«Risk» – is it ok if I conquer, err, liberate Ukraine?
Background information

«Risk» – is it ok if I conquer, err, liberate Ukraine?

Martin Jungfer
Translation: Veronica Bielawski

The board game «Risk» is one of the most successful games in the world. Since 1957, it’s offered you the opportunity to move armies and roll the dice on a quest for world domination. But is the strategy game classic still up to date?

When did I last rule the world? I reckon I must have been eleven years old or so. I’m talking about the board game «Risk», of course. My armies conquered ever more lands, throwing ever more enemy soldiers off the board. That was around the year 1990. The Iron Curtain had just fallen, Germany was reunified and historian Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed «the end of history» and written a book about it (linked book in German). At the time, a war in which one country attacks and tries to conquer another seemed very far away. Of course, that was the just the Northern Hemisphere’s perspective. And so, I played «Risk» without thinking twice. A civil war like the one that raged in Rwanda from 1990 to 1994 was too distant.

Recently, the game found its way into my hands again. But I’m not talking about the cardboard box – which is certainly more than tattered by now – complete with soldier figurines, dice, cards and the game board. No. Apple sent me its weekly app recommendations, which included the iPad version of the strategy game. «Eh, might as well give it a go,» I thought to myself and hit download.

The adaptation of the classic board game «Risk» for the iPad. You play against three more – or less – intelligent would-be-world-ruler AIs.
The adaptation of the classic board game «Risk» for the iPad. You play against three more – or less – intelligent would-be-world-ruler AIs.
Screenshot: Martin Jungfer

A few games in, it’s clear the same strategies for success from the board game also apply to its digital version:

  1. Secure one or more continents as soon as possible to get the troop bonus.
  2. Secure the outer borders of your empire to prevent enemies from even thinking of attacking you.
  3. Watch out for your opponents’ potential troop concentrations (to anticipate their mission) and react by cleverly mobilising your own armies.

As I write this, I feel my earlier fascination bubbling. All those games of «Risk» likely foreshadowed the countless nights I’d later spend playing «Civilization» on my PC. However, since war has broken out again in Europe – ever since Russia first gathered its troops along the Ukrainian border and then marched in with the aim of conquest – I’ve wondered: can I still play «Risk» today with a clear conscience? After all, the worst that can happen in the game is a few plastic figures languishing. Meanwhile, people in the real world have been dying every day since February 2022.

Ukraine not included as a playing field in «Risk»

In the current iteration of «Risk», Ukraine no longer exists as a possible battlefield. There’s only a «Russia» playing field; one of 42 territories on the world map. Where’d Ukraine go? It’s been absorbed into Russia. In contrast, in the 1970s, there were boards without a «Russia» but with a «Ukraine» stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic.

Depending on the country of publication, «Risk» denotes the region at war as either «Ukraine» or «Russia». This is a map from the 40th-anniversary version of «Risk» – there’s only Ukraine.
Depending on the country of publication, «Risk» denotes the region at war as either «Ukraine» or «Russia». This is a map from the 40th-anniversary version of «Risk» – there’s only Ukraine.
Image: Wikimedia/cmglee, Gr0gmint

The current «Refresh» edition dates back to 2016. Little reminder: Russia annexed Crimea back in 2014. Mind you, I’m not accusing Hasbro, the game publisher, of trying to depict or even predict world politics here. Depending on the country and version of the game, the fields have different names. What’s «Russia» in the German version continues to be called «Ukraine» elsewhere – those editions have no «Russia» at all. I wager only Hasbro could provide an overview of the current countries and versions.

I asked Hasbro to what extent current world politics play a role in the borders on the game board. The answer from Hasbro’s USA headquarters is almost outrageously diplomatic, especially given it’s about quite the warlike game. And it’s about as comprehensible as a field marshal’s orders in the middle of a vodka binge. Here it is:

The version of Risk you are referencing represents a time-period game highlighting a moment in time, and newer versions (Risk Strike and Risk Shadow Forces) work to introduce contemporary executions to the world map that eliminate outdated territorial borders but honor the game experience of the original.
Hasbro Global PR

Suffice it to say that no matter the version, «Risk» will prove a rather troublesome game for sensitive small-state sympathisers. Switzerland, for example, is nowhere to be found. If that bothers you, it’s worth taking a look at the numerous special editions – for example, the Röstigraben one.

