When North Korea’s dictator-cum-caricature Kim Jong-Un threatened war over Seth Rogen’s latest movie, one couldn’t help but wonder if he thinks he’s playing a giant game of Risk.
While no New Zealander is quite so elevated as the Dear Leader, for many of us the board game is a staple of rainy Saturday afternoons. But it’s also a proxy for the fragile international anarchy in which we live.
The Wireless decided to turn the world’s military industrial complexes over to five young Kiwis. What follows is a first-hand account of both the bloody world war that ensued, and the biggest risks they’ve taken in their lives to date (since they don’t have war-ready communist state mechanisms at their fingertips, after all).
The psychological warfare begins before the first troops are placed on the board. Daniel Miles makes the bold move of claiming the black set pieces, while comedian and writer Eamonn Marra dispenses pro-tips to the other players. “The key is trying to hold Asia,” he says, almost managing to keep a straight face.
Sacha Norrie, who works for the Youth Court and still has to use Google Maps to find her way to the supermarket after five months in Wellington, unabashedly proclaims her victory to be the only logical conclusion of this war.
The quiet contenders are Serena Chen, a former physicist-turned-designer/developer who is editor-in-chief at HVNGRY magazine, and photographer and charity dude Patrick Shepherd, who bide their time and stack their pieces.
The first shot is fired by Chen. Well. Kind of.
With her red troops dominating Australian territories and spread thin though Asia, but bottlenecked by Marra’s troops in the South East Asian province, she’s not sure where to go. “Japan me,” she says as she boots Miles out of that country, in the first successful invasion of the war.
All’s fair in love and war, and Miles strikes back at Chen in Australia, taking back two of the four provinces but leaving her with a strong garrison in the Indonesian bottleneck.
The world was bigger, grander, more beautiful and more cruel than I had ever imagined.
As the players take risks on the board, the conversation turns to risks they’ve taken in real life. As Chen tries to take back Australia from Miles, she explains that she prefers to sit tight and take only very calculated risks. One that paid off was going on exchange to the United States. For her, that was a massive decision.
“But in the end, I said ‘fuck it’, and decided to blow all of my savings on an exchange to the great UC Berkeley in sunny, beautiful California,” says Chen. “I learned so much. The world was bigger, grander, more beautiful and more cruel than I had ever imagined.”
And with that, she wrests all of Australia from Miles’ control.
Marra chooses to play it safe and reinforce his territories, as does Miles. Norrie continues her shotgun approach, taking Iceland but leaving Greenland heavily reinforced. Is this risk-averse behaviour? Nope. Norrie likes taking risks, especially in any kind of competition.
“I’m really good at writing cheques that I have absolutely no ability to cash. Risk trash-talk…” she says.
Sometimes this lands her in difficult situations, like when she decided to go off-trail while snowboarding in Queenstown.
“I probably had no business being too far from the kiddies' slopes,” she remembers. “I ate ice and fractured my tailbone on the side of a mountain with no one around. I had to crawl on my tummy back to bottom of the trail and spent the rest of the day – and the week-long trip – standing by the bar with a broken bum.”
Right now, though, her green troops, if thinly spread, are controlling a large portion of the board.
Shepherd reinforces his African holdings. Miles calls for a truce with Marra and Shepherd, offering them immunity if Marra holds South America. The entente holds and Shepherd successfully pushes into Europe.
He’s no stranger to taking risks. Shepherd likes to pour his heart and soul into good things, like building schools in South East Asia or writing music – but by far his biggest investment has been in his charity One Percent Collective.
“Diving all my spare time and energy into an idea that I thought might just work is really the biggest risk that after years of hard work, has paid off,” he says. “I’ve given up travel, relationships, evenings, weekends and more to ensure my start-up charity worked. And after all this work I’m starting to see it taking shape nicely.”
Just like his plans for world domination. With Norrie spread thin and Chen bottlenecked in Australia, Shepherd’s got a hold on Europe and Africa.
I mean, empirically speaking, pledging to spend your life with someone is pretty high stakes. At this point, though, I’d definitely put it in the basket of risks that have paid off.”
Meanwhile, while Chen consolidates, Marra is on the back foot. But he’s used to being on the back foot, he says, and sometimes it’s even good motivation to shake things up. After a “period of huge mental instability ... with a handful of breakdowns” brought on by the Canterbury earthquake, he moved to Wellington.
“I was risking it all by moving away from this safety net when I was in quite a fragile state, but it worked out really well and it has been one of the most positive decisions of my life.”
Playing hard and fast with the lives of thousands of people on the Risk board doesn’t work out so well for him: Marra is the first player eliminated.
Miles is back in the game. Taking advantage of Norrie’s thinly-spread troops, he mops up North and South America. He’s in talks, making alliances. He’s playing the diplomatic game. Another player could call his bluff at any moment, but Miles knows the importance of diplomatic relations.
“I got married,” he says. “I consider that quite a risk. I mean, empirically speaking, pledging to spend your life with someone is pretty high stakes. At this point, though, I’d definitely put it in the basket of risks that have paid off.”
Chen, who has been quietly building up a massive army, suddenly plays all her bonus cards. Dumping 30 troops onto the board ensures Norrie is totally wiped out, and Chen – as Marra advised early on – holds Asia. For one turn.
Shepherd and Miles, now with extra bonuses for holding territories, also pour troops onto the board. They agree to eliminate Chen and then duke it out. Shepherd pushes into Asia through Europe while Miles attacks from Alaska into Kamchatka. Chen exits gracefully.
It all comes down to the roll of the die as Miles drops 30 troops in East Asia and wheels around the continent to dominate Shepherd in a whirlwind victory.
The game is over. We estimate that about six million troops have died over the course of the game. Miles reigns supreme over the blood-drenched globe, having risked everything on a strategic game of diplomacy on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
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