Like any of the classic board games, the story of Risk is not entirely the one I thought it would be. It starts in the 1950s and continues strong today. Despite its issues as a game, interestingly it doesn’t seem to garner quite the same level of derision as other classic mass-market games. If you say “Risk” someone will likely say “yes, I lost days to that as a kid.”
But let’s go back a bit. Risk was designed by Albert Lamorisse – and if that name rings a bell to any of the cinephiles out there that’s because it is indeed the same Lamorisse that won the Palme d’Or for short films at the Cannes Film Festival for White Mane in 1953, and in 1956 for his film The Red Balloon. These are lovely films and you should watch them.
That wasn’t enough for Albert. Non. As if to say that life was good, but somehow missing that je ne sais quoi, in 1957 he brings us Risk.
This isn’t the end of his primary career, however. Albert continues to make films for many years until he dies tragically in 1970, aged 48, in a helicopter accident in Iran while filming Le Vent des amoureux or The Lover’s Wind. Even after death, however, Albert is no slouch – the film is completed by his family and released in 1978, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Again, that was not the back story I expected. There is a glamour and sense of adventure there that I suspect is missing from the biographies of most contemporary game designers. Though perhaps we shouldn’t think of Albert as a great game designer, but as a great filmmaker who also happened to make an internationally successful game.
Originally released in 1957 in France as La Conquête du Monde, or The Conquest of the World, it would be bought by Parker Brothers and released in 1959 as Risk: The Continental Game. In the French edition the armies are represented by rectangular wooden cubes and 10 army pieces are wooden triangles. According to the internet, because I don’t own an original copy, the early US editions also used wooden cubes for armies and wooden discs for 10 unit pieces. Plastic triangles (1 army) and stars (10 armies) replaced wood in the 1963 and 1975 editions In 1980 plastic Roman Numerals acted as the pieces the represented (I, III, V, X), and in 1993 infantry, cavalry and canon pieces came into play. My version is 1993 and I have to say I would prefer wooden pieces. Since this time there’s been 14 billion rethemes of it. Risk Legacy stands out as a version that attempts to change the game with emerging narrative through modified rules on successive plays.
It is also available in app form, of course. This is the version my son played when he started getting into games. When I pulled out our 1993 version and tried to coax him into playing a game to get his impressions his immediate response was “can’t we just play the app version, it’ll be way quicker.” Nonetheless, I convinced him to play, along with my 5 year old daughter, and, shockingly, they weren’t entirely impressed. These are kids that have been spoiled by the mechanical design and visual beauty of contemporary games. A dice roller with some tactical considerations was not enough to keep them engaged for too long. Once we played for half an hour or so and they got the idea I set them free.
This game does make a lot of sense in context, however. 1957. We aren’t that many years after the end of World War II and the Korean War is barely out of mind. World conquest is a real thing to people. A game like Risk, which simplifies and makes accessible war gaming, otherwise was kept to the enthusiasm of basement hobbyists, would have been enticing to both players and board game companies.
Speaking of war, the internet also tells me the German version of was originally subtitled “liberate the world” not “conquer the world” due to German aversion to war games post WWII. Understandable.
And while recent English Risk subtitles include “The game of global domination” or “The world conquest game”, a recent German Risk subtitle is “Das große strategiespiel” or
The great strategy game.” These are the details that make the history of board games interesting as a social phenomenon.
Additionally, there is quite a variety of covers and subtitles and Boardgame Geek users have posted lots of international covers for your interest.
Overall, Risk is one of those games I played far too much of as a teenager. Epic conversations led to epic games of late-night Risk. While the game always started out as fun, by the end it suffered the blight of player elimination and overbuilding end-game. It dragged on forever, regardless of whether you had been knocked out or were hanging in there. Either way, you kind of wanted the war to end.
Does Risk hold up? Perhaps as a high-speed cat and mouse game on a tablet. Will I be able to coax my kids to ever play Risk on a table again? Doubtful. There are simply too many other delightful games to enjoy as a family. We’ll stick to enjoying Albert Lamorisse’s films, instead.