I wouldn’t consider anything in this review to be a spoiler, and I’m about as spoilerphobic a guy as you are likely to meet. But spoilers are in the eye of the beholder, so caveat emptor. If you are really worried, skip the section entitled “The Playtest”.
Why does a board game review requires a spoiler warning? Read on.
Every once in a while an extraordinary idea galvanizes the board game community. Dominion, for instance, introduced (or, rather, refined) the idea of a game centered on deck building, and dozens of games utilizing this mechanism have since been released. Before that it was the idea of “worker placement”, pioneered by the seminal Caylus.
Risk Legacy, the newest version of the classic war game, is built around such an idea, though it would be more accurate to describe the premise as “polarizing” than “galvanizing”. Reaction to the announcement of the game ranged from accolades to derision, and spirited debates abounded months before it was published. But no one, not even that game’s fiercest critics, could deny that the central conceit of the game is extraordinary–and perhaps even brilliant.
Here’s the hook: as you play Risk: Legacy, the game changes. I don’t mean in the conventional sense of gameplay evolving as players become more experienced; I mean the game literally, physically changes. The components include an assortment of stickers, which players use to irrevocably alter play: stickers affixed to the board forever enhance or mar the topography, stickers added to cards permanently revise their value and utility, and so forth.
But wait, as they say: there’s more. The rules frequently ask–demand!–that players take up Sharpies and annotate the board, to name continents, record events, and immortalize victories by scrawling their John Hancock on the “Winner’s List”.
Some events require that cards be removed from the game. This is not uncommon–many games ask you to “take cards out of play” by setting them aside or returning them to the box; only in Risk: Legacy are you told to do so by ripping them into confetti and then tossing them in the trash. The horror.
The upshot of all this is that, after your first game, you are playing on a board unlike any other in existence, with cities positioned according to your whims, locations named by your opponents, and cards customized per the preferences of your game group. And that’s just the beginning. The Risk: Legacy box contains a number of sealed packets and compartments, which are only opened when specific conditions are met (e.g., a single player wins his second game). Opening a cache may introduce to the mix new cards, new stickers, new rules, and even new pieces (maybe! I don’t even know!). The game was designed to be played at least 15 times, preferably with the same group of people.
It’s difficult to overstate how anathema this is to many gamers, for whom even minor wear on the edges of a card is a travesty on par with the Hindenburg. The idea of defacing cards on purpose has some railing about the impending tsunami of “disposable games”, even though Risk: Legacy is, to date, the only game featuring this innovation.
Me? I’m a sucker for a gimmick. I had to have it.
Sealed packets introduce new elements into the game as milestones are reached
Risk: Legacy is … well, it’s Risk, albeit Risk with a science-fiction theme and a 100-word backstory so ridiculous that it was apparently dashed it off in the moments before the game went to press. As in the original, the map depicts Earth divided into 48 Territories, into which players place Troops. On a turn a player selects a Territory he occupies and commits a number of Troops to attacking an adjacent space owned by an opponent. Dice are rolled and Troops are removed; when the defender’s Territory is vacant the attacker moves in and can continue his conquest. At the end of a turn in which a player took at least one Territory he receives a card, and these cards may later be redeemed to receive bonus Troops.
That’s what’s the same; the biggest difference between Risk: Legacy and its progenitor are the victory conditions. In the classic Risk, a player only wins after systematically eliminating all of his opponents and controlling every Territory on the board, a process that typically takes three or four or seven hours. Here, the goal is simply to obtain four Red Stars. Each player begins play with a Headquarters, and ownership of an HQ is worth one Red Star. Much of the game revolves around the battle for these HQs, as control of four–regardless of to whom they initially belonged–wins the game.
There are, of course, lots of additional tweaks to the original design. But the game is much more Risk than not.
We watch in irritation as J. prepares for war
Four of us gathered Sunday evening to break in my copy of Risk: Legacy; we conscripted our host’s 13-year-old daughter to fill the fifth position.
I am, and always have been, a fan of Risk, even though I dislike the player elimination and find the playing time to be entirely too long. Some of my fellow players are less charitable to the original game. But we all enjoyed this latest incarnation.
We played the game three times in a row, in the space of perhaps two and a half hours. Early games go quick; until a player has won at least one game he begins with a free Red Star in addition to his starting HQ, and therefore needs only two more points to win. (The length of future games increase as, one by one, players require three Red Stars beyond their starting HQ for victory instead of two.)
The “gimmick” of the game–that of altering the components as you play–has real strategic implications. Early in game one, for instance, I applied a “bunker” sticker to Greenland, which gave the Territory a defensive advantage; as a result, Greenland became a good place for a player to hunker down in the second and third game. Another player used stickers to increase the value of the China card, turning the corresponding Territory into a resource coveted by all.
As one of my opponents observed, the brevity of the game lends itself to bolder play; if you take a gamble and fail, you will only suffer the consequences for another 20 minutes or so. In other words, this version of Risk actually encourages its namesake, and the game is more exciting for it.
We opened our first sealed packet at the end of our third game, to reveal new cards and rules. I won’t describe them, but I’ll confess to looking forward to our next match, eager to see how they affect play. The premise of Risk: Legacy–that of a game that evolves as you play it–appears to work exactly as intended.
Because my opponents wanted to start in China, and the rules disallow starting in a Territory with a sticker, I founded the city of Skruyu.
My policy is never to review a game until I have played it at least three times. In one sense I have fulfilled this obligation, having played Risk: Legacy thrice Sunday night. In another very real sense, though, I’ve only played a fifth of the game. With rules, cards, and pieces entering the game over the course of 15 plays, I still haven’t experienced everything it has to offer.
Given my previous statement, that I like Risk except for the player elimination and the long playing time, it stands to reason that I would enjoy a version of Risk that has neither. And I did, quite a bit. I remain unconvinced that my enthusiasm won’t wane before we reach game 15, though. An alternative peril, since the game is designed to be played by the same group week after week, is that I will want to play through to the end, but that one or more of my colleagues will eventually beg off.
Of course the “evolution” element is designed to address this, to goose the replayablity of what is at heart a pretty simple game. Whether it succeeds remains to be seen–we have another play session on the books for next Sunday, and I will report back after.
If I make it through game 15, what will I do with Risk: Legacy then? Maybe just toss it out; by that point the board will be covered with graffiti, the cards will have been defiled and destroyed, and, for all I know, I may be instructed to set fire to the box at some point. You might think that $50 for a game you’ll only play 15 times is a total rip-off, and many are making this very argument. But honestly, 15 plays ain’t bad for a game, especially one that can provide a unique experience. I don’t regret my purchase yet and, based on what I’ve seen so far, do not anticipate doing so.
Rob Daviau, the designer of Risk: Legacy, responds via Twitter:
Rob discusses his inspiration for the design in this NPR story.