the attacker is more likely to win, due to rolling more dice and having better odds at getting better results than the defender. If you want the long in-depth version of all this, here’s some links:
Images from wikipedia Risk page.
The whole point of dice roll probabilities is to make it more likely for one result to occur than another, and allow players to take risks with those probabilities in mind. Sometimes the risk pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’s never a guarantee. And that’s the whole point of this game, to take a risk, take a chance, make a play that is a gamble, but has a good payoff. Playing it safe doesn’t really cut it in this game for a number of reasons.
1.) It makes the game run longer than necessary, especially if more than 1 player plays it safe. A game should only be as long as necessary.
2.) Even if the above reason isn’t a factor to be considered, playing it safe is detrimental towards winning in this game.
3.) This isn’t how the game was intended. Why else would it be called Risk?
Dice statistics are mapped out in this game to encourage a certain style of play to go along with the theme of the game. In this case, and I am repeating myself here, it’s to be aggressive, build up forces to where you outnumber the defender in 1 or more territories when it’s your turn, attempt to take said territories, and push your luck with how far you’re willing to deplete your forces in certain territories, gaining much in the short term at the risk of being weak and vulnerable in the long term. The game favors the aggressor attacking the defender if the aggressor either has 4+ troops attacking a defending territory and/or has >= more troops than the defender. The attacker is more likely to win in such situations, while the defender is more likely to win in the other situations.
Another factor to consider when it comes to dice is, despite what the probabilities may declare (1/6 chance for each result each roll), and despite the idea that all the results will even out over the course of 10,000+ rolls, those are only projections as to the results as opposed to what may end up happening in reality. While in theory dice do even out, that doesn’t necessarily mean they eventually will. And even if they did end up evening out, what’s to say they will remain even once the dice are rolled another few thousand or 10 thousand times? And if it does even out over that period of time consistently, then does that mean the dice results are truly random?
Bottom line, even if that’s true, a single player is not likely to roll the dice 10,000 times over the course of a single game of Risk. I’m not even sure if a single player rolls the dice even 1,000 times. So the dice results aren’t evenly distributed across all players in the game, which means randomness is a large factor in the game when it comes to deciding who wins or loses.
The point I’m making is that this takes away from the competitiveness of the game, at least in the fair sense. You know, for the sake of fair competition. The point of a competition, which games are a form of, is to have players test their skill against others. Risk is a game that does require skill to gain an edge over other players. Part of this is in carefully choosing territories and taking into account the die statistics when going into battle, and having a good idea as to when you should play your reinforcement cards if you’re capable of doing so. If the game is suitable for serious competition (tournament level/setting), then the most skilled player will win more often than others. This is assuming the game allows for different levels of skill to begin with.
In the case of this game, the die results are capable of ruining the best of plans, the most advantageous of positions, and destroying the largest of armies against the might of the smallest. Statistically, it doesn’t happen as often as it does with the worst of plans, the most disadvantageous of positions, or the smallest of armies. But it can happen. It can happen because the game never has 100% guarantees to outcomes. It’s not a deterministic game, as is the case with most dice-based games. Risk defenders can argue all they want about the odds of such events being one in a thousand, or in a million, or in a billion. It doesn’t change the fact that not only do such events happen in the game, players who have played such games are more than happy (or unhappy) to talk about them. So assuming this game is played in a tournament setting, the fact that a player can lose the tournament due to losing the game because of those “small chances of happening” incidents, that’s an indication that the game may not be best suited for serious competition, and is therefore less likely to be a good game. The odds of such incidents may be small, but they are there.
But that’s just on the topic of dice outcomes. There is more to discuss…
Image from http://worldbuilderblog.me/2015/06/
The lengthier turns and/or battles makes it necessary to roll the dice several times before a player decides that they are finished with their turn. This results in downtime for other players. This isn’t always a bad thing, as players may look in on a battle in eagerness to see just how much each opponent is having their forces reduced from fighting one another. This allows them to form plans and change plans based upon the numbers on the board after the battle is over. The game does its best to try and make battles a bit on the quick side by always having units killed for each set of rolls. Assuming the attacker and defender both have at least 2 dice each per roll, 2 units will die every roll in the game, 1 minimum if the defender or attacker only use 1 die. The battle will always move closer towards an end.
That being said, battles aren’t handled very efficiently in the game. Some of the larger battles can take a while before they finish. Why wouldn’t the game simply allow for more dice to be rolled, and therefore allow for more units to be eliminated? Because they chose to limit themselves with a D6 die, which works well with the 3 vs. 2 max system that Risk implements, but this comes at the expense of making larger battles take longer than is necessary if more dice with more faces (ie an 8 or 20-sided-die as opposed to the 6-sided-die) were used for those battles. But that would also likely affect the statistics in such a way as the game didn’t intend, as the creators wanted the probabilities as they are now, no more, no less, and decided it would be better to stick with those statistics at the expense of shorter battles.