Who’s behind the invention?

Historically, warfare on the present territory of modern Switzerland goes back even further than the inventors of the original had probably had in mind. So, who are the brains behind «Risk»? French director Albert Lamorisse and game editor Jean-René Vernes. In Lamorisse’s initial idea, there were ships in addition to land troops. The former didn’t make the cut, but a bonus for defending troops was introduced. In 1957, the game was published in France under the title «La Conquête du Monde». In the USA, gaming giant Parker Brothers acquired the rights to the game. And the Americans further tweaked the concept to make the game quicker. They strengthened attacking positions, and defenders were now only allowed to use a maximum of two dice. Parker Brothers is also responsible for the name «Risk», under which the game first appeared in 1959.

In the post-war period, not all the executives at Parker Brothers were fans of this new game. They predicted a low chance of success; toys referencing war sold poorly. Not to mention, the game was expensive. Most board games at the time cost around two dollars – but «Risk» cost over seven, as Tristan Donovan noted in his book on the history of board games, «It’s All a Game».

With over 100,000 sales, it ended up being the best-selling board game of 1959. In the following years, millions of copies were sold worldwide, making «Risk» one of the most successful games of all time – certainly unbeatable in the «war and strategy games» segment.

Since 1985, one no longer «conquers» – one «liberates»

Despite its commercial success – or perhaps because of it – there’s always been ample criticism surrounding «Risk». In the 1980s, the German Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors (BPjM, previously BPjS) found fault with the game’s military wording. To be precise, it didn’t like the orders printed on cards that you, as a player, have to fulfil. For example, something along the lines of «Conquer 18 countries of your choice and occupy them with two armies each» or «Destroy all black armies». According to the board, instructions like this trivialise war and violence. Moreover, «the playful re-enactment of dictatorial action inevitably flies in the face of the goal of providing an education for peace». It went on to argue that the game poses a risk of positively evaluating wars of aggression.

«Risk» was on the verge of being indexed in 1985 (link in German). Had that happened, it would’ve been treated like hardcore porn at the time – probably only available through underhanded means. But Parker successfully fought back. Finally, the administrative court in Cologne, which was called upon to clarify the issue, declared the game morally unobjectionable because it was too abstract to be considered as glorifying war. Nevertheless, Parker modified the German version of «Risk». Ever since, there’s only talk of «liberating» continents. And there’s no more «killing» black armies. But you may still «occupy» countries. So, as a kid in the late 1980s, I must’ve already been playing the semantically defanged version of «Risk». And I didn’t even realise it …

Today, over 20 years later, the legal battles are long forgotten. Hasbro’s got things whanging and banging in the app version of «Risk». You go through attack and fortification phases, and the AI even advises you to «conquer» certain countries if you ask it for a tip. It’s as if the 1985 dispute had never happened. That’s not surprising. After all, there are much more trigger-happy games nowadays. Could anyone have imagined a release like «Call of Duty» 37 years ago?

Compared to modern warfare simulations, «Risk» in its analogue, board game form seems downright antiquated. And so do many other PC games from my childhood, take the DOS game «Tank Wars», where tanks placed randomly throughout the landscape engage in artillery battles.

«Tank Wars» – a DOS game from 1990.
«Tank Wars» – a DOS game from 1990.
Screenshot: Martin Jungfer

Both – that is, «Risk» and newer games – are very far removed from reality. And yet I still don’t feel comfortable ordering tanks or entire armies around. The game of war has lost its appeal to me ever since it hit so close to home in real life.

What do you think? Are board games such as «Risk» in keeping with the times? Share your thoughts with me and the Community below.

Header image: Martin Jungfer

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Journalist since 1997. Stopovers in Franconia (or the Franken region), Lake Constance, Obwalden, Nidwalden and Zurich. Father since 2014. Expert in editorial organisation and motivation. Focus on sustainability, home office tools, beautiful things for the home, creative toys and sports equipment. 

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