Lessons Learned From Risk Legacy, Part 1

Geek Culture

Risk Legacy sealRisk Legacy seal

The seal on Risk Legacy. I didn’t cut it open for a month. Photo: Jonathan Liu

A couple months ago, I was sent a copy of Risk Legacy, Hasbro’s new spin on the classic board game of global dominance. I was never a huge fan of Risk. I remember getting a copy, maybe for a birthday, and for a while never actually finished a single game because it went on for so long and we usually lost interest or ran out of time. Then on a rare afternoon at home with just my dad, I taught him how to play. He wiped me out in 45 minutes. Somehow I never played the game in college (though I knew friends who played it obsessively). It wasn’t until about five years ago that a friend of mine got the Star Wars: Clone Wars edition of the game and really wanted to play, so I gave it a shot. My brother (also a Risk newbie) and I were on a team against him, and he trounced us pretty handily well before we’d gotten very far into the timeline.

All that to say: I simply haven’t played a lot of Risk, and certainly don’t consider myself an expert on the subject.

However, this latest version, Risk Legacy, raised a host of interesting questions for me, even about larger issues pertaining to worldviews and how I raise my kids. Most of my thoughts were along these two lines: first, about the nature of game development, particularly in sequels and reboots; secondly, about how my personality is tied to what types of games I prefer. I’ll focus on the first line of thought in this post, and get to the second later on.

If you’re looking for a game review, this isn’t it. But if you’ll allow me a little philosophical blathering, it could be fun. I promise to include references to board games, sci-fi novels, and iPad apps.

Risk Legacy boardRisk Legacy board

A pristine Risk Legacy board, ready to be marked up. Photo: Jonathan Liu


On the Nature of Sequels

Ok, I’ll start with Risk Legacy. Here’s the gimmick: everyone’s copy of the game is the same at the start, but as you play the game you’ll affect your own version of the world. There are stickers to be placed on territories — cities add to your population for collecting troops, bunkers make territories easier to defend. Each faction gets to choose a special power on the first game, and there are additional powers which will be “unlocked” as you play. In fact, the first fifteen games played on the board will mold and shape both the battlefield and the troops, so that in time your copy of Risk Legacy will be unique, with its own characteristics. There are packets of cards and stickers which are to be opened only when certain conditions are met. You can tear up certain cards, never to be used again. You write on the board. “What’s done can never be undone.”

When I initially saw the game and read about how it worked, I had two conflicting emotional reactions. The part of me that loves to try a new game thought it was a brilliant way to inject some much-needed variation into the game of Risk. A board that forces people to change their strategy from game to game? Fantastic. But another part of me, the one that tries to keep all of my board games in pristine condition and refuses to throw away all of those big boxes that I’ve replace with smaller versions, shuddered at the thought of making these permanent alterations to a game. Tearing up a card? Unthinkable!

Most of my gaming friends were pretty excited about this new version of Risk. They loved the idea of an evolving board and being able to manipulate the world within the game. So I tried to put my own doubts into perspective: why was I so uneasy about the concept? What was it about that sticker that made me pause each time I considered breaking the seal and opening the game? Maybe it’s just me being anal retentive about components, wanting to preserve things in as pristine condition as I can. Or perhaps it’s because I like the ability to replicate an experience: okay, so I lost this time; let’s play again and I’ll try a different strategy to see if I do better. On an ever-changing board, you can’t do that. If I do better or worse next time, is it because of my strategy or because the board has changed? Imagine trying to get better at chess if, every time you played it, the rules changed just a little. And then, when you played it at a friend’s house, their rules were different from yours.

Carcassonne expansionsCarcassonne expansionsOn the other hand, variation is what gives a game replayability. I totally understand that. It’s the reason why there are so many expansions available for Dominion, or Thunderstone, or Carcassonne. It’s the reason for sequels to books and movies and videogames. After you’ve played a game (or watched a movie, or read a book) so many times, you want a fresh experience. Expansions and sequels shake up the status quo, force players to rethink their approach to a game, give you a change of scenery. But at the same time, they give us more of the same.

Here’s what I mean by that: when I add another set of tiles to Carcassonne, I’m not looking for a totally different game. If I were, I could switch to Settlers of Catan or Yomi or, heck, Candyland. I want something that’s like this game I’ve been enjoying, something that is somehow new but also the same. It’s a tricky balance for the creator of any type of sequel: how do you please your existing audience? Make a huge leap in a new direction, and you lose them. They complain that you’ve lost your path, that you’ve sold out, you’ve betrayed your faithful followers. But don’t change enough, and the audience gripes that it’s just an unoriginal rehash, the same old thing with shiny new packaging.

But we’re hooked on this, right? I get hooked on app after app on my iPad, games that require you to do repetitive tasks, time-management games that are very similar in mechanics but are just dressed up differently. Somebody tells me about a new app, and even though I know that it’s not really a different game, I go try it out, and I see that it’s similar to something I’ve played before, and I put several more hours into this new-but-not-really-new game.

Constellation Games by Leonard RichardsonConstellation Games by Leonard RichardsonIn the sci-fi novel Constellation Games, there’s a scene in which an alien asks Ariel, the protagonist, to explain videogame sequels. Ariel is a programmer, and one of the games he worked on was Sparkle Ponies 5 (not a real game, bronies). Ariel tells the alien that Sparkle Ponies is a videogame designed for tweens. They release the game, and tweens buy it up. But then they get older, and a new crop of kids rises into the target demographic. Nobody wants to buy a year-old game, so they change a few things, add a feature here and there, maybe redo the graphics, and release a sequel. And so on. Ariel’s explanation is pretty similar to what I just said in the previous paragraphs: that we like things to be different but the same. Game companies are scared to make big, innovative leaps because they don’t want to alienate their core audience, so (for the most part) they settle for small iterations, tiny changes that don’t amount to much. The alien shakes his head: we’re doomed.

My dualistic reaction to Risk Legacy is a reflection of these conflicting desires. Here somebody has made a game which, in essence, contains its own sequels. Each time you play (well, at least for the first fifteen rounds), you’re getting a slightly different iteration of the one before. It’s the same game, but not quite. It is a game that manages to be new but not new. My brain has fits trying to figure out what to make of that.

In the end, I’m somebody who usually likes trying something new. I love variations and usually, given the choice, will try a brand-new game over playing something I’ve already experienced. It’s the shotgun approach — broad but not always deep — and knowing this about myself helps. I like to try new things, but I can remind myself that there’s value in the old as well.

Whether Risk Legacy ends up being a game I play much or enjoy at all, I appreciate it for this: it sparked a fascinating (to me, at least) thought experiment which has carried over into how I look at sequels and reboots in general.

Tune in next week for Part 2: how Risk Legacy and The Game of Life made me realize I’m a bleeding heart liberal.

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