Risk Legacy is a $50 board game that you’ll probably only play 15 times.
If I had tried to sell you on that concept twenty years ago, you probably would have laughed in my face. Board games have long been vaunted for their replay value and durability. If you grew up in the burbs, it’s likely you knew someone with a venerable iteration of Clue(do) or a mostly complete Monopoly set from 1952. Passed down like heirlooms, these games are often secreted away in closets until a rainy day rolls around, when they are counted on for hours of entertainment (and probably a couple of shouting matches and fist-fights too).
However, this reliability comes with a cost: predictability.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon and you’re playing Monopoly. You’re about half an hour into a match with your siblings, and you’ve somehow managed to secure both Atlantic and Ventnor Avenue. Your brother has Marvin Gardens.
And the only way you’re going to get it is prying it out of his cold, dead hands.
You know the rules of the game too well. Allowing a player to get a complete set of properties is a death knell for everyone else at the table. So you wait, and you wait, and you wait… until someone manages to go bankrupt. Or maybe, they just get desperate enough to make a deal. Then the rest of the dominoes fall and you embark upon a merry-go-round of crushing debt.
The original version of Risk, released way back 1959, often falls into a similar rut. The rules are about as simple as you can get: occupy land, attack your enemies, and try to take over the world. With such obvious objectives, you end up in the same obstructionist patterns as Monopoly – except with global politics rather that capitalist feuds. “We can’t let Matt take New Guinea and get the continent bonus!” “Brooke almost has all of North America, stop her!” “Watch out, Geoff has Irkutsk!”
Well, maybe not Irkutsk. Nobody likes Irkutsk.
To make matters worse, death is permanent and games can go on for (literally) days. Although reaching the end of a campaign can be satisfying, it is rarely worth the hours of outrage that often accompany the play sessions.
Risk Legacy manages to fix most of these problems by making itself disposable. Like a rocketship that discards portions of its hull to hasten its ascent, Risk Legacy hurls new content at its players to propel the game forward. You can never truly settle into a rut because you never fully get a grasp on the mechanics. As soon as you think you have everything figured out, BOOM, a figurative (or literal) bomb goes off and you have to scramble to pick up the pieces.
I don’t want to get too spoilery, but Risk Legacy succeeds because it manages to keep the experience novel through 15 accelerated game sessions. Full global domination is not required – players can complete missions, take over bases, or a do a little bit of both to win a game. The multiple win conditions are complicated by missiles, factions, and mission/event cards: some of which are one-time-only affairs and are thrown away once they are completed. This may seem odd – even sacrilegious – to some, but there is something strangely tantalizing about vandalizing board game pieces.
The marquee mechanic of the game, however, is the fact that the board does not fully reset after every match. Cities can be built to increase the value of countries. Scars can be placed to provide boons or weaknesses to specific territories. And cataclysmic events can be unlocked by meeting certain gameplay conditions. The unlockable content is really what makes the game shine: it is entertaining, surprisingly in-depth, and forces you to reconsider your entire strategy for the game.
There are some downsides to this approach, however. The game’s “race to the most wins” mechanic means that by the twelfth or thirteenth match, some people are likely just along for the ride. Additionally, the constant introduction of new rules makes game challenging for younger players (or even less seasoned gamers). In a way, Risk Legacy is a toybox for meta-gamers. You have to think fast and find the best way to exploit a parade of new rules and mechanics.
But is $50 too much for a board game with an expiry date?
I could make a very compelling argument for the dollars-per-hour entertainment value of the game. I could also draw parallels to linear video games, Dungeons and Dragons modules, and even Escape Room experiences: all of which lose a portion of their charm after the first playthrough.
However, what Risk Legacy really feels like is a giant puzzle that you solve with your friends. Although mortal enemies in-game, you end up banding together to decipher emergent mechanics and unlock new content. When the board is finally complete – and a victor declared – you don’t really feel like you’ve won or lost. Instead, you are greeted with a moment of clarity: like you’ve put the final piece in a giant jigsaw puzzle.
It’s no wonder that so many people have chosen to frame the finished product.
Maybe $50 is a bit much for something that may just end up being wall art. But I don’t think I’ve ever played a game of Monopoly or Clue that I wanted to frame.
Heck, half the time those game boards ended up on the floor anyways.