Only Souls and Warzones: Risk Legacy and the campaign against house rules

There’s been some recent furor over Risk Legacy–the latest release in the venerable franchise, because it dares do different–cocking a snook at other attempts at reinvigoration of the franchise by setting it in space, in the future or in the rumpus room of ancient gods.“Is it any good?” I don’t know, I haven’t played it. But I will say that it’s a new breed of game designed by people who realise that any game, if played by the same group for too long, might become staid without upheaval to churn its waters and make it more enticing.

This is where expansions come in handy–or in Risk’s case, umpteen editions based upon plethora licenses, some of which even add new rules to make the game more enjoyable as opposed to replacing your wee armies with X-Wing Fighters and Solid Snake.

And these are the conventions at which Risk Legacy–like a dyslexic fluffer–is snook-cocking. The board doesn’t remain static in this new edition: it evolves over the course of a fifteen game campaign that functions as a nuclear vault, sealing players in until the bitter end. This is no fifteen-minute hand of Monopoly Deal but a pact: in playing, you commit to both the game and each other, and over the fifteen games that follow and the however many days, weeks, months or–should your friendships last–years it takes to play the campaign, you will craft together an experience that is unutterably, indubitably yours.

This much we know about it: the decisions you and your pals make persist between games. Scarred by war, parts of the board will become inhospitable–in another reality they’d be lousy with fall-out but here they’re overlaid with stickers. Cards will be discarded, torn and forever lost. There are envelopes that hold possible somethings–scenarios? rules? abilities?–which will be destroyed without you ever discovering their contents. You will write on the board to record your games, labelling countries and landmasses as yours–and they will be yours forever; even if your best mate Tom flips the board, he’ll be flipping Tittyvania with it.

We know so little else about the game because those who’ve played it, those who know, keep what few cards remain at game’s end close to their chests. “Spoilers,” they say smug in their knowledge, and insist that if they told us exactly how Risk Legacy plays out, they’d ruin the game for us.

“Is it any good?” In some ways it doesn’t matter. Its crazed approach to a classic game is one thing, but with the players being so secretive it’s almost a Schrodinger’s Game: it’s everything and nothing at the same time. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes except there’s something there, even if nobody will mention it, even if no one can see it.

Nobody can be told what Risk Legacy is. You have to experience it for yourself.

My wife, board gaming widow that she is, is shockingly excited about Risk Legacy. It appeals both to her Risk-playing side (sadly, for all the dice I’ve flung at her Risk is just about the only game she’ll admit to liking without reservation) and to her appetite for destruction.

I was raised carefully, crawling on egg shells, taught to be especially gentle when handling other people’s property for fear of damaging it. In my world breakages aren’t sighed at then swept away but fretted over. Objects have souls. It doesn’t matter if you can replace them once they’re gone, because the replacement just won’t be the same. I don’t break the spines of my books. I place cups down well away from ledges. I keep valuables somewhere safe where I’ll remember where they are. All things have value–most have more value than most people.

But she, on the other hand, is a daredevil. She once urged a friend to drive full tilt at the steepest speed bump in town and shrieked in delight until the car landed three miles down the road, blowing all four tyres and its suspension on landing. She wants to tear those cards. She wants to deface that board. She wants to play Risk Legacy.

Grudgingly, this is a good thing. Risk mightn’t be my style but if it gets her and I and a couple of our friends playing games regularly, I’m not going to be upset about that.

It does, however, raise questions as to wherein lies the soul of a game. While I love the pieces, the boards, the cards, the counters, there’s clearly more to a game than any of those things.

A few weeks ago in his Cardboard Children column Rob Florence more or less stated that when buying a board game you’re buying an idea. His concept is a pretty good one. Considering video games generally have a far larger budget with far more people working on them to an–often, but not always–higher standard of artistic design, it’s a wonder why board games consistently cost as much if not more than video games do. It stands to reason, then. that the worth of the board game might be in the creator’s initial idea. This is, after all, what you pla when you sit down to a game. Without the rules laid down by its creator a game is only so many cardboard tokens and wooden cubes. No matter how prettily illustrated they might be, without rules, the only game you’re going to end up playing with them is Who Can Hit The Wooden Sheep The Furthest.

