How To Win At Risk By Using Systems Thinking

Systems thinking gives you an advantage in almost every area of life—even the game of Risk.

Systems thinking is a way of viewing complicated networks in reality in terms of the relationships between the parts and the whole. It is about thinking holistically about such relationships so as to (1) truly understand how they work and (2) change them for the better.

The best strategies in life (and in games) come from systems thinking. This is the case because things are far more complicated than they seem at first glance, and it takes careful attention to come to know them. Systems thinking offers names and categories for understanding the complexity of reality—and you can’t really know anything without first giving it a name.

Before we apply the power of systems thinking to the game of Risk, let’s take a crash course in systems thinking first.

Note: I’m assuming you know the rules of the game of Risk, but if not, read the rules of Risk here.

The Simplest Example of a System: A Bathtub

Consider the simple bathtub.

You might not think of a bathtub as a system, but it is. You fill the tub to the desired level and temperature, constantly adjusting the faucet in response to the feedback you are getting from the temperature of the water and the current amount of water in the tub. Then, when your goal is met, you take your bath and then let the water out—a complete system.

Granted, a bathtub is a very simple system, but it serves as an introduction to the discipline of systems thinking. If you want to go deeper, read Donella Meadow’s Thinking in Systems. It is brilliant.

Let’s dig into the bathtub example a bit more, and use it to examine the discrete parts of a system.

Every System Is Made of These Parts

  • Stocks: Stocks are the collection of resources or inputs into a system. In a bathtub, the stock is the amount of water in the tub.

  • Flows: Flows are movements between stocks. A bathtub has two flows, namely the faucet letting water into the tub and the drain letting water out of the tub. The amount of water in the stock of the tub is the result of the interaction between the in-flow (the faucet) and the out-flow (the drain).

  • Reinforcing Feedback: Change in systems happens in loops, not lines. These loops take the form of feedback forces that interact with the stocks and flows. Reinforcing feedback, also known as “growth force,” happens when the stocks in a system are increasing. In the bathtub example, the growth force is the water coming out of the faucet, increasing the stock of water in the tub.

  • Limiting Factor: Systems collapse if the growth force is allowed to run unchecked. At a certain point, the system hits a limiting factor. In the bathtub example, the limiting factor is the desired level of water in the tub. You can always spot the limiting factors in a system by looking at the (1) carrying capacities of the stocks or (2) the goals of the players in the system.

  • Balancing Feedback: Balancing feedback, or “balance force,” kicks in as the system approaches one of its limiting factors. In a bathtub, as the amount of water in the tub approaches the desired water level, the person filling the tub reaches out and turns the faucet off. Suddenly, the system is balanced. Anywhere there is a goal, such as the desired water level in a bath, for example, you’ll find forces at work that are trying to achieve that goal by balancing the system.

  • Equilibrium: When a system is balanced, it reaches equilibrium. There are two types of equilibrium: static and dynamic. In the tub example, if the faucet is off and the drain is plugged, static equilibrium has been reached since no flows (in-flow or out-flow) are coming off the stock. Dynamic equilibrium is reached when the total flows into and out of a stock continue, but are equal, as would be the case if the water in a tub was filling at the same rate it was draining.

  • Leverage: Systems are hard to change because balancing feedback does such a good job of returning the system to equilibrium. Leverage refers to the forces that are applied to a system in an attempt to change it, but, as you will see below, not all levers are created equal, nor are they equally effective. In fact, pulling on some levers only makes the sleeping dragons of balancing feedback wake up and lock down the system. However, savvy systems thinkers are able to find the leverage points in a system that can change it so dramatically that a new balance is reached—perhaps tipped in your favor.

But What Does All This Have to Do with Winning at Risk?

A lot, as it turns out. The magic starts to happen when you do two things:

  1. Map the parts of Risk onto the parts of a system.

  2. Analyze the system of Risk to find the best strategy according to the rules of systems thinking.

Here we go.

Step One: Map the Parts of Risk onto the Parts of a System

Stocks: In the game of Risk, your stocks are the number of armies in your countries, the number of countries under your command, and the number of continents you control.

Flows: The in-flow in the game of Risk is the number of new armies you get each turn. The out-flow is the number of armies you lose in battle each round.

Reinforcing Feedback: There is a strong growth force at play in the game of Risk since the number of extra armies you get is tied to the number of countries and continents you control. So, the stronger your armies become, the faster they become stronger. If left unchecked, this would quickly become an exponentially reinforcing loop that would result in the strongest player quickly taking over the game.

Balancing Feedback: But, unlike reality, a good game would never let that happen. If you push the system in the wrong way, the system always pushes back. In Risk, the wrong way to push the system is to try to ride the reinforcing feedback all the way to victory, getting more and more continents until you win. However, reinforcing feedback always triggers balancing feedback to kick in and keep the strong player in check. In fact, the stronger any single player gets, the stronger the balancing feedback arrayed against them becomes.

