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Risk Legacy & Long-Term Stakes Design

I’ve been playing Risk Legacy for the past few months, and recently finished Game 9 with my local crew. And I’ve found a weird, somewhat unsatisfying point in the game that I want to talk about, because it’s making me think about long-term stake design.

I should note that there are no spoilers in this post — everything here you’ll see or read is be understood be looking at a virgin board & reading the unaltered rules. And I should also note that it’s freaky cool to be talking about a board game with spoilers.

Risk Legacy takes place over fifteen games, where the winner of each game gets to write his or her name on the board. There are two mechanics this hooks in to: (1) the winner of each game gets to make a huge change to the board that creates a later advantage, and (2) at the end of the fifteen-game campaign, whoever has won the most signs the final “The World Of…” bit, the ultimate victory element of the game.

This is fantastic stakes design. Each game of Risk Legacy is one worth fighting for, because it’s cool in a permanent way, but we’re nine games in and we’re starting to run into a problem. You can see our current board to the right.

Chris Ruggiero, one of the owners of the fine establishment known as EndGame, is in our Risk Legacy group. (If you follow me on Twitter, you may occasionally see references to “Risk Club”.) And thanks largely to die luck[1], he’s won 6 of the 9 games so far.

Because he’s won so much, he essentially has home fields advantage. Four of the six continents are his, he has six missiles now, and things are…placed to his advantage.[2] So he’s a juggernaut. And it’s interesting to play against a juggernaut when the game changes, but now we’re at a point where we only have one rules packet to open left, so the game’s not going to change so dramatically.

Now, there are ways to deal with this that really make it our copy of Risk Legacy, to where we’re playing a slightly different game of Risk Legacy that everyone else. That’s interesting. But Chris has this huge advantage now, which brings me to my second and larger point: the end-campaign win.

The end-campaign win happens when, at the end of fifteen games, someone has a plurality of wins. The thing about plurality mechanics is that unless you can change the situation, there’s a point where you know who will win before the game’s done. And we’re almost at that point. Right now, Chris has won six games, I’ve won one, and our cohorts Laurel & Jesse have each won one.

  • The moment Chris wins another, he has plurality. No one else can then get seven wins to match him.
  • If Jesse, Laurel or I can win all of the next six, one of us will have seven total, beating Chris.
  • If Jesse, Laurel or I can win five of the next six, one of us will have six total, and a third party wins one, then one of us will tie Chris.
  • If one person who hasn’t won a game yet, as with our cohort Eric, wins all six, then he ties Chris.
  • Even if Chris doesn’t win one, the moment two different people win a game, we know the best we can do is tie.

I’ve praised Risk Legacy for being a board game with concrete, lasting stakes. It makes every game feel more worthwhile than games of Risk normally do. But that only lasts so long as the stakes are uncertain; once they seem known, then the games we play go back to being ephemeral. And that’s the point we’re at with our Risk Legacy game.

This was the one Risk Legacy rule I was dubious about when I read the rulebook initially, because I could see that situation happening. And now that I am in that situation, I’m pretty damned dissatisfied with this design decision.[3] I’ve thought of some other ways to handle it that might be better for my own sensibilities, including:

  • Weighting different wins and using a point system
  • Having a deck of cards you open once all games are done to randomly draw the winner from the lot of them, turning the wins into a lottery mechanic

But the rules are as they are. And the lesson they’ve brought home is this: if you’re going to make a plurality mechanic, understand that the mechanic will declare the winner before the game’s over. That’s the reason than when you play “best three out of five” and someone wins three, you stop rather than play out the other two.

– Ryan

Note: while this is a criticism of Risk Legacy, don’t take it as a reason to not grab it & play it. Do it. You’ll learn interesting things about board game design that aren’t done elsewhere.

[1] This isn’t to crap on his skill. Just, there’s not a lot of skill in Risk. In at least three games, he won after someone else was one — just one — good die roll from winning the game. Not one round of good die rolls, just kept back by one single roll.

[2] Saying how would be a spoiler.

[3] And I would be equally dissatisfied if I was the frontrunner as well, because all the interesting tension in the long-term campaign is deflated.

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30 Responses to Risk Legacy & Long-Term Stakes Design

  1. Andrew Hackard says:

    Step 1: Stop inviting Ruggiero.

    Step 2: ???

