A quiet night in beckoned last night so I set up the newly-purchased Risk - Balance of Power and had a looksee how the rules work trying it out solo a couple of times.
Firstly, it's a Risk variant exclusively for two players. Playing Risk with two players has never really worked that well (Player #1 always gets a massive advantage) so BoP is intended as a solution to that problem. Part of it's solution is to offer a very strong neutral player. Like the neutral powers in Diplomacy, the neutral player here (beige coloured) sits upon his own countries and simply defends. This presumably stops the first player from gobbling up lots of easy targets on his first move and setting himself up with an unassailable lead from right the off.
Components-wise you get a four-fold mounted board of Europe, from the Pyrennes to just short of the Balkans. Armies are now moulded as arrow-heads with small ones for single armies and larger ones for triple-strength armies. I like these, even if they reminded me straight away of the Dad's Army title sequence, although the neutral armies lack any triples which is awkward as the first map of the Basic Training game requires a set-up of 8 armies in each of Denmark and Switzerland - obviously not the largest areas in Europe.
A lot of Risk players don't like the modern "Arrowhead" army pieces but I have to admit to liking like quite a lot, especially if players arrange them so that they are pointing in the direction of attack and muscling up against enemy counter-attacking Arrowheads.
BoP is split into two games - Basic Training and Command Room, these differ in that Command Room has a semi-random set up and "dead" armies (your own) can be cashed in for bonuses, Basic Training lacks the bonuses and uses one of four pre-defined "maps".
Differences from normal Risk are as follows (cavaet - I don't own the most recent version of Risk and some of these differences might actually be included in that set).
1 - Each player has a Capitol, possession of a Capitol (anyone's) grants an extra army in the reinforcement phase.
2 - City pieces are placed on the map, these make their countries essentially count double when calculating areas held for reinforcement purposes.
3 - Cards are marked with 1, 2 or 3 stars. Any number of cards with a total of at least two stars can be handed in for extra armies, waiting for a large number of stars is more efficient that handing them in straight away but obviously risks delaying just too long.
4 - The map has "Rough Terrain" areas for mountainous or swampy countries. You can only attack a Rough Terrain country with a maximum of two armies, not the usual three. This reminds me very much of the similar rule in Apocalypse/Warlord.
5 - Victory can be achieved by defeating the other player or taking three objectives. Eight objectives are placed out at the start of play and if during a turn you have completed the requirements you may take one. These will be for tasks like conquering a certain "continent" (obviously, not a continent when the map shows just part of Europe, instead recreated as areas of neighbouring countries), taking six areas of Rough Terrain, taking both the satellite bases in Norway and West Ukraine etc. Once taken an objective cannot be lost even if you lose the countries that allowed you to take it in the first place. First player to three objectives is the winner. Note the limit of taking one per turn even if you fulfil multiple objective requirements - this prevents a single turn victory where a player might end up with three completed requirements at the end of one turn.
Basic Training plays with those rules and one of four set-ups in which the objectives and starting positions are already defined. In these games the neutral armies sit on the objectives and have to be dislodged.
Command Room adds a bit of complexity to the system.
Firstly, the eight objectives are drawn at random and nine countries are also drawn at random each of which holds a neutral city. This done, one player gets to set up the entire board, blue, red and neutral armies. The other player then gets to pick which side he wants and who will go first.
My early thoughts are that this is really tricky. The player has to cope with a random set of objectives, a random set up of neutral cities and create a set up that appears balanced (so that he hasn't created an obvious advantage for the other player to take), doesn't allow a player to start by claiming an objective (while remembering that the objectives are probably different to last game) and allows for a good game. I like the "never the same game twice" facet but I really wish there were some included Command Room set-ups for optional use. I fear that a couple of poor set-ups in a groups first couple of games could kill off all attraction to the game.
One player sets up, other picks table-edge is quite normal in tabletop wargaming but then all the set up player has to do is design a balanced table whereby neither edge offers too much of an advantage but that works because it's more practical for the hosting player to set up the table beforehand and is a much easier task. This Command Room setup rule is, I think, possibly the Achille's Heel of Risk - BoP.
The other rule change is that dead armies can be cashed in for various bonuses and this is what helps balance the game and avoid the first turn advantage that scuppers most attempts to play Risk with two players.
Neutral armies destroyed in your opponents turn can be partially or completely (dependent upon dice roll) returned to neutral countries. This means that you can bolster neutral countries that look threatened by your opponent in his sphere of influence.
At the start of your turn you can spend some of your dead armies to give various bonuses on this turn. The cheapest (2 dead armies) is a simple Recon Mission so that when attacking a Site (City, Satellite Base, the naval base in Denmark or the pile of Nazi gold in Switzerland) you can re-roll a 1. The most expensive is the mighty Airfield at a cost of 10 dead armies that adds +1 to your highest die in combat in that country and all adjacent ones. So there's a degree of rubber-banding here and a excellent turn for you that routs lots of your opponents armies will be tempered by giving him the opportunity to get those bonuses, which also include things like insurrections, extra armies and the special forces ability which allows for attacking into rough terrain with three armies.
So thumbs up for the intelligent approach towards providing a worthwhile approach at a two-player Risk, for the idea behind the random setup and that the fact that both games are "proper" versions (unlike the usual approach whereby the beginner game is horribly Mickey Mouse and only the advanced one is the "real" game), thumbs down for the lack of triple Neutral army pieces and the difficulty of setting up a good map for Command Room.
I have no idea of what epoch of warfare the game is supposed to represent. Traditionally, "vanilla" Risk was set in the Napoleonic Wars but the box for BoP shows massed pikes with banners and the game includes satellite uplink stations and airfields. Anybody's guess really.