Ultimately, there is 1 reason why I believe the system should be tweaked for the larger scaled battles, and that’s to fit in with the theme, Risk. If more units can be lost for each set of rolls, that would increase the risk-factor of the game in the large-scale exchanges. But with me not being a math expert, I’m not sure if that would affect the statistics, and if it did, if it would affect them for the better or for the worse.
Either way, the lengthy battles and/or turns can disengage players from the game, as they are bound to grow disinterested the longer they are unable to make an impact on the flow of the game. Or at least that would be the case, if not for the other major factor of the game.
Image from https://www.linkedin.com/topic/negotiation
At anytime during the game, players can discuss temporary (but non-binding) alliances, convincing one another to work against another player, or to convince a player to attack someone besides themselves, which gives them a chance to grow their numbers and take advantage of weak positions on the board. This is a very important aspect of the game. Without negotiation, the game would grow stale quickly. Simply attacking other players, making optimal movies, and hoping for the best with the dice, and waiting for that all to resolve until it gets to your turn, isn’t enough for a game like this where luck is so high. There needs to be talk among players to add an extra layer onto the game.
However, if a player is in a weak position and is holding some cards in their hands (for reinforcements), then a player will definitely want to attack them, wipe them off the map, and claim their cards to gain an edge on a later round, or in the current round. Negotiation can only take a player so far.
So this is something for non-active players (those not rolling dice) to do while dice are being rolled between the active players. And this in of itself also requires a skill. Negotiation is a legitimate skill in gaming. Without negotiation, games like Werewolf wouldn’t exist. Being a good negotiator (which also goes hand in hand with board positioning and aggressiveness) is key towards winning the game. Is a player winning? Team up against him. Is the dominant player threatening to attack you? Think of a way to convince him/her to attack someone else instead. Convince him/her that they want this continent instead of that continent.
Negotiation isn’t something I can go very in-depth with because there is a very wide variety of ways negotiation can go. There can be fair and unfair methods of negotiation, which means there would have to be some constraints with how far negotiation can go. For example, a player can say something like, “If you attack him, I will promise not to attack you,” while another can say something like, “Either you don’t attack me on your turn, or you’re sleeping on the couch tonight!” All I can say is that it works differently for each person, and for each group that person plays with. One who is good at negotiating has to be adaptable, and capable of acting out different roles, from being the vulnerable beggar, to the deceptive weasel, or the intimidating lion.
But is it enough to compensate for the downtime between turns (especially at the mid-point of the game and onwards)? Statistically, I would say no, and here’s why. If a game goes the way it should statistically the way some players anticipate it will (statistically likely to win this battle, conquer this continent, win this game, etc.), then players will also follow a familiar pattern for negotiation to go along with this. When outcomes diverge from the most likely statistical outcome, negotiation is likely to change to take that alteration into account. Negotiation is only a key factor for the first half of the game. After that, there’s usually only 2 players tops who are most likely to win the game (barring unlikely outcomes), and negotiation becomes borderline pointless. It becomes a matter of resolving combat between the large forces. Inefficient.
The set collection portion of the game. There are 3 different types of cards (plus a couple wilds), which means that in a worse case scenario, a player would need 5 cards maximum to be able to make a set; 3 cards minimum. Players have to make important decisions with these cards. They can either hold onto them with potential greater rewards (more troops) in a later round at the risk of having a player attack them with the intent of wiping them out to claim their cards, or turn in the cards at the start of their turn to try and gain a positional advantage for the current round. Later in the game (by the 5th or 6th round), the number of troops that a player can gain from these cards would be so great that the game wouldn’t last much longer, assuming top-tier players were playing optimally.
In order to get one of these, you have to take a territory. If you fail to take a territory during your turn, that’s usually pretty bad for you. In essence, this encourages aggressive play as well, along with the statistics of the dice rolls (attacker rolls more than defender so long as they outnumber them).
But this also adds in another interesting element. If you wipe another player’s forces off the map, you get all their cards. If this gets you 6 or more, you immediately get reinforcements to continue your attack streak. This encourages aggressive play even more, and shows no mercy towards those in a weak position. It also encourages the game to be played quickly and not long and drawn out.
It also encourages games to be played with 5-6 players. The game falters with less when dummy forces are put out there for players to attack. Because dummies don’t have cards (no pun intended).