    Step 3: TOTAL WORLD DOMINANCE!!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Oh no, Chris isn’t getting out of it that easily. He already likely owns the world. The least the rest of us can do is make him sit through it. ;)

      – Ryan

  2. You’re touching on it in the post, but commonly the solution to these types of problems in 3+ player games emerges organically as several players gang up on the front runner. It’s an interesting dilemma you’re in though, because in order to have this matter in Risk Legacy at this point, one of the cooperating contenders have to actually WIN, not one, but ALL remaining matches. That invalidates this built-in normalizer in 3+ player competitive games, whereas in e.g. A Game of Thrones all cooperating contenders will only work together to bring down the front runner until end-game, when allegiances are re-evaluated.

    Weighted wins is a very interesting option. I’m not sure how it works in Risk Legacy, but from what you’ve described it seems that players gain both advantage in terms of the campaign win condition, and also gain an immediate strategic advantage on the board. Frequently that’s designed in reverse, such that by accepting an immediate advantage you trigger a “catch-up” mechanic that makes it easier for other players to, well, catch up (read: Power Grid). As a compromise, using a weighted win mechanic, perhaps the winner could get a pool of points to spend, deciding how much goes toward advantages and how much goes toward campaign win? This would be even more interesting if it was a ladder, with the winner getting the most points, 2nd place getting fewer, etc.

    The lottery pool idea seems like it’d be super-anti-climactic, at least to me.

    Another option would be to award ONLY strategic advantages for incremental wins and have the final showdown be a “winner takes all” game. That would allow for the shifting allegiances situation to kick in during the final game, as everyone teams up against the guy with the nukes, all while taking potshots at each other to try to ensure an ultimate win.

    Great case example!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Mikael,

      The “everyone gang up” doesn’t work in Risk Legacy for two reason:

      * The additional rules packets are siren calls. They promote reasons & immediate (and unknown!) rewards for non-optimal play.
      * You have to be able to trust each other.

      And in the end, it would be like playing a game of Diplomacy where there were steadfast, unbreakable alliances. I’ve played in those games, and they’re horrible.

      The lottery pool idea seems like it’d be super-anti-climactic, at least to me.

      Oh, it certainly would be. But I would be looking at is as the lesser of two evils, a reason to keep playing all fifteen games. And there are ways of presenting the lottery that make it more climatic, but that’s all in the presentation.

      – Ryan

    • There are probably reasons related to the envelopes – which I’m not privy to – why you’re saying this (“You have to be able to trust each other”), but on the off-chance that this is not the case, I don’t see why? People play under these conditions all the time, repeatedly, backstabbing each other brutally in end-game, then play again with a clean slate. Diplomacy does bring out some more personality-trait-based aspects because of its ultra-tight design (“don’t trust that guy, he’ll always betray you under such-and-such conditions”), but with a more situational game as in Risk or AGoT, you’re usually left in a position where, post-game, you laugh together and congratulate your betrayer on an excellent move, because you would’ve done the same in a similar situation.

      I also don’t see your point about unbreakable alliances in end-game. An unbreakable alliance is what you have NOW, when Chris is going to imminently win. In a winner-take-all end-game, you’d have a public, ostensibly unbreakable alliance, that’s always challenged and shaky since there can only be one winner.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Mikael,

      You’re aware that RL is a game where you write on the board, yes? That creates a sense of permanent memories, easy reminders of previous distrusts. And all games in a social environment have a personality trait component that can’t be denied.

      We’re saying the same thing, except you’re saying “so unite and keep playing” and I’m saying “there’s no point when there are other games to play.” Especially if we’re at the point where we have to do that for six games.

      Also, you should stop telling me what I should do and accept that I’m using my play experience as an example to discuss a design issue. Telling me how I should play is the opposite of that, and derailing the conversion. Done with talking about how I should “fix” this now.

      – Ryan

    • Hey Ryan, sorry for not picking up on the underlying emotional baggage. I saw your post and subsequent comments as interesting commentary on a game design problem, and felt like pitching in with my ideas around the problem in general. Not at all commenting on how YOU should play THIS game specifically.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      No worries. It’s sparked what might be tomorrow’s blog post, one that is actually on what you’re talking about.

      – Ryan

  3. Rob Daviau says:

    Interesting post. And I do follow posts like this with great interest because, frankly, these are all uncharted waters; I knew I’d hit some rocks. The issue above really has to do with my not fully grasping which design elements would attract the attention of players. The “you win and get to name the world” part was a late add to the design and I thought it would be like putting your initials at the end of the 80s video game. Nice but not as nice as the journey. But I’m starting to see that people are putting a lot more weight on the winner of the campaign than I bargained and it’s my fault for not giving it due diligence as to what would happen if someone achieved a plurality early. It’s not that I didn’t understand the situation that you find yourself in, it’s that I thought the narrative of “Let’s gang up on the winner, unite, and drive this despot back to the ground” would be interesting in and of itself.

