Un-risky Board Games

Ah, family game night. A phrase as synonymous with fun as it is with fighting. No one delights in losing, but the thrill of slightly missing victory or making risky plays can still make competition enjoyable. While the ‘true’ enjoyment of a game night is socializing and eating copious amounts of pizza until midnight, the best game nights and the worst game nights I’ve ever had with friends or family are always separated by one thing: the quality of the game. There is not an objectively best board game, it is necessary for many different arrangements of mechanics and skill to exist to appeal to every audience (I'm looking at you, Consentacle). The largest factors in this are investments of time; to playing each game, learning the rules, and learning strategy.

Popular games generally share two things: good marketing and easiness to learn. Games like Life and Yhatzee are very easy to learn, but have a skill ceiling lower than a doghouse in Death Valley. The extreme case is something like snakes and ladders, which can barely even be called a game, as zero skill involved. Rolling a fistful of dice once would be equally as reliable. Chess is easy to learn, but has zero variance, which contributes to its ridiculous learning curve. Complicated board games (usually accompanied by rule books thicker than the potato of a laptop I’m writing this on) create a barrier of entry to potential players, regardless of their learning curve. A better Chess player will theoretically beat their opponent every time, but in a game of Axis and Allies, an inexperienced player can still find themselves with a fighting chance by incidentally shooting down the entirely of the Luftwaffe in one turn. Adding variance, even variance such as humans themselves in games with diplomatic mechanics, forces players to gauge the field as a series of risks and rewards. This does give inexperienced players a chance of ‘lucking’ into a victory, but savvy players are also given a different reward: non-repetitive game-play with the confidence of being able to beat both the player and the game.

One game that seems to escape this is Risk. There is no reward to playing Risk. The game is very well marketed, and easy to learn. It does require some skill to play well, but a skill ceiling is not a barrier to entry, only a change in appeal. The winner can often be determined hours before the actual end of the game, and if a player gets singled out early on, they now have the distinct pleasure of twiddling their thumbs for five hours. Normally, getting stuck in a five versus one situation either means that you either need to rethink your strategy or find new friends. In many multiplayer situations, chainsaw diplomacy (mutually assured destruction) can be used as a last resort. No player will want to be the first to make any large attacks against your positioning, since in desperation you can always devote everything you have into attacking that one player with no regard for defense or future strategy. It assures that neither side can win the game. In Risk your forces begin so far spread out that it is rarely possible to go down swinging, and you have no chance of rebuttal for several turns. Even worse, the most important decisions are often made in the first few turns. After that it come down to relying on other players to make massive mistakes or rely on blind luck… for several hours.

If you are in the lead early on in a game, you shouldn’t be able to get punished for it by elimination. The easiest way around it is to play one on one or in two teams. In games like Diplomacy, Civilization, or even Magic: the Gathering's "Commander" format, if you begin gaining a sizable lead, it is in the interest of the rest of the table to halt your progress. However, it is typically disadvantageous for any one player to attempt an elimination, as this would expose them to attack while simultaneously portraying them as a warmonger.

People everywhere will try to convince you to play this burning garbage fire of a game that will ‘totally take less than two hours to play this time’. It won’t. Unless everyone quits. Which brings around the largest sin of Risk: due to the wide spread of forces, and the inefficiency of large fights, a winner can emerge long before the game actually ends. Betrayal at house on the hill is an excellent example of a game that avoids stagnating conflicts by having the mechanics and therefore politics switch towards the end of the game. This rewards players for their early and mid-game progress while bringing the game to a quick end. So then why do people enjoy playing Risk?

Risk is fun solely for the winner. It is a parasitic game -- winners get to watch their (former) friends squirm for five hours as they crawl their way to a victory, and the sweetest form of redemption is winning in a later match. The toughest battles are the most rewarding to win. However, in Risk, the battles aren’t fun because they are difficult to win, they are rewarding since they come at the cost of a large amount of time and human misery. Players who are good will constantly ask others to play since winning is so rewarding, and those who lose will naïvely think that playing again will make them happy when they win. A game that does not facilitate making its players happy, no matter why, is a bad game. Normally, if a player has a bad experience in a board game, it is either because the game simply did not appeal to them, or they did not enjoy their company. However, Risk is a game that somehow manages to appeal to everyone while making itself very difficult to enjoy either the game or the players.

Playtesting the warped mutt of a game that evolved into Shoudo led to some frustrating and impossible situations, but we worked to refine its mechanics and combine our own experiences to make a game designed to be enjoyable for both players. And I truly believe that we have succeeded. Even after hundreds of games, Shoudo remains exciting to play since the strategies are always evolving, and the game never lets you take anything for granted. Thank you for coming along with us on our journey to create something great.

Game on,