Playing Risk: the Effect of One Little Rule

I love Risk. Not risk (a hazard) but Risk (the game). I recently played a game of Risk with some friends and it was a unique experience in several ways. Allow me to explain.

As in many other types of complex systems, the agents (players) in this game were trying to find out the strategies that the others were using, and they were adapting to those (perceived) strategies. This meant that we were actually modifying our own standard and proven practices while playing. One consequence was that all of us assigned the highest priority to conquering our own continent. (Actually we assigned the highest priority to chips and chocolate, but possession of a continent came in as a close second.) At other times we might have assigned the highest priority to preventing other players from conquering a full continent. Eventually these priorities led to the unique and fully balanced situation where each of the four players had one or two complete continents, and there was no continent left that was not fully claimed by either of us. This situation occurred after an hour or two into the game and I found it so unique that I just had to take a picture of it.

After four hours of playing it was 2:30 in the middle of the night, and we had been playing the game for four hours straight with no end in sight. Our strategies were balanced. None of us had achieved a breakthrough and nobody was winning. We were bored and tired. So we all went to bed and continued the game the next morning, but with one change: the previous night we had not allowed a full army to conquer and push through a sequence of adjacent countries in just one turn. We decided to remove this rule. (One of the players objected, but the nice thing about democracies is that you can silence any minority.) The result was quite interesting: we all updated our strategies and they still turned out to be reasonably balanced, since each of us in turn quickly sweeped (and lost) large portions of the game board. The main difference was that the game had accellerated at an incredible pace. However, after an hour or so the pink armies finally achieved their victory.

It was a special experience in that I had never before changed one of the rules midway during a game and it was interesting to see what an impact this change had on the dynamics of the system. It was also evident that the rule change had allowed for a lot more sudden disturbances. And even though we were able to keep it going for another hour, it was this change that finally threw the system out of balance, leaving me with the greatest defeat I have had to endure since ages, with only three countries left to me. Southern Europe was among them though. so it could have been worse.

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