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Friday 27 December 2019

1959: Risk

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


1959 marks the publication of two classic wargames. One is Diplomacy: A Game of International Intrigue, Trust, and Treachery, the other is Risk: The Continental Game. Although they are both set in past times, one Napoleonic, one Edwardian, they could not be more different. One is card and dice driven and has been hugely successful, probably the most successful mass market wargame ever published, but the other is entirely trust and decision driven. The former is Risk, the latter Diplomacy. Both are sixty years old in 2019.

Risk was originally invented and released in France in 1957 as La Conquête du Monde—The Conquest of the World—by French film director Albert Lamorisse. It was then bought by American publishers Parker Brothers and released as Risk: The Continental Game in 1959, later as Risk: The Game of Global Domination. Today, it is published as Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest by Wizards of the Coast as part of its Avalon Hill brand. Although the game has seen numerous variations and alternative settings, such as the acclaimed Risk Legacy or Risk 2210 AD, the core game remains much the same as the original. Two to five players (although it comes with six armies), aged ten and up, attempt to defeat each others’ armies and conquer the world.

Risk is played on a map of the world, each of the six continents colour-coded and divided into separate territories, for a total of forty-two. Some of the continents are connected by sea routes, for example, Brazil to North Africa or Iceland to Greenland, allowing sea travel between territories, but otherwise, Risk entirely concerns itself with land battles. There is a card corresponding to each territory and these forty-two territory cards are used to determine the initial placement of the players’ troops. The cards are also marked with one of three symbols—infantry, cavalry, or artillery—and when collected in suits of three (one of each, three of the same, or two of the same and a wild card), they can be turned in to gain a player new troops. To gain new territory cards, a player will need to attack the territories of his rival players, defeat their troops, and capture them.

Game set-up is simple. Each player receives his army and is dealt a random set of territory cards. These indicate where his troops start, the player placing one or more troops in each of these starting territories. The cards are then handed back to form the deck from which a territory card is drawn when a player captures one or more territories on his turn. On his turn a player receives new troops according to the number of territories and any whole continents he holds, makes as many attacks against his rivals as he wants, and then moves any of his troops to adjacent territories as long as there is always one unit left in each territory. Each army consists of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, with the cavalry pieces being used to represent five infantry and artillery used to represent ten. Neither cavalry and artillery have any other role in the game bar to make mass troop handling easier.

Battles are handled simply enough. The attacking player makes his attack with between one and three troops, whilst the defending player defends with between one and two troops. The attacking player rolls a single red six-sided die for each of his attacking troops, whilst the defending player rolls a blue die for each of his defending troops. The highest die rolls from each side are compared with each other, the higher result of a pair defeating the other and resulting in removal of the defeated enemy troop unit. Ties are awarded to the defending player, but where the defending player can only defeat a maximum of two attacking troops in an exchange, an attacking player can defeat both defending troop units with a good roll. The attacking player can continue attacking until he runs out of troops or he captures the territory he is attacking. If the latter, then he draws a new territory card.

Play continues like this until one player has defeated his rivals and conquered the world. This then is Risk, a game about the ‘risk’ of attacking the enemy, defeating them, and capturing their territory. It is not a game about defence or withstanding your opponents’ attacks—although that will happen in the game—but a game which rewards the attacking player who is successful in capturing territories. The rewards are always more troops and come in various ways. Capture and hold more territories and a player will be rewarded with more troops at the start of his turn; capture and hold a continent and a player will be rewarded with more troops at the start of his turn; and capture more territories and a player will be rewarded with a territory card each turn, which suites of three can be turned in at the beginning of his turn for more troops. Notably, each time a player hands in three territory cards, he is rewarded with more troops than the last player who did so, whether that was himself or a rival.

