Monday, 21 September 2009

Risk Express

I know it gets lots of hate from people who've just discovered German board games and now suffer from a new-found selective memory filtering out the fun they've had with old favourites (BBG this means you) that did not originate from the Continent (erm.. except that Risk is actually French) but I love Risk. Always have done, always will do. A cracking blend of buckets-o-dice, Napoleon-complex fantasy and what I still hold to be an excellent mechanism whereby you have to keep judging how far you can push your advances, allowing for the fact that once you call a halt to your aggression you have to ensure that you are not overstretched and liable to be gobbled up by the others player's moves. BBG enthusiasts would probably rave about it if it was themed up as Swiss farmers planting carrots or something similar. Yeah, players get stamped on and knocked out of the game. War is hell. Suck it up.

In all seriousness I am aware of a big flaw in Risk, which is that it's basically the boardgame equivalent of Squash (the racquet sport, not the concentrated orange juice stuff). If one player is just a teeny bit better than the other he can make the other player(s) dance to his tune. Fun for him, not so much for the others. So Risk doesn't get played that often by the Stourbridge crew, even though the Lord of the Rings version is an excellent game. We tried Transformers Risk once with two players, the least said about that the better.

I first heard of Risk Express on BBG but it seemed unavailable just about anywhere, except possibly Australasia. (We tried to invade and seize copies but they had a massive stack of 30+ armies on there and we couldn't crack it). Then one day, about a year after I first heard of it, it just sort of appeared in at a local WHSmiths in the Christmas stock so it flew off the shelf and into my sweaty mitts. A few plays later and other Stourbridge denizens were off sourcing their own copies so at last count I believe my copy has caused the purchase of another 5 or 6 copies just within the club. For some reason Smiths picked it up for the Christmas season a year after it's release. It's now a favourite post-game-game (*) that has relegated the earlier favourite Formula Motor Racing back to the games cupboard.

So what is it?

Firstly, it's not a fast-play or "lite" version of Risk, so doesn't have the same relationship to the parent game that something like Formula De Mini does to it's parent. It's a great big dice rolling game, so manages to keep the buckets-o-dice feel of Risk, but with a board of regions comprised of circular cards. There is no movement between regions, you simply pick a region to invade and set to it.

There are seven dice, marked up with the familiar iconography from Risk. Faces are the General, Cavalry, Artillery, 1 x Army, 2 x Armies, 3 x Armies. You roll all seven and attempt to complete a lines of matching icons on a single region. That done, you roll the remaining dice and try and complete the other lines on that region. Fail to complete a line and you drop a die. Complete all lines before you run out of dice and you conquer it. Some are easier than others. You only get one shot at a region per turn so each turn you fail is technically a missed opportunity to score or bank some points.

The United States (part of the blue continent of North America) requires three lines - two of 1 Cavalry + 1 Artillery and another of 3 Armies (which could be on a single die or on two or three). If the US is held by another player the round General line must be filled as well. You can only take one line per roll.

Attack a region held by another player and you will need to roll an extra "General".

Conquer all of a continent (2 or 3 regions, although Australasia is a single-region continent) and it becomes "locked". The cards are turned face-down and can no longer be invaded. So you've "banked" these points and they may not be taken away from you, whereas regions for which you do not possess the complete set may be so if captured.

Once the last region is taken, tally scores.

And that's it. You get a nice bowl to roll the dice in (which is also the game box) but in practise this rarely gets used as the high sides tend to block the sightlines of at least some players and this robs the game of some drama as not everybody can see the bones being cast.

Initially it seems like a load of pure luck with no skill involved but after a couple of plays you learn the regions and can start to judge how soft a target they may be and whether it's worth going after one once someone else has conquered it, bearing in mind the extra "line" of a single General you will have to complete. You also have to discipline yourself into not getting drawn into long slogs to take a difficult region whilst simultaneously letting others overtake you by seizing the empty regions whilst you have your eye elsewhere. You have to decide whether to go for the easier complete continents of South America and Africa or risk it on the much-harder-to-take Europe and North America . I have been concentrating on the former and keep losing to people who capture one of the higher-scoring continents so clearly my gameplan has been lacking somewhat. I've seen Asia taken by one player just the once, IIRC this was in a game where everyone else squabbled over Europe and North America.

Amazingly Risk Express manages to capture the feel and tension of a game that has completely different mechanisms. This is a remarkable achievement when you think about it but works because you keep the epic dice rolling gameplay, the graphic design is identical to the original, continents are important and Australia remains an uncrackable early target (because of it's one region continent status once seized it cannot be lost).

Recommended, assuming that dice don't hate you. I've won this game only once out of many plays, whereas at Risk-As-Squash - I am the better player you all hate. But my Risk Express dice don't love me like all my Risk d6s do.

(*) A short, 30-45 minute game played at the end of the evening when the main game has finished and the midnight chucking out time has not yet arrived. Something of a modern phenomena spawned by modern wargames actually reaching a conclusion on the same evening on which they are started. Post-game-games need to be very portable and capable of being played with any number of players, often changing players in between rounds.

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