Warlight tweaks the rules of war

Given a computer to do the counting for you, it’s not hard to improve on Risk; for one thing, all that setup time just disappears. This by itself doesn’t make the game great, but it does make it less disappointing. Painstakingly distribute all those monochrome plastic people in The Real World and what you get in return is two and a half hours of ramming your numbers into other people’s numbers once you’ve made sure that yours are bigger. Risk’s strategy is like a thought problem posed by a dim economist: If all the participants in global total war had perfect information, could be absolutely certain of the exact number of troops in every country in the world, and they issued and executed orders in polite sequence so that there’d be no possibility of last-minute reinforcements surprising and routing an invasion, what would it be like? For the soldiers, the usual nightmare; for the architects, no fun at all. The only element of uncertainty a Risk player ever has to contend with is the dice, which is why the most exciting thing in the game is getting screwed by them.

The only element of uncertainty a Risk player ever has to contend with is the dice, which is why the most exciting thing in the game is getting screwed by them. 

So there’s room for improvement. Randy Ficker’s Warlight, one of a long line of variably labored-over online Risk-likes, has all sorts of digital conveniences and cosmetic slickness: Bright color-coded arrows penetrate territories to an ominous musical sting; reinforcements arrive with a firm clonk; the camera glides and zooms from one hotspot to another. But it also quietly animates the game, not by totally rewriting it but by making just a few small changes with dramatic reverberations.

First, Warlight players take their turns simultaneously. Presto: strategic uncertainty. Since you issue orders without knowledge of your opponents’ orders and see them resolved one-by-one only after locking them in, the battlefield situation that shapes your decisions won’t necessarily be the same one that decides their success. There’s a good chance those two armies in New Zealand will be fifteen by the time your small invasion force actually arrives, but it’ll be too late to turn around. (The game’s options also include a fog-of-war feature, which prevents you from seeing how many armies are in territories not adjacent to your own.) You’re still just trying to bump big numbers into little numbers, but you’re no longer certain how little they are; your campaign now requires guesswork, gambling, subterfuge. This single change, all by itself, suddenly introduces an element of (wait for it) risk.

Other features achieve similarly disproportionate returns. There’s a map editor, for example, which is probably not a difficult thing to implement but which in the hands of an active community means you’re now suddenly free to wage war not just across the geography of Earth but also that of Europe, Germany, the United States, the Roman Empire, Skyrim, Vietnam, Westeros, about a million versions of Middle-Earth, and an infinitude of abstract labyrinthine patterns designed by people who’ve realized that this game is not a simulation. These “maps”–diamonds, spheres, neighboring planetoids, Escher landscapes dissected into mosaics of capturable territories–host games that look more like kinetic sculptures than contests: enormous distorted surfaces over which colors bleed and clash. Watching abstract Warlight replays can be like watching some competitive version of John Conway’s “zero-player” Game of Life: a grimmer version, one in which Conway’s fluctuating colored “cells” have allegiance, and a will to power.

There are other additions, some of which I’d seen in older Risk-likes: airlifts, new and complicated ways of receiving reinforcements, a card-collection system that takes some inspiration from Risk‘s messy official variant Castle Risk. These complexities are welcome, but they sit on top of the framework of the game; none have anything close to the transformative effect of the simultaneous turns or the endless gallery of maps.

Videogames, it seems, are the proper medium for Risk

Videogames, it seems, are the proper medium for Risk. It’s not that Warlight’s important elements can’t appear in board games, or that they haven’t: Diplomacy features players writing orders in secret and executing them simultaneously; Stratego uses one-sided pieces to conceal the strength of your opponent’s forces. But only a computer could introduce these features so easily and with so little disturbance to the rest of the game, could cloud the players’ minds while leaving Risk’s structure and interface untouched. Plus, this absolutely cannot be stated enough: no setup time.