Risk is one of those games. It divides. It conquers. It racks the brain and infiltrates dreams. The board offers a simulation of a global power balance, with players conquering, expanding and deceiving until one comes out on top. It’s beautiful stuff.
This is the latest installment in our Second Steps series. We’re assuming you’re already familiar with the rules of Risk. You’ve played before. Now you want to learn more and improve your win rate. You want to beat your mates.
Settle in. It’s time to delve deeper into the strategy of the board game Risk.
It starts with probability
Risk battles are decided on the roll of a dice. This makes Risk a game that is rooted in maths and probability. Like poker, there are elements of skill, and also elements of chance.
Attackers roll a maximum of three dice (as long as they have three or more troops), while defenders can only roll a maximum of two dice (and only one if they have a single troop). The highest dice rolls win, with the defender claiming victory when both players roll the same number.
Here are the probabilities for the outcomes when the defender has only one army, and therefore is rolling on one die:
|Defender rolling one die
|No. of attacker dice
|Defender loses one troop
|Attacker loses one troop
And here are the outcomes when the defender is rolling two dice:
|Defender rolling two dice
|No. of attacker dice
|Defender loses two troop
|Attacker loses two troops
|Both lose one troop
*in this case, only one troop is lost
What’s important to note here is that the attacker will have the edge as long as they are rolling more dice than the defender. The greater the number of troops and difference in number of troops, the more this advantage is extrapolated.
Playing for cards
In the board game Risk, you can earn valuable bonus cards that grant you extra troops. To collect a card, you have to take at least one territory on your turn. The rules of exactly how many troops a set of these cards is worth can vary, but it’s a lot. Trading these cards is one of the most effective ways to gain armies.
This encourages aggression, at least in the form of small skirmishes. Aside from playing for cards yourself, you can also aim to block opponents from gaining their cards. Or, to take a more diplomatic approach, you can make it easy for opponents to gain cards as long as they continue to repay the favor.
The tensions of these single territory skirmishes can be the catalyst for bigger battles as the game progresses, but for now you should aim to take at least one territory per turn for the sake of gaining cards.
Fig. 1: When playing random setups, which is often the case online, the early-game aims include consolidating your troops, moving in on one continent, and gaining bonus cards. The easiest way to gain cards is by attacking adjacent single-troop territories.
Continents and borders
The Risk board is comprised of six continents. Each continent rewards a set number of bonus troops, and these prove crucial in the game’s arms race. It’s in your best interest to get hold of a continent as soon as possible, so long as you can defend its borders against enemy attacks.
You may have seen (in every beginner Risk article and video ever) that Australia is the best choice, so let’s quickly dispel that way of thinking. Each continent has its own potential advantages and drawbacks. There is no overall “best” continent. Your decisions should always depend on the dynamics of each game.
Still, it’s useful to understand the continents on a general level. Here are the bonuses, number of borders, and some of the potentials strategical benefits and drawbacks of each:
(Note: TBR = ratio of troops earned/number of borders to defend):
Troop bonus: 2
Comments: With only one border and a “buffer” zone in Asia, Australia is technically one of the easiest continents to gain and defend. However, it’s often hotly contested, which can lead to destructive and needless battles early on, and once gained it can be difficult to expand to a second continent. It’s a good starting position, but don’t go for Australia blindly every time.
Troop bonus: 2
Comments: Another decent starting continent, South America has just four territories and two borders to defend. It has good expansion options to Africa or North America. You just need to watch out for getting trapped (see image). To prevent this, you’ll need to move into adjacent continents early or prepare for battle as you push out.
Troop bonus: 3
Comments: Africa has the same ratio of troops to borders as its neighbor South America, but occupies a more central position on the map. You’ll rarely get trapped and nearly always have expansion options, but on the flip side you can face attacks from multiple directions. Defend borders well and use diplomacy if it helps.
Troop bonus: 5
Comments: North America is one of the most lucrative continents in terms of both number of troops and TBR. It shares a border with Asia, which is usually unoccupied until late game. However, with nine territories to capture, it can be difficult to acquire North America early and, once captured, other players may (legitimately) target you as a threat. You’ll need strong borders, and could consider diplomacy with either South America or Europe.
