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Graham Rutland
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Leyton
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The full review, including images, can be enjoyed at Ludimus in Londinio

It’s saying something when you are able to describe an exhibit at London’s Imperial War Museum as striking, as having stood out – especially when said exhibit isn’t even a piece of history. In spite of the actual bronze eagle seized from the Reichstag during the Soviet invasion of Berlin being on display (my second favourite) alongside Leonid Brezhnev’s actual uniform (my third), the exhibit I always remember is the death counter.

It’s a completely unassuming little digital counter just like you’d have at the meat counter (a deliberate comparison, dear reader) in the supermarket that hits home two facts: first, there hasn’t been a day of universal peace on earth in almost a hundred years, and second, some poor sod dies as a consequence of war at a rate of once a second, give or take. Throw two World Wars into that mix (the second of which he would have remembered given that his homeland was under the boot of the Hun for the best part of four years) and the subsequent threat of nuclear annihilation and you’d think that the last thing on French film director Albert Lamorisse’s mind in 1957 was, ooh, I don’t know, making a tabletop boardgame in which little plastic figures act out a caricature of the global conflicts that had, and continued to, ravage the world in which he lived.

Except that was what was on his mind, and in 1957 he gave birth to little-known boardgame La Conquête du Monde, quite literally ‘the game of global conquest.’ “That’s a familiar strapline!” I hear you say. Of course it is, because two years later the ubiquitous Parker Brothers bought up Monsieur Lamorisse’s little game and rejigged it for the American market: they called it Risk, and it went on to adorn tabletops the world over on occasion and wardrobe tops and attics after that, changing little in the 40 years that followed from an established formula: two teams do battle over a demarcated map of the world to slaughter each other. Not everyone played it, but everyone’s heard of it because, after Cluedo, Monopoly and Scrabble it is the next go-to example of so-called ‘Ameritrash,’ the only true trash being that very dismissive term for a game that attained mainstream appeal.

It’s no small wonder – anyone who can trace their ancestry back to the first two oafs to do pugilism with a rock in a desert somewhere has an innate need, just once in a while, for a little conflict.

But as Risk’s first 40 years began to roll on by, Lamorisse wasn’t the only film director with war on the mind. Around about the same time as his untimely demise in an Iranian helicopter crash in 1970, one of his American counterparts was working on a new-fangled science-fiction film on a seat-of-the-pants budget that quietly crept into cinemas in 1977 and expected very little of itself – no prizes for guessing which one I’m talking about. Oh go on then: it’s Star Wars, have a pat on the head.

Yet, astonishingly, it would take almost another 30 years and Risk’s 40th anniversary to all but disappear in the rear view mirror for someone to go “hey, we have this universally acclaimed boardgame about war… and this universally acclaimed film series about war in space… what if we were to combine them?” Seriously, guys, you had one job…

Better late than never, though: enter stage left Risk: The Star Wars Original Trilogy Edition.

In its day, this game was but the second film franchise to splice DNA with Risk, the first being The Lord of the Rings. This game has a predecessor in the form of Risk: Star Wars – The Clone Wars, which largely covers Episodes II and III and will be reviewed another time, and yet, even in 2014, it remains in astonishingly limited company alongside the likes of the Halo universe of video games, Transformers and… umm… Narnia. What the Parker siblings’ cautious approach with licensing should mean is that Risk SWOTE is a quality product.

We’ll start with the box contents themselves. SWOTE is played on a rather lovely, bright and colourful rendition of the Star Wars galaxy. Countries and continents of course give way to planets and sectors, whilst air and waterways become hyperspace lanes. But you have only to take one look at it to come to two conclusions: one, this is still Risk, and two, it’s well put together. As we move on to the playing pieces, the good news generally persists. With limited variation down the years, Risk typically sees individual soldier pieces available, with larger groups of 3, 5 or 10 represented by larger pieces such as horses or cannon. SWOTE opts for the straightforward method of having pieces to represent one soldier at a time or groups of three, but, in a very nice maintenance of theme, has different pieces for the game’s three factions at play: the Rebels, the Empire, and, surprisingly, the Hutts.

