Three Best Practices of RISK: Legacy-Style Game Design

RISK Legacy:  The Russians and Germans are in a heated struggle - Looks like my RISK: Legacy post got some traction on Google Plus and BGG. What's funny is that the key attributes of Legacy mechanics are something that most traditional RPGs take for granted. In-game choices having persistent effects in future sessions? Pretty standard stuff in the RPG realm. 

Granted, that process usually doesn't involve destroying the actual object.

I think "destruction" is a misnomer in this case. Yes, you do change the game, but whether you consider that "destruction" is a matter of perspective. When I design a new game, I prune off many paths in the process. What Rob Daviau has done in RISK: Legacy is stop juuuust shy of that point in the process.

For example, in the very first game, you have a choice of two faction power stickers to put on your faction card. The one you don't choose is torn up and thrown away. Is that sticker destroyed? Yes. Is the game destroyed? No. The players are simply making the last decisions about how to arrange point values, terrain effects, and faction powers. They join Rob in the game design process. When faced with a choice like the one above, I really feel like I'm creating the game, not destroying it.

So, here are some best practices for making a Legacy-style game as far as I can tell.

1 | Creation
When you can name or label something, that act is satisfying in its own right, even without any mechanical effect. It can be a simple channel for vanity ("Georgetown") or something that reflects actual events in the game ("Dead Man's Valley"). There is great power in naming the unnamed. Don't feel compelled to tack on mechanical effects. Sometimes the warm feeling of seeing a continent named after your child is all you need. Speaking of which, this principle a great way to get kids involved. Kids love naming stuff.

2 | Persistence
Make some choices have repercussions in all future games. The key to making this work is recording that data. This is where computers have an advantage on humans. Still, a good sharpie and some clear terms can help a lot. Who won the game? Make that mean something. Who hasn't won yet? Make that mean something. Are there features on the board to claim? How often is that done? Make that mean something. Are there unlockable components? How often do they get opened? The trick is pacing those changes. Know your game's probabilities and pin your game's dynamism to that curve.

3 | Stasis

There is an endpoint where no further changes can be made to the game. This could be an organic endpoint, like stickers running out or spaces being filled in. It might also be a relatively arbitrary endpoint, like a certain number of sessions. Whatever your terms, this is the point where the players are done designing the game. Make sure the game is playable after this point, just not changeable. You'll still get those voices from the balcony grumbling about wasting money on a game that can't be played after a certain point. Just ignore 'em. ;)

So, am I right? Totally off base? Sound off in the comments!


  1. That's about right. Took me two years to figure it out and you sum it up in three paragraphs.

    Also, some other notes: you want the changes/decisions to be special. Too few and they get too important to the people who make them. Too many and they start to lose their value. A change should represent a milestone, something that is remembered.

    And don't forget that opening packets/making changes is a great way to create a cliffhanger in a tabletop game. Make those endgame changes and you want to play "one more time" to see how they all play out.

  2. Oh yeah! I really love how those big changes always seem within arm's reach, even if you can't get to them in the current game. You know they're there, you may even know how to get them out, but you have to wait for the game to be in the right state.

  3. I'm not sure about #3. #1 is practically a given (in particular, "satisfying in its own right" should be applied all the way down in most designs), and #2 is important to remember.

    I'm not sure if #3 is necessary, though. It seems like you should be able to make non-destructive, but still persistent changes to the field of play. As a strawman, imagine Risk Legacy with some kind of removable stickers. They'd stay on the board between sessions, but when you ran out you'd cycle back -- or, perhaps, an event would allow you to pull _off_ a sticker and return it to the box.

    In this way, the variables defining the game still change each session, and removing an "ammo dump" (iirc) sticker would be satisfying: "you won't get that _next_ game, hah!" I'm curious how well it would work, and if we have the materials tech necessary to make it work well, but it doesn't seem impossible.

  4. I think Point 3 can be summed up as "Don't make the game disposable unless you want people to get very mad. And even if you don't do that, people will still be mad (but less so)." Although I do think a disposable game is a viable concept at a much lower price point.

  5. Ooh. I like the idea of each game partly being about changing the next game. It's kind of like a meta-deckbuilding game that way.

  6. I know I occasionally play multiple games of Dominion or Puzzle Strike that way -- at the end of the game each player can swap a pile out for something else.

    In that sense, you could definitely include a record book with a game, which would both track changes over time as well as provide a way to set up the game based on those changes.

    That'd actually be very cool for the long-term narrative aspect... FFG's doing something like this for the campaign mode of the Descent reprint, iirc, but it could totally apply to other genres... hmmm...

  7. Great stuff!

    What are the other options for multi-game session changes?

    Risk: Legacy has "landmines" - actions triggered on contingent events (as I understand it) - this could be expanded to being created by a player and trigger-able in a future game session.

    Achievements seem somewhat obvious or Experience Points could be used either giving you a benefit or a handicap (or "first timer" bonuses). If I remember Ace of Aces correctly, if you were an Ace, you had a slight game play advantage under certain circumstances if flying against a non-Ace player. (or some such).

    A game with a dynamic board could simply be played from its end-state for the next game?

  8. I'm not sold on Stasis either. Couldn't you have a game that goes in waves? To use a tired theme, let's say it's a fantasy game about a kingdom. I might spend one game building a castle and that castle stays there until someone in a later game musters enough forces to take down the castle. They build their own castle in another area and it stays there until someone else takes that out. This still persist, they just aren't necessarily permanent.

    To argue against myself, however, the nice thing about a stasis point is that it does give the game an overarching goal that you're sort of working toward. I want to be the one who has his name on the board the most by the time our Risk Legacy game is done. I think the thing about Legacy games is they are easier to do when you have the same players playing over and over again. I can get people to make a pact saying "hey let's play 15 games of this" but it might be harder to convince people (and less exciting) to say "let's keep playing this game each week until we're sick of it and burnt out on it"

  9. I'm not sure that #3 is essential, but I do like games that have an end point or a re-set point. Traditional games re-set, but Risk Legacy thumbs its nose at that which is part of its charm and frees it up to use cheaper/less components. (not to mention encourages you to buy the game again)

    But I think its possible to have a cyclical changing game where anything that can be done can eventually be undone and no end point or re-set is required. Look at real life team sorts for an example. The meta game of player, coach and team stadium development is a constantly changing environment for the actual play and needs no end point or re-set yet is essential to the game's ongoing story.

    I thought Risk Legacy was brilliant. I don't like risk because of its simplicity and high luck factor, but here its core simplicity is its strength and the luck is counter balanced by repetition and other factors. Its just super clever design.

    I did find that once the board is complete, playing on the fixed board is not fun. There are too many imbalances that can't be addressed while normally you know over time they can be.

    Tons of design lessons from this game.

  10. Absolutely. The trick is finding the right physical components to record a board's state from game to game.

  11. I lean much more towards your latter point. The truth is, I'll probably play RISK: Legacy more than I ever played original RISK *because* I know there's an endpoint.

  12. Indeed, RISK's simplicity makes it an ideal candidate for adaptation and expansion. The traditional game is basically a minimal set of mechanics, but expansions like 2210 and Legacy expand it to be a bit more deep for the hobby gamer.

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