Cost: $35 From: Wizards of the Coast, Box 707, Renton WA 98057 Players: 2-6 Playing Time: 60-180 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Complexity: 8 Skill level: 4 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 3.2, Spring 1995
Richard Garfield should by now be a familiar name to many of you. He is to collectible trading card games what Gary Gygax is to role playing games. Gygax created Dungeons and Dragons, the first RPG and the one which singlehandedly created an entirely new gaming market. Garfield invented Magic: The Gathering and similarly influenced the gaming world. With such an impressive accomplishment to his credit, it should come as no surprise that his first board game would be an instant must-have for many gamers. Thanks to Wizards of the Coast's usually poor job of gauging market demand, it's a game many people have had a hard time locating. Opinions of Robo Rally vary widely. At $35, it's certainly something you should consider playing before buying.
The box has heft thanks to its very nice components. Six large and sturdy game board segments depict the floor of a futuristic factory. Each board has a unique name and configuration of pits, walls, conveyor belts, lasers, and other contraptions. Players attempt to navigate their robot avatar through these mazes. Robots are represented by cast pewter figurines which, alas, come unattached from their bases. While the figures are whimsically rendered by artist Phil Foglio, some of them are hardly practical. We found it quite difficult to determine which side of some figures was the front, a problem we solved by marking one side of the problem robots' bases with white paint. But there's absolutely no good reason for this problem to exist at all. A robot's direction is positively critical to the play of the game, and the robots should have been designed with that in mind. I can't imagine what the design team was thinking when they approved Foglio's artwork.
As in Wiz-War, the game board is created by combining a number of board segments. Each segment is twelve spaces square (a ninth of one segment is shown on the next page) and measures in at about a square foot. The more segments you use, the longer the game will be and the less interaction you're likely to have with each other. We've found that two boards seems to be a good number with anywhere from 3-6 players. Your mileage may vary. Players create checkpoints by placing numbered flag markers on blank board spaces (we usually use four flags, but six are provided). The object is to touch all flags in order.
Each player receives nine cards at the start of each turn. These cards look like plug-in memory cards and each has a movement instruction on it (forward 2 spaces, turn left, u-turn, back up, etc). Each robot has five "registers" each of which can accept one instruction. Players program their robots by laying five cards down in front of them, each card corresponding to a register. When everyone is ready, players execute their robots' programs.
Execution occurs in five phases (one per register). Everyone reveals their first card and moves their robot accordingly. Before they continue to the next register, a few other things happen. First, the factory activates. Many spaces on the board have some sort of gizmo on them. These pulse on in a very specific order each register phase. Conveyor belts go first. Any robot on a conveyor gets moved one space in that belt's direction. Some belts will also rotate a 'bot ninety degrees. Next come pushers which will shove a robot to another space. Gears turn a 'bot ninety degrees. Lasers damage a robot caught in their beams, and crushers destroy any robot unfortunate enough to be caught inside them. Many boards are studded with pits which destroy any robot falling into its bottomless depths.
All robots come equipped with front-mounted laser pistols which activate automatically at the end of each register phase. Any robot zapped by a laser takes a point of damage. Each point of damage reduces the number of cards that player receives at the start of a turn. If a robot takes a fifth point of damage its fifth register fuses, locking whatever instruction is there. That instruction cannot be changed until the damage is repaired. Each further point of damage fuses the next register, with ten points destroying the robot completely.
Death is temporary, though. A destroyed robot gets reconstructed at the start of the next turn, starting at the last archive spot it touched. Some spaces on the board, including the checkpoint flag markers, have wrench icons. Ending a register phase on such a space makes that space the robot's new archive location. Ending a turn on a wrench allows a robot to repair a point of damage. Spaces with two wrenches repair two points, or allow a robot to outfit itself with a unique, random option.
Options are modifications to a robot which give it abilities no other robots have. These might be additional weapons (e.g. a pressor beam which pushes other robots one space away), weapon modifications (the high-power laser shoots through walls), defenses (a shield which prevents damage from one direction), movement modifiers (brakes or fourth gear), etc. Options jazz up the game and keep everyone on their toes— especially if you play with all options kept face down until they're used, so you're never sure if an opponent has an innocuous abort switch or a nasty double barrel laser.