    But I’m a role-player at heart, so I sometimes mistake my interest in story to be something everyone shares. I’ve happily killed off my own character to better the story.

    My bad. Whole new design space.

    The other thing that I misjudged was the One Ring level lure of sealed envelopes. I imagined they’d be a draw, certainly, and something that was exciting, but I’ve noticed that many groups have actually stopped playing the game to win, as designed, and instead have played merely to open envelopes. This has caused issues because they are supposed to be doled out slowly, allowing players to process each one, integrate it, see its effects, have it become assimilated, and THEN integrate the next one. When I read about groups having opened all but one envelope in four games, it’s a bit shocking. Sort of like attending a 5-course dinner and having it all served on the same plate and eaten in 5 minutes.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Rob,

      We’ve intentionally, with one exception, only done one rules packet a game. But there have been times where we’ve forced that, like me begging people to eliminate me so we could open that packet. (I was already going to lose, so I wanted something out of it, and I’ve written about this sort of thing before.)

      We have one hardcore role-player-in-board-games guy in the group. He gets first dibs on the Bear clan, because he likes to tell the story of their inevitable demise. But for the rest of us, Risk is Risk — the game to play that’s about conquest rather than story. I see the story happening in our game due to explanations of actions rather than the motivator of those actions, if that makes sense.

      If the game was less random, and you’re playing witha group that trusts each other (which none of us do, having played Risk several times enough now to know we can’t trust turning our backs), the “gang up on the winner” might work for us. And in fact I did once, causing mutually-assured destruction by putting my HQ as close to his as I could, causing in-fighting that allowed others to expand. But at the end of the day, it’s still Risk.

      – Ryan

  4. David 'Doc Blue' Wendt says:

    The plurality issue became one for us as well. My son actually worked out the specifics before I did.

    I happened to be the front runner, and as you say, it was dissatisfying for me. In part because at least one of the other players began feeling defeatist, but mostly because I lost motivation to keep playing. My son was the one who kept us going – because he wanted to open ‘the last envelope’ and because he had a faction he created and wanted to introduce. (I had ruled that there would be no home rules until the campaign was complete.)

    I should note, my son will be 11 in less than a month. We tested his new faction this week and I was impressed. He has a real natural instinct for balance and decision.

  5. Ezra says:

    “Don’t take it as a reason to now grab it & play it.”

    I think you meant

    “Don’t take it as a reason to _not_ grab it & play it.”

    This changes the meaning of the sentence.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ezra,

      I really appreciate when you copy-edit crucial sentences like that. That’s not sarcasm. You do it more than anyone, and man alive you’re right on the sentence meaning.

      Thanks! :D

      – Ryan

  6. Xavier AM says:

    I just got my copy of Risk: Legacy, and I’m excited to crack it open.

    However, I’m less likely to have a stable table of people to play it with. From a plurality standpoint, that means I’m highly likely to win the overall campaign – just because I’m probably the only person who will be a contender in every session.

    One thing I was thinking of, and which addresses a concern I’ve always had with Risk, is of awarding the victories to the various factions. I’m thinking that means there will be less of a cascade victory effect, and that people won’t be frustrated trying to play against me on a board I’ve just written my name all over.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Xavier,

      That’s a hell of an idea, and one that doesn’t change the mechanics one bit, if we’re just talking about the final world bit.

      I don’t think I’d want to change the player-based benefits to faction-based, because then it would create a drive to pick the “suped-up” faction, and devalues some of the rules that alter factions (which should be clear as a non-spoiler since there’s space for stickers on the factions). But that’s just my take.

      – Ryan

    • Xavier AM says:

      I’m not sure how else I would balance the effect of on unstable table composition…

      Though, unbalanced factions can be mitigated by a “bidding” system. For an in game mechanic you could use… I don’t know, some amount of free armies per turn for some number of turns. Out of game mechanic could be buying booze or pizza. :)

      Also, I disagree that it would devalue the faction customization mechanics – since it adds a different layer. Stuff on the faction card always helps, stuff on the map helps when you manage to get those territories.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Xavier,

      Try what you feel like trying. Then tell me how that jives with rules you haven’t seen yet. :)

      Good luck!

