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Dave Shapiro
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Anytime you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there's a 90% probability you'll get it wrong. - Andy Rooney

OK, I admit it; I was wrong.

When I was at GenCon this past year, I discovered that USAopoly was releasing two additional versions of Risk. To date, USAopoly has had two ‘eh’ versions (Halo Wars and Starcraft) and to great versions of the game (Halo Legendary and Metal Gear Solid). Note: Halo Wars and Starcraft are simply re-themes of the Black Ops edition; good games but but not as innovative as the other two.

I wandered over to the USAopoly booth to reconnoiter the two new games only to discover that one would be based on The Walking Dead and the second on... Plants versus Zombies! The following thoughts raced through my mind (in no particular order): WTF, this is the dumbest game idea I have ever heard of (and I have heard many, many less than acceptable suggestions), I need to get some of what they were smoking and the possibility that The Onion editors were now designing games. Plants versus Zombies??? Seriously? Risk is always about epic battles: conquering the world, Napoleon, Star Wars, the battle for South American independance, Lord of the Rings...Plants versus Zombies? Seriously?

I expect I am one of a small group of people (at least on BGG) that will acknowledge that they actually enjoy Risk . Of the 47 commercial publications of the game, I have played nearly 40 multiple times. Some I found to be exceptional (Halo Legendary, Balance of Power, Independencia) and some were just downright cow pebbles (Narnia, Castle Risk). However, my addiction to the game required that I try Plants versus Zombies.

For those unfamiliar with Plants versus Zombies - this is one of those goofy games people play on their smart phones (think Angry Birds, Candysomething and Minecraft). Plants versus Zombies (the phone app) is a quick playing, tower defense game where the player tries to defend his home from Zombies. The player has an arsenal of plants that he places in his backyard while the Zombies march toward his house. Each plant is unique, some blow up while others shoot (peas?) at the Zombies. Thats it; not the deepest game but a decent time-waster. Given this, I could not imagine how this could be turned into a Risk game. However, there was a glimmer of possibility as the designers were Rob Daviau (excellent Risk designer) and Andrew Wolf (another experienced designer).

Before proceeding I would like to note that this has been a very unusual year for Risk games. Hasbro released Risk Battlefield Rogue earlier in the year. This is the first tactical level game in the Risk family (designed by Daviau also). It is a very good game that has replaced Memoir ‘44 in my opinion. In addition to Battlefield Rogue, USAopoly is/has released three more Risk games (Plants versus Zombies, The Walking Dead and Mass Effect) resulting in the most new versions of the game released in a single year.

Plants versus Zombies is actually two games in one box. The board has two maps (one per side) and there are different rules for each of the games though the components are shared. Both games are limited to two players. Each will be considered individually below as, other than the theme and the components, the two games are completely different in actual play.

Plants versus Zombies - Risk
Several years ago (2008), Hasbro published a version of Risk that had been specifically designed for two players: Balance of Power. For some reason, they never marketed the game in North America. I have played the game and it is simply the best way to play Risk with two players. I know of several players who cobbled together their own games as they could not obtain a legitimate published version. Balance of Power was designed by Rob Daviau. It was Risk; intense, combative, strategic, mission based and included several new concepts never seen in any Risk game prior to this. And Rob designed Plants versus Zombies, the second two-player only Risk game.

Plants versus Zombies shares much of the Balance of Power system. Both games have maps with 30 territories, strategic sites, rough terrain, open missions and multiple use cards. The terminology may be different, for example, in Balance of Power some of the territories have rough terrain while in Plants versus Zombies some of the territories are covered in fog. Whether it is fog or rough terrain the effect on the game is identical; it limits the ability to attack a specific territory. With all that is common between the two games, is Plants versus Zombies simply a re-theme of Balance of Power? The answer is no; these are similar but distinctly different games.

Plants versus Zombies and Balance of Power are based on the revised version of Risk often referred to as the Black Ops version. There are two learning scenarios described as the Basic game. The real game is, in my opinion, the Advanced game version. In this version, 8 of 12 missions are selected randomly and players take turns placing their starting units on the map. I always prefered choosing my locations to any other method. In the past there have been scenarios where each player is designated specific locations for their starting armies or territory cards were dealt at random. The ability to select your own starting locations adds to the strategy in the game. It can be considered a mild form of deck building. As Achmed the Terrorist would say: location, location, location. When one can select starting locations, the strategic planning for the game begins prior to the first piece being moved. It adds significant depth to any Risk game.

