The Game of Risk Can Be Used as Tool to Understand the International System Essay


Serving to illustrate many concepts in political science, the game of Risk can be used as tool to understand the international system. Clearly portraying the theories of balance of power, security dilemma, and strategic studies, the board game most clearly depicts the realist paradigm. However, liberals and radicals would argue that the game, like realism, is too simplistic and is not an accurate model to portray the world. The second half of this paper is devoted to those critiques. The game progressed methodically, as territories were conquered by four “super powers,” tentative alliances were made, and war occurred on virtually every continent. A key turning point in the game came when Daniel and Jesse broke their non-aggressive pact in the Western Hemisphere, which carved up South America and North America respectively, for it was at this moment that true anarchy occurred. Personally pursuing a rational strategy to protect the purple bloc of Australia, I attempted to counter the aforementioned alliance with little success. Eventually, unable to forge an alliance or hold Siam (the bulk head into Australia), I was eliminated. Realism is evident in all of these examples, and requires close scrutiny.

According to Mastanduno, realism has four main tenants, the first being that states are the most important actors. Clearly depicted in Risk, territories were treated as the only actors, for Texas could not be separated from the United States, nor could Wales act separately from England. Not only are territories the primary units in the game, but also they are the only actors. Barry Buzan would add that states act as unitary actors. Taking an “inside/outside” view, he explicates that inside the state there is relative order and peace, while outside, in the realm between states, anarchy, disorder and war reign. In the game, soldiers could not turn on one another within Quebec, producing a civil war, for the game assumes that a territory is a united front without internal strife.

Secondly, nation states will compete. For classical realists, this competition springs from human nature; the desire to dominate. More fitting for the parameters of the simulation however is the neorealist view, claiming that competition arises from the structure of the international system. Recognizing that no super ordinate authority exists, states will naturally fall into competition to maximize their self-interests. Naturally exemplified in the game, competition, and therefore conflict, arose due to the anarchic structure of the game. All parties were forced to rely solely on their own resources, for international courts and dispute settlement mechanisms are clearly not present. Since there was no governing body to enforce the pact that Daniel and Jesse made concerning the Western Hemisphere, Daniel was free to turn on his former ally when deemed advantageous. While peace may be temporarily possible, as Daniel had agreed not to attack Central America from Venezuela, the world will eventually lapse into war due to such an anarchic structure, as demonstrated in the game. Therefore, for the realists, history is cyclical.

Mastanduno’s third qualification of the realist paradigm is that states seek power. Purely defining the simulation, the objective of Risk is world domination. One wins only when all territories on the board are conquered. Only through military power, the emphasis of realism, can the objectives of states be achieved. Giving credence to Mastanduno’s first point, the emphasis on power is crucial, for “emphasis on the state derives from the sense that the state is the dominant wielder of power in the international system.” Necessarily being the primary unit, states alone have the capacity to wield power effectively. The military sector is hence favored over economic, environmental, or social interests. Risk exemplifies realist thinking, for the playing pieces are soldiers, cavalry, and cannons. No trans national corporations, human rights groups, or classes exist because power is exerted through military force. Portraying the fungiability of power, Risk includes measures to ensure superior numbers do not always succeed. As Holsti concludes that power does not necessarily ensure influence, the inclusion of dice (and hence probability) into the game demonstrates that power cannot always be mobilized. Just as the Soviets were repelled in Afghanistan, despite superior firepower and technology, I defied the odds by luckily rolling the dice. I repelled an onslaught from the Middle East, containing seven soldiers, in Afghanistan with only one infantryman to remain in the game.

Finally, states engage in rational decision-making. As Robert Keohane stated, for the realist “world politics can be analyzed as if states were unitary rational actors, carefully calculating the costs of alternatives courses of actions and seeking to maximize their expected utility, although doing so under conditions of uncertainty.” Assumptions of rationality are integral in Risk, for the goal is world domination. Actors seek to maximize their interests in order to advance their armies. Equally applicable to both the game and paradigm, rational actors first monitor the change in power, then assess the threats these changes produce, and finally make policies to minimize the vulnerability.9 Risk satisfies all basic tenants put forth by the realist paradigm.

