Monday, February 7, 2011

Tales of RISK

While poking through older files on my computer today I found this account. It tells of an unusual game of RISK, which predates the blog. Rather than, y'know, do actual work and write something up, I'm going to post it here. I'd say the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but there's a rather large assumption there. Matter of fact, I'm not entirely sure why the names have been changed.

The thing about RISK, it’s all about the cards. You might think that taking one extra country to deny Steve his fourth army next turn is sound strategy, but it hardly matters when Steve turns in cards, takes out John, turns in his cards and gets an extra seventy five armies. Even if he says “There’s nothing that can stop me now!”, well, there’s not much you can do to actually stop him.

I played in an awesome game of RISK today. Y’see, the guy in North America had to leave, so he went on one final rampage, which pushed me out of South America and weakened me in Asia. Since Napoleon was going next, and didn’t have to worry about that other guy anymore, he took me the rest of the way out. This put him up to eight cards, forcing him to turn in in the middle of his attack. He turned in cards, and got four armies. Four armies-- it was the first set of cards of the game.

Maybe I should start from the beginning.

There were four of us playing RISK. It’s been a while since we’ve played, having generally moved onto other games. I suppose a dramatis personae is in order. To my left is Barbarossa, I’ve known him from High School, and we’ve played many, many games of RISK together. Across from me is McClellan, a highschooler himself and currently an unknown quantity. To my right is Napoleon, so named for his proficiency at this game in years past; when in high school we organized a RISK tournament, Napoleon emerged victorious. Lastly is me, Havoc Jack, a man who talks entirely too much. Four players, thirty armies, shuffle and deal the cards, four piles of eleven. I got a pretty bad mix of countries; five in Asia, two in South America, two in Europe, Ontario, and one wild card. Barbarossa to my left got two in Australia and Siam, so he went the Aussie route. McClellan, after him had four or five in North America. Napoleon had North Africa, Egypt and East Africa, so he was building up in that continent. I put in enough to make sure I could take South America, without leaving so much in there that I’d lose if either of my more powerful neighbors wanted to take me out. The rest I spread over Asia and Europe.

When people first start playing RISK, they tend to go for continents. Two extra armies per turn buy you a significant advantage in the early to middle game. But these extra armies are dwarfed by the card turn ins that happen later in the game; two armies each turn for ten turns only nets you twenty armies, while a single set of cards late game is worth thirty, forty, fifty armies. So later on in their strategic development, people focus on staying alive, making sure nobody can gut them for their sweet, sweet cards. This game was odd in that, since people weren’t really worried about the number of armies that continents generated, people nobody did much in the way of continent breaking, so people actually got to use those extra armies.

See, I was in a pretty bad position; South America is a death trap. In the first turn, I took South America, Barbarossa took Australia and Napoleon took Africa. Naturally, I was the only one who didn’t manage to hold their continent. McClellan consolidated North America over the first couple turns. With strong North America and African neighbors, South America really doesn’t have the wherewithal to defend itself. The other option, taking Asia one neglected backwater at a time, mostly doesn’t work. For one thing, you’re not getting the whole continent. Australia always holds it’s army in Siam, and you won‘t lever them out of it. And you don’t want each and every player eyeing your seven armies a turn and deciding that you are winning. But the continent bonus isn’t the objective, the objective is to stuff yourself into enough nooks and crannies that you’re annoying to root out, and maybe hold enough countries to get four armies a turn. It’s possible to succeed with that strategy. It doesn’t help if you’re legitimately weaker than each other player, and that they’re all eyeing you to see if they can carve off a slice.

In the first couple turns, neither Africa nor Australia were strong enough to break into the other person’s continent and deny them the bonus armies, so the continents held. When McClellan finally unified North America, Napoleon decided he wasn’t going to play world police and unduly weaken himself by denying McClellan armies. Napoleon owned the most armies, and he was factoring in McClellan’s relative inexperience with the game (which, sad to say, by that point was obvious.) Barbarossa in Australia took a poke or two at America, but he couldn’t unseat McClellan. In the second round I had lost a significant force in South America (six armies without getting one kill!), and more armies in Asia just trying to get a card for the turn. I went from pretending to be weak so people would look the other way to actually being weak and desperately hoping that people look the other way. Not a good place to be. Still, I had my options.

When you’re in the position I was in, odds are you’ll be able to keep South America, less Venezuela or Brazil. Y’see, it’s in both Africa and North America’s best interest to leave you there; you provide a buffer against incursions by the other side, and having a little pocket of your guys there hedges against your annihilation. Since you obviously don’t threaten their empire, they’re in favor of that, since they want to knock you out and steal your cards yourself.

Then McClellan had to leave. Since it was his last turn, he went on one final rampage, kicking me out of South America and weakening me in Asia. Napoleon went next, and he had enough forces to take me out. So I handed my four cards over to him, bumping him up to eight, mandating a mid turn reinforcement, getting his four armies. All this had happened within the first five turns, that was the first card turn in. If he had gotten forty armies, he’d have taken out Barbarossa and won it right there, but he didn’t have the resources.

At this point Napoleon controls all of Africa, half of Europe and most of Asia. Barbarossa controls Australia, and Siam. More importantly, he’s got an army of about twenty units there, and four cards. McClellan controls Americas both north and south, some in Asia and the other half of Europe. Since he left, his forces degenerated into an inactive neutral side. Barbarossa can’t turn in cards, but he conquers into Africa.

What followed were a series of attempts by Barbarossa to break Napoleon in one or two turns before Napoleon turned in too many cards, and a series of attempts by Napoleon to try to break Barbarossa in one or two turns before Barbarossa turned in too many cards. Barbarossa would push Napoleon mostly out of Africa, Napoleon would push back at Australia, only to be stymied in Siam. In one memorable battle, Napoleon easily took down four of Barbarossa’s troops, but lost ten trying to pick off the last one. Ten! Roughly speaking, the odds of that happening are six in a million. If it hadn’t been for the escalating card values, it’d have settled down into a steady state of warfare eerily reminiscent of 1984. We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia.

In the end, it was the card reinforcements that ended the game; the incursions got deeper, the comebacks more dramatic. Napoleon got up to five cards, turned in, pushed Barbarossa back to one territory in the Australian outback, with one soldier left to defend it. One soldier attacking one soldier; Napoleon rolls a six, Barbarossa rolls a six! The day is saved, temporarily. Barbarossa turns in cards, rolls back Napoleon as far as Great Britain. Napoleon turns in cards, drops down to zero left, and rolls Barbarossa all the way up.

The final battles were dramatic, and this was one of the most memorable RISK games I’ve ever played, but the thing I keep coming back to was how little a difference the cards made for such a long time that game. Napoleon held Africa for four turns, netting him twelve armies, which outshone all but the last two sets of cards. The little things like taking that twelfth country so they don’t get a fourth army really did make a difference.

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