Real life, like Risk, requires great self-discipline

Have you ever played the board game called “Risk”? Last week I taught my three oldest grandkids (ages 11, 9 and 9) how to play the game. It took us five hours, and we still weren’t finished when they had to go home. They all loved it. I played the game with them to teach not only about international politics, but also about life.

The goal of Risk is to conquer the world. It is a game of military strategy. The board is a simplified map of the world. You use your “armies” (playing pieces) to launch attacks, defend yourself on all fronts and conquer vast continents. But there are dangers as well. You must consider your goals and the consequences of your decisions. If you are not careful, you could lose all!

The game teaches its players the value of diplomacy — the art of convincing other players to attack someone else, or to join in an alliance against a common foe, only to break that alliance when more pressing self-interest comes into play. It also teaches players that avoiding conflict can allow a player to increase in power.

My grandkids were fascinated and played with intensity. Two of them formed an alliance against me for a time to keep me from conquering the world. I, of course, took advantage of all the “teachable moments.” I explained that this maneuver is called balance of power. It was a strategy used by the British to maintain their empire for 300 years. The U.S. also uses balance of power to maintain peace in the world.

Wars usually weaken countries, win or lose. I told my grandchildren that this is how the U.S. became the only superpower in the 20th century. The U.S. watched Germany and Japan attack their neighbors in two world wars, only entering two years later after both the Allies and the Axis powers had exhausted themselves.

America’s buffers of two oceans and weak neighbors to the north and south, I explained, have allowed the U.S. to grow in strength and avoid costly and prolonged wars.

The game was a geography lesson for my grandchildren as well. They had never heard of Kamchatka, or the Urals, or Mongolia before playing the game. They also were largely unaware of the major continents and their relationships to each other.

I tried to teach my grandkids the concepts of having realistic goals and weighing the consequences of every decision, both on themselves and on others. Pride and greed play a major part in losing the game. Like Napoleon and Hitler, players often overextend themselves, making them vulnerable to defeat.

Winning Risk requires humility, self-discipline and self-awareness, and the ability to calculate costs and benefits.

I kept asking them, “What’s your goal? Why are you attacking that country and not another? Are you just trying to get a card, or are you ready to begin your attempt at conquest? What effect will your conquests have upon the relative strengths and weaknesses of your opponents?”

As in all human endeavors, luck plays a major part in all outcomes symbolized by the roll of the dice. We can only partially control whether we will succeed or fail. There are many factors we must consider and adjust to.

Finally, in spending time playing Risk and other games with my grandchildren, I am building relationships and memories that they will have for the rest of their lives. That was part of my calculation and hopefully part of my legacy. They will remember the good times they spent with each other and with their grandfather. As they say, the time invested is “priceless”.

We all play a real-life form of Risk every day of our lives.

The problem is that most of us aren’t any more aware of the decisions we make and the consequences we experience than my grandchildren were before they played. Self-awareness and self-discipline are the absolute keys to success in the game and in real life.


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