Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Risk Legacy: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Sharpie
I'm going to tell you up front that I'm a huge Dudes On A Map worshipping, GameMaster Series adoring, Cyclades Loving son of a bitch. I love conquest, I love to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentation of their women. But, that being said, I hate Risk with a passion. If you asked me to play Risk, I'd probably get up and call you a fun murdering cunt. It's the weakest of all of the DoaM games I know of, and by a long shot. So let's set that straight right up front. Fuck Risk, in the ass, with no Astroglide and a handful of sand. Sharp sand.
Now I've heard all this jazz about Risk: Black Ops, Risk: Godstorm, Risk: 2210, Risk: Lord of the Rings, Risk: Halo Wars, and all the other Risk games being so much different than any of the others, but I hate Risk so very, very much I've never played them, or had any desire to play them. So, when I got this press copy of Risk Legacy from my buddy Chris, I told him that I'd better send it back because I'm NOT the guy for it. I'd destroy it and tell people how shitty it is, just like the original Risk.
Undaunted, he explained that it is so unlike any other Risk game that I would have no choice to sit at its altar and sacrifice my children to it. Yes, that's a paraphrase. So, I cracked it open, wary that I'd have to shit on a dear friend's first published project. Luckily, he was right, it's not like any other Risk game I've ever played. It doesn't suck, not a bit. In fact, it's rocks out with its cock out, and it's going to change what "hidden information" means to a gamer, forever.
The concept of Legacy is that scientists got sick of Global Warming, Global Climate Change, overpopulation, food shortages, sex trafficking of underage Indonesians, Sean Penn, and all the other ails of the world. So much so that they found a way to make completely new copies of Earth to escape the madness. Unfortunately, people are people and shortly after the five evil corporations that run the world sent their people to New Earth #00010542 they got sick of each others' shit and decided to do what man always does: kill one another with reckless abandon using the most efficient killing machines available at the time.
In short, it's about killing and subjugating, which is my favorite pastime. But, unlike normal, shitty Risk, you're not trying to wipe enemies off the map so much because the object instead is to earn four Red Stars, which are points that can be started with, bought, or earned through conquest, and are represented by both tokens and headquarters pieces. If you get four Red Stars, either by controlling headquarters and tokens or just with tokens alone, you immediately win the game.
Looking to the components, there's an assload of wee miniatures in five colors and in two styles per faction that represent individual troops and three troops, a bunch of cards that represent the territories and some that have coins pictured on them, five dice, a rulebook, two sheets of stickers, a sideboard with some areas to stack cards, and a huge, truly well-designed map. On the map are all kinds of icon-based helpers that make it really easy to remember what does what, and when. On top of that, there's a bunch of tokens that have missiles depicted on them, and some tokens with stars on them.
The final bits are a set of nearly poker-sized cards with more stickers on them, and five cardboard faction cards. All in all, everything is Hasbro quality, and the miniatures, while not super detailed, are very good. They're easily the quality of Conquest of Nerath, which I think are pretty damned good, especially considering the diminutive size. I should also mention the art, because it's wonderful. Each faction has its own look, and the art is on par with Eminent Domain, which I consider to have some of the best sci-fi artwork not made by Games Workshop. Really, truly pretty.
During the initial setup the owner, presumably, will place some coin stickers onto some of the resource cards that represent the territories. This buffs them up so that when you earn one of these, it's more valuable. During the following 15 plays, some of these may be buffed with stickers further, and some will be torn into little rippy bits. Further, during the game there will be stickers placed onto the board as permanent alterations, stickers placed into the rulebook to change the rules forever, and shit written onto the board that forever changes it. In short, there's a lot of things that are going to change between play one and play fifteen, and that's just how it is designed.
Now, there's this big Internet controversy about people not wanting to "destroy" the game by writing on it, changing cards, all that jazz. Well, folks, let me set you straight. Do you bitch about ruining your pristine bottle of Citadel paint or cry about tainting your Warhammer 40K Space Marine when you paint it? No, Internet geniuses, you make it AWESOME. Do you lament ruining a condom when you bust your load into it inside of your lady (or guy) of choice? No, you accomplish the desired effect. This game is designed specifically to be changed permanently, and it's for good cause. It makes the game better, and it's meant to be done.