There are open missions and completing three of these is the goal. This open mission mechanic creates tremendous tension in the game as everyone has the opportunity to complete any of the missions. It is critical that you deceive your opponent as to the mission you are attempting as failure to do so grants him the opportunity to prevent you from achieving it at (possibly) little cost to his plans. Mission versions of Risk tend to play much quicker than a typical conquest game and Plants versus Zombies plays extremely quickly. We have completed games in 30 minutes and none have ever exceeded an hour. The map is very fluid and as players complete a mission, the armies will shift toward new objectives. As with any of the Risk versions based on the Black Ops system, these are not generally games of empire building; they are, more often, similar to Small World in which armies are shifting everywhere on the map as various opportunities arise.

Unlike so many lite war games, Plants versus Zombies is inoffensive. Where my wife would be opposed to playing Memoir ‘44 or Balance of Power (too violent, glorifies war), Plants versus Zombies is acceptable as the theme renders it harmless. However, this is a lite war game. It is all about the conflict. The game could very easily been themed with real armies or aliens and none of the mechanics would have to be altered.

Balance of Power was never published in the United States. It is a terrific two player version of Risk. Copies of the game are difficult to obtain. Plants versus Zombies is a scaled down version of Balance of Power. In Balance of Power, there are two mechanics that have not been included here. In Plants versus Zombies, when the neutrals are vanquished, they are gone, vamoose. In Balance of Power, the neutrals you destroyed may be brought back into the game by your opponent so there was always that consideration of how many neutrals should one destroy. In addition to this, as you conquered an opponent’s armies, he could use these lost armies to purchase certain benefits. Again, you were forced to consider the effects of any attack on an opponent. Both of these mechanics are missing from the Plants versus Zombies edition. This results in a much shorter game but a game that is not as complex nor as deep. Is this bad? No, I enjoy the deeper version, the Balance of Power version more than Plants versus Zombies but that does not make it a bad game. Axis and Allies covers the same topic as Third Reich or Europe Engulfed and yet is a good, fun, playable experience. It is the same with Plants versus Zombies.

Plants versus Zombies fits somewhere between a filler and a full fledged game. It plays as quickly as most fillers and yet offers much more gaming than a typical filler. In my view it plays too quickly for any long term planning and thus is something less than a full blown gaming experience. (This is the same opinion I have for Mr. Jack - more than a filler, less than a full game.) It is fun and mechanically sound. For people who dislike Risk but will play games like Small World, this is something you should try. If you enjoy Risk and would like an exceptional two-player experience, this is an acceptable substitute for Balance of Power. Again, it does not offer everything Balance of Power provides but it is available. (Note: I have Balance of Power and Plants versus Zombies. I would not part with either as though very similar, they seems to serve different needs.)

Plants versus Zombies - The App Game
On the flip side of the board is the ‘backyard’ map from the popular app game designed by PopCap games. As with the Risk version, this is a two player only game. One player controls the zombies attempting to reach the porch while the other player disperses plants throughout the backyard in order to to thwart the attempt. If you are familiar with the app game, many of the varieties of plants are found on cards rather than actual playing units. This is a tower defence game. In this case, the ‘castle’ is a home and the ‘invaders’ are zombies. Caesar at Alesia it is not. This is lite and quick.

Turns are simple and and short. Players roll two dice and select one value for the number of new units they will place on the board and the second die determines how many actions the player may perform. The zombies march toward the porch in columns and the opponent attempts to eliminate them. There is a limit to the number of units in the game. Each side begins with 30 units and these, once lost, are never replaced.

Each turn a player receives a new card. These cards serve two purposes. There are coins that can be used to purchase upgrades. Upgrades can be as simple as allowing an additional units to be placed each turn (sunflower) to the ultimate protector - the lawnmower. (Note: the lawnmower is the most expensive upgrade and can only be used once per game.) The second purpose for the cards is that they may grant a small benefit such as a +1 on a die roll.

There is a substantial amount of luck in the game. Bad rolls or poor card draws can hamper the best plans. However, this game is not intended to be played as some sort of strategy fest. This is lite and fun. This is a game that could/would appeal to anyone who played the app (or those types of app games). There is enough here to entertain a gamer while incorporating concepts and simple game play to allow non-gamers to enjoy it. It is a real crossover game.

If you enjoy games like Lost Cities, Pecking Order or any of the Kosmos two-player games, then I suggest you pick this up. It plays in 15 to 30 minutes and has that same feel for me. It is enjoyable but not deep. It plays quickly enough that I don’t mind losing here and there as several games can be played in an hour. The games are usually very close though I have seen a few blow outs.

Note: one serious war gamer in our group had a problem with the ranged attacks of the plants. His concern was that they were unrealistic! (He did not have any problem with the melee attacks.) I pointed out to him that these were plants spitting pea balls at zombies - how much realism did he expect?

