Risk is one of those classic military strategy games that has long stood the test of time with me. I used to play the board game in junior high and high school quite frequently and I even picked up and reviewed Risk: Factions for the Xbox 360 when it came out some time ago. So when my oldest was asking me about Risk (she had seen a Doctor Who version of the game that caught her eye), I knew I was overdue in teaching her and my son how to play the game. What better way to do so than find a themed one that I was really interested in? In comes Risk: Mass Effect.
Mass Effect stands as probably my favorite gaming series last generation. I even loved the third game in the series, ending and all. My son spent plenty of time on the weekends playing the online mode with me. Now, if this was just a Mass Effect themed version of Risk, I could comment on the parts and call it good. I plan to do that, but this version of the game also comes with a couple of extra modes of play.
First and foremost, we have the game of Risk (here referred to as Basic Training). It is essentially the same game from my youth, just with planets and clustered regions connected by mas relays. For those unfamiliar with the game, you can have three to five players take turns setting pieces down one at a time until all of the planets are claimed. Then you start to reinforce those planets with your remaining pieces. Each turn is comprised of several steps. You start by adding reinforcements (from a combination of planets owned divided by three, plus bonuses for any regions you have full control of and then trading in cards towards ships). You then choose to invade other planets. The goal of course, is to wipe out everyone else - which is usually pretty easy to do once you reach a sort of tipping point in the game where you are gaining more reinforcements than you can probably lose.
Invading and defending is more luck based than a lot of strategy games out there. Attack with up to three units at a time, defend with up to two. Each unit rolls a six sided die and then the highest offensive score is compared to the highest defensive and then down the line. The higher score destroys the other unit (with defense winning in the event of a tie). If you successfully claimed another planet on your turn, you can draw a card. These cards can be turned in for extra reinforcements at the start of your turn. Then you fortify (moving units you own from one planet to another) and then passing your turn over to the next person.
The board is well-made and laid out, folding up into quadrants. The play pieces are just simple plastic. Soldier units represent one while the more vehicular looking units count for three soldiers. The card stock is sturdy enough - not overly thick but after a dozen or so plays the corners are still sharp and there are no folds or creases in any of them. The dice are exactly what you would expect. Like the plastic figures they are nice enough, but nothing special.
Now for those who want to try something a little different, that is where this version of Risk offers something unique. There is a very basic cards and dice game called War Assets. It is a fairly quick game in and of itself that is basically just luck, but serves as an adequate filler/distraction. However, that card game can get implemented into the meatier Galaxy at War mode.
Galaxy at War is interesting because it runs off of the Risk basics, but adds some extra layers of intrigue and can be played with with up to five people to create up to three teams. You have the Cerberus, Alliance and Reaper factions at the heart of this game. The Alliance has better resources out of the gate than their Cerberus counterparts. Cerberus is smaller, but has a potentially easier objective and some really good cards at their disposal. Reaper has numbers equal to the Alliance, but they are spread thin across the board and prone to losing planets right off of the bat. Their trump card is Harbringer - a massive reaper that with the right cards can prove a devastating weapon or a key defending piece.
The core gameplay is the same with the steps found in Basic Training. You can add an extra layer of strategy by leveraging the War Assets mini game during turns as well. Here the goals of the three factions are different. Thirteen of the planets on the board are special resource planets. If Cerberus can capture ten of those, they win. The Reapers must wipe out the Alliance forces. The Alliance must find the Catalyst and take it from the Reapers.
Here is where the turns pan out slightly differently than Basic Training. Every turn the Reapers need to take a Vanguard token and put it face down on one of their planets. This planet gains a defensive advantage if attacked. Instead of rolling six sided dice, the Reapers can use eight sided if there is a vanguard token there. If the Alliance takes a planet with a Vanguard token, they can then turn it over and see if it is the Catalyst. If so, they win. If it is not the Catalyst there is a momentum meter that adjusts to the Alliance favor. This meter grants bonuses to either the Alliance or Reapers depending on its current state. If it is a planet taken over by Cerberus, the token is simply moved to another Reaper planet.
While it might sound like Cerberus is left out of the mix, they have their own meter. It goes up for each orange planet they possess. These meters can grant additional cards to be drawn at the end of the turn, and unlike their use in Basic Training, the cards here are not used simply for creating reinforcements. Here every card has one of two purposes. One, it represents one of three classes of spaceship that have different bonuses for the planet they are on. They also have special abilities you can use if you wish to trade your card in that way. These abilities can be incredibly wide-ranging, from granting you a turn with eight sided dice instead of six on your roles, or instantly gaining reinforcements based on the roll of a die or even killing off attacking units. This all serves to add a surprisingly layer of strategy to the proceeding. The other thing we noticed is that this version of the game does seem to come to its conclusion more quickly than Basic Training, despite the additional elements included.
Risk has always been a favorite board game of mine, and that holds true when it is themed around one of my favorite video games. With it comes the heavy dose of fate that might not appeal to those players who look for a bit more strategy than blind luck that Risk's mechanics employ. While the War Assets mode is not all that interesting, the Galaxy at War mode of play is really a great deal of fun and has become our go-to method of play more often than not. While the board and cards are of sturdy make, the plastic pieces are a bit cheaper feeling by comparison. The overall package is quite good and appeals easily enough even to those who do not play the video games (such as my oldest daughter). If anything, she is now more convinced than ever she wants to pick up the Doctor Who version of Risk now that she has played it.
Review by Nick