So, in short, get over it. Revel in the experiences that life rewards you with and stop worrying about return on investment. The investment is indeed paid in full with interest via the experience. And, it's not like the game goes in the shit can once you've unlocked everything. It's far better than when you opened the box, anyhow.
There's also another aspect to changing the game that people have tended to overlook, and it's from a philosophical perspective. A decision that is easily mitigated or can be reversed is not a powerful decision. It's a throw away. It has no real meaning, and there's no lasting repercussions. In this game, the decisions are as real as they get, and more emphasis and weight is duly applied to them.
There's more angst, more tension, and more power wielded by the choices because the decisions are both game-changing and permanent. That's the single most novel thing in this game; it forces you to take all decisions seriously, and think about the long-term consequences of the things you do, the rewards you take, and the powers you wield because they are irrevocable. It's a brilliant way to force players to invest themselves into the universe's setting and the inhabitants therein.
But let's talk a minute about the hows and whys of changing the board. First, when you win the game, you get to name a continent, add a major city that only you can start at during future games, create helpful or hindering terrain for future games, or make some territories more or less valuable. The game itself is a work in progress, and everything ties in seamlessly.
Have a player who put a city in Brazil, thereby giving him a potential advantage in subsequent games? Skullfuck him when you win next time by tearing up his 3-coin Peru card so that continent is inherently less attractive to start on in future games. Factions become more powerful as the game progresses, and have new, unique powers, and these stay with the factions forever, and that alone is awesome.
The naming mechanic is awesome as well. For example, I was playing last night with my very good buddy Mickey. He attacked me with eight troops, and I had only one wee little Halo marine-looking dude there to defend it. I only took it so he couldn't get a bonus when he got reinforced. Anyhow, that lone dude, who incidentally was named Master Chief after that game, killed five of his people before succumbing to his barrage of tanks.
I asked him if it was worth five legions of his people to get a measly couple troops bonus, and he declared "That Mandingo mother fucker had to die." Well, he won the game, and as his reward, the continent is permanently named "Mandingo MoFo." That, and in future games, if he controls that continent, since he named it, he gets an additional bonus troop during reinforcement.
You just can't get that kind of long-term, epic revenge that completely redefines the meta-game in any other game on the market. Ever. And that's just a small sampling of how the game is not just a one-off skirmish, but a long-term epic war that rages on, right where it left off, with all the battle scars and founded cities and fortresses being there every single time you play from that point on. It's as if at the end of every game, once rewards are doled out, the game gets put on pause until the next time people sit down and play it.
Those aren't the only things that change, either. The first time you completely murder an entire civilization, you crack open a sealed envelope that adds new stuff to the game. New rules, new powers, new stuff. When you found the ninth minor city, same thing. When you place thirty troops in a single turn and have a missile token, same thing. When three nukes are fired off in a single battle, same thing. The game changes every single time you play it, just like how the landscape of our world changes every time there's conflict.
Don't believe me? Afghanistan has more civilian deaths due to landmines and unexploded ordinance than any country on Earth. Why? There's been perpetual war there for as long as I've been alive. Shit, longer. So, this game is the first game I've ever played, seen, or heard of that actually remembers the sins of governments past, and although I'm sure the game isn't meant to be a political statement, there sure as hell is a lesson to be learned from it.
But all this can be written off as a gimmick by the uninformed. A money grab. A scam. Of course, those sentiments are complete bullshit, but I can understand why people might think that if they don't know any better. Like a kid picking his ass and licking his finger, right? Here's the thing: how many games do you own that you bought expansions for, and how many times after getting the expansions do you go back and play the base game?
The one thing that really chaps my ass about this whole debate is that people who are the first to buy the "Smallworld: 4 Bits And A Box For 25$" expansion are the first to bitch about "defecating on my new game", but this game has at least six expansions built right into the fucker, and included for the initial purchase price . If you can't see that, you're beyond my help.
