The upcoming release of Risk: Legacy where players make permanent changes to the game that forever impact future sessions, is getting a lot of buzz and excitement.  Menwithdice had the opportunity to get a few questions in with the designer, Rob Daviau.

MWD: Hi Rob! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Tell us about the creative process. What triggered the idea and how did it evolve?

RD: It actually started with an offhand comment I made before a Clue game. I said, roughly, “I don’t know why they keep inviting Mustard back, he’s killed three people in a row.” And I just had this little instinct that there was an idea there. Why do games behave like Groundhog’s Day, resetting each time? I’m a long-time role-player and there was something about a game seeding the next that seemed worth exploring. I tucked it away and came back to it six months later, but with Risk.

The goal was to create a history of a world; a series of wars that shaped that particular war. For example, in the real world the Great Wall of China is still there today, even though it isn’t being used for its original purpose. The Library of Alexandria is still gone and its knowledge lost. Carthage isn’t around. Castles still dot the landscape. These wars over centuries shaped our world and the original design goal was to recreate that.

In the first draft, the changes were too random. Something like putting a sticker down when the attacker rolls three 6s. Craig VanNess, in early playtesting, very correctly pointed out that the changes should be in the players’ hands, not random. That prompted a big redesign that turned it from a novel concept to something that felt right. I think every change in the game is a decision by someone, not a thing that happens without any control.

The idea of hidden content and things locked away came later. The game turned out to be quite sprawling and people were making decisions early on that they regretted later (like really regretted) as they didn’t have a firm grasp on how they were shaping the world. So I wanted to keep some stuff until later games so that the early games let you play with a simpler set of materials and rules so as not to get overwhelmed and not to ‘break’ your game.

At the time, the TV show Lost was in between Season 5 and Season 6 and I was quite taken with it. Especially the idea that each season kept throwing a really different feel at you. Sometimes it was horror, then mystery, then sci-fi, then spiritual. Every time I thought I had it figured out, it surprised me. That was the inspiration to lock stuff away. JJ Abrams has a talk about the “mystery box” and how secrets are so tantalizing to narrative and life in general. That became the Hatch in Lost and I wanted to emulate it. I took the idea of the mystery box and started removing parts of the game and putting them into envelopes, ‘rewarding’ people for getting to that part of the game. Since I was already heading down the path of the bizarre, there was really no reason to restrict my thinking now. The box itself is designed to stay open during play, so that you can see the envelopes and remember that there is more to come.

I have to say at this point, that patience is a virtue here. One early reviewer said that his group got so caught up in chasing the envelopes, that they played games with the focus of doing so. After they were open, he wished, somewhat, that they had just played to win and let the envelopes come out when they came out. I don’t know how other groups will react but I wanted to pass this insight along.

The envelopes also allowed me to have some control over the flow from early games to middle games to late games and really try to create narrative. At this point, I don’t know which part I like better: altering the game or revealing parts of it. And I don’t have a sense of whether either part could live without the other. I suspect they can but they feel very intertwined now.

I should also give big thanks to Chris Dupuis, who started out as someone running one of the playtest groups but quickly evolved into a developer/head playtester/copy editor/spreadsheet guru. His is credited on boardgamegeek because he found so many ways to break the game and came up with solutions that it really would’ve been a mess without him. He’s now a designer with WotC and really deserves it.

MWD: This is a pretty significant departure in the way board games are normally approached. New ideas are often met with resistance. Were there any challenges getting Legacy through to production due to the new idea?

RD: Sort of. There was a bit of luck, skill, and patience getting it through the system. By making it a hobby game, it allowed it to keep a low profile, which helped.

Actually, I’d love to clear up a misconception that I’ve seen online, that this game is a marketing/sales gimmick to drive repeat purchases. Nothing is further from the truth. This was and is a design pet project. There have been different marketing people giving insights and there have been the usual support staff of business people but any criticism goes to me. At some point I realized that this game would not be able to be shared like others, that people get a little territorial over “their” world. But this was more a side effect than a sinister plan.

MWD: I always find deleted scenes in movies interesting. Were there any design elements in Risk Legacy that didn’t make the final cut?

RD: Not that I can think of. This really is a kitchen sink game, which will probably delight some and horrify others. We reached a point where we’d think of something else, shrug, and think “well, we’ve come this far….” Putting things into different envelopes and allowing them to come out in due time really allowed this. If you got the game, opened it all, and looked at it, it would have a shaggy sense of unrefined design. I’m hoping that getting it in ‘chapters’ makes it feel different.

MWD: Did you get any responses or results in playtesting that surprised you?

