Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Risk for iPhone: It's Lonely on Top of the World

World domination does not come quickly or easily. Destroying one’s enemies takes time and purpose, especially in a system whose rules have no real regard for the word “ally.” Having grown up in the company of friends who shared my love of Hasbro’s classic board game Risk, I know that any campaign to globalize one’s power must of necessity be one of violence and broken promises, and can generally be expected to last at least two to three hours.

And so it was with some degree of skepticism that I allowed myself to purchase EA’s iPhone adaptation of the legendary tabletop game. I have come to regard mobile games as ways to pass the time while in transit or suffering from bouts of insomnia, and even a two-hour game—short by Risk standards—made me wonder if I’d ever see a single round through to the end. What’s more, I was sure that my favorite thing about a good game of Risk, the diplomacy dance between friends, must be a notable omission. But EA’s $0.99 holiday sale overcame my objections like a trio of rampaging sixes, and before long I was selecting territories via touchscreen.

As my dreaded red army began to spread its influence north from South America, fortifying its borders in Alaska and knocking on Europe’s door with a few skirmishes in Iceland, it began to dawn on me that my favorite features of a good tabletop game include the “house rules”—the ways that families and friends compensate for gray areas in the manual, create alternate systems of play, or simply misinterpret a game’s intended guidelines. Although some adaptations offer a handful of options for altering gameplay, such games can usually be counted on to deliver a very by-the-book experience.

Because of this, I often learn a fair amount about a game’s intended rules when I pick up its videogame version. I’ll never forget the experience of playing the Game Boy port of Monopoly for the first time and learning that the only two options one has when landing on a new property were to buy it or auction it to the other players. Has anyone in the history of board games actually auctioned an unwanted Monopoly property in the company of friends? I'd wager that even the Parker Brothers themselves were caught off guard by that one.

Apparently, when one defeats a Risk opponent and claims his or her cards, one may (and often, must) immediately cash them in for extra troops, given that one has ended up with an appropriate troop-earning combination. If you’re a Risk fan, you probably knew this already, but I certainly did not—we were so eager to put cannons on the map and make cease-fire pacts (the inevitable breaking of which rarely failed to be the best moments of the game) that we had little regard for the minute details of the game’s rules. We played by our rules.

It turns out that a round of iPhone Risk is pretty short. The iPhone is an incredibly efficient device when it comes to the rolling of dice—when you strip out the human drama of the roll, the shake and the hope and the searching of an opponent’s eyes, the toss and the tally and the cries of victory and defeat, it turns out there really isn’t much to it. My red army conquered Europe and pushed into Asia via Kamchatka. Taking out five opponents in a single-turn offensive that would make Sun Tzu blush, I cashed in cards until I had enough troops to coat the globe in glorious monochromatic hegemony. The game gave me a digital medal for winning my first round. Almost no time had passed. There was no board, no pieces to put away. I turned off my phone with an audible click, and I was alone.
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