Tabletop Review: RISK: Plants vs. Zombies Collector’s Edition

Anyone who knows me to one degree or another knows I’m a fan of Plants vs. Zombies. I’ve done everything, Achievement-wise, one can do with both the Steam version and the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, I own the Android release, and I even wrote up a little news blurb about the “Stop Zombie Mouth” campaign PopCap did with the American Dental Association last year. I’m also eagerly awaiting Plants vs. Zombies 2 when it comes out for the PC or a console of some type (the Android version is… fine I guess), and I’m basically a plush doll and a t-shirt away from liking it as much as Persona 4, to put it plainly. What is somewhat less common knowledge is that I also happen to like RISK quite a bit. I don’t own any of the collector’s editions (mostly because I’m not enough of a HALO or Metal Gear fan to buy one) but I like the core concept a lot, and I have several digital editions of the game. It’s less likely to inspire violence at the table than Monopoly, more strategic and complex than many board games, and lends itself well to rules manipulation, as the various modified versions of the game, like Risk Legacy and Risk 2210AD have shown. So when Alex informed us that we were getting a Plants vs. Zombies themed version of RISK, I basically jumped up and down at the idea of taking to the board game world with either Plants OR Zombies to take over… well a world, certainly. The idea of worldwide warfare with bean shooting and brain eating was exciting to me, and I was really hoping that it’d be an awesome piece of work.

It certainly is, but there are some… minor issues to contend with.

To its credit, the first thing that stands out about RISK: Plants vs. Zombies is how friendly and varied it is as a product. The pieces are color-coded, and each side gets its own dice (green for plants, purple for zombies) for easy recognition. The game is also designed as a kid friendly experience; aside from the bright, colorful artwork and heavy franchise theme, the game also offers two different ways to play as well as streamlined rules for those who are new to the game. The game itself comes with two bags of units, segregated into the aforementioned plants and zombies, as well as a deck of cards (or more accurately, four decks of cards), six dice, and several Welcome Mat, brain, station wagon and lawn gnome tokens, as well as a double-sided map. It ALSO comes with a very detailed instruction manual that explains the flow of play in three modes: Basic Training, Advanced Play and Front Yard Skirmish. While I’ve been around the block with RISK a few times, this version uses some involved rules that are beyond the core concepts of the game, so I went through each play style to see how they worked.

Basic Training is, quite literally, the simplest possible form of the game. In this version of the game, you can win by either completing three objectives or by terminating the opposing force entirely. For those who are saying, “Objectives?” let me explain. The Welcome Mat tokens are, in actuality, Objectives you can undertake; on one side there’s the Welcome Mat design, while on the other there’s an objective to complete, such as “Control Observatory and Graveyard,” or “Control the Musty Acres Region,” which you can do instead of trying to wipe out your opponent. Do so, and you can claim the Objective marker on the board. This actually can be helpful to players who are struggling with the “battle” aspect of things; if you can’t keep ownership of a region long enough to get bonuses, but you can nail down three objectives, you still have a shot of taking the game, which makes for a slightly more friendly experience if one can focus on doing this over total domination.

The Basic Training rules are more or less identical to those of normal RISK, however. The manual tells you specifically where to lay out the units, station wagons and garden gnomes on the map, as well as what Objectives to put into play, across each of the two different potential scenarios, but otherwise the rules are the same for each. At the beginning of your turn, you deploy however many units you have, based on what territories you control (they are broken up on the map by colored borders to make the regions obvious) and by however many Faction Cards you trade in. Once done, you may invade any neighboring territories, and the rules are basically the same: attackers may send up to three units against the opposition, who may defend with up to two units, both sides roll dice for each, and the highest roller wins. The only significant change here is that, when attacking locations that have fog cover (denoted by their white coloration), only two attackers may attack, while defense is unchanged, making these locations much more defensible as a result. Once you’re done in combat, you may either draw a Faction Card (if you’ve conquered any territories) or claim an Objective (if you’ve done so successfully), though you can’t do both, even if you did both that round. Finally, you may then transfer units from one territory to another if you wish before ending your turn, if you want to fortify a newly conquered territory, for example.

Now, for those asking, “Okay, so we covered the Welcome Mats, but what about the station wagons and garden gnomes?” they’re the added twists to the game. Station wagons count as additional territories for the purposes of troop reinforcement, and give you additional resources to draw upon when you collect reinforcements at the beginning of a turn. Garden gnomes, on the other hand, count as “neutral” forces, and essentially defend locations no one else owns. You must fight them as if they were opposing forces to take over unowned territories, and your opponent rolls for them as if they were defending themselves, though they cannot attack or otherwise participate in battle. They’re just an added challenge, in other words, to give you more to work with on the battlefield. Once you’ve gotten those mechanics down, you can also jump into “Advanced Play,” which is really just Basic Training except you can choose how to lay out the station wagons, garden gnomes and troops, and Welcome Mats are chosen by you instead of by the manual.

