Risk Legacy, Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and the Madness of Crowds

In which the author bumbles his way into a controversy, without really being aware of what had transpired.

Risk Legacy and NPRSome days a fella can back himself into a corner without even knowing it. Apparently the new version of Risk, Risk Legacy, is a groundbreaking experiment in creating a durable narrative in game form. Who knew? The game is played in a fashion where the act of playing it changes the game in a fashion that becomes permanent. Stickers are placed on the board, permanently altering it. The board becomes marked as conquest occurs and cities are taken over and renamed. Secret envelopes come into play as the game progresses, with instructions to continuously alter the board, or cards, or whatever. Even to the point of ripping cards in half and throwing them away. The stated intention of the designer, Rob Daviau, is that you and your gaming group will be creating your own game narrative during the process, a specific campaign local to that time and that place and that group of people. At the end of the game you’ll have an extremely unique and individualized experience, and you’ll be able to appreciate the game even more because you’ve made it something truly yours.

Undeniably, by his own admission and the rules themselves, you’ll also have a game that cannot be reset to zero. Forever after, your Risk Legacy game will bear the marks of that single session or group of sessions that resulted in your individualized game. Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Results seem a little uneven from the feedback I’ve been reading. I do know that for fifty bucks plus, my initial reaction was something along the lines of “yeah, you can keep that. Thanks. It’s still RISK”

Now, if I had only shut up about it, it would have ended there. But nooooo, I had to comment on BGG.

I first heard about Risk: Legacy on one of the five or six podcasts about gaming I listen to on a semi regular basis. The podcaster sounded incredibly dubious about a game that changes permanently as its played, and I picked up on that. Further investigation and reading up on the game on the Hasbro site didn’t make it seem any more attractive, and I was cynical. So I ended up doing something I never do, and that’s rate a game without playing it around the middle of September. I gave it a one with some strong language berating Hasbro for attempting to pick our pockets in such a blatant fashion:

  • Rating based upon preliminary rules read, and general disgust with this idea. Am I the only person in the universe that thinks this is a moronic notion? You’re purchasing a commercial game (presumably at today’s hefty prices) to play a campaign that basically alters the original game to a state where it is unusable for a second game? Ask yourself how big of a moron Hasbro takes you for. This is either genius or a cynical cash grab by Hasbro, and I won’t bother revealing which one my money’s on.

Now, if I had rated Risk Legacy with a N/A, I doubt I would have heard any more about this– I pretty much forgot about it back in September, when I wrote that comment. Life moves on and there are other games, and I couldn’t be bothered with the matter any more; it’s only boardgames, right? Wrong.

Around the end of October, I got an email from a producer at NPR, Travis Larchuk. Travis was interested in interviewing me about “the Risk Legacy controversy”. Hmmmm? What controversy? So I called him back, and he explained that a flame war had been brewing about this Risk Legacy thing, and could I give him some comments? Whoops. I didn’t want to get blindsided so I read ahead a little bit to see what had been going on since I had last paid attention. Me rating it a “1” without actually playing it was frowned upon– and I had to admit, that did seem intellectually dishonest, at least a tad maladroit, so I did retract the “1” and changed it to “N/A”, but left the rest of my earlier cynical response ride unchanged. Reading some of the responses, and then blog posts, really didn’t sell the game any more than it had earlier, but I did get to sample some delightful prose from bloggers who somehow mentally transposed being bloviatng vulgarians with the notion that they had something profound and witty to say.

As for those people who couldn’t escape the conclusion that permanently marking up and destroying bits of a game was, somehow making it impossible to reset, or destroying the original game state:

“All those people are slack-jawed, stooped-gait, mouth-breathing, drooling idiots who have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about in any way, shape or form, and their arguments are based on conjecture and an obsessive-compulsive desire to treat their board games as if they were priceless collectibles, rather than boxes of cardboard that will be worth less than ten dollars by this time next year.”

“I have seen more than one graduate of the Internet School of Self-Importance (yes, he typed that with a straight face. read on!) announce that Risk Legacy was asking us to destroy the game. That is a load of horse manure. You will destroy elements of your game as you play, but for every element that you throw away, you’ll add two more. You’re not ruining you’re game, you’re building it, and the decisions you make will shape your world to make it different from every other copy of Risk Legacy.”

(one of the better examples, from a blog called “Drake’s Flames”)

Harsh, I suppose, but the lad does have a right to have an opinion. As mentioned, I did the right thing, of course, and explained in the comments that I had redacted my rating to N/A because that hurts BGG’s rating system to rate an unplayed game as a “1”. And then I called Travis back to do the interview thing. You can hear the whole thing right here. My responses were truncated. We talked for about a half hour real time and this is pretty much the little nuggets of wisdom that actually got used:

(NPR Morning Edition November 25, 2011)

I suspected it would end up like this. I have been interviewed about gaming before and it’s always a shocker to see how little of what you say gets retained– and I think Travis wanted a negative response to be presented. The story doesn’t work as a controversy without a designated Mister Cranky Pants, and that’s me, I suppose. Actually my real reaction at that point has been one of amusement. It’s genuinely funny that people have become some overwrought over this game. I think this is really the first time I’ve experienced, albeit somewhat after the fact, the effects of a virtual crowd of pitchfork wielding villagers on Boardgamegeek. It’s been an interesting event, and it’s given me a chuckle.

