Sacred Cows are Mighty Tasty: A Review of Risk Legacyon January 5th, 2012 at 7:55 pm
I’m an admitted snob about certain things. I’m the guy who only buys whole bean coffee, grinds it myself, and brews it in my french press. I’m the one at the party who will drink water before touching anything that’s been cold brewed in the Rockies (whatever that means). I listen to music that most people have never heard and read stuff that’s equally obscure. And, of course, I play hobby board games. My wife calls them, dismissively, “your board games” – by which she means ones that nobody has ever heard of, that have a rulebook the size of a small magazine, and that can’t be picked up in a store with a name ending in “-mart”. And I’m ok with that.
There’s a difference between being a snob and being elitist, though. I’d like to think I’m the former without being the latter, by which I mean I’m not under any illusion that what I like makes me in some way a better specimen of humanity than anyone else. Some folks like Folgers, and while I don’t get why anyone would drink that swill, I’ll probably complain about it while watching a movie with more explosions than dialogue with my hand stuck in a bag of Chex Mix.
The world of hobby boardgaming has certain memes that can come across as both snobby and elitist – why Monopoly sucks, for example, or the more recent variant, why Settlers sucks. Or one that I’ve started to find particularly irritating: Hasborg. I get it – Hasbro puts out a bunch of crap and dominates the market. Stuff like Twilightopoly or My Little Pony Uno is a travesty and there’s nothing wrong with saying it. But Hasbro has actually put out some pretty damn good stuff over the past decade. Heroscape, for example, was a fabulous system that’s attracted a great community of fans and, yes, you could buy it in those “-mart” stores. Other notables include Epic Duels, Nexus Ops, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and Battleship Galaxies. They have some great designers putting out some great stuff, even if it doesn’t get the same kind of exposure as their more mainstream fare.
So when a game comes along that’s particularly innovative, the first assumption of most hobby gamers isn’t that it’s going to come from Hasbro. And when they do find out that it’s a Hasbro game and shares a common lineage with one of those downtrodden mainstream titles, immediately cynicism starts to take over. But let the game challenge some of the norms of hobby gaming and the gloves will come off. Destroying components? Writing on the board? Stickers? Permanent changes? Words like “gimmicky” and “disposable” and “bad product design” and “cynical cash-grab” will be among the kinder things said; people who find the premise intriguing will be called “morons” or worse. It’s like watching Comic Book Guy berate a fan who actually reads Radioactive Man #1.
Risk Legacy is the game, and those words are pulled from some of the comments on significant websites. Some people are calling it the game of the year, others are calling it the beginning of the end of hobby gaming as we know it. It’s easily the most polarizing game of the past several years, if not the last decade. And, yes, it’s a Risk game – but it’s not your daddy’s Risk. This version evolves over time. The map will change. You’ll write on the board. You’ll put down stickers, open hidden packets, reveal secret changes, tear up cards, and name continents after your favorite Italian restaurant (yes, this actually happened on my copy – thanks, Paul). You’ll make irrevocable alterations to your copy, and at the end, when all of the packets are open, all of the stickers are used up, and the ink in your marker has run dry, your copy will be completely unique. The board is even stamped with a unique id, just for effect – mine happens to be Earth #6698.
A lot of people are dismissing this as just another version of Risk, which isn’t exactly hailed as a paragon of game design. And, yes, it does start out that way, albeit with some significant changes for the better. The core combat mechanic is the same: attacker rolls three dice, defender rolls two, compare highest results to determine victor with ties going to the defender. You’re still not going to get unit differentiation or terrain modifiers or anything like that. The map is still the same, Australia and all – at least to begin with. But even right out of the box the game messes with the classic formula in some small but substantive ways. Personally, I’ve always thought that the real problem with classic Risk was never the combat, it was the victory condition. Complete world domination requires an unreal investment of time that far outlives the interesting decisions in the game. It encourages certain degenerate strategies like turtling and creates a game that lasts hours too long for what it is. This is compounded by two factors: the starting territory placement allows too many cards to be earned too quickly, and the escalating rewards for turning in cards encourages players to be the last to cash in. This creates a situation where players pick off weak territories while turtling in strongholds, waiting for the big payoff.