In Risk, the main balancing feedback is the opposition the strongest player encounters from all the other players. That is why it is such a terrible idea to grab a continent too early; it awakens the balancing feedback before you are too strong to repel it. (Taking Australia is an exception to this. For some reason, everyone expects Australia to get taken in the first two turns and thus the balancing feedback of the other player’s fear isn’t awakened. This exception is probably explained by the fact that you only get two bonus armies from keeping Australia. The small number lulls players into feeling that it is safe to allow the player who controls Australia to keep control of it.)

Limiting Factor: Because the balancing feedback is awakened by the perceived advantage any one player has (or is about to have) over the other players, the clearest limiting factor is almost always the act of taking a continent. Remember, the limiting factors are triggers that the system deems dangerous enough to deploy balancing forces against. Because of this, taking a continent can be a bad strategy even though it promises to increase the flow of armies into your stocks. If the other players unite to oppose you, the result will be a diminishment of your stock of armies.

Equilibrium: In Risk, equilibrium sets a cap on how strong any one player is allowed to become. If you want to win, you have to wait until the equilibrium has risen high enough to allow you to have large enough armies for quick, devastating strikes. The more unexpected those strikes are, the more successful they will be. People only tend to defend against their immediate neighbors, so they will not be worrying about your country with 30 armies because it is all the way across the board, when the reality is that (depending on what stage the game is in) a country with 30 armies can usually find a path to go wherever it wants, leaving a trail of death in its wake.

Now that we have mapped the parts, let’s try to figure out what to do with them.

Step Two: Determine the Goal.

In Risk, “The Game of Global Domination,” the goal is pretty clear: take over the world. Determining the goal of a system won’t always be this easy, but this time it’s a gimme. Let’s press on.

Step Three: Start with the Goal and Strategize Backward.

Starting with the goal of global domination, let’s walk backward and see if we can find our way into a viable strategy that will let us reach the goal. I’ll write it as a logical chain of If/Then statements.

  1. If the goal is global domination, then you need to make sure you have greater strength in armies than any other player.

  2. If you need to have more armies than any other player, then you should do everything you can to (1) increase the rate at which you gain armies and (2) avoid losing the armies you receive.

  3. We’ll cover the best way to increase the rate at which you gain armies below, so let’s focus on the second one here. If you need to avoid losing the armies you receive, then you need to avoid battles. Specifically, you need to reduce the number of times you roll the dice as much as possible.

And There It Is—One Half of the Winning Strategy: Roll the Dice as Little as Possible. You Can’t Lose Armies That Never Fight.

But how do you accomplish this? Just do these things:

  1. Consolidate most of your armies on a handful of adjacent countries that are strong enough that no one wants to attack them.

  2. Keep the number of armies in the rest of your countries low. This makes you continue to look weak, reduces the number of armies you might lose if another player takes that country from you, and makes your opponents divide their forces if they want to move into one of your weak countries.

  3. Initiate as few attacks as possible. When you do initiate an attack, make sure you have an overwhelming advantage. Better yet—don’t attack at all. Remember, you are trying to avoid having to roll the dice

  4. If you have to attack, do so only from a place of great advantage. Nothing wastes more armies than long, drawn-out battles between countries with many armies on them. If you only engage in short battles whenever possible, you will roll the dice fewer times.

  5. Let your enemies break up each other’s continents, not you. If you can get people to fight among themselves by not being the one to enforce the balancing feedback (i.e. attack someone to break up their control of a continent), someone else will have to do it. Just wait. Don’t be the global police, let your opponents do the dirty work.

  6. Take only one country per turn. Again, let your enemies kill one another’s armies as they squabble for territory. They are doing your work for you. Your job is to grow stronger, not to win battles. Growing stronger slowly lets you keep a strong core of armies in a cluster of key countries without arousing the other players’ worry.

“But,” you might be asking, “If I only take one country per turn, how will I ever win the game?” Keep reading.

Step Four: Find Leverage That Will Avoid Awakening Balancing Feedback

There are three ways to get more armies in the game of Risk:

  1. Control more countries.

  2. Turn in cards for bonus armies.

  3. Control entire continents.

Of these three, controlling continents is the surest way to awaken balancing forces in the game that will oppose you on your path to global domination. That means if you can grow the size of your armies without taking a continent, you gain leverage that can change the whole game. The first two are “safe.”

Most Of the Time, Only Taking Continents Way Awakens the Dragons of Balancing Feedback.

To get this leverage, you have to do two things:

  1. Find a way to grow in strength by taking lots of countries (but not taking a whole continent). There is only one area of the board that will let you do this. Luckily, it is also the part of the board that no one wants: Asia. Even though you get seven bonus armies for controlling Asia, most players don’t pursue it because it is so hard to hold. That means that it can only be successfully controlled in the final stages of the game. Thus, in the early stages, it can be your playground. There are enough countries in Asia to allow your in-flow of armies to continue to rise as the game progresses without triggering balancing feedback.

