No discussion can be made on rule variants without eventually bringing up Risk. This classic board game is iconic, right behind Monopoly as one of the most recognizable board games ever made.
Risk is a game of global domination, with players moving their armies around a map of the globe and victory typically going to the player who defeats all their opponents and rules the world. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)
One of the enduring qualities of the game is its simplicity. Beginners can understand the basics in minutes, and while experienced players may utilize depth in strategy, the combat dice level the playing field. This simplicity has made the game extremely adaptable to Rules Additions. These have ranged from military personnel publishing nuclear war adaptations to modern fans experimenting with zombie apocalypse scenarios. The end results sometimes turn Risk into a completely different game. (That said, if you’re set on using simultaneous movement, consider playing Diplomacy instead.)
The biggest complaint against Risk is game length. While you can play a game in 90 minutes or less, Risk is infamous for dragging on for hours or even whole weekends. Many of the additional player rules that add strategic options also add to the complexity of the game, lengthening an already daunting play time. The official inclusion of alternate objectives was supposed to address this, but not everyone has rushed out to buy a re-release of a game that’s been out since 1959.
In fact, the publishing history of the game itself seems to reflect the growing number of house rules. There are as many official versions of the game as there are unofficial. Castle Risk introduced player empires with capital cities, whose loss meant losing the game. The Napoleon Edition had fortresses and naval units. The very popular Risk 2210 AD was essentially “Space Risk”, with futuristic units and Moon territories. The most current version, The Revised Edition, includes a number of missions and objectives that players can accomplish to win the game faster – i.e. avoiding the need for global domination. (Avoid maniacal laughter here.)
Add to these the “Re-skins”: versions pumped out merely with cosmetic changes and slight thematic elements. Risk: Lord of the Rings; Gondor and Mordor; The Transformers Edition; Star Wars Original Trilogy; Star Wars Clone Wars; Narnia; Halo; Metal Gear Solid…
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve actually played most of these variations (I’m a sucker for games with Lord of the Rings slapped on them), and chances are you’ll see some of them pop up in regular reviews, so I don’t need to examine each one here. When looking for variants to review, I try to look at what is most accessible. Not everyone has, or even knows someone who has, many of these additions. My recommendations for how to improve Risk: Transformers won’t really apply to someone who has Risk: 2210 AD. So instead I’ll look at two particularly standout variants of the base game, which can always be applied to future variants:
The first has several names, among them Vendetta, Assassin, or Paranoia. It takes one of the missions of The Revised Edition and applies it to everyone:
- At the start of the game, each player randomly and SECRETLY, draws a card with one of the player colors on it. If you draw your own color, you reveal it and draw again.
- The game continues as normal, but as soon as one player loses, the game is over! Whoever has the eliminated player’s color reveals it. Since their target was the first to be killed, regardless of who struck the final blow, the card holder is the winner.
Since you only know who your target is, there’s only one player you can safely eliminate. You must be much more careful in your conquests, because if you weaken one of your opponents too much, someone might eliminate them and cost you the game. I enjoyed the added intrigue this gave to the game, particularly group efforts to protect each other from one powerful player, while not knowing who his target was.
Or, for that matter, without knowing which of my temporary allies was gunning for me.
As an added bonus, none of the games I’ve played with this variant have gone over the two hour mark, with three of them taking just over an hour and two taking less! For five player games, that’s amazing!
2. Action Cards
The other variant falls under the general category of Action Cards. While the base game allows players to accumulate Territory cards to redeem for extra armies, many of the later editions also provide action cards. These tend to reflect the particular flavor of the re-skin and may affect the outcome of a single battle, or provide extra reinforcements. While some people dislike including more chance into the game, I enjoy the sneakiness it can introduce. True battles revolve around misdirection, and with no element of surprise the game can quickly stagnate.
Action cards pop up everywhere, and choosing the right ones for your playgroup is merely a matter of choice. My favorite is the One World Dominion expansion. It’s unofficial, out of print and therefore hard to find, but we have provided it for download here:
Instead of separate action cards, the actions are printed on the Territory cards you normally accumulate throughout the game. Able to be played at different times, it forces you to choose between messing with your opponents and turning them in later for progressively larger armies.
The actions themselves range from the realistic (Informants stealing other players’ cards, National Guard boosting your armies, Artillery softening the opposition) to the… also disturbingly realistic (Mad Cow Disease affecting enemy troops, Economic Sanctions preventing reinforcement, drafting a strongly worded UN resolution that literally has no effect).
Being a “Print and Play”, it also drives home how player-driven this “Expansion” is. It’s not fancy, flashy, or even in color. It might not have production quality, but it makes up for it with content quality. These provide just enough to inject a bit more fun into the game.
Besides, it also has my favorite action card of any expansion / edition / re-release:
“Cometary Cultists -Your operatives convince the more gullible citizens of 1 continent to seek a higher plane of existence. Remove 1 army from every area on 1 continent of your choice.”
And that’s the soul of Variant Play: players putting personal touches on games they love (or could grow to love if they were slightly different). Read into it, add what you will, and keep gaming.
Nathan Crocco is a regular contributor to the site
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can discuss this article over on our forums!