Image from the film Best of the Best.
One of the methods used to determine if a game is good or not is to see if the game is played in tournament settings, and if so, how diverse the rankings are, and if there are top-tier players who consistently win and stay near their level over the years. Unfortunately, I am currently unable to find a website that has such rankings, or determine if tournaments exist for this game. I do believe this game is tournament-worthy, and I also believe it is possible for there to be different ranks of players. But it is also possible that the player rankings and winnings may not be as diverse as necessary for the sake of being deemed objectively good, potentially. Until such a setting is establish, using the classic rules, we may never know.
Conclusion (with some subjectivity)
Image from http://memegenerator.net/instance/59806260
After giving this game another chance, using classic rules, I’ll admit, it’s better than I remember. It’s really not the worst thing out there if you play it properly the way good players play it. It is a game that truly set the standard for board games about area control, negotiation, and risk-management. Before there was Chaos in the Old World, there was Risk. Before there was Dune, there was Risk. Before there was War of the Ring, there was Risk. It’s the one that started it all, and it has some fun in it to this day. Sure there are other versions such as Risk 2210 AD, and the famous Risk: Legacy, and they work for what they are in their own right, but those are different enough to deserve a separate analysis.
That being said, while respect should be given to this relic, it is still a dated relic. Other games have come along that built upon the foundations that Risk has set to make themselves superior to it. Game that are all about securing territory to gain more troops in future turns, games where risks must be taken to secure such territory, and games where players can negotiate for which opponent to go against, or dissuade the current player from attacking them, etc.
Games like the previously mentioned Chaos in the Old World, which handles combat for each player who only need to roll a set of dice once for each territory to resolve their part in combat.
Games like Dune where negotiation can stay relevant throughout the course of the game (or be relevant at random portions each game), and can drastically change the situation on the map.
Risk is like all those games, but without all the bells and whistles which some may consider overkill. It is area control and risk-taking at it’s most abstract. Can I objectively say it is bad when it has set the foundations for all those other games?
Currently, and this opinion is subject to change, I can say that the game is bad. The game does still work today, even compared to other systems, but the combat can take too long for what it is, and negotiation becomes less relevant as the game goes on. While it is true that how long a player’s turn takes is subjective, as is a player’s patience, it’s not subjective with how many rolls minimum it can take to resolve combat in a region, or over several regions, over the course of a single player’s turn. Combat mechanics, even ones that represent large scale conflicts, have been handled with superior systems that can be resolved faster than the one this game provides, which has to be taken as a negative for a game that is this abstract with what it does.
Luck can be considered a negative as well, but all the other previously mentioned games also have luck in their own right which is on the same level as Risk, if not more-so, or worse. Luck isn’t the biggest issue this game has, but it can evoke the feeling that it is due to the nature of combat within the game system, how many rolls are made, and how each roll can become pronounced when a single defensive unit with a single die can destroy a few units from a larger attacking force that rolls 3 dice for each combat phase. With the right roll, a defensive unit can be invincible, no matter how large of a force it is up against. That also makes the luck more pronounced. Games with such pronounced elements of luck are incapable of having even stronger pronounced elements of skill, which isn’t good when it comes to competitions, pitting the skill of one player against another. The one element that can be argued to make up for this is the negotiation elements, convincing players to work against others. The problem with that is that nearly every area control game has that element in it. It’s not unique in Risk, and even that element has been done better than in Risk when it comes to affecting the game-flow and game board because of it.
A game should have some amount of determinism in it in order for it to have some semblance of fair competition. In a game with no luck, players can change/adapt their moves and short/long term plans based on the moves of other players. In a game with luck, the same thing happens, but the player also has to adapt/change based upon random events and random results as well. Those changes should boost their odds statistically of winning the game, assuming the player knows what they’re doing. It should get to the point to where a player’s odds of winning can potentially reach 100%. That’s currently my opinion anyway.
Risk was good for its time, but other games have come since then that do what Risk does only better. The game is still worth playing today to see where such game mechanics have all started from, but that is all.
If anyone who reads this cares to contest my points, please, by all means, feel free to due so. I may go back on them and change them. That is the point of an objective review after all. It’s to make points and arrive at a conclusion back by facts and evidence. If there is a fault in the facts and/or evidence, or if there is other facts and evidence to consider that can change the conclusion, let these be known.
PS: A game rated as objectively bad doesn’t mean it’s a game that can’t be enjoyed. Any game can be enjoyed, theoretically. A game rated as objectively bad means it’s not fit for being played by serious gamers in a serious environment to match skill against skill, to have their skills tested and bettered.