RD: The game really had a major revision after the first round of playtesting. The groups wanted more change, not fewer. I was concerned that people would feel that the changes were spinning things out of control but, instead, they were looking for more controlled chaos. At first the factions didn’t evolve, just the board and cards. So we put that in. And there were fewer envelopes with hidden stuff. I went back in and at least doubled the amount of things that changed and showed up as you played.

MWD: If someone completely finished all possible modifications on one copy, and started again on a second copy, do you think it is less exciting because you know what the unlockable elements are, or is the strategic implications more interesting because you can plan for future changes?

RD: Hard to say. I suspect, but can’t confirm, that the excitement of the unknown slightly outweighs the strategic advantages of knowing what is in all the hidden parts. But that is how I like to play games, where I’ll deal with surprises that make a good narrative rather than having perfect information that leads to a better chance of victory. A playtest group who ran it through its paces a second time liked it just as much, but it had a different feel. Sort of like watching a movie a second time and seeing what you missed. People were able to consciously manipulate the game towards an end rather than have the world jostle them. It really depends on how much you want to have a surprise twist vs. how much you want to control the game.

MWD: Once a copy of Risk Legacy is played until there is nothing left to modify, how interesting of a game is it to stand on its own merits once the unique experience of permanently modifying your game is gone?

RD: As interesting as any other game I would imagine. I very consciously and deliberately did not make a disposable game; I set out to make a game with a long preamble that leads up to the final game. The final game is a heavily ‘house-ruled’ Risk game but it plays just like any other game. All that’s missing are the extras that were there at the beginning My analogy, which is not perfect, is that games are all like bowls of ice cream, each a different flavor. I tried to put whipped cream and chocolate chips on this bowl of ice cream so when you start eating it you get all these little unexpected surprises. But then, when the chips and whipped cream are gone, you still have a bowl of ice cream.

MWD: The part that made hobby gamers twitch the most was that the game involved destroying its own components. Did you ever consider less permanent methods of implementing the evolving game?

RD: I really didn’t. It was a heretical idea. I knew that. And not something I couldn’t have made myself do 5 years ago. But I figured it was worth committing to. At the end, it’s just cardboard and paper. You wouldn’t hesitate to write on a pizza box or throw away a business card. But I also know that it is very much more than cardboard and paper. In college, I didn’t write in my textbooks because they felt sacred. You just don’t write on books. Well, now, 20-25 years later, they are just very boring text books. Given the hours I spent with them, it would be great to go back and see my thoughts as a 19 year-old, and remember writing things, or where I just doodled. But that doesn’t exist and, as a result, I never look at them, and have given most of them away.

I also think that people don’t usually play a game 15-20 times, unless it is a life-long favorite so I’m not quite sure I understand the need to reset it. I guess if you don’t like some choices you made, you’d want to reset it. But that goes against the goal of designing a world with its history.

Also, for those looking for a refill/restart kit, I have to say that everything changes in this game but the plastics and dice. The board, the cards, the faction cards, the stuff in the envelopes, the envelopes themselves. You rip the envelopes off the box. You open sealed pockets in the vac tray. Selling a restart kit would be selling 90% of the game. I looked at it at some point but it doesn’t make any financial sense.

But, given all that, I do get the angst. Even when I get a sample to open up and check everything for accuracy, I have to steel myself up. Just a little. Not because it feels like I’ve ruined it but because I feel like I wasted it a bit. Here’s this world, ready to have its history and adventures, and I just rip it all apart in 30 minutes to doodle and stick and then throw away. But it does affect me in some way.

MWD: Have you considered any other game families, genres, or settings that the Legacy concept would work well with?

RD: Yep. But I’m not talking about it.

MWD: Do you see Legacy being enjoyed by casual, mainstream gamers, or do you think it’ll remain mostly appreciated by the hobby niche?

RD: This was designed for the hobby market, for the experienced Risk player who knew what Risk had to offer and maybe felt the base game was ‘solved’ or predictable. I’m hopeful that the design principles of this game could be adapted to casual gamers. But this game itself would probably be too much for a family who doesn’t play a lot of games or isn’t experienced with Risk.

MWD: Is there a firm release date yet?

RD: November. Or so. I know that’s not firm but it’s as firm as I know.

MWD: Do you have any expansions in mind?

RD: Not really. The expansions are sort of built into the base game. I think it would be easier to come out with a sequel than it would be to come out with expansions.

MWD: Thanks again! We’re really looking forward to giving this a try. There’s a lot of excitement around Risk Legacy, and we wish you the best of luck with it.

RD: Thanks. I have woken up during the night over this one, fretting that someone will find a way to break it or that it has too many new things in it. But early reviews are positive, so I’m relaxing a little bit. Just a little.

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