My friend Todd Goff asked me if I had changed my mind since I had posted my original knee-jerk response back in September. Honestly, I’m of two minds. Listening to Rob Daviau on the NPR show certainly gave me insight into what he was trying to achieve with Risk: Legacy and I sneakily admit I admire his attempt here. The anecdote about Colonel Mustard being the killer three times in a row was perfect for achieving that purpose. I understand that players do create an individualized game narrative through the act of playing. But still, that narrative is only good for those individual players, for that time and that place. With Risk: Legacy you can’t recreate it, and I strongly suspect one group’s wonderful epochal game experience won’t translate at all well to a different group picking up the same, marked and changed game. So in the end, yeah, it’s about creation and destruction, and whether you think that is genius or not genius. I think it’s different and interesting, but no, I wouldn’t purchase the game for myself, but I would like to play it with someone. It’s still Risk. But as I said to Todd, I’d be more than happy to assist someone else permanently create their own gaming narrative with their fifty dollar copy of Risk.

Risk Legacy in a Store

Guess what Anne wants for Christmas this year!

Related: Designer interview on “Old Boardgamers” blog


10 responses to “Risk Legacy, Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and the Madness of Crowds

  1. Pingback: Boardgames will never be a cultural phenomenon. Sorry, Ghost of George Parker… | Third Point of Singularity

  2. It will be interesting to see how many gamers continue to play their copies after all of the modifications are complete. That will be the test of whether the game is truly “disposable” or not.

  3. That, and whether one group of people’s fantastic gaming experience means anything to another group of people picking up the game after those modifications are made. The game is chock full of history, even I admit that. But that history doesn’t apply to the new players. It’s just a marked up copy of a novelty Risk game to them. Will it hold the same appeal of creation and myth-making to a new batch of players? I’m betting that it won’t. Given that, Rob Daviau’s version of Risk, while highly entertaining once, is going to end up being disposable. It can’t be repeated by its very nature.

  4. Imperial Balkanian Soldier (Purple guys with capes)

    He defends and retracts his statement at the same time, admitting he has no idea what he’s saying, but does not want to be wrong. Yes, permanent change will make the board only playable (at least desirable) to those who marked it. However, those who buy the LEGACY board usually have at least one other Risk board to play with the half dedicated other friends who want to play once a year as well. And 15 games for 5 players at sixty dollars is less than a buck a game. Shut up and go complain about the tax on gas and oil, They cost you more and it ARE a blatant grab at your wallet. You can just NOT BUY this game if you don’t like it. Personally, I am currently playing it with TWO groups, on TWO boards and don’t think it’s a waste.

    • Retract and defend? I retracted a zero rating on BGG because even I (who am a little critical of this game) thought that doesn’t do any game rating system justice if I have only read the rules and not played it yet. I admit, after hearing the designer clarify his reasons and intentions on NPR, I understand where he was coming from and sneakily wouldn’t mind at least seeing it played once. I still think it’s a bit stupid, but hey, if you like it this much, have fun, it’s a free country. I won’t buy it, but I’m sure it will sell out to folks such as you and your gaming group. That doesn’t mean I’ll “just shut up” because you have a different opinion. As for the rest of your diatribe, the poor grammar and the insults.. it’s fine, I understand you get a little incoherent when you get upset. Relax, it’s just a game. 😀

  5. It seems to me that you’re “defense” is just to insult the person’s grammar and attitude so you can easily discount what they are saying. He’s not wrong. You made a snap judgment on something you didn’t even try. And in your article here, you did the same thing. you insulted the grammar and attitude of the people complaining about your original statements and rating. Their being illiterate does not mean you should discount what they say. I hate that argument.

    • I’m sorry, I don’t quite agree with your response. I refer to the poor grammar and emotional tone of the previous comment for a very specific reason. I had admitted that I had made a snap judgement, both on Boardgamegeek, and on here. The fellow came in and was STILL so overwrought about this issue that he could barely write a coherent thought– at least that’s my impression of his point of view. My intention in writing that blog post was somewhat rueful.. to admit, hey, world, I got caught up in this torrent of so-called controversy over a simple board game. My reply back to him was me saying– “you are a little upset, it is only a boardgame. If you like Risk Legacy, cool, go buy it, I won’t. It’s only a game”. If I didn’t communicate that well, Shrug. I think I tried without being too insulting. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about a boardgame, and actually, after hearing the designer of this one interviewed on THE GEEK GENERATION podcast, I found myself admiring the IDEA behind “game narrative”. If my response seems snarky, well, sorry about that. I don’t think I’m wrong here.

  6. Thomas Brown

    Upon first hearing of the game, my response was very similiar. I thought it sounded silly to spend so much money on a disposable game, especially one that was just Risk. After playing my first few games though, I was hooked. Being able to change things, name things, trying to beat out the other players to be able to make those game changing choices, that was exciting. I have a feeling your opinion of the game would change if you played it. I don’t think you can really “get” the game until you try it. Currently, I have three different copies that I have played with three different groups. I also have a homemade version using other Risk versions and special rules I made up that I play with my kids and their High School friends. As to whether the game is used up after fifteen games, and therefore worthless and a bad buy, I would bring up the fact that many of my games I end up playing less than fifteen times in so many years. I own over a hundred board games, and my interest in particular ones ebb and flow. Much like fifty dollar video games, I have fifty dollar board games that I have “played out” and won’t revisit for a long time. I imagine I might revisit those games as much as I will revisit one of my used played out copies of Risk Legacy.

    • Tom, that’s certainly fair. As I’ve tried to say– it’s intriguing enough for me to be interested in playing it at least once. However, I’m not crazy enough about RISK as a game, despite the meta-layer being added by the “Legacy” stuff. It keeps going back to the basic facts that you will need to play many games with the same crowd, and that specific game experience resides in that specific game you bought, never to be repeated with a new crowd of people. I see the value placed on the experience, but this is definitely not for me.

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