Why We Don’t Play Risk Anymore

September 21, 2009

Whenever I describe the particular flavors of games that I tend to play, people always ask, “Are they sort of like Risk?” This has got to be up there with, “You mean like Dungeons and Dragons?” a phrase commonly heard by roleplayers holding conversations with the uninitiated. The equivalent for a hardcore video gamer would be, “So you play games like Pong?” The answer in all three cases is a vague variation on, “Yeah…but the games I play are more fun than that.” I think what gamers mean to say is, “The games I play are more elegant than that.” These hobbies develop, and the mechanics of the past feel cumbersome to regular enthusiasts.

All of this does lead to an interesting question: why don’t I play Risk anymore? It’s sitting upstairs on my game shelf, but it has been banished to the bottom of the pile alongside Clue and Monopoly. I played a decent amount of Risk between 2004-2006, perhaps four games a year, but as my interest in gaming grew, it fell by the wayside. This is due, in large part, to the mechanics.

Risk is, quite obviously, a dice fest, and one in which I don’t feel the better player comes out on top. Simply put, it has a high degree of randomness to it which detracts from the play experience. In a shorter game, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but Risk sessions do have a tendency to stretch past the four hour mark.

In addition to this, the reinforcement mechanic is just plain whacky. I can’t think of another game in which you get greater numbers of reinforcements as the game progresses. This means the game actually slows down as you play! You think you’ve got your opponent cornered when he turns in a set of Risk cards and suddenly he’s laying out 50 new armies. “Congratulations,” I always think to myself, “You have just extended our play time by another hour…”

Last, this game suffers from a defect most older wargames share: players can get knocked out early on in the game. This means one of your buddies faces the awful choice of a) watching over your shoulder for two hours, b) channel surfing while you finish, or c) driving home hours before everyone else.

Risk isn’t a terrible game by any means, but game design has moved beyond it. I think the best thing it offers us hobby enthusiasts is a way to identify people who might be interested the newer games we’re playing. If ever I hear a person say, “We pulled Risk out over Christmas and had a blast,” I know I need to invite him or her to our next gaming get-together. And every niche group needs something to play the role Risk does–it’s a small piece of the hobby that is recognizable by the public and serves as a gateway to more enjoyable and rewarding games.