Sometimes I like to pretend the game is about massive giants shooting massive cannons at each other.
Some time ago, I mentioned my general distaste for board games – a distaste rooted in the fact that my attention span makes it difficult to remember long lists of rules without a computer there to help me, and the fact that I generally don’t fare very well in competitive situations. Playing a board game, for me, is pretty much opening myself up to once again be bested by somebody else, and up until recently I had no interest in playing a board game enough to get good at it.
Because, really, what do you stand to gain from being really, really good at a board game? All you get are bragging rights, and what you’re bragging about is only really important to people who’re familiar with the game. If you’re really good at basketball, people will assume that you can jump high and dunk and execute a mean bounce-pass. If you’re really good at a board game, people will assume that you can sit on the floor for long periods of time, presumably because you don’t have a job or girlfriend to distract you.
So when Patrick told me last month that he was starting up a weekly Risk game and I was invited, my decision to participate wasn’t motivated by the, “Risk is really fun, I think you’ll enjoy it” part of the conversation, but rather the “I’m going to order a couple of pizzas” part.
A month later, as I write this I’m browsing board game message boards for new gameplay variants and looking for a cheap copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War on Amazon. At long last, I have found a board game that I’m motivated to get really good at – although a lot of that could simply be because I’m motivated to beat the other people playing.
Like poker, a game of Risk is maybe 30% about the game and 70% about the people playing it. Casino Royale wasn’t about cards, it was about a bunch of people trying to fool and screw one another over while playing cards. Risk is like that, only it’s world domination and the people aren’t nearly as good looking.
The manual lays out the fairly simple rules for attacking and defending (determined by dice rolls, with the defender winning ties), accumulating new armies (the number is based both on the number of territories you control and the Risk cards you’ve accumulate), and winning*, but it stops just short of regulating in any way the wheeling and dealing of forging alliances with the other players, nor does it penalize you for going back on those deals when your friends need your help the most. It’s basically a sandbox in which you can exercise all your sociopathic urges against your friends, and that’s exactly what we do.
*Some people play variants of Risk that are designed for a shorter gameplay experience – the person controlling the most territories after five turns wins, for example, or the first to complete all the ‘secret missions’ on his Risk cards. These people are wusses. Like straight OGs, we play until one person controls every territory on the board.
Patrick, who owns the Risk board and hosts the games at his apartment, works the diplomacy angle the hardest, constantly urging the other players into suicide missions against his enemies between turns and striking under the table deals to facilitate another player’s downfall as soon as the player in question leaves to go to the bathroom. In spite of this, his one rule is that as a matter of principal he never goes back on any of the deals he forges with other players – he’s sort of like a really Machiavellian Batman in that respect.
Amanda, Patrick’s girlfriend, forgoes negotiation of any sort in favor of taking control of a continent, blockading herself in, and waiting it out for several turns, amassing significant bonus reinforcements because she controls an entire continent, before breaking out and demolishing the other weakened players. (This was how she won our most recent game, much to her boyfriend’s chagrin.)
Tommy, who picked up Risk at the same time that I did, builds his entire strategies around inconceivable luck and acts of God that allowed him to win the first game of Risk he ever played and be narrowly defeated at the end of the second game. It’s like he’s just better at rolling dice than the rest of us.
I, to some degree, copy Amanda’s strategy of blockading the first continent I can get my hands on and waiting until the time is right to make my move – however, I’m not above underhanded acts of terrorism in order to get ahead. (During one all night game, I started intentionally eating cheese and farting in hopes of convincing the other players to forfeit. They did not, and we played for another three hours with the windows open.)
Scruggs, Patrick’s best friend, is pure, absolute, black hearted evil. He has no interest in winning the game, and instead plays only to frustrate, infuriate, and troll the other players by invading one of their territories just so he can deny them a continent bonus, intentionally not attacking stronger players so they’ll demolish everyone, pursuing suicidal acts of vengeance against anyone who’s ever attacked him... He’s The Joker to Patrick’s Batman; when Alfred says that some men just want to watch the world burn, he’s talking about Scruggs.
Maybe that’s why I like Risk so much – the epic scale is fun and all, but it’s really more of a sociological litmus test to determine to learn just how horribly your friends will behave in the pursuit of something they want.
Truman Capps thinks Risk would be a bad addition to Family Game Night for that very reason.