That being said, let's assume that this game had none of this, and talk about the game above and beyond the "unlockables" and modifications. Why is Legacy any good? what makes it better than the old-school Risk, and what makes it any better than any of the games on the market in the genre? Let's explore.
Legacy is an very neat DoaM game on its own, without the unlockable aspect. Thankfully, only some gameplay aspects have remained from the original Risk game, such as the movement mechanic, the dice mechanic, and the lack of unit differentiation from the perspective that there is only one kind of troop per army with all armies essentially acting the same way.
The rest is a sweet melange of the unique player powers and missions found in Nexus Ops, terrain modifiers in Small World, and the resource accumulation in Axis and Allies. It's a really, really tight design and there's really not that many rules to it. The best, most refreshing part is that a five player game can be over in under two hours. Hell, I don't even think you could make this game take much longer than that if you tried.
"But how, my good writer, do you play the fucking thing?" Well, allow me to give you a short version. First, to set the game up, pick a faction, and then you must simply place your headquarters building and eight troops onto any unoccupied, unmodified territory or a territory with a city you founded previously. If you've never won on this Earth, you get a free Red Star coin, which is a victory point, but if you have won before, you get a missile token for each time you've won.
Speaking of factions, there's five of them, and all are completely unique with respect to their figures and their special power. Each faction starts with one special power, but during the game's expansion there can be up to five unique powers per faction. There's barbarians, armored suit wearing folks, Fremen-looking sand chicks, Imperial Guard looking folks, and Halo marine looking dudes. Again, all the models are unique and look really cool. I especially dig the Fremen chicks because their little car figures remind me of Westwood Games' trike units from the PC RTS game Dune 2000. Anyhow, moving on.
Once you're all set up, the battle begins. Each player takes their turns, completing phases in order. The first phase is reinforcements, whose number is calculated by counting all of your territories, adding the value of any cities you control, and dividing by three. It sounds wonky, but it's actually a cakewalk. On top of that, you can spend resource coins, which are earned through conquest, to buy more troops.
You can place them on any territories you own, in any denomination. If you had all of your troops killed on your last turn, if there's an open, legal territory, you place four troops on that space and start from there. If there's no legal space, you are out of the game and, the first time someone is eliminated, you crack open a secret envelope and immediately do what it says to do. Sorry, no spoilers here.
Next, you can expand your domain by moving your troops, either taking vacant territories or fighting an enemy. As in old-school Risk, you can never abandon a territory, so if you enter a new territory and want to expand further, you have to leave at least one troop as a garrison. If you want to fight, simply declare the battle, and roll the dice to fight. Some terrain modifies the rolls, such as ammo shortages and bunkers, which can give +1 or -1 to a die roll. It's the same Risk formula, with a twist, essentially. Additionally, if you've won on this map before, you'll probably have a missile token which you can play, and it makes your highest roll an automatic six, which cannot be trumped, although ties always go to the defender.
Once you're done crushing rebellions and whatnot, you can make one final repositioning movement, which allows you to move figures from one adjacent position to another to reinforce a front line. This is how you get troops from one friendly position to another, and one faction initially has a power that allows you to move troops from any friendly territory to another, not just adjacent ones.
The trick is that you initially only get to reposition once per turn, so placement and strategy are critical here. I initially thought it was total bullshit to not allow troops to reposition during your movement phase since if there's tanks and giant mechwarriors on the board, someone surely had invented a C-130, but after screwing around with that just to see how it would play, it was immediately apparent that the game would last forever if you could persistently fortify any position you wish anytime you wished. That, and a lot of the strategy would disappear.
If you happened to snatch a territory from an opponent, you earn a resource card. These, as I noted, can be used to buy troops, but more importantly, if you trade in four of them, you earn a Red Star. Some territories are worth more than others, based on how many stickers are on them, and if there's any territories that you own in one of the four slots, you can take your pick of them. If you don't, you simply take a one coin value card instead.
That's all there is to the core game, really. Fight, kill, get four stars, and win. As the game expands itself through play, much, much more comes into play. Random event cards are drawn. Secret missions abound. The game just keeps getting deeper and deeper, more interesting and more devious with each new play. It's fucking awesome. Every time some new packet opens, it's like Christmas, even when bad shit happens.
