Playing the board game, Risk, was one of the things we always did. Always - it was a Ryan tradition. Every year, after we were all old enough that we would not eat the dice and the game pieces, we dragged out that time-honored game of global conquest, set it up on the dining room table, settled in with our cookies and punch and began the epic fighting and arguing. Sam always holed up in Japan, building his forces up for one, massive sweep across Asia. I called this the Kamikaze strategy since it invariably never worked for him but did have the effect of softening up Asia for my onslaught. Mary insisted on controlling the United States, regardless of the losses involved. After all, she could not let such famous landmarks as the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, and Hollywood Boulevard fall into the wrong hands. I called this the Stupid Landmark strategy since it involved protecting positions that were useless and indefensible. Kate had very little interest in the game and didn't care where she was, usually winding up in the totally indefensible Europe. She would have been the first eliminated from the game every year had she not been the baby of the family, not in age, but in maturity level. I never had a term for her cry-baby strategy since she apparently had none. Harry invariably went for Australia. His was the Hide Out strategy - hide out in Australia and let the world destroy itself while he watched from the safety of his four-marker stronghold. He never attacked anyone and no one dared attack him because there was only one way in and one way out. He just built up his forces and watched.
And me? I always took Africa, the birthplace of civilization, my civilization. From there I could strike out at South America, Europe or Asia. South America was always unclaimed territory and therefore an easy conquest and usually my first target. Then came North America. Boy, did that make Mary mad. “Why do you always attack me first?” She predictably fumed when I threw her pieces into the box as I overran her. “You jerk. Let me arrange them neatly. I want my dignity in defeat.” I never quite understood her point. But her response was always so predictable. She would quietly get Sam’s attention and nod to him to meet her in the living room. There they would conspire against me while I made rude gestures that kept Harry and Kate in stitches. When they returned, Sam would announce to the world that the time had come for his hordes to sweep the world clean of evil and his march across Asia would begin. Things would always seem desperate for me as Sam’s forces pounded their way into Africa and took my home continent, bringing Mary’s triumphantly wagging tongue into my face. Once he even got as far as North America before running out of men. But his defeat was inevitable. You see I had attrition and numbers on my side. He had to leave at least one marker in each conquered country and all I had to do was bump off a few along the way until he ran out of men. You’d think he’d never had a day of math. I mean, I slept through most of math and even I could count how many men I had; and just how many countries I would need to take to wipe someone out. Plus, I had my secret weapon - I always held back a matched set of Risk cards until the right moment when I would play them and recover a zillion men to thoroughly erase Sam and his men. Every year it was the same. You’d think they would remember, but they didn’t.
That invariably left Harry and me, and I owned the entire world except for Australia. But usually by then everyone was tired and we called it a night without a resolution except to say that I won. I always won - just ask me. Or at least I would have won had we fought it out. Except that one time I actually did attack him. I forget why - he probably pissed me off, or more likely Sam and Mary pissed me off. For some odd reason, I was losing way more guys than him and I knew he would beat me. I had him three or four to one and still he held fast to his Australian hideout. That was the one time in a Risk game that I instituted Plan B. Plan B was my fallback plan in any game where I knew the outcome would be my defeat. It involved a clever, fully deniable tipping over the board so that no one could ever get it back together again and thus I could not lose. I didn’t win, but at least I didn’t lose. I was always so good at games.
What a stupid game, but it was a family tradition that none of us dared break. It was the glue that held us together each Christmas night and this Christmas night, too. After Mom went upstairs to be with Dad, Sam brought out the Risk game and we mechanically set it up. Kate set a place for Harry. Well, it was an empty chair, but we all knew it was for Harry. Talk about morbid… She arranged his cards neatly and, after passing a knowing look around the table like the one who is holding the Old Maid but wants you to think she isn’t, set his blue men up in Australia. When the board was arranged with all of our forces we sat and stared at it for an eternity. I took the dice, pulled my first three red pieces from my clear plastic tray and fingered them thoughtfully. It was the first time I can remember that none of the others claimed the right to go first. Still the king after all these years… I decided to pounce on Madagascar and work my way north.
"I don't understand why Harry always wanted Australia," Kate whispered. "What's so special about Australia?"
That was easy: “He didn’t like to fight so he picked the one place no one wanted to be in. He wasn’t exactly a brilliant tactician, you know.”
Sam challenged me with a glare. "It only has one way in and one way out. It has a tactical defensive advantage. And there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“And I guess you would know, being the five star general that you are. Remind me again when the last time you won this game was?”
“The last time you didn’t cheat.”