  2. Make sure you get lots of cards for bonus armies. The best way to do this is just to take one country every turn. This will allow you to keep getting cards without spreading your forces too thin. When you get enough cards to get bonus armies, you can (if the timing is right), move on to Step Five.

Step Five: Increase Your Stock of Armies Until You Can Make a Fast, Devastating Attack

To review, the strategy up to this point consists of (1) waiting, (2) not spreading yourself too thin, (3) taking one country per turn (4) consolidating your armies on a few very strong countries, and (5) enabling your opponents to target one another. This strategy is a slow burn in the early parts of the game, but there comes a time when you need to go on the warpath.

If you succeed in laying low and not getting in too many battles, you should be able to build up a good number of armies in at least one country (especially with card bonuses). If you play this strategy well, you might end up with even three or four times the number of armies in the average country on the board (in fact, this should be a goal).

When you reach that level, you have some decisions to make. Should you go on the offensive? Is it time to take over an entire continent in one fell swoop? Maybe. Is it time to completely annihilate one of your opponents from the board, taking their unspent cards in the process? Perhaps. Is it time to split your force in half, using one half as a beachhead to hold territory in another part of the board? Possibly. It is up to you and will depend on the current situation on the game board.

The important thing is to make a choice that will set you up well in the future, but not too well. Even after you make this big move, you are going to want to continue to avoid becoming the object of balancing feedback, which means the mission is still to strengthen your own position without being perceived as the top player. Sometimes this will mean not taking a whole continent. In this case, using your big offensive push to just weaken key opponents can be a good strategy. You’re going to have to use your judgment.

The key thing to remember here is that when you reach this stage in the strategy, the strategy isn’t over. Just go back to step one and keep it going. Rinse, conquer, repeat.

Step Six: Don’t Forget All This Other Stuff

  • Play the Players Too. The other players are part of the system of the game too. If you are going to have a hope of winning, you have to beat the others at the "player level” of the game. The strategy of avoiding taking continents will serve you well in the player level of the game because it sets you on a course of waiting at the back of the pack and drafting off of your opponent’s poor choices. The players at the bottom are always on the same team, or, at least, that is the mentality you should encourage every chance you get.

  • Lose Fewer Armies Than Your Opponents. This may sound self-explanatory, but there are two ways to have more armies than your opponents: to gain them faster (in-flow) or to lose them more slowly (out-flow). Most people pour all their attention into getting more in-flow than everyone else (more reinforcements per turn), but there is a competitive advantage to be found if you dedicate yourself instead to getting more armies than your opponents by not losing the ones you get. If you follow the rest of this strategy, the effects of your conservative play should be compounded as you allow and encourage your opponents to hack away at each other and leave you alone.

  • Find the limiting factors. Limiting factors will show themselves as the system begins to try to maintain equilibrium, but you have to learn how to recognize them when they do. Some of those limiting factors will originate on the player level of the game. When you hear people say things like, “If someone doesn’t take that country away from Sam, he is going to run away with this game,” it means Sam has hit a limiting factor on the social level of the game. Fan those sparks into flames. This is balancing feedback waiting to be triggered. Helping other players become the object of balancing feedback is a big part of this strategy.

  • Use the Threat of Your Strength to Control the Game. As you get stronger, and as you have one country with a large number of armies on it specifically, you can begin to exert an influence on the social level of the game. The other players will begin to wonder what you are going to do with all that strength once you go on the warpath. Use that question in their minds to bend events in your favor. Make an alliance. Leak your plans to key allies. Work together with them to be a part of the balancing feedback directed against the top player(s).

  • Know What Stage You’re In. Risk has stages. Things that are possible in the early stages are not possible in later ones, and vice versa. To succeed, you have to read the stage of the system and make your moves accordingly. Early stages will largely be about jockeying for position on the map, staking out territory, claiming a continent, and encountering light resistance from the other players. The middle stage will be about consolidating your first continent (unless you are using this brilliant strategy) and fending off the harrying attacks by people who don’t want you to control that continent. By the late stage of the game, a few players may have been eliminated, each player is entrenched in a corner of the board, and they are trying to build enough strength to take out their fellow players one by one.

  • Watch Out For The Death Spiral. The Death Spiral is another kind of reinforcing feedback at play in the middle and late stages of the game. This happens when one player becomes too weak to fend off the other players and the stronger players try to completely eliminate them from the game, thus taking their unused cards and getting a huge bonus for themselves. Don’t let this happen to you! If it does, revert to the player-level of the game and try to awaken the balancing feedback inherent in the pity of your fellow players. Also, if you are in danger of becoming the victim of the Death Spiral, don’t hoard cards—use them as soon as you can so you don’t tempt your opponents to come and take them. Lastly, if you are one of the strong players, you can use the Death Spiral to your advantage by keeping weak enemy-controlled countries near your strong countries. If one of your fellow players is about to be knocked out of the game, just make sure their last country is within your range of attack, then grab it and the bonus cards that come with it.

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