I believe the game is priced well for what you get. Two crossover games that are both acceptable, for the price of an average game. I hope this does well as I believe it could draw more people into board gaming, especially those whose only gaming experience has been on phones or tablets. So in the end I was wrong. Plants versus Zombies was not the worst Risk concept I had ever encountered, nor even the worst game concept. The games are fun, mechanically sound and worth a try.
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Thanks a lot, it's always a pleasure to read a review from you.

Do you plan to make one about Risk The Walking Dead ? I'm very curious to have comments from a Risk expert about that one (reading the rules, I've got the feeling it might be greatly imbalanced; I've open a post about it and hope I'm wrong).
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Christian Jorgensen
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Cheers Dude. That was an excellent review.

I ordered a copy of this a few days ago via Amazon,it isn't getting distributed to New Zealand via the normal channels.

I used to play classic Risk with my father years ago. We always played to the bitter end, which often seemed to result in games that were long, and often lost way before the game ended. But we pretty much always had fun.

After many years of not even giving Risk a second glance I have to confess it was this particular re theme that caught my attention. I love plants vs zombies. So after downloading and reading the rules, and watching the review here, I thought to myself "looks like Risk has moved on a bit from the game we used to play." I love the addition of objectives, difficult terrain, and special effect cards. And the backyard game looks like a hoot. Your review confirmed what I suspected, that this is a faster playing, up to date version of a game I used to enjoy.

It looks like my dad and I will be playing risk again.
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Rob Daviau
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qrux wrote:
However, there was a glimmer of possibility as the designers were Rob Daviau (excellent Risk designer) and Andrew Wolf (another experienced designer)...And Rob designed Plants versus Zombies, the second two-player only Risk game.


Just to clarify: Although PvZ may be based on Balance of Power, I didn't have anything to do with this game. If you like it, credit Andrew Wolf. In fact, my only exposure to the game was seeing the box at GenCon and having a quick conversation at that point with Andrew.

Glad you like it but I don't want to take credit for a game I may have inspired but didn't design.
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Dave Shapiro
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Sorry about the incorrect design credit. No credit is listed on the box and BGG credited the game to both designers...it seemed to make sense.

On the plus side, at least I know someone read the review.
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Andrew Wolf
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I think you deserve more credit than you may want to admit to, Rob (which is why I felt it was important to include you in designer credits :) We definitely took a lot of inspiration from your design from Balance of Power, including map and objectives, and felt you certainly deserved credit for the core mechanics of the two-player Risk variant. I'm just glad everyone is enjoying the game. In particular, I'm also happy to see that the Front Yard Skirmish is being enjoyed. We included it as bonus game play with a nod to the PopCap original, but are glad to see people are embracing it as eagerly as the standard Risk game play.

- Andrew
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Burster of Bubbles, Destroyer of Dreams.
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Quote:
Note: one serious war gamer in our group had a problem with the ranged attacks of the plants. His concern was that they were unrealistic! (He did not have any problem with the melee attacks.) I pointed out to him that these were plants spitting pea balls at zombies - how much realism did he expect?




Actually, the less realistic the theme, the more important it is that it be internally coherent.

However, the infinite-range missiles of Plants vs. Zombies are such a deeply-ingrained part of the game that it would be nearly impossible to make a plausible port without them.
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Jimmy Okolica
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Hmmm. Followed Morganza here and now I'm curious. I haven't played Risk since I was the age my kids are now. I may need to look into some of these.

Great review!
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Rich Charters
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qrux wrote:
I pointed out to him that these were plants spitting pea balls at zombies - how much realism did he expect?
This sentence alone made reading this review worthwhile. It brought a smile to my face. Thanks.

Great review!
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Jason Miceli
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After having played a game of the tower defense version, I do question why the plant player would ever use the Ground Attack mode rather than always use Ranged Attack, since the latter has zero risk and limits the zombie player's tactical options with his cards. This is even more solidified when the Gatling Pea upgrade has been purchased, as there is now a 33% chance each plant will hit - I doubt the odds when doing a ground attack are as good, and there is always a risk in losing your own units when doing so.

Accordingly, I have implemented a house rule that if the zombies are adjacent to the plants, the plants MUST use their ground attack when acting.

Thoughts? Am I missing something?
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Andrew Prizzi
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What's the risk game about the wars of South American independence?
 
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Tincho
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It's not a Risk game but a TEG (Argentinian Risk) one: TEG Independencia ( https://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/75877/teg-independen... ).
 
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Tincho
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"I expect I am one of a small group of people (at least on BGG) that will acknowledge that they actually enjoy Risk"

I am part of that group, Dave.

By the way: Superb review, as always.

Thanks!
Martín
 
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