Now that you know what I like, here's what I didn't, since it's not all strawberries and cream. First, if you play this with a bunch of regulars and a new guy comes along, he's in an odd position. The new player will never have built a city, meaning he can't take advantage of the benefits of having a one or two value city, essentially denying him one free troop per turn in many cases. That's mitigated, and to a degree overcompensated for, by the fact that players who haven't won yet get a free starting Red Star token, meaning that with their HQ they're halfway to victory from jump street. But it also means that there's fewer safe havens to respawn from if all of their troops are killed.
While it's as well balanced as it could be, I still think it's uneven because the new guy gets to start with a quarter more victory points than the opponents who have won before, and potentially fewer advantageous positions than anyone who has built a city, which is any player who lost a game but wasn't completely wiped out. And if it's a mature game, there's a shitload of cities, which reduces the legal starting places exponentially. Sure, other players can't use them, but when you start out with less options than anyone at the table, and its a persistent disadvantage, it can never be quite on par. Matt Drake and I disagree on this point, and you should read his review as well to get his thoughts on the game. If ever an honest broker lived, it's he.
Second is the fact that all the troops are the same. I would've really liked to see Legacy enter Axis and Allies, Smallworld, Nexus Ops, and Conquest of Nerath territory by having differentiation between units. In Legacy, you have the one unit marker and the three unit marker, and that's it. With the cool models in the box, I'd have enjoyed having a giant robot figure shoot big plasma bolts that destroy cities, have the little trikes be able to reposition for free, or maybe have the big bear-riding barbarian bits be able to get a new unit for free by eating three enemy troops or something. As it rests, it's just plain old Risk in that regard, and that's not something I look upon with great endearment.
So, at the end of the day, while Risk Legacy is not the best game I've ever played, it's hands-down the most unique and completely revolutionary game I've ever played, not to mention exceptionally fun. The persistent warfare aspect of the game is stunningly brilliant, and it is absolutely mind-blowing in its potential. I've still not unlocked everything, and I may never, even with 15 plays where the game is locked and continues on in its final state forever. I currently have several cities, such as "Pickle Pus", a small village in the Ural Mountains, "DNS City" (an ode to Pulp Fiction) in Greenland, "Cheyenne" in Eastern Australia, and continents called "Craquilonia" and "Mandingo MoFo".
And while I like the game as it is, every time I crack open the box, I don't know what the hell is going to happen next, what event will totally screw us all, what will be unlocked or what rule will change, and that's something I can't say with virtually any other game. Very, very cool.
Why The Legacy Of Risk, And Perhaps Board Game Design, Has Been Upgraded:
- The "Achievement Unlocked" aspect is just too fucking cool for words
- The game, even without the unlockables, is tight and well designed
- The art is truly wonderful without exception
- It's the only Risk game I've wanted to play more than once
- Each game played makes it better, and even after 15 plays the game is playable in its final form
Why This May Be A Risky Purchase:
- If you can't hack modifying your game, first, I pity you, but also, this may not be something you can handle
- The lack of unit differentiation is a huge bummer for me
- Playing a mature game with a newbie feels unbalanced if you have lots of drifters in your group
This is definitely one of the better DoaM games that has come out in the last few years, and not only for the unlockable and persistent aspects of the war, although those features are what catapult it from a really good game to a great one. There's a few things I don't like, specifically the lack of unit differentiation and the newbie factor, but those are meager bitches when weighed against how truly fucking awesome this game is when viewed in its totality. This game will undoubtedly spawn knock-offs of the 'evolving game' mechanic, but I suspect that these charlatans will not have the jacobs to force players to make permanent changes to the landscape. And that's a shame.
Read the rules here, because there's some minor bits I left out, and you can see the art for yourself:
One More Important Point:
I have not opened all the sealed pouches, so I don't know EVERYTHING that is in store. I can only base this off of five plays, and I can only talk about what I know. What I do know is that I want to open those pouches almost as much as I want to have sex tonight, and since Aunt Flo just winged her ass back to Uteropolis after an unwelcome stay, I want to have sex very, very badly. Very. Just sayin'.