Thursday, July 19, 2012

Risk: Legacy

Risk: Legacy is one of the most intriguing new games in recent years. Since I've been playing it a fair bit and enjoying it I've been wanting to write something about it. This has proved more difficult than it appeared.

I think the problem in talking about this game is that the design is ultimately a bit of a mess, a mish-mash of ideas without any coherence or real design focus. As such, it defies easy description. Risk: Legacy builds on Risk: Revised, but it layers on a lot of rules chrome – starting with Missiles, scars, cities, and the requisite rules for customization, with rules being almost continuously added as each packet is opened (this gets to be a fairly complicated game pretty fast). As the silly back-story of multiple cloned worlds being fought for all over the galaxy indicates, there is little creative drive behind all these game systems, and so I can't convey to you what it is all trying to do because, honestly, it's not clear. You get to put stickers on game components and rip stuff up. That's pretty cool as far as it goes. What all this is in service of though, who knows.

Here is an example that combines both game-play and thematic elements. I've tried to keep the spoilers minimal and vague, but you'll inevitably learn a little bit about the packets by reading it.

The game introduces Missiles in the rules, which you start using on game 2. You never get any explanation of what they are thematically, so you play them as just little tactical fillips (you spend them to turn a die into a 6 once per game). Later, the packets develop the missile element by giving the factions special ways to use them, mostly fairly minor. Then later, and all of a sudden, all those missiles you've been using since game 2 in marginal ways and which were never described turn out to have been serious nuclear weapons, and the game introduces mutants and radiation hazards. It's cool but disjointed and completely out of the blue. The packets also introduce biohazards, which are themselves unlinked to any of the game's other thematic elements, but get folded into the mutant thread at that point. If one had wanted a game themed around nuclear devastation, why not unify all this stuff into a coherent thematic thread, with the missiles explicitly specified as nuclear at the beginning, driving a nuclear devastation mechanic, until you get the explosive mutant event? Instead we just get a bunch of random stuff which feels like a thematic paste-on to a blender of game mechanics.

This is the thing that bothers me the most about Risk: Legacy. There is just no coherence to the storytelling. Stuff happens at random intervals. You have absolutely no idea what might be in those packets. Obviously, it's best if what comes out of the packs are a surprise, but if it's just random, there is no anticipation which might build suspense. It's just random. The customization element of the game is fun to play, but a lost opportunity to do something really interesting from a story perspective.

I think other than this, the game's biggest problem is around one key change to Risk: instead of drafting all the territories and filling up the board as in the classic game, players pick a home space, plop a bunch of armies in it, and then expand to fill up the board. This is problematic. The classic Risk had an early game of cut-and-thrust as everyone tried to get their continent bonuses, and while Australia was easy and Europe was hard, the rewards were not totally out of whack with the risks. Unfortunately the new scheme has upset this. Small continents are now much easier to control, since players start with only 8-12 armies concentrated in one space instead of 20-30+ all over the board, as in the classic game. Start areas are more dispersed, and since Asia isn't a viable setup region Australia gets a free ride. With the small numbers of starting armies, even Europe and North America are insanely difficult to consolidate. So Australia and South America become impossibly powerful, since you can get your bonus armies right away and then plink the suckers in Europe, Africa, and America every turn to deny them the bonus until they wither due to lack of units. Risk is a game of attrition, so those continent bonuses are big. Our first 4 games every single winner came out of Australia in a walk. At that point Australia had been nerfed by the various customization options, so the next couple winners came out of South America. It wasn't until game 7 that a winner came out of Europe, and it was only because South America and Australia had finally been totally hammered by scars and game events.

Risk: Legacy doesn't really deliver on its promise, unfortunately. It's still a fun game, especially if you're a Risk fan as I admit I am. If you're interested in seeing some promising mechanics in action, definitely check it out. There are great ideas here. Unfortunately, the game design itself is somewhat incoherent and we will need to wait for the ideas to be developed. In the meantime, we can have fun with stickers and scribbling on the board.