Famously, Risk is more a game of luck than skill or strategy. It rewards success or luck by giving the winner more troops with which to defeat his rivals. Of course, his luck can change and go the other way, but the result either way is a fairly long game, especially the more players who are involved, with not a great deal for the players to do when it is not their turn. On the plus side, the simplicity of the rules make Risk easy to teach and learn, then set up and play.

This though is Classic Risk, a game of global domination played until one player resoundly defeats the others. In today’s version, Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest, it is only one of game types suggested—and not even the first. ‘Game 1: Secret Mission RISK’ is the first and the default game in Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest and sees each player assigned a secret mission card from the twelve included in the game, for example, ‘Destroy all ORANGE  troops’ or ‘Conquer the continents of EUROPE and AUSTRALIA’. Should a player meet all of the conditions of his secret mission card, then he wins the game. This can happen even if another player unintentionally helps him out, for example, if a player defeats all of the orange troops, then the player with the ‘Destroy all ORANGE  troops’ secret mission wins.

‘Game 1: Secret Mission RISK’ counters one of the criticisms of Risk, providing more focused objectives for a shorter game. ‘Game 2: Classic RISK’ is what the standard game of Risk was before the introduction of secret missions and will be the version remembered by many when they recall the game. ‘Game 3: RISK for 2 Players’ requires one player to defeat the other, but adds a neutral army which can both players can attack, yet when one player does so, the other player rolls for its defence. Otherwise, this two-player variant plays the same as the classic variant. Lastly, ‘Game 4: Capital RISK’ gives each player a headquarters located in one of their territories. This version is won by capturing all of your opponent’s headquarters.

Physically, Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest looks, feels, but is not as cheap as it  should be, given the quality of its components. The armies included in the game—the infantry, cavalry, and artillery—are of cheap plastic, the cards of thin card, and the game board, although illustrated with an attractive map, on slightly thick card rather than being mounted. The map board does not quite sit flat and will need to be weighted down. Fortunately, the rulebook is neatly laid out, easy to read, and comes with a little playing advice, making it the best produced item in the less than sturdy box.

Many will claim that Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest is a classic game. This is undeniably true, but not because it is a good game. It is not a good game because it takes too long to play, because it luck based, because it favours the victor and so often leaves the other players with long periods with nothing to do. All of these are acknowledged issues with the game, some of which are addressed by the different game types in the current version. Yet this does not mean it is unplayable nor inaccessible, but does often mean that other games are designed as the anti-Risk, just as some games are designed as the anti-Monopoly.

Rather Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest is a classic game because it is the most mass-produced and most sold wargame of all time, having been on sale in toy shops, department stores, game shops, and on-line for sixty years, and thus been on our shelves for just as long. Where games like Monopoly, Cluedo, and Scrabble are the games of our childhood, acceptable to all of the family, Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest is one step away from those, acceptable still, but not to all of the family because of its subject matter and playing time. Like those other games it benefits from simple rules that everyone can understand and quickly master, so can be played by anyone, no matter what their skill level is. Indeed, despite it being a confrontational wargame, such is the element of luck in the game, the losing players can blame invariably part of their loss down to the dice rather than their lack of skill or their opponent’s greater skill. 

Ultimately, Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest is our first experience with wargaming, an acceptable introduction to the hobby and a childhood classic worth revisiting out of nostalgia rather than because it is a good game. Accessible, playable, but at best a stepping stone to better and more interesting games. 


  1. The orginal rules of risk had 2-6 players. You dealt the deck of contires. Each player STARTED with a single army on each country. The start of their turn a player received 1 army for every three countries owned, with a minimum of three. if you took a country during your turn, you received a card. You had to turn cards in if during your turn in WHENEVER you had 5 or more cards.

    This version of the game may last two hours, but rarely more than 1.5 hours. It is actually pretty fun, still very much luck based, but the "risk" occurs on deciding when to make the decisive attack. Too soon and you and the player you attack are so weak you both get wiped out.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Yes, that is vaguely how I recall playing it all of those decades ago. I have to be honest in that I never really enjoyed it and would not want to play it today.