Not only does the board game illustrate the main principles of realism, but can also be used to illustrate the conjoining theories of balance of power, security dilemma, and strategic studies. According to Hoffman, balance of power includes two concepts: a policy of states and a system of interactions, of which both are clearly present in the game. For the blue army, controlled by Rena, the theory was applied as a policy. She attempted to maintain a power balance between my gray armies and those of the Daniel-Jesse pact by making temporary alliances, trading risk cards, and attacking the stronger opponent when it was her turn. Such a policy’s deliberate aim is to prevent the preponderance of any one state and to maintain an approximate equilibrium of power among the major rivals.

The theory can also be a system of interactions in which the relative equilibrium of power among the major units is achieved. Due to Rena’s policy, this second characteristic was achieved, for throughout most of the game I held Oceania, Daniel: Latin America, Jesse: North America, and Rena: Africa. The balance of power produced stable “spheres of influence” because of flexible alliances, countering threatening advances wherever necessary. The status quo was preserved, for “the pattern of relations among the actors tends to curb the ambitions or the opportunities of the chief rivals and to preserve an approximate equilibrium.” None of the players successfully made significant advances until Rena was eliminated (due to poor dice rolling and a crucial policy mistake involving an offensive in Afghanistan), thus disrupting the balance of power. Balance of Power’s antithesis, bandwagoning, was also present, for Daniel rationalized that it was in his best interest to make peace with the more powerful neighbor. This strategy exemplifies Walt’s conclusions concerning balancing and bandwagoning, as a stronger state will balance while a weaker one will bandwagon.

Another tenant of realism that Risk draws out of the woodwork is the security dilemma. In a state of anarchy, absolute security cannot be obtained, for today’s friend could become tomorrow’s enemy. Evident in the alliance concerning the Western Hemisphere, Daniel placed extra armies on Venezuela to protect his interests in South America, not knowing if Jesse would keep his promise. However, Jesse viewed this move as a threat to his Central American territory and also placed additional armies on the border. The military build up eventually lead to the dissolution of the pact by a surprise attack from Daniel, aided by a new alliance with Paul to weaken North America by attacking Alaska. According to Spanier and Wendzel, security is the first objective of states, and alliances cannot supercede this goal. The security dilemma led to conflict, as espoused by realists, for no super ordinate authority was present to ensure the continuation of the Daniel-Jesse pact.

Yet another theory of realism present in Risk is the analysis of conflict by strategists, known as strategic studies. In this approach to conflict, “war and violent coercive activity are the sharp end of power politics. Strategy is concerned with the manipulation and application of threats either to preserve or to change the status quo.16 Additionally, states are the major actors since they have a plenitude of means of coercion available to them and the right to go to war and defend their interests. No approach could parallel the game more closely, as states wage war on one another in an attempt to change the world system in their favor. The game also fits nicely into Homer-Dixon’s typology of conflict, in which an external situation or structure with an “objective” conflict of interest (anarchic system in which players strive for world domination) leads to an actor’s choice of action (attacking other territories) which leads to conflict (war between the opposing armies). Risk serves to illustrate these tenants of Realism, along with many others.


While realists would applaud the game for closely resembling their paradigm, liberals and Marxists would point to specific flaws that make Risk an inaccurate representation of world politics. For the liberals, states are important actors, but should not be the sole focus of political scientists. The unit of analysis is not the state, but the individual, and a plethora of actors, including trans national corporations (TNC’s), human rights groups, and other sub-state and non-state actors play critical roles in the world system. Risk deals only with a territorial, billiard ball model, while liberals insist that a more accurate representation of the world is a cobweb model in which multiple actors on different levels interact. In the billiard ball model, states are viewed as opaque, with domestic variables held constant. The state acts as a single, unitary actor making foreign policy decisions without the input from NGO’s, citizens, classes, or other sub national groups. Opposing such a view, the cobweb model strings together TNC’s, governments, and a myriad of other actors between states; just as a spider web connects a host of points. According to liberals, international interactions need not be conducted in a linear fashion between states, but spring forth from many sources and involve many actors.

