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Game Spaces Part 2: A World of Risk

‘For you must know that the world is round’ – Matthew Francis, Mandeville

The picture of the world is drawn in six colours: blue for Europe, yellow for North America, red for South America. Africa is brown, Australia pink, Asia green. We have six colours too. Mum calls dibs on blue (as usual), so I take black, my brother green. We set our pieces in heaps off the edge of the board. The yellow, red and purple armies lie in their trays, cannons and bayonets askew. Then, piece by piece, battalion by battalion, we make the picture into a map of how our war started.

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Risk’s board is an imperial view of the world. The set that I had growing up made that explicit: it had little plastic infantrymen in their shakos for a single battalion, plodding cavalrymen and wheeled cannon for groups of five and ten battalions respectively. But even without the conscious echoes of Napoleon’s soldiers (in my mind’s eye I catch them steadily chanting vive l’empereur! as they advance), the board looks at the world through a despot’s eyes. Its lines divide territory from territory, people from people, tribe from tribe. They speak of the same arbitrary exercise of power that transformed the maps of Africa, America and Asia. It is the vision of Cecil Rhodes written large. The board dreams and the players share its dream: to make the world a singular thing, a universal empire.

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We start with the inevitable build-ups of forces. The small continents (small when seen through the eyes of the map!) are claimed first. Australia, South America, Africa. In some places delaying actions and harassments transform the board into a quiltwork of three empires. In others, consolidation and retrenchment brings masses of troops to face off across narrow straits or short, brittle frontiers. The pattern is inevitable, slowly forming as we manoeuvre against each other: my mother remains aloof where she can so that the real rivals, my brother and myself, can chip away at each other unabated.

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The following is inevitable in every game that has more than one winning strategy: provided players are equivalent in their skill, every game is a game of psychological manoeuvre. Games with simple rules and simple strategies show it sooner, but even where the outcome of a game could be considered a mathematical certainty, any advantage that can only be expressed in terms of the game rather than its players is worthless. And Risk bares its psychological teeth quickly: attack in one place and you will be too thinly stretched in another. So, who can you count on to prevaricate just long enough so that you can secure a real advantage? Because in Risk you must attack, or you’ll lose access to a portion of your reinforcements, meaning that other players who take the risk of aggravating their neighbours will soon overpower you.

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The game slows to a crawl. The battle lines are drawn across Asia, Africa, and America. My largest army faces down my brother’s ever-growing force over the Bering Strait: I know that in the end he will win, and the strange tang of boredom mixes with the older, more bitter taste of resentment and jealousy. Deep down, I know that we must either break the impasse or call another of our family-mediated draws. Worse, my mother could still declare my brother the winner due to his strong position. I know disappointment, and I know that the only thing worse than that disappointment is to have it reinforced by my parents’ writ. Unbidden, my changing teenage mind offers me an alternative ending to this story of the three empires.

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The six colours of Risk’s world describe an emptiness that lingers in the core of our art, whether we play it or read it. For Risk, every territory is equal, every continent is a fixed and determined thing. It is a game without land, a game whose stories are only those of the colours that seek to strangle and exterminate each other. The little heaps of plastic battalions are just tokens that tell us about the strength with which we reach from our side of the imperial mirror into the other. It is simple, and because it is simple it offers us a cruel world. It is a place where simplistic rules prevail, where the only cost is in tokens placed and removed from the board. Its simplicity as a game, pretending to be governed by the luck of the dice, belies its nods to the distant corners of the globe where the lines run straight across the map.

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With my last group of reinforcements, I attack into Kamchatka; my army is annihilated, my brothers’ crippled. Safely, sensibly, my mother has only begun to drive us both from the board before we surrender. I can remember my brother’s anger, his furious sense of betrayal. Only now I begin to understand that he would have preferred us to work together to challenge my mother’s dominance of that carefully-defended blue heartland. But then perhaps he didn’t understand that I already looked to my mother to guard me against his own growing confidence on the board. Still angry, still hurt, we fold up the world and go to bed.

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I’ve told other stories using the same map; the rules for navigating it are simple, but when you understand what they mean they are harmless. With friends, the paths it creates become more like tall stories shared over a chota peg, imaginary evil and imaginary good decking out the theatre for a real and present kindness. That, after all, is the problem with simple games: to get anywhere, you have to bend the rules so far that they lead you back to within a hair’s breadth of where you started. With only six colours, you learn that the world is round all too soon.

Posted 5 years ago

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