Risk: Black Ops

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.

11 thoughts on “Risk: Black Ops

  1. I like your analysis of Risk as a game caught between two audiences (but still playing a vital role for both). But I will posit a third audience it is well suited for: families. No gamer group would be likely to keep it in their rotation, but when I was growing up, it was the perfect game for me and my equally geeky brother to play with our practical dad. Even once we got into bigger games like Axis or Civilization, we would spend many pleasant hours conquering the world with my family.

    Of course, this may be a historical anomaly – there were no German games available in America at the time. But once my son is a bit older, I’ll be pulling out Risk alongside Settlers for the family.

  2. Damn… once again I see evidence that it’s great shame that I missed Risk. Yet another downside to being born in the USSR I guess, can’t remember any strategy boardgames except for Monopoly, which I quite liked though found it a bit too simplistic.

    For someone who hasn’t played the boardgame, would the PC implementation still be worth looking at?

  3. I would wait until a digital version of Black Ops is available… I definitely can’t recommend the original Risk to players comfortable with fairly complex game.

    If you’ve never player many board games, then do what you can to import a version of Settlers of Catan. It’s a legitimate masterpiece in game design.

  4. Interesting analysis, but one major flaw: the objectives-based ruleset has been a part of the games since somewhere in the 80s, when I first played the game. It sounds like this version does have a different rewards system to any version I’ve come across though.

    MicroProse has a good PC version of, which includes the ‘objectives’ gameplay but also a very interesting ‘SameTime’ mode in which turns occur concurrently (amoung other things!) The multi-phase conflict resolution is much richer than the traditional board-games rules. Well worth a look.

  5. I think you’re comments are pretty much right on the money. We’ve played this as a kind of in-between game at my quarterly game-weekends. I think it fills a niche between truly beer-and-pretzels filler like a game of Bohnanza or something, and a more intense game like Power Grid. With people who know the system (it’s not exactly rocket science) it can play VERY quickly.

  6. Excellent points, Soren. I hadn’t thought about the idea of a defensive vs. offensive game. You could really use that concept in a lot of the RTS games out there as well. I see quite a bit of both as you and I spend quality time together via Civ 4. However, there are games where one manner of play is more advantageous than the other.

    One thing an analysis of Risk is good for is an example of the “excitement curve”. Risk has that initial rush of jockeying for position, then a long slow period of attrition. Eventually, there is a period of increasing momentum as one or two players barrel through the remains of the competition. But cleaning up the remains of a player is rather boring as they hunker down defensively in their last remaining areas. Everyone knows the game is out of hand at that point and you are begging for someone to capitulate. It is in this phase that the game is no longer fun, but rather a chore. There is much to be learned from this particular aspect of Risk.

    That is what makes me curious about this new version in that you say it is often over too quickly. It seems like they tried to address my above complaint but may have overshot the mark. *shrug*

    Again, good read, Soren.

  7. @Dave: Black Ops can end quickly, but I don’t think it ends “too” quickly. A lot of strategy games have this problem where you want it to end with a bang, not with a whimper.

    @Laurie: Really? Which version was this?

  8. I always recommend Nexus Ops for Risk players wanting something new. Like Black Ops, it’s objective-based (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired Black Ops, especially considering the name).

    You earn victory points for fulfilling objectives from your hand, such as win a battle in a swamp; defeat an opponent’s dragon; win a combat using the weakest soldiers. You draw a new objective each turn, so you always have a range of options, encouraging attacks.

    The first player to grab an unclaimed square gets a bonus unit or resource generator, encouraging spreading.

    Defending players who lose a combat get a consolation prize — a power-up card that helps them in later combats.

    The combined effect of these rules is that turtling is the worst option. It’s often better to be attacked and lose than not fight at all.

  9. In the interview I linked to above, Rob said that he played Nexus Ops once but didn’t remember much about it. Maybe something sunk in subliminally, who know?

    Sounds like an interesting game, though… I definitely approve of offensive games. (er, so to speak)

  10. I take it from your article that you have not played the existing Risk Updates – Risk 2210 and Risk Godstorm. Both are excellent, and go about improving the basic Risk franchise in ways similar to the Black Ops.

    Risk 2210 (which appeals more to me because of the high-tech angle) is especially nice in the way it improves upon Risk. Players earn equal amounts of armies and “energy credits”. Armies are the same, but credits are used to buy extra resources – including bidding for turn order. The whole game is exactly 5 turns long. This promotes the offensive mind set, and gives enough options that a good Whole Game Strategy can be a critical factor.

    If you have the capacity to pick it up, I strongly reccommend it.

    Keep up the good work!

    –Mr. Strange

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