Risk and the red balloon

Risk and the Red Balloon

Paul Klee’s version of the red balloon

This weekend I was asked a very probing question: what is your favorite board game? This is a particularly tough question for me as I have an entire closet full of titles. My collection includes familiar favorites as well as quirky vintage finds. Gathering around a table with good friends and a good game was always my favorite social activity. (Especially when you added yummy snacks to the mix!)

While the pandemic has taken this joy away from me, I decided that there’s no time like the present to research the board game I’ll set out for my first social event. With my second Pfizer shot a few days away, I feel hopeful for the return of game night. Because COVID also greatly diminished my ability to travel, I decided Risk (with its promise of conquest and strategy) would be the perfect debut. I’m lucky to own one of the very first editions, purchased at an awesome vintage shop in Iowa. Turns out this fun game has a remarkable history all its own. Join me on an odyssey into the history of Risk and the red balloon.

Our story begins in 1922 Paris, with the birth of Albert Lamorisse. Albert grew up in a Paris under transition. The end of WWI was met with both relief and tremendous excitement, as the city sought to return to its former glory. Unemployment remained high and rations remained in effect, but the year before Albert’s birth the French economy saw a boost, mirroring the Art Deco excesses in America. The artistic community flourished as icons gravitated to the city of lights. The mood was electric and the hope infectious. But just shy of Albert’s tenth birthday it all came crashing down. Once again depression gripped the country – a far-reaching anxiety was on constant display and an impressionable Albert had a front-row seat to history.  His young eyes witnessed political jockeying, power grabs, and other forms of domestic human dramas. Naturally these experiences formed his artistic temperament.

Initially Albert’s response focused on photography, but as he grew this passion for imagery soon translated into a love of moving pictures. As a young man, Albert started making his first short films and by the late 1940s he burst onto the international cinematic radar. As IMDB summarizes, he earned an “international reputation for the poetic quality of his short and medium-length films involving the fantasy world of children.” The combination of his discerning eye and artistic sensitivity touched audiences and critics alike. One of his early efforts, White Mane, earned him a coveted grand prize at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival.

At 31 years of age Albert had carved a path as an influential visionary – and he was just getting started. In 1956 his masterpiece The Red Balloon debuted, receiving both honors at Cannes and at the American Academy Awards. The story of a young boy and his high-flying friend was both tender and hopeful – a moving translation of the post WWII landscape. Albert’s poetic prowess was at its peak and his creative trajectory seemed secure, but then he pulled a classic artist’s move – he did something completely unexpected. Albert invented a board game.

Risk and the Red Balloon

Image by MatsAlkmaar

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably doing a spit take right about now. A brilliant film director, a master at crafting narratives, a guru at setting a scene, goes and makes a board game about world conquest? It’s not an obvious fit, but if we look to his childhood experiences rays of light begin to glimmer. Albert’s childhood was the product of two wars – and not just any wars – the only two global conflicts this world has known. The years were marked with devastation, followed by moments of elation, and suddenly interrupted again with terror. I can’t imagine how it would feel to live through this, let alone to be experiencing this during my formative years. Given Albert’s creative talents, it’s not surprising he needed one more avenue for self-expression.

Albert pitched his game prototype to the French manufacturer Miro and that’s when Risk (or La Conqueste du Monde) found its way to the desk of the brilliant Jean-René Vernes. While he’s known for the innovations he brought to the game of Bridge, Vernes also leant his analytical mind to developing simplifications to Risk’s rules. These adjustments made the game easier to play, making it the talk of many Parisian salons. All this buzz caught the attention of Parker Brothers and with a few American-style modifications (like adding some cards to speed up the rounds), Risk was set to conquer game nights worldwide! Risk is still a popular game in its own right, but it also leaves an impressive legacy. If you’ve ever enjoyed Settlers of Catan or Axis & Allies, you’ll find hints of Albert’s influence.

I find the story of Risk and the red balloon inspiring. Seeing people transform difficulties into beauty makes me think about my own artistic endeavors. But for now, I’ll focus on creating a special board game night in honor of Albert and my COVID vaccine. Tell me, dear reader, what titles are on your roster for the perfect game night?

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