The other major mode of play included here is “Front Yard Skirmish,” which uses the other side of the map, as this contains a recreation of the normal Plants vs. Zombies backyard. This is the real draw of the experience, honestly, as it recreates the game experience in a directly competitive fashion that’s more in tune with the game (instead of the odd multiplayer modes in the console game). The objectives are as you’d expect: the plants must kill all the zombies, while the zombies must get one zombie to the house to eat the owner’s brain. Playing this mode is pretty simple to understand: each side claims thirty units total, shuffles their Faction Decks, and puts their Upgrade Cards out before them (hence the “four decks” comment earlier). Each turn starts by rolling two dice, and deciding what to devote them to, as each number can be used to decide either the number of units you’re deploying or the number of actions you can take per round. You then choose if you want to trade in Faction Cards to purchase an upgrade; by discarding an amount of cards with coin values equal to the coin count on the upgrade, you deploy it on the field, and it influences your abilities going forward. So the “Imp” card allows you reroll all 1’s once in combat, Gatling Pea lets your ranged attacks hit on 5’s and 6’s, and so on. Each side also has a “one use only” card, with the zombies getting Doctor Zomboss (which adds five destroyed zombies back into your reserves) and the plants getting the Lawn Mower (if a zombie enters the porch it is destroyed, and every zombie in that row is gone on a roll of 4 or higher). These upgrades, as you’d expect, are very helpful, though the Faction Cards have their own uses, so you may not want to discard them right away, which we’ll get into shortly.

At this point you can then deploy units, based on the die roll above; plants may deploy anywhere on the map that a zombie isn’t standing in, while zombies must deploy on the sidewalk edge. Zombie players then get to move their zombies forward (plants cannot move unless the shovel upgrade is out) one space, and if a plant is in that space, they roll to try and eat it to move into that space. At this point, each side takes their actions; zombies may attempt to move forward and attack as normal, while plants may make normal ground attacks against targets in front of them or make ranged attacks against zombies down the lane, and for each hit, one zombie is removed. You can also deploy your Faction Cards here, which are also themed actions, like the Cherry Bomb (destroy one plant defender to wipe out all attacking zombies) or Balloon Zombie (skip all territories between one territory and another you control). These can also turn the tide of battle if deployed right, making them almost as useful as the upgrades, so it can be very interesting to consider what might be most useful when.

Now, after all that, you might think that RISK: Plants vs. Zombies is an instant win, but there are some issues to the game. For one thing, while Front Yard Skirmish is basically awesome, the other play mode, which is essentially standard RISK with some additional rules involved, doesn’t work as well as you’d think. RISK in general is going to be a game that has more complexities than most young kids are going to be interested in retaining, and adding to that with neutral units, added bonuses and Objectives actually makes the game more complex than the original. This would be fine if the game marketed itself well to adults, but it’s only a two player game in either mode, which removes the chaotic, five person warfare that the series is known for, so it’s not going to really sell itself well to RISK fans due to its limited nature. There are also a lot of paper pieces, as anything that isn’t the plants and zombies is either card stock or cardboard, which means there will likely be a lot of wear and tear to the pieces if the game sees a decent amount of play. Since the majority of the pieces that are here are used in the normal play modes, if you end up destroying a couple gnomes or Welcome Mats, that leaves the players improvising, and since there are a lot of pieces here, that could go very badly, especially with younger kids.

RISK: Plants vs. Zombies is a cute novelty that fans should basically eat up, as it lets you replicate the plants versus zombies experience with friends in a board game, and it’s novel enough that kids can enjoy it, but as a RISK game it’s limited. If you take it as a Plants vs. Zombies piece of merchandise, or as a cute themed novelty, it’s not a bad investment. You get something that’s themed like the product, is fun to play in most respects, and has some unconventional rules that make it engaging while at least partially being kid friendly. The main game can be a bit more involved than kids might be interested in, though, while also being less engaging for RISK fans due to its limited two player only scope, and a lot of paper pieces mean a lot of chances for piece destruction if you’re not very careful. If you like Plants vs. Zombies a lot or have kids who do, RISK: Plants vs. Zombies is probably worth picking up, but if you’re looking for a video game themed RISK game, you’re probably better off looking at the Starcraft version instead, if only because that version supports six players.

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