Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Risk Legacy and Games as Stuff

There's a joke among boardgamers that whenever you introdce a non-gamer to a new game, they inevitably say, "oh, so it's like Risk?" Risk is more than just a boardgame--it's an institution and cultural reference point. It's also a money-making machine, or so I guess by its huge number of differently themed editions. But unlike fellow mainstream juggernaut Monopoly, Risk's variants almost always change the game in substantive ways. Risk is a constantly evolving classic, not content to rest on its laurels, but never straying too far from that which made it great.

And I do think Risk is great. The game is fervently hated by the majority of hobby gamers. If you're a writer, think Stephenie Meyer. If you're a programmer, think COBOL or Perl. But the game has its defenders among the knowledgeable (like Perl, but unlike COBOL or Meyer, as far as I know), and I consider myself one of them (both knowledgeable and a defender). Few games can match the epic feel of Risk with rules so simple. It contains no story-telling mechanics or flavor text, but a narrative emerges from every game. The rules don't say anything about diplomacy, but enduring alliances and devastating treasons are a huge part of the game. In short, Risk does a lot with a little, and although I rarely play it any more, I still very much respect and admire it.

That's why I think Rob Daviau has such an awesome job. He's a game designer for Hasbro, responsible for shaping the future of classic franchises like Risk. I imagine there are a lot of constraints on creativity working for a mass-market company like Hasbro (which has put out more than its fair share of crap), but Rob consistently does great stuff anyway. The point of this essay, however, is that maybe this view of Hasbro is wrong or changing, because they have just announced something bold, innovative, and awesome--Risk Legacy, by Rob Daviau and Chris Dupuis.

The premise is that as you play the game, you permanently modify your copy. Based on the decisions players make in-game, you might place stickers on the board or on the cards that change them forever, or mark them up with pen; a decision might lead to the permanent destruction of a card, or the opening of a sealed pack that introduces new cards or other elements into this and all future games. Your game becomes your own, unlike any other, as you enhance and destroy it.

It's not the first game to implement the idea of persistent state (see every RPG ever), but it's the first to do so in such a straightforward and destructive way. The thing that makes this idea so radical, that will perhaps be lost on non-hobby gamers, is the extent to which the actual physical components of a board game are venerated by many in the hobby. People go to great lengths to keep their games in pristine condition, putting every card in a plastic sleeve, banning friends from drinking at the table, making everyone wash their hands every time they touch their forehead, and so on. I admit I'm guilty of some of it too, but it misses the point.

To get highfalutin for a paragraph, I think that a good game, in the abstract, has immense value. A shared social experience centered around a game is also extremely valuable. A particular copy of a game is just a cardboard and plastic manifestation of that value, not the value itself. Too often, I think, we fret over the preservation of a $20 game at the much greater expense of our enjoyment of it.

In that sense, I think Risk Legacy has the potential to be extremely liberating. As part of the game you will have to destroy it. There will no doubt be geeks who come up with elaborate workarounds for actually destroying the game, putting the stickers on sleeves or fixing them with removable tape or something. And whatever. For those who truly embrace the premise, I think Risk Legacy will be cathartic, helping us to overcome our compulsions and anxieties and enjoy games for what they are--a little bit of stuff that facilitates something greater.

I'm not advocating that games be disposable. I still intend to take care of my games and hope others do too, but I'd prefer to actually think and worry about that as little as possible. My immediate reaction to Risk Legacy was: Mangle my game?! Blasphemy!! I like that it's challenging that reaction though, and the game itself sounds very cool. Credit to Hasbro, Rob, and Chris for a ballsy move. And long live Risk!

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