Troop bonus: 5
Comments: Europe has a high troop bonus, and neighboring continents Asia and North America are often unoccupied until late game. You’ll be gaining lots of troops and won’t need to expand immediately. However, holding Europe’s five borders won’t be easy, and with such a central position you could face attacks from all sides. One option is to deploy a strong counter-attacking force in Western Europe to deter assaults (see Fig 4 later on).
Troop bonus: 7
Comments: Asia is a huge continent that usually only comes into play in the end game. It offers the biggest troop bonus on the map, but has six borders to defend, and is surrounded on all sides. Don’t expect diplomacy to be an option. Other players will target you. Usually, holding Asia will be impossible until the end game.
Fig. 2: Here you can see some of the strengths and weaknesses of each continent. Blue player has secured South America, but is effectively trapped. They are relying on outlying armies to gain cards. Red player has gained Australia, but due to competition has lost troops in the process. You can see how they will have little trouble defending, but will struggle to expand. White player is yet to gain a solid grip, but is about to trade seven cards (shown here by stars in the top left) and hold Africa. Green player has managed to gain a strong position in America, but is now a likely target for assault.
Beyond the “need” to take one territory to earn a card, a hotly debated subject in Risk is when to attack and to what extent. This is a multi-faceted dilemma. Every game is different, and there’s no defined strategy for attacking, but in essence it comes down to a few factors:
- Always consider the consequences of attacking. Can you defend against counter-attacks? Will you be able to hold your own borders against other enemies? Is there a purpose for the attack, such as to prevent stronger opponents holding a continent or to carve the way for your own expansion? Every major attack should have a reason and ideally should leave you in a stronger position.
- Respect the overall power balance between players. Your attacks should generally serve the purpose of regulating strong opponents so they don’t run away with the game. Whenever you attack, you should consider how this will change the overall dynamic. Will attacking Player A allow Player B to grow too strong?
- Do you really need to attack, or will other players take care of it? You don’t always need to launch an assault against a stronger opponent. When Risk is played between 3 – 5+ people, you can often let others fight it out. This will allow you to grow stronger without sacrificing your own troops. How much you attack will often depend on how active the other players are.
You can’t remain passive for the whole game (or it wouldn’t be much of a game). The key to attacking in Risk is timing. Your opponents should reflect that they didn’t see your assault coming, and that afterwards it was too late to do anything about it.
Fig. 3: This is in the same game as above, just a few moves later. Green has been targeted and wiped out. Red has gained a few single territories with no major expansions. White attacked Blue in an attempt to expand into South America, but has slightly mistimed the assault. Blue has traded their cards and can counter attack with enough force to hold North America, if not South America too. This is an example of attacking and counter-attacking in action. Once Blue has finished the counter-attack, White will have to fortify and rebuild before attempting another assault, or rethink their plan to prevent Blue from running away with the game.
Explicit alliances and unspoken diplomacy
Alliances are considered to be an integral part of the game of Risk. You can strike up explicit spoken agreements with other players, or you can use more subtle forms of diplomacy to form unspoken bonds.
Explicit alliances usually form out of survival, or a need to “gang up” on a player who is too far ahead for any one player to stop. This is essential to that all important power balance. Another useful form of alliance, is when you want to “neutralize” a border with another player so you can focus your campaign efforts elsewhere.
The key to explicit alliances is to be amenable and open to making friends at the table. The less players who are actively trying to destroy you, the better. You can’t ally with everyone, as you’ll have to expand somewhere, so your allegiances should be based on your overall gameplan.
The unspoken approach is in a lot of ways more tactful. Every action you take during Risk is part of this unspoken diplomacy. Your moves tell a story, and that story builds up trust (or distrust) with other players.
Ways to express unspoken diplomacy include:
- Avoid taking a certain player’s territories, even outlying ones that they don’t really need
- Give a player easy access to single troop territories so they can gain cards
- Focus on controlling and regulating a common enemy
- Keep your borders with a certain player only lightly defended to show good will and prevent an arms race
- Make it clear that you have no intention of expanding in a particular player’s direction
The idea is to give off signals that encourage thinking opponents to leave you alone until you gain enough power to defend your position strongly (impulsive opponents are a different problem!).