Arguing that states interests are multiple and variable, liberals would view Risk’s emphasis on power politics as undesirable. Not just about power, interests necessarily include the economy, environment, human rights, trade, and other factors that concern the citizens of nation-states. One should not strive for power via world domination, as the game implies, but interdependence and progress to promote peace and the increase of human freedoms. War is unnecessary, for, through cooperation, a positive sum gain can be achieved to benefit all parties. Coercion is not necessary because patterns of interest and trust can evolve over time through interdependence and cooperation, thereby negating the pessimistic and cyclical view of history put forth by the realist camp. Ignoring these concepts, Risk merely exemplifies power politics.

The board game also fails to consider specific theories in the liberal paradigm, including the state system of analysis, conflict studies, and the bureaucratic model of decision-making. While Risk focuses on the international system as a whole, exemplified by the globe styled game board itself, liberals would critique this view through the state system level of analysis. The international level, according to the liberals, “tends to lead the observer into a position which exaggerates the impact of the system upon the national actors, and, conversely, discounts the impact of the actors on the system.” In essence, it exaggerates the importance of nation-states. Additionally, this level requires a high degree of uniformity, for it assumes that all statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power. Risk clearly suffers from these flaws. The state level of analysis, on the other hand, views foreign policy not as a drive to dominate, but driven by the internal composition of states. Low politics must be given a seat at the table, for it is the economy, environment, and trade that individuals are concerned with. Just as France and America derived different oil policies due to the collusion of OPEC in the 1970’s, it cannot be assumed that the South African and Brazilian territories in the game of Risk will create similar policies bent towards world domination. The internal compositions of countries are different and therefore lead to policy divergence.

Additionally, Risk uses the rational actor model of analysis, failing to give credence to the bureaucratic politics model. Assuming that the government is a unified “black box” with no internal dissension, the rational model neglects the individual actors so crucial to the liberal paradigm. While risks follows the aforementioned model, in which governments calculate costs and benefits of each course of action and rationally choose the one with the greatest benefit and least cost, the bureaucratic alternative views government policy as a political resultant; the product of bargaining between a plethora of actors. Individual actors influence the government’s policies. Obviously in the game of Risk, however, it is each player’s calculations that determine which territories he/she will attack and fortify. The bureaucratic model views this as a grave error, for it marginalizes the majority of actors that might be involved in the decision-making process.

Another theory crucial to international relations ignored by the game is the conflict researcher approach to conflicts. The conflict researcher does not accept that the cause of conflict is an instinct in man – a drive to dominate. Rather, conflictual behavior is a response to an actor’s perceptions of the environment. Thus threats are not the only form of social interaction, for, just as the environment can be manipulated, so can conflict behavior, which is dysfunctional. By limiting a player’s actions to attacking, Risk denies alternatives to real politik. Recognizing that conflict is endemic due to the vast number of actors, conflict researchers nonetheless believe that resolution of conflict is possible. Actors can build trust through relationships, thereby mitigating war and promoting peace.

Liberals will also argue that actors need not be rational. Policy makers often have several if not all of the following irrational traits: the myopic attachment to prior beliefs and expectations in order to maintain cognitive consistency, the tendencies towards oversimplification of the problem, the distracting effects of emotional stress, and the common perception of more order, structure and certainty than is warranted. Assuming policy makers are rational actors, the board game, in the liberals’ perspective, oversimplifies the science. Evident even in the game itself, as the consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol by one player lead to noticeably irrational choices. The blue army failed to eliminate my gray army from the game when presented with a viable opportunity.