Accordingly, plucky heroes guide footsoldiers and Snowspeeders into battle, whilst those who favour a bit of evil magocracy get to marshall Stormtroopers and AT-ST walkers. Fans of Scum and Villainy, meanwhile, get to wreak havoc with little tiny Gamorrean guards and (perhaps ironically) bite-sized Rancors. As SWOTE allows for up to 5 players to play together, the Rebel and Imperial armies are cast in two colours, and this is where the first, little criticism can be levelled at the game – coloration and identifiability. The Hutts are tricky to miss in their slime green, which actually works rather nicely for both creatures being represented for that team. No complaints here. The Empire has access to dark or light grey pieces – in a game in which only one Empire player features it can be very nice to actually keep AT-STs and Stormtroopers colour co-ordinated, but in a game with two Imperial players it can quickly become difficult to tell the two armies apart. The Rebels, meanwhile, come to the table in day-glo orange and yellow, which, while certainly easier to identify, breaks with the mythos a touch.

It’s a hard line that Hasbro have had to straddle with this one – a bit more clarity between the two Imperial variants and toning down the Rebel forces a touch would have been a nice little detail. But I’m picking and must move on to the rest of the box, which, as you’d expect, comes with 5 d6s (3 for attackers, 2 for defenders) cast in nice contrasts of black and white and a big deck of cards to be drawn whenever an opponent is conquered each turn.

With that, a perfectly standard game of Risk can be played and enjoyed with exactly the same rules as the original. For those unsure:

Players take it in turns to disperse their entire armies throughout the game’s territory until each controls an equal portion of the board, give or take;

Players divide the planets they have conquered by 3; ignoring fractions, this many soldiers are added to their supply;

Any bonus cards won by conquering planets earlier in the game (one per Faction whose planet you stole) can be turned in in threes for extra soldiers;

Soldiers are deployed to planets of the player’s choice;

Attacks occur from one planet to a neighbouring planet – dice are rolled with a maximum of 3 attackers and 2 defenders doing battle each time, with ties favouring the defender;

The attacker is either driven away or moves into their new planet – repeat as desired;

Move one batch of soldiers from one planet along an uninterrupted line of friendly planets to another for reinforcement.

It’s a lovely, simple ruleset that has more than proven its ability to stand the test of time coupled with a film franchise that, in spite of some pretty deliberate sabotage efforts on the part of its director, can make more or less the same claim. It’s Risk in Star Wars clothing, and were the game simply this we’d be pretty chuffed… we might be tempted to call it a touch lazy to knock together two such ubiquitous franchises if we were feeling mean…

…but wait. That’s merely scratching the surface!

Sure, you can play a perfectly enjoyable game of Risk with what’s on offer here. But the real star of the show is the very special set of Star Wars rules and what can be found in the rest of the box – namely some menacing looking d8s, tokens representing Imperial strongholds and fighters, bombers and capital ships for the three factions and the top portion of the board ignored in standard Risk – the balance of the Force. This is where the game manages to take a time-honoured formula and, dare I say it, make it better.

For a kick-off, the victory conditions are changed once Star Wars mode is entered good and proper. Oh true, the Empire still has the time-honoured annihilation goal, which the manual rather nicely alludes to by quoting Sidious’ line of “wipe them out: all of them.” The Rebels, however, have only to decpatitate the Imperial war machine by capturing the Emperor, meaning I’ve seen games over in the first turn and some truly epic wars worthy of the Star Wars name.

