Risk is a funny game. Almost everyone who is a gamer of some sort has played it, but almost no one continues to play it. A classic “gateway” game, Risk can give players enough of a taste of real strategy to lead them to better world conquest games (Diplomacy, History of the World, Axis & Allies) and then inevitably to the wonderful world of German gaming (Settlers of Catan, Power Grid, Carcassonne). Or, Risk can leave players shell-shocked from an eight-hour, late-night, caffeine-fueled marathon won by the guy who hunkered down in Australia, and they run right back to Monopoly and Scrabble. Risk either pushes players forward or scares them off, but who actually keeps it in their active rotation?
I definitely fall into the former category, and I am sure that I have not played Risk with my board gaming friends since the late ’80s, which was before I could even drive. Nonetheless, the Risk franchise has been undergoing a bit of a renaissance lately, based on some spin-offs with suprisingly high BoardGameGeek ratings. Now, Hasbro is going all the way with a full update of the standard version, to be released later this year. Until that time, a “stealth” version entitled Risk: Black Ops has been floating around the gaming world – only 1000 copies were printed – and I had a chance to playtest the game last week with some gamers on the Spore team.
The most important change is that victory is no longer based on world domination. Instead, eight randomly selected Objectives are the key; the first player to achieve three wins the game. The specific goals can vary from controlling Asia (always a classic!) to capturing a Continent in one turn to conquering a certain number of Cities. (Territories with Cities – randomly assigned at game start – are worth double for recruitment.) Further, each Objective is randomly assigned a Reward for the victor, such as an extra defense die or bonus recruits.
Note how many times I used the word “randomly” in the preceding paragraph. Black Ops first clear success is that, even when using the classic, fixed Earth map, the game’s “terrain” is always different depending on how everything shakes out during the set-up phase. Players are well advised to take a moment before claiming Territories to predict where conquest will be focused, depending on the game’s unique environment. The most important change, however, is the Objectives as they fundamentally shift the Risk‘s balance from a defensive game to an offensive one. In general, offensive games tend to be more fun as players get to actually do something instead of waiting for others to make the mistake of overextending their forces.
Because claiming Objectives is so important, players will focus all their attention and troops on achieving one during their individual turns. Maybe I can actually grab Asia this turn? Should I make a push to grab my neighbor’s Capital? Can I really pick up 18 Territories? These grand risks lead to an interesting gameplay rhythm; because the player before you may have stretched themselves thin to control North and South America for the Two Continents Objective, you now have a path from North Africa to their Capital in Argentina to grab the Enemy Capital Objective. In turn, the following player can now take advantage of your weakness in Africa to grab enough cities to achieve the 11 Cities Objective.
In the old version, players would have spent their time turtling, attacking just enough to earn a card in hopes of eventually booming. Risk: Black Ops, on the other hand, is all raid, all of the time, and for a game attempting to fit neatly within two hours, this change is a welcome one. The Rewards system can even allow for some interesting reversals of fortune; in one game, I was puttering along poorly until I opportunistically grabbed an enemy Capital to take the extra attack die Reward, enabling me to make a run and wipe out a neighbor, suddenly grabbing his two Objectives for the victory. Quite a few players are going to be shocked at just how quickly this game can end.
Black Ops is not without its flaws. The City concept sounds good in print but doesn’t work so well in action. Territories with Cities are worth double when recruiting new troops, making them valuable locations. However, two Objectives are specifically tied to capturing or controlling Cities, making them something of a hot potato. In our second playthrough, we actually avoided picking Cities during the initial set-up because these locations are marked for death, so to speak. While this tension is interesting, I felt like the game would be stronger if locations of value existed without regard to the all-important Objectives. Also, perhaps out of pure nostalgia, I prefer the old build-a-set card mechanic over the newer and much simpler one based on only two types of cards. Further, the card balance feels off as the game is over so quickly that one has a hard time imagining the advantages of holding out for more cards over the long-term instead of making a short-term push for another precious Objective.
Nonetheless, Black Ops is a genuinely good game, one that I anticipate coming back to many times in the future. The best thing about the design – and this is a tricky problem for designers working within an established franchise – is that the game still feels like Risk. The new rules are all simple extensions of the old core mechanics, almost like variations on a theme. No rule will feel alien to players comfortable with the old series. Thus, Black Ops (or whatever they are eventually going to call it) will be a perfect game for introducing casual players to real strategy games; I can easily imagine convincing my non-gaming friends to give it a try. They may not be ready for Agricola yet, but Risk‘s conversion rate is about to go up considerably.
By the way, here is a link to a nice interview with Rob Daviau, designer of the new version.