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Correcting for the first-player advantage in Risk

I recently played Risk for the first time in decades and was immediately reminded of something that my sister and I noticed when we used to play as kids: the first player has a huge advantage. I think it would be easy to fix by just giving extra armies for the players who don’t go first (for example, in the three-player game, giving two extra armies to the player who goes second, and four extras to the player who goes third), but the funny thing to me is that:

1. In the rules there is no suggestion to do this.

2. In all our games of Risk, my sister and I never thought of making the adjustment ourselves.

Sure, a lot of games have a first-mover advantage, but in risk the advantage is (a) large and (b) easy to correct.

16 Comments

  1. I've noticed this too, but have never corrected it in play, or thought-out the best way to handle the imbalance. Fairness aside, these variant rules might interest you.

  2. Ken Williams says:

    It's a little like tennis, where the server has a big advantage. The solution there is to play a bunch of games and alternate serving, because "breaking the serve" is a big deal. Not sure how long Risk games last though.

  3. bllius says:

    Incorrect. Your assumption is:

    1. the first player has an advantage because they go first
    2. this advantage is solely in terms of number of units

    However, Risk offsets first mover advantage with card trade-in advantage for turn-ins that occur later due to ramping up effect, thus negating first attacker advantage (acquiring more territories, decimating the opponent's armies), and aiding subsequent attackers (larger reserves of forces).

    Yes, there is some luck in card acquisition, and turn-ins are not strictly tied to when a player's turn is, but from what I've seen, the winner is not determine by first mover advantage.

  4. Ken: That is one way to handle it, but one game can last hours, in my experience.

  5. Andrew Gelman says:

    Bilius:

    1. My statement on first-player advantage is based on experience. Admittedly, we were kids. Perhaps the first-player advantage is less for adult players.

    2. I'm not assuming that this advantage is solely in terms of number of units. Rather, if there's a first-player advantage (as we observed, but, again, maybe it's not so strong with experienced adult players), then I'm sure it can be counteracted using extra armies for the disadvantaged players.

    In any case, my main point was that we didn't even think of altering the rules; we just accepted the huge first-player advantage as an unfortunate flaw of the game.

    Just as Scrabble is less fun because it has too many I's.

  6. Ryan says:

    Before the game starts, each person writes on a piece of paper how many units they are willing to sacrifice in order to be the first to move. The person with the highest written sacrifice moves first and gives those units to his/her competitors.

  7. Once you start 'fixing' Risk it's hard to stop.
    I eventually switched to Diplomacy and never looked back.
    It's a great game.

  8. Invalid says:

    You should note that this is simply your assumption based on anecdotal evidence and has no factual basis. There is probably no suggestion in the rules because your assumption is incorrect.

  9. Andrew Gelman says:

    Hey–my assumption has a lot of factual basis! No statistical analysis but it's certainly been my experience in the dozens of games I've played. Also, recall that there's a first-player advantage in chess, go, Candyland, and lots of other games. So why are you so sure that there's no first-player advantage in Risk??

  10. Teilo says:

    Ah, an assertion! Further, an assertion that is also an assumption! You invalidated your own argument, Invalid.

  11. Robert says:

    Andrew, are you aware that on each turn all players are supposed to receive their armies? This enables the start to be on equal terms unless someone grabbed a continent; so, as I start with 4 reinforcements for my turn to attack, so do you for your own defense.

    I don't think there's much lasting effect to the first-player advantage without a misunderstanding of the rules (which I've had many times and in many ways).

  12. Andrew Gelman says:

    Robert: Let's just say right off that it's a lot more relaxing to think about the rules to Risk than to do real work. Once again, it's blogging as procrastination. Getting back to your question: I've always played that each player puts down armies only at the start of his or her turn (except right after you wipe someone out, and you can turn in their cards). In my experience the first player starts off with a lead and retains it. Especially in the two-player game.

    Ryan: I like your idea. Very elegant.

    Sandy: Yes. But I don't think you can play Diplomacy with a five-year-old.

    To all: Since I'm ranting anyway . . . what's with those ugly plastic figurines? I much prefer the wooden cubes and oblongs from our old set. If you're gonna go with plastic, why not just use plastic cubes and oblongs. Those goofy shapes of soldiers etc. are just confusing, they keep getting knocked around when someone jostles the board, etc.

  13. Adam Robinson says:

    Equalizing the first mover advantage is a challenge in analogous arenas. Dividing up property, for example. See Wikipedia entry for Fair Division (interestingly, there's a graphic of the post WWII division of Berlin)

  14. Travis Wiebe says:

    The first player advantage may be pronounced in the two-player game. But in a good five or six player game, I don't think there is any advantage to going first. Having an extended streak of good roles is an advantage, and just about nothing else.

    Here's to Diplomacy!

  15. aceckhouse says:

    I've always played that nobody gets reinforcements on the first turn; I don't know if that fully equalizes first player advantage, as they still get their reinforcements earlier, but it at least slows down their ability to seize the advantage, and probably blunts it at least somewhat.

  16. rrr says:

    There is no substance to this claim. I have played at least a hundred games and have won a lot more than my fair share. I would actually argue that the player with the slight advantage is the one who goes last. Andrew, if you want to play a game, I'll let you go first.