Either way, in nice, thematic twists, the Rebels, while comandeering a much smaller force than the Empire, have it concentrated over a smaller number of planets, making early, decisive strikes feasible. The Empire, while enjoying a larger territory (by five more planets, to be exact), has but five more units than the Rebels with which to hold it, and can quickly expect to lose some ground in the early game. This is crucial for the Empire, as for each of the first six turns they are compelled to take one of the six Imperial stronghold tokens and place it on a friendly planet. On the upside, these tokens allow that planet to defend itself with d8s instead of the standard d6s. On the downside, while five are decoys, the sixth shelters the Emperor. Given that the fall of that particular planet is an instant, no questions asked loss for the Empire, the start of each of the Imperial players’ first six turns is almost poker-esque as they draw a random token, look at it, and decide where to place it, with a token buried deep in Imperial space either a dead giveaway or the nastiest bluff of all time.

Helping the Empire out, however, is the insidious Death Star, which is placed last of all. The planet finding itself under this mammoth battle station is inconquerable unless the station is destroyed with a roll of no less than 18 by default. As the Force changes from Light to Dark through various events, this requirement either gets tougher or easier for the Rebellion (from as much as 21 to as little as 15) whilst adding to or removing the number of cards the Empire may draw by default at the end of each turn whether they’ve conquered anything or not. Further, the Death-starred planet is essentially impassable to enemy forces, making them great for blockading the hyperlanes linking areas of the galaxy together. Worse, at the end of every Imperial turn, a d6 is rolled, allowing the Death Star to move that many planets, and, yes, sometimes you get to press the button that makes it all go boom, annihilating a planet and all forces upon it, turning it into an impassable, uninhabitable asteroid field.

Nice.

All of that tactical wrangling, though, is before we even get to the Hutts, who, in 3 or 5 player games, have the most interesting goal of all and the greatest occasion to put an almighty spanner into these already delicate works of asymmetric play: conquer 10 of the game’s 13 resource planets, edged in green on the map. In successfully achieving this goal, the Hutt player is he who controls the spice, and therefore he who controls the univ… wait, that’s Dune. Even so: during the start of the game, enterprising Hutt players can come very close to victory and sitting back going ‘what civil war?’ by claiming the green planets as their own without firing a shot, and unheeding Rebel and Imperial players can start games with a Hutt player who has claimed 7 of the 10 planets required already. This, then, further splits Rebel and Imperial attention as they try both to head each other off and stop the Hutt player gaining a massive head start. Even in 2 and 4 player games, where the Hutts are neutral, Imperial and Rebel players still take turns to place their dormant forces, therefore strategically creating obstacles and buffer zones to slow each other down. In these games, the Hutts neither move nor attack, only defending themselves when one of the big players pops in for a chat and a fight.

In a 3 or 5 player game, however, where the final player takes control, things get very different and very interesting, with this rogue third faction and its very different objective seeing Hutt players wriggle between Imperial and Rebel forces, trying to go unnoticed (it helps that the Force struggle is of no consequence to them whatsoever) and play each of the sides off against the other. In some games, temporary alliances even get forged between Rebel and Imperial commanders, which is even more delicious given that the commanders in 5 player games don’t have to take orders from their ally. In one game we witnessed one infuriated commander turn the Death Star on his wayward, Hutt-appeasing ally as punishment. There’s no denying it: the Hutts are interesting enough to have on the board, but they’re at their best when controlled by a player, and with a shrewd and (dare I say it) nasty Hutt player in town, SWOTE gets thrown into a whole new world of distrust and double dealing.

Whoever’s sat down at the table, play still occurs very much in the Risk vein, and none of the core rules are violated or changed, but instead enhanced. As well as trading in trios of cards won by conquering planets for troops in the standard Risk fashion, players can also trade in individual cards for ships. These are represented by cardboard tokens, the shame being that, it would have been very easy to cast these ships as plastic models conveniently able to double up as placeholders for larger armies. Happily, enterprising owners of Monopoly: Star Wars have been known to nab the pieces from that game for the Empire at the very least.

