Beyond setting up the Risk board and the basic mechanics of the game, the most important part of any Risk game is the question of where to place armies and what do with them. Here are four key concepts to use your armies effectively.
1. Continent capture and protection: Under most circumstance, the first priority of army placement when you begin a new game will be to place your armies in positions where they try to capture a continent (i.e. by capturing every territory belonging to that continent). In most every game I’ve ever played, the game play during the middle and latter stages of the game will center around placing armies to defend continents players hold, attacking continents to “breakthrough” the defenses and capture the continent, and trying to expand a single captured continent to capture a second, third, etc. continent.
There are two main reasons why holding a continent (or preventing your opponents from holding a continent) is such an important part of the game. First, holding a continent gives a player bonus armies for every complete turn that they hold that continent. These bonus range from a modest +2 armies per turn for Australia and South America to a whopping +7 armies for Asia. These bonuses can add up to give players dozens of extra armies later in the game.
Second, holding a continent carves out space where you can hold territories by placing armies on a few key “choke points”. A good example of this comes when a player holds all of the territories in Australia and the territory of Siam. By placing a substantial number of armies in Siam, the player not only protects that territory directly but also indirectly protects the entire Australian continent because any attack on those territories has to go through Siam first.
2. Card Mining: Winning cards and turning in completed sets can make the difference between winning and losing a game, especially in the late game when the extra army bonuses for turning in card sets become huge. Even in games without the progressive card bonuses (i.e. with “set value” rules, my preferred method of play), a cannon + cavalry + infantry set and the 10 extra armies it provides can make the difference between winning and losing.
The only two ways to win cards in the game are to win them by capturing at least one territory each turn or to capture them by eliminating all of the armies of any player on the board. Both methods involve attacking. Because of the importance of having cards, especially late in the game, it is usually not good to “turtle” into a corner of the board by placing your armies in completely defensive positions and not attacking at all. Such strategies are eventually doomed to fail (you have to attack sometime to win) and usually leave you vulnerable to elimination from a player flush with extra armies gained from turning in cards.
A good method to mine cards in a game is to select an area of the board where no one is trying to hold territory and capture one territory in that area each turn. An example of this would be if you held both Australia and Afghanistan early in the game and no one held or had strong armies in Asia. At the beginning of your turn, you could place roughly half of your reinforcements on Siam and half on Afghanistan and use your armies on Afghanistan to capture an adjacent country with only one army defending it to win your card.
As a compliment to this strategy, sometimes you can “squeeze” a player by capturing all of his or her territories in Asia, Europe, etc. and forcing that player into either a massive border attack to capture a card or into “turtle” mode to preserve armies. An example of this would be if a player holds South America and a couple of card mining territories in Asia and is also bottled in by players in North America and Africa. By capturing both of that players Asian territories, you would basically cut off the players ability to gain new cards and force the player to drastically change strategy.
3. Breakthroughs: Sometimes in Risk, as in life, it becomes necessary breakout of your familiar surroundings and leap into the wider world. In Risk, these types of moves during a turn usually take the form of “breakthroughs” where you push some or all of your armies from your home base (or even a strong card mining country) and attack the enemies’ front lines directly.
Before attempting any breakthrough, you should have a very specific goal in mind of what you want to accomplish with the move. Can you break through the enemy front lines and into her or his protected continent and take away the continent bonus armies for several turns to come? Can you eliminate one or more enemies and take their cards? Will your move leave you exposed to counterattack from one or more players to act after you?
An example of where this might be useful is in a situation where you control Australia and another player has just finished taking North America. If you have a large number of armies in Kamchatka, you might be able to breakthrough into Alaska and deny your enemy the +5 bonus armies that come with controlling North America. You may even be able to leverage this breakthrough into eventual control of the continent yourself, depending on your opponents’ response.
4. Equilibrium: Occasionally you will encounter situations in Risk where you are “stuck” for one or more turns in a situation where you are not necessarily vulnerable but, at the same time, you can do little to improve your position. In these situations, it might be best to take a “wait and see” attitude where you maintain the equilibrium while forcing your opponents to act against each other.
An example of this would be if you had a strong position in South America but you were blocked in by enemies with positions in North America and Africa. In this case, it might be wise to slowly build armies on your continental borders (Brazil and Venezuela) while waiting for your opponents to attack each other. Often times, a fourth player (maybe one with a strong Australian position and marching into Asia) will force a break in the equilibrium at some point and allow you to attack.
Bottom Line: When deciding where to place your armies in Risk always have a concrete strategy and never do things out of frustration alone. Always look for opportunities to strengthen your position and deny strong positions to other players. Every army counts.