In his most recent column–which, would you believe it, also discusses Risk Legacy–Florence ends by talking about a common gaming concept which conflicts with his previously held beliefs: house rules.

House rules are an abhoration–that is, an aberration I abhor. House rules are what draws your finely poised Monopoly game out to an un-played, un-reached, un-won conclusion. House rules are what happens when you let people who hate reading marshal your game night. House rules are to board games what text speak is to the English language.

When someone says “Oh, that’s not how we play” when I reference this or that rule, I wonder what’s stopping them from drawing a bread knife and jamming it into my chest. In my book, playing by house rules is pretty much the same as playing by no rules. People who use house rules love that Hit the Wooden Sheep game, and scoff at the funny squiggly lettered pamphlet that came in the box with it; they’re toddlers placing dice up their nose because they don’t know how to count.

Mr. Florence’s point wasn’t that house rules are A-OK, but that Risk Legacy was a return to the kind of imprinting we once put on games, before they started getting expensive and swanky and coming with pre-painted armies. It’s the kind of thing that makes a worn book well-loved, or a cracked mug your mug. It’s the kind of thing house rules are all about.

But I don’t want my books worn or my mugs chipped: I want them pristine.

And I don’t need reminders of all the fun I’ve had playing displayed as stickers or torn cards or greasy pastry marks on my game tiles. I’m capable of remembering it all quite well enough without souvenirs, thank you very much.

This is what you end up with at the denouement of your fifteenth and final game of Risk Legacy: a souvenir–as much a chart of your misadventures with friends as an album of photos from when you all went to Corfu. I can see why some people would like that, but in my experience those treasured possessions, those reminders of fun times past get put away out of the sun’s bleaching rays, taken out to be admired every once in a while until somehow they finally fade anyway, and are thrown away as the rubbish they are–and perhaps always were.

I’d love to be proved wrong, but I can’t imagine keeping our foursome’s Risk board always and forever as memento of the fifteen wars fought between us, anymore than I still hold the ticket stubs of every movie I’ve ever seen with someone dear to me.

It’s a strange dichotomy, this willingness to throw what others might see as treasure away while holding close treasures which to all others are, alas, cardboard. And if the soul of a game lies outside components, trinkets and rules, and in the hearts of those playing, then why do we need games to draw us together in the first place?

I haven’t played Risk Legacy.

“Is it any good?”

I’ll get back to you on that.

Author: Campfire Burning

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  1. I want it precisely for the same reasons your missus does. The prospect of defacing and destroying board game components WILLINGLY is amazing. Its so amazing I’m wondering why no-one thought of it before.

  2. Was going to say that I think Legacy’s success or failure will come down to its pricepoint. If its too high I just can’t see people investing in something that’s a one time only game, no matter how involving it is.
    But having said that if there are 15 campaigns then it’s not too bad an investment as I’m sure we all have many a game where we are unlikely to play them anywhere near that number of times (or in some cases even once would be a start).

    It’s definitely a mad idea though, I’m just imagining a video game equivalent where the disk self-destructs “Mission Impossible style” once you complete it!

  3. Alternative: I might get regular Risk for cheap, set light to it and put the remains of that up on my wall instead.

  4. I’m with Campfire. I like my stuff to be kept all lovely and shiny and new. I’m not sure I could draw on a gameboard and maintain my grip on sanity.

  5. This sounds really interesting. I’ve never played Risk though!!!

  6. As the wife in question, I still think we should buy this game. We can buy a second for Campfire to keep pristine.

  7. 😮

    I think I speak for everyone here when I say, “Leave Campfire. Be with me.”

    Yes, I’m talking for the ladies too.

  8. Now Campfire knows he has to give Lindsay everything she wants so she isn’t wooed away by a boardgaming lothario.

  9. Nice oxymoron

  10. Any response to Andy has to contain the word ‘moron’ in it somewhere.

  11. Finding this post has anewresd my prayers

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