Legacy tweaks the formula by changing the victory condition from eliminating all other players to capturing stars. Each player controls a Headquarters piece that is worth one star. In addition, turning in four cards will earn a player one star, and players that have not yet signed the board signifying a victory also receive a star at the beginning of the game. Controlling four stars at the end of a turn will result in a victory; because each player begins with at least one star, two if they haven’t yet won a game, the focus shifts from turtling to aggressive strikes on opposing HQs. Cards are more difficult to earn in Legacy as well – although they’re still a reward for winning a battle, players do not begin the game spread across the map, but rather each player will place eight troops plus the HQ in a single territory from which they expand. This often allows several turns of maneuvering before forces come into conflict. Finally, because the rewards for turning in cards are static, and because cards can be used for either troops or stars, the valuation of holding or turning in cards changes significantly. Gaining more troops means delaying the opportunity for a guaranteed star, which creates interesting decision points throughout the game as short- and long-term goals are placed in tension. Add in variable faction powers and components that are top-notch, and the result is a fun, light, aggressive game that retains the classic version’s table talk and diplomacy while stripping away a lot of the elements that caused sessions to bog down. Our group’s first four games ran about 45 minutes each, resulting in back-to-back sessions in the course of an evening.
All of this would mean little more than another interesting Risk variant, except for the signature trait of Legacy – permanent, game-altering customizations to the components. This is the part of this review where I’m more limited than I’d like to be, because I don’t want to reveal any spoilers at this point for players who aren’t as far along in their game as we are. First, there’s the obvious stuff that’s available out of the gate – scars and rewards. Scars are stickers that alter a territory permanently by doing things such as adding or subtracting from a defender’s die rolls. They’re played at the beginning of combat, providing an element of surprise, but then remain in the territory in perpetuity. Rewards happen at the end of a game and constitute bigger changes to the map. They include changes such as city stickers that increase the population of a territory, coin stickers that change the value of cards, and the option to alter continent bonuses, for example. After five games, our map plays nothing like the first play. The changes are subtle but meaningful, and really shape the strategy and valuations of territories.
Then there’s the…other stuff. I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that the game contains a number of packets of hidden material that are opened and added to the game when certain conditions are met, such as a person signing the board for a second time or placing all of the Minor City stickers on the board. What’s in the packets? …Stuff. Game changing stuff. New cards and new stickers and, I think, new plastic – but I’m not sure because I haven’t opened that bin yet. New scars will come out (that’s in the rulebook), new card types will be introduced (that’s in the rulebook too), and new faction powers will be made available (also in the rules). New rules will be introduced, old rules will be superseded and the rulebook itself will be altered. The game will get more complex – it remains to be seen by exactly how much – and new options will present themselves. And it’s all done in a way that’s meaningful, not gimmicky. The players control their own destinies. You’ll earn the right to name a continent or found a city. You’ll earn the additional faction powers. You’ll uncover more paths to victory and you’ll learn not to let any one person get too powerful. And every decision you make will go on the board in a flurry of glue and ink, set down in permanence for everyone who comes after you to see and to rue. And for my money, that is a truly significant decision.
I understand that this game messes with the established tropes of boardgaming. It does things that are off the wall, outside the box, and against the norm. I get why people want a reset button or why some are trying to find a way to avoid the shockingly obvious conclusion that the design works best when it’s played as intended. But in practice it’s the difference between playing poker for M&Ms or playing it for money – while technically it’s the same game, it doesn’t work nearly as well when it’s not played for keeps. What changes? Well, for one, there’s so much going on that trying to track it in a way that allows do-overs just seems to me like so much extra busy work for not a lot of payoff. But more to the point, one thing that I think is commonly misunderstood about Risk is that it’s a game that happens primarily above the table. It’s not the mechanics that make a game of Risk enjoyable – it’s the metagame. It’s the trash talking and dealmaking and alliance breaking and bluffing and all that comes with it that makes the game fun. Playing for keeps – making the changes permanent – really elevates the game above the table. Not only does it raise the stakes, it creates situations where the game will enshrine those outcomes for future games. If you can take it back, then it loses something – something that may be hard to put into words, but something that’s still very tangible in-game. It loses gravitas.
Will everyone like this? Not a chance. For some, the game goes too far against established norms to be really enjoyable. For others, the core mechanics aren’t significantly different enough from a game that they’ve long since dismissed. And for others, the fact that it’s a game that depends highly on vibrant play above the table will be a dealbreaker. But in my group, I have three guys who haven’t played a game of Risk in years and one, my son, who’s cutting his teeth on a game that owes a lot to something I played when I was his age, all throwing dice, laughing, jeering, trash-talking, shouting, and on the edge of their seat waiting to see what happens when the battles are resolved or the packets are opened. And we’re recording the history that will form the world of Earth #6698 in a way that we can always come back to and revisit. Why would I want to reset that? Wiping out the history of a shared narrative seems far more destructive to me than writing it down and replaying it for years to come.