That’s by-the-by, though: Fighters prevent one die from being an infuriating ‘1’, and bringing along three for the really big assaults is a must. Bombers, meanwhile, add 1 to the highest die roll, and can stack in the same manner as Fighters. Capital Ships, last but not least, allow replacement of one d6 with a d8. For the Rebels, destroying the Death Star suddenly becomes a lot easier, whilst Imperial and Hutt forces enjoy the momentum provided by ships. This is all also before the fact that each card bears an ability that can be used instead of trading it in – ambushes, surprises, extra reinforcements, sabotage, alteration of the Force and the ability to fire the Death Star all present themselves as a third set of options alongside cashing in for men or motors.

Under the Star Wars rules, then, Risk becomes an enhanced delight, but one that, crucially, does not violate the core Risk rules. It becomes something especially brilliant when that 3rd (or 5th) Hutt player is among your number. Assaults on the Death Star, even with the Force favouring the light and the Rebels tooled up on capital cruisers, is still nail biting, as is the moment a Rebel force storms a stronghold world to determine whether or not they have seized victory or simply one of the Emperor’s guardsmen.

There is one caveat – once the Hutt player is either destroyed or already dormant, precisely the same criticism that can be laid at any edition of Risk’s feet or indeed American board games generally can equally be laid down here: about 65-75% of the way through the game it becomes clear who the winner is, and I’ve had epic, final showdowns conceded by players unwilling to invest another 45-60 minutes staving off the inevitable.

It’s a tricky one – introducing Eurogame-style rules to give the player backed into a corner a sudden turnaround would violate the Risk experience and trigger what I’ve nicknamed before now as the ‘Mario Kart effect’, and seasoned players will know that lucky die rolls can suddenly turn the tide of battle. It’s a victim, then, of its legacy, and there are arguments for having it either way. But there are two other niggles: one, my nitpick of the faction colouring earlier, but, two, and more importantly, is the way the dynamic of the game changes enormously if a human controls the Hutts. In an age of the likes of Pandemic and Arkham Horror, it seems bizarre to be able to say that no AI element exists to keep the Hutts ticking over in a vaguely disruptive manner.

Don’t get me wrong: play any game of this box with the standard Risk rules and you will have fun like anybody else has in the last 60-or-so years. Play it as 2 or 4 players with the Star Wars rules and you’ll have even more fun.

But play it with two or four friends and it becomes something else, and I can’t abide it when a game that is only at its best with a specific number of players. This one’s at the top end, for sure, but here it comes:

4.5

I liked:
+ The strawberries and cream of gaming – mixes two franchises everybody loves;
+ Remains faithful and respectful to both strands of DNA powering the experience – neither is compromised in favour of the other and the reclusive Risk license is kept pure;
+ Still allows play of the standard Risk rules, which still hold up just fine after almost 60 years;
+ Star Wars rules are an enhancement to play that don’t violate the core experience – slinging around Death Stars, ships and events that play around with the Force is tremendous fun;
+ Transforms into a dark and shadowy game of mistrust, back-biting and betrayal in 5 player games in particular, where the game is at its very best;
+ Genuinely different start and finish conditions for each side keep things enormously fresh.

Watch out for:
- Coloration between factions, while a minor point, needs some work: Imperials are hard to distinguish while Rebels skew the thematics;
– While fun, 2 and 4 player games are half the experience without an active Hutt player and even 3 player games are nothing compared to 5 player matches;
– Like any American game, victory can be smelt a good, long way before it can be seen, prompting some players to switch off before the game is over.

You might also like: The original Risk game itself or any of the (very few) licensed variants. A predecessor variant that covers the events of Attack of the Clones/Revenge of the Sith exists and is one we will review another time. Lord of the Rings and Transformers are the only other two licensed movie variants if you do not count the Narnia edition which is a junior variant. Video game-inspired variants set in the Halo and Metal Gear universes are the only other two major licensed versions. Players looking further afield may enjoy Axis vs Allies, Attack! or Age of Imperialism.
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Holy Wall o' Text, Batman!

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Greg Love
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Brilliant review, thankyou!
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Bryce Nielsen
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There's also a new Doctor Who version of Risk, though that's TV, not movies. I haven't played any of them, though. Not sure I even have played the original Risk.
 
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