After all five phases, players discard their instructions (except any which are locked) and receive a new hand from which to program. If a player runs out of lives, he's out of the game. The first player to tag all the flags in order (or the last surviving player) wins the game.
Robo Rally has a couple of big problems. First, it's a long game. It takes quite a while to complete even a four flag, two board race. Some boards, such as the Maelstrom (featuring a series of laser-ridden conveyor belts spiraling inward to a central pit), are nastier than others and should be avoided by beginners. But what really makes the game drag is the amount of time players take to complete their moves. You need to carefully and accurately plan your turn to make sure you won't be sending your robot into a pit. One bug in your program could spell disaster. This sounds simple enough, but in practice it's very easy to forget which way your 'bot will be facing at a certain phase after being turned by conveyors, gears, and other instructions. And you could be knocked off course by other robots. When two 'bots try to enter the same space, one will push the other and someone will wind up going somewhere they didn't intend to go. We could have played complete games of Magic while waiting for everyone to finish programming their 'bots in the first game I played. Thereafter we solved the problem by imposing a two minute limit. When the two minutes expire, players get fifteen seconds to finish programming. If still not done, their robot gets programmed randomly. So far we've never had to resort to randomization. The two minute timer radically improved my impression of the game, and I'll never play Robo Rally again without it.
The second problem is that, as the game progresses and players spread out, players wind up having less interaction with each other. Since much of the fun of a game like this is mucking about with opponents' schemes, this is disheartening. Many players have found that when someone gets a flag or two ahead, it becomes nearly impossible to stop him. This might be overcome by cooperation amongst trailing players and careful arrangement of the flags at the outset, but it's an issue that's come up in many gaming groups.
A third problem is that, for all its pretentions of being a game of strategy, success is based almost entirely on the luck of the draw. If you get the cards you need to go where you want to go, you do well. If you get bad hands, you don't. That's not to say there's no strategy involved. In fact, most of the time you won't get the cards you want, and making the best use of what you've got is the real challenge of the game. But in the end, it does boil down to luck. In the last game I played, I finished over two flags ahead of the nearest competitor, not because I played better, but because I got incredibly good cards which let me go exactly where I needed to go. Winning a game that way is never satisfying. Losing that way is no picnic either.
Robo Rally has attracted a number of fans despite these problems. Executing a particularly nifty maneuver through a tricky section of the board is certainly satisfying. The options are what make the game really cook, much like the alien powers in Cosmic Encounter. In fact, we've started dealing one to each player at the start of the game.
I'll admit I'm not as enamored of the game as the rest of my gaming group is; of the four other households in my regular group, three have bought themselves copies of the game. They're positively giddy about it. While it's entertaining for a while, ultimately I think it needs a little more tweaking. Apparently this game languished in Garfield's drawer for years and only got resurrected because of the success of Magic. Some modifications to increase player interaction and decrease playing time would not be amiss.
Some people have taken some steps in that direction. The game may be called Robo Rally, but with a little thought you can come up with plenty of variations which have nothing to do with racing. Teams of players could play capture the flag. Line two boards up and put a flag marker at the far end of each. When a robot runs over the other team's flag it can pick it up, and robots can drop a flag at will (to allow a teammate with better cards to pick it up). The first team to get the other's flag to their own back row wins. Demolition derby would be a natural, with players getting only one life each and the last surviving robot winning. And some people are playing a Pac-man variant wherein every empty space gets a token at the start of the game, and players try to pick up more tokens than any other player.
Wizards of the Coast hasn't made any commitments yet, but expansion sets are expected and would be a natural [The first and, considering WotC's recent restructuring, likely the only such expansion set, Armed and Dangerous, is now available-- Peter, 1/6/96]. Players would certainly welcome new board segments to choose from and new option cards to play with. Many players are asking for a "move 0" card as well, but I'd hate to see such an addition. Being able to stay put would change the character of the game dramatically and not, I think, for the better.
Robo Rally is a very attractive game— the components are eye-catching and well produced (objections to the figurines and the index-less instructions not withstanding). And it's not a bad game. But it's not a great one either.