Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Great Game

The other day I was reading an article on Siberia that mentioned the region of Kamchatka, and for some reason this took me back, Proust-like, to my first experience of that hyperborean locale. I speak, of course, of the exquisite game of Risk (or as my old version had it, Risk!), the Parker Brothers game of gleeful world domination that, I was surprised to see, is fifty years old this year.

To play Risk was to enter a world geography both ruthlessly abstract (nations and states replaced by entities such as Central Europe and Eastern United States) and intriguingly off-kilter (a world in which Ukraine was as large as South America, and the menacing Cold War U.S.S.R. was replaced by puzzling regions such as Ural, Yakutsk, Irkutsk, and, yes, Kamchatka). The graduated hues of the board (North America a staid mixture of yellow and brown, Europe a pellucid series of blue, Asia a murky and clotted melange of green) provided an understated yet kaleidoscopic backdrop. Whimsical touches included a whale spouting in the Arctic, a pair of dolphins off of Africa, and a stately ship of the line in the Indian Ocean.

I recall many a languid summer afternoon spent with this game. Our version, from the 1970's I assume, still had the sturdy wooden cubes as game pieces, with elegantly rounded oblong pieces representing consolidated forces. These pieces had both a simplicity and solidity totally lacking in the inevitably plastic substitutes which followed in ensuing versions of Risk. Our set was from an age more prodigal and generous than the current time can apparently afford to be.

I always thought Risk entailed a pleasing balance between strategy and the vagaries of fortune embodied in the dice. A conservative mood--a determination that one was simply, if uninterestingly, going to win this time--dictated an aspiration for North America, which commanded large territories relatively easy to defend. But one could only do that a couple of times before yielding to the temptations of more baroque enterprises: a Napoleonic seizure of Europe despite its vulnerability on all sides, or a Mongolian sweep across the vast Asiatic plains, perhaps sneakily originating in Australia.

There was a definite, if guilty, pleasure in observing one's forces gathering inexorably for an invasion, and exultation as red sixes came up again and again in dice-battle. An evolutionary rush occurred as blue or black or green armies rolled across territories. More delicious still were those rare episodes in which one's beleaguered smaller defending army, Thermopylaean perhaps, might repel or fatally weaken a monstrous invading force. Numbers and strategy usually won out, but for short periods of time, as in life, luck mattered.

A game of the 18th and 19th centuries, and of childhood. Simpler times, twice over.


Retriever said...

Try Rome: Total War (my spouse finds it addictive). He had a gazillion games of the type you describe in youth. I remember knowing it must be love when I sat trying to play some strategic game of world conquest (hexagonal game spaces on a map??? plastic pieces) early in our courtship....We were both history and government majors and ferocious competitors (had both been the fiercest in family games of Monopoly).

Will check out other games with my husband and kid as there are computer ones now that are almost as cool now (not all mindless shooters) and let you know which they recommend.

Enjoy the rest of the summer. Loved the piece about taking your kid to the graveyard. Corny of me, but these are precious years with your kids before the adolescent sturm und drang. Cherish them. (unaccustomed Retriever sentimentality...)

Dr X said...

My brother and I played Risk and there was some other game--a civil war game--can't remember the name of it. It was less complicated than Risk, but we played it obsessively.

Dr X said...

The Civil War game, I think it was Battle-Cry. It was a bit like chess.

Anonymous said...

Man!!! We had so many storming arguments over risk. It was taken very seriously whilst getting giggly on strong tea.

#1 cuz said...

I remember many a summer hour playing chess with my "famous" cousin in Lexington. Very pleasant memories indeed.

#1 cuz said...

insert Risk! in place of chess. Sorry.