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, 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. 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. 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.
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.
 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.
 Saying how would be a spoiler.
 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.