Remember though, Risk is never a team game. Alliances, spoken or unspoken, are always temporary and subject to change whenever the power balance demands. Breaking alliances at the right time is also essential to your victory. But you only get to betray an opponent once, for obvious reasons.
In order to form alliances and diplomatic bonds at the Risk board, as well as to better read the overall dynamics of the game, the next step is to consider every single opponent as an individual, with his or her own tendencies, reactions and strategies.
Psychology and types of Risk players
Risk is a game played between people, which always means there’s more than just the cold, hard maths at play. People work in mysterious ways, and working out how they play is all part of the fun.
In poker, there are many different types of players and styles of play, such as loose-aggressive and tight aggressive. The same is true in Risk.
– How aggressive are they? Do they expand continually, or sit tight? Will they attack a well defended border or only weak borders? Will they attack for no clear reason, or only when it’s beneficial to do so? This will help you predict who is likely to attack and when.
– How strongly do they hold their borders? Do your opponents stack lots of troops on key borders, or keep borders relatively weak in favor of rapid expansion? Will they have vulnerable entrance points later in the game? This can help determine your strategy for slowing down an opponent, whether that be by taking their continent, or by blocking their expansion options.
– How do they react when attacked? Does your opponent retreat and patiently rebuild after getting wiped out? Or do they launch an immediate counter-attack? Do they hold grudges over long periods of time? Or do they keep their cool and continue with the optimal plan? This will help you to predict the outcome when particular players are attacked, either by you or others.
– Do they respect the balance? Do other players respect the power balance? Do they aim their attacks at the strongest players? Or do they have personal grudges and pursue only those who attack them? Will they let other players grow too strong without stepping in? This will help you to know whether you can rely on certain opponents to regulate each other, or whether you’ll have to play a more active role in keeping the balance.
– Are they open to alliances? Do your opponents form explicit alliances? How trustworthy are they? Do they generally honor their alliances? Do they cooperate actively with others? Can they be weaponized against other opponents and to what extent? All of this will help you to understand an opponent’s overall role in the game, and how you should approach them with diplomacy and alliances.
The pivotal assault and end game
The end game in Risk is defined by the moment the power balance is lost beyond hope of restoration. This happens when one player has enough control to stomp out even the collective efforts of the other players. At this stage, all that is left is for the winning player (hopefully you) to rampage across the map and take over the world.
By design, there’s not much you can do once the game has progressed beyond this point. It’s your job to be the player who initiates the end game with a well timed pivotal assault. You wait for the right moment, maybe trade your cards for a big bonus, and make a defining move that opponents can’t come back from.
Again the key to this is timing. There’s no going back. So wait until you are ready to take full control and then launch the irrevocable attack, the one that you hope others will have no way of coming back from. If it works, you’ll be mopping up the board within a couple of turns. If not, well… err. It had better work.
Every game is different
In Risk, as in poker and many strategy games, it pays to be aware of your opponent’s plan and intentions. Everything depends on what they do, and this constantly creates unique situations.
Therefore, there is no set strategy for a board game like Risk. If three players start off with a race for Australia, you should be staying out of the way and laughing yourself to world domination. If your opponents are willing to turn a blind eye as you grab Europe and hold it with a single counter-attacking force, then that’s your best course of action for the game.
There’s also a chess-like element here. The further ahead you can see, not only in terms of your own plan, but also in terms of your opponents’, the more you can adapt your moves accordingly to avoid unnecessary conflict and expand into new territory.
Of course, there’s no better way to improve than to take all this advice straight to the battlefields of the Risk board.
Fig. 4: Here’s an alternative strategy for defending Europe. Three of the borders are kept small, almost inviting attack, yet a strong counter-attacking force sits in wait to deal with anyone who dares to make the move. This strategy relies on knowing your opponents and understanding the dynamics. It will work in some games and not in others
Where to play the Risk board game
You can play Risk as a traditional board game. The game is produced by Hasbro, who also have the license for Monopoly, Cluedo, Scrabble and lots of other classic household games.
There are also lots of online and mobile versions available. A popular title available on Steam and in the Apple store is Risk: Global Domination. Hasbro also have Risk games available on Playstation and Xbox, including variants with new maps and game modes, such as Risk: Urban Assault.
Whether you play the traditional Risk board game, or an online version of Risk, the strategy tips here apply equally well. now get out there and crush!
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