      – Ryan

    • Xavier AM says:

      See, the problem with that is that experimentation is discouraged when you have to pay $$ to do a fresh test and I’m coming up against situations I haven’t seen yet. :(

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sure. At the same time, we can’t really have a productive conversation because you haven’t seen the whole of the ruleset, and to discuss deeply would involve spoilers. So when you said “I disagree” I thought “Yeah, and I would have too before I started playing.” The classic problem of lack of parity in knowledge. :/

      – Ryan

  7. Rob Daviau says:

    Been chewing over your issues/concerns for the past day. Think I have a solution but dinner is on the stove so it’ll be later tonight or tomorrow morning.

    If you’re up for playtesting untested rules for version 2.

  8. Rob Daviau says:

    So these are untested and unofficial but something that feels right.

    New scoring to determine the winner. These rules replace the ones in the book.

    A person gets points equal to the games he has won, with each game scoring points equal to its game number. So Game 1 is worth 1 point, Game 2 worth 2 points, up to Game 15 being worth 15 points.

    Furthermore, a person adds to this total the number of coins he has on resource cards in his possession at the end of Game 15.

    So right now the score above is:

    Chris Ruggiero 30 points
    J Dnnnnnnnnn 7 points
    Ryan F’ng Macklin 5 points
    Laurel V. Jerfesnssn 3 points

    Points left to score: 75 + coins at the end of game 15 (0-10 is my guess)

    Also, there are now tyrant rules that come into play.

    At the beginning of a game, a person gets a rating based on the number of missiles earned by having his name on the board.

    0 Missiles – Non-Threat

    1-4 Missiles — Liberator
    No effect to rules

    5-7 Missiles — Despot
    As a despot, you are not well liked in the world.
    When defending a city you did not found (minor or major), you lose ties instead of winning them.

    8+ Missiles – Tyrant
    The entire planet has it in for you.
    In addition to the Despot rules, you also choose/go last in any before-game selection (being vague due to spoilers).

  9. Rob Daviau says:

    Add in continent naming as a tie breaker (really just include them as part of the score).

  10. Tonydowler says:

    We are onto three games of Risk Legacy now, and I LOVE it. There’s the “playing to open packets” thing, the “takes place over 15 games” thing, the “role playing a board game” thing.

    I like this fix because it doesn’t require us to change how we play now, but it provides an out if the plurality thing becomes and issue in our group. I’ll present it to them when we get together again.

    Also, hats off for not just “fixing” Risk, but really trying to do something genuinely new with the game. it is a breath of fresh air.

  11. Ray says:

    Ryan, I don’t know if you are aware of the house rules Mike and I used to play with Risk. If you do, I am SUPER curious to know how they would affect the play of RL, and if you don’t know, I’ll be more than happy to fill you in and get your feedback.

    I miss Risk more than just about anything about leaving California.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ray,

      I don’t, actually, but Risk Legacy uses the new style of objective-based wins rather than complete domination. I think we’ve only had one game go beyond 75 minutes.

      – Ryan

  12. Ray says:

    Interesting. Time to do some reading!

  13. Critical Geek says:

    A few notes:
    1) on random player pool: For my board, I’ve ruled that this isn’t a problem until 5 different people have signed the board, at which point the 5 are each assigned teams that all future players join. If two people from the same team show up for a game, whoever has won more games for the team gets to play it, with latest win breaking ties. Loser will have to join a different team.
    2) on win mechanic: i like the points per game number idea, plus points per coin in end game, and points per continent signature….but this is Risk.
    End game should have a risk battle feel to it:

    So here’s my end game:
    Game 16 for naming rights has the following rules changes: mechanics for troop numbers are replaced by each player getting one troop per point. Mechanics for choice order are replaced by point order. Mechanics for placement are replaced by original risk placement rules: one troop per unoccupied legal starting territory per turn until all legal starting territories are covered, then one troop per location until you run out of troops. Stars count as additional coins added to any resource card troop turn in. Victory for this game is elimination of all other players. All other risk legacy rules remain as is.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That would be interesting to try, though to be honest, after Game 15, the idea of playing Risk again starts to sound a bit exhausting. :D But yeah, having a contest afterward would be jazzed & thematic. And possibly a reason to genuinely flip the table over.

      We stopped after Game 12, partly because I moved away, but we were ready to be done at that point. The one guy who hadn’t won a game, Eric, did, and all involved found it a fitting capstone. Especially because none of us were just giving him the win.

      – Ryan