Members of the Marxist paradigm would also cry foul to the comparison of Risk to the realities of the international system. While this paradigm would agree that the international level of analysis is the correct framework, the exclusion of classes, exploitation, and alienation of the working class is unacceptable. States do not consist of homogenous groups, for class differences are the central element of international relations, according to the radical camp. Hence politics cannot be separated from economics, as is the case in the board game. The highest stage of imperialism, according to Lenin, is capitalism, yet history is systematically ignored in the rulebook, assuming that no countries, nations, or classes have a bias against one another. Without history, how could one determine the validity of Lenin’s statement? Additionally, the homogeneity of game pieces (all soldiers are worth one army, while a cannon is worth ten) fails to highlight differences in power based on economics; those who control the modes of production versus those who sell their labor. As Karl Marx stated: “The ruling ideas of the epoch are the ideas of the ruling class,” yet Risk fails to differentiate the actors. Peace studies, a theory of Marxism, is also given no credence by the creators of Risk. This “bottom dog” approach views conflict as inherent in the world system, as realists do, yet sees conflict as a result of incompatible interests of the system. Necessarily being the “opposite side of the barricade” from the strategist, the peace researcher views violent revolution as crucial for the displacement of the bourgeoisie. Guerilla warfare and the uniting of the alienated class across national boundaries accomplishes this task, but the game fails to include mechanisms to allow this to occur during the simulation.


While the contentions put forth by both the liberal and radical camps deal serious blows to the claim that Risk presents an accurate simulation of world politics, the game does satisfy all tenants of the realist position. The units are unitary states, actors are rational, and the international system is characterized by anarchy, competition, and power politics. Naturally, all theoretical models simplify an infinitely complex world, for it is only then that meaningful analysis can occur. Despite aforementioned flaws, Risk does serve to accurately present one variation of such simplifications in a rich and discernable manner. If mechanisms were included to satisfy the liberal and radical paradigms, an already complex game would become a labyrinth of confusion.


1Michael Mastanduno, “A Realist View,” in International Order and the Future of World Politics, ed. T.V. Paul and John A. Hall (Cambridge University Press, 1999) 19-40.

2 Barry Buzan, “The Timeless Wisdom of Realism,” in S. Smith et al, eds., International Theory: Positivism and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, 1996) 47-65.

3 Buzan.

4 Mastanduno.

5 Mastanduno.

6 Buzan.

7 K.J. Holsti, International Politics, Prentice Hall, 1992: 16-131.

8 Mastanduno.

9 Buzan.

10 S. Hoffman, “Balance of Power,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol.1, 1968:506-509.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 S. Walt, The Origins of Alliances, Cornell, 17-49.

14 Buzan.

15 J. Spanier and D. Wendzel, Games Nations Play, CQ Press, 1996: 79-90.

16 A. Groom, “Paradigms in Conflict: The Strategist, the Conflict Researcher, and the Peace Researcher,: Review of International Studies, Vol 14, 1988: 71-98.

17 Ibid.

18 M. Zacher and R. Mathew, “Liberal International Theory,” in C. Kegley, ed., Controversies in International Relations Theory, St. Martins, 1995:117-139.

19 Ibid.

20M. Doyle, “A Liberal View: Preserving and Expanding the Liberal Pacific Union,” in International Order and the Future of World Politics, ed. T.V. Paul and John A. Hall, Cambridge University Press, 1999: 41-66.

21 Zacher and Mathew.

22 J.D. Singer, “The Level of Analysis Problem,” World Politics, October 1961.

23 Ibid.

24 M. Evangelista, “Domestic Structure and International Change,” in Doyle and Ikenberry eds., New Thinking in IR Theory, 202-225.

25 G. Allison, The Essence of Decision, Reprinted in R. Mathews, ed., International Conflict and Conflict Management, Prentice Hall, 1984: 105-117.

26 Ibid.

27 Groom.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 D. Kinder and J. Weiss, “In Lieu of Rationality,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 22, 1978: 707-35.

31 Groom.

32 Groom.

33 Ibid.