Buzzworthiness: RoboRally

Today’s review takes a look at the ultimate programmed movement game

image by BGG user Livinus
image by BGG user Livinus

RoboRally was originally published in 1994 by Wizards of the Coast, designed by Richard Garfield.  It’s currently published by Avalon Hill, though Hasbro owns both companies.  RoboRally is a game for 2-8 players where you will be programming your bot to try and touch each flag in sequence before the other robots, all the while avoiding lasers, chompers, pits, and other robots.

I want to start off with the background story of this game.  Apparently, Richard Garfield was shopping this game around to different publishers in the early 90s.  When Wizards of the Coast saw it, they liked it, but were looking for something else at the time.  Garfield offered to help, and ended up designing Magic: The Gathering, which created the collectible card game genre and remains the king of it.  I love this story because it means that if it weren’t for RoboRally, we wouldn’t have Magic.  Take that as you will.

RoboRally comes with eight robot minis, four double-sided map boards, a double-sided docking bay board, 8 program sheets, a sand timer, 26 option cards, 84 program cards, 8 flags, 40 life tokens, 60 damage tokens, 8 power down tokens, and 8 archive markers.  Each player gets a robot and randomly places them on one of the eight spots of the docking bay.  A map is created, either using one of the book scenarios or making your own up.  Flags are placed accordingly around the map.  Each player is dealt nine cards, and you are ready to play.

The first part of each round is the programming step.  Each player chooses five cards from their hand and places them face down on their program board in the order they wish to play them.  These could be move straight three spaces, turn right, make a U-turn, and so on.  It’s very important that you put them in the correct order.  Once everyone has played their cards, everyone simultaneously reveals their first program.  The robot with the highest number moves first, and so on until the lowest number is reached.  If a robot bumps into another robot, it pushes it (if possible – you can’t push through a wall).

After everyone has moved, the board activates.  All conveyor belts move as indicated, moving whatever is on them.  If a robot is next to a pusher, it is pushed over a space.  If a robot is on a gear, it rotates them 90 degrees.  After this, you move on to the next card in your register.  Once all of your cards have been played, you get a new hand.  You’ll get nine cards, minus one per damage you have taken.  If you get under five damage, you not only take fewer cards, but the last actions you played are locked.  You can choose to skip your next turn and power down, at which point you’ll be fully healed if you don’t get destroyed (your robot stays in place).  If destroyed, it’s OK because you get three lives, but you’re out if you lose them all.

As you play, you are trying to touch all flags on the board in order.  Along the way, there are opportunities to get option cards which give you special abilities.  The first player to to touch all flags wins.

COMPONENTS: I have an Avalon Hill edition of RoboRally that I got several years ago, so component quality may be different.  That said, I generally like the components.  The robot minis are pretty cool, and each one has its own personality, even though there’s really no difference between them.  But, just like people in Monopoly have their favorite pieces to play with, so do people have their favorite robots (I’m Twonky, and don’t you dare try to take him from me).  The cards are pretty good, and it’s very clear what to do with each one.  The number of each card is clearly visible so you easily know who goes first (as long as you can remember that high numbers go before low).  The sand timer is also pretty nice – it has red sand, making it visually distinctive from most sand timers out there.

My biggest complaint about the components is the quality of the boards.  They aren’t cardboard, they’re pretty much just cardstock.  They’re very thin, and a little flimsy.  They work for what they are, but I would have preferred something sturdier.  The player sheets are made form the same cardstock, which is a little more acceptable.  The board is pretty clearly illustrated as to what is where, though the walls that separate some spaces are not noticeable if a robot is sitting on that space.

Again, I don’t know if these have improved since my edition.  I know it’s a cost-saving method, I just wish they had found something else to cut so we could get a sturdier board.  Maybe reduce the box size – it’s big flat square, thinner but wider than the standard Ticket to Ride size box.  It doesn’t fit on a shelf, and is not the same size as anything else.  It could probably easily be reduced.

THEME: The theme of this game is simply that you’re programming robots to move around a board.  There’s not really a reason for these robots to be competing against each other, but hey, it’s a fun theme.  It makes me think of the show BattleBots that aired on Comedy Central in the early 2000s.  In that show, robots went head to head and tried to destroy each other.  It was an interesting concept, but the show was BORING.  I would have much rather seen a RoboRally show, where destruction is inevitable but not the main purpose.  I still want to see that.

MECHANICS: As I mentioned, RoboRally is a classic programmed action game.  I did an edition of The Eleven about a year and a half ago that covered some games in this genre (read for yourself) as it’s a mechanism that always captures my attention.  Many games in the genre have you programming 1-3 moves in advance, but RoboRally has you doing five.  There’s no specific time limit on this, though the sand timer is used to shame the last person still looking at their cards (which I happen to love – fight that analysis paralysis!).  The cards are very clear in describing what you will do, though there is a good amount of three dimensional thinking going on – a common sight during the programming phase is people with their heads twisted in all directions as they try to envision how their robots will move.

Damage works in a very intriguing manner in this game.  Every time you take a hit, you essentially lose a card from your next hand.  This means you have less choice for programming later.  Once you get under five cards, you have to start locking cards in place.  So if you have five damage, you’ll be dealt four cards and the fifth card from your previous turn remains in place.  This way you know that that’s how you’ll be ending your turn, so do your best not to drive into a pit.  Fortunately, there’s the ability to power down, the intention of which should be announced in your previous turn.  I usually play with a house rule that you can choose to power down at any time before your are dealt cards.

Player elimination is a possibility in this game.  If you are destroyed, you return to your last save point (a flag, the start space, a repair site) and lose a life token.  If you lose all life tokens, you are out of the game.  I don’t usually play like that.  I usually just say if someone dies that much, they can keep coming back, but they start with lower health (usually 7).  I don’t mind player elimination in general – I think it adds some good tension to a game.  There is good player elimination (King of Tokyo) and bad player elimination (Monopoly).  This falls in the middle – to its credit, player elimination not a goal of the game, but it still doesn’t work well.

Movement of the board can get complicated even though there aren’t a lot of steps.  Conveyor belts move first, then pushers, then gears.  The difficulty comes when something moves in a way you weren’t expecting.  You stepped on a conveyor belt and it moves two spaces instead of one.  Or you step on a gear that is rotating clockwise, but you thought it would go the other way.  It’s not that the board is changing, that can all be attributed to human error.  But it’s ridiculously easy to fall into that trap.

I will mention that there is the possibility for a runaway leader.  Robots tend to clump around the flag, pushing each other around and jockeying for position.  If someone makes it out of the fracas before others, they can potentially get some distance and get the rest of the flags with little interference.

STRATEGY LEVEL: There is a good deal of luck in RoboRally.  You get nine cards from which you will choose five, but it seems that far too often, you’re getting everything EXCEPT what you need.  That’s just luck of the draw, and you just have to do the best you can with what you have.  Spatial awareness is integral to the experience as well – the ability to think in several directions at once is crucial.  But you’re also going to need to think about what others are going to do.  You can have a perfect move set up, only to get pushed a single step off course and end up at the bottom of a pit because of it.  So there’s a lot of luck pushing involved, but also a lot of opportunities for strategy and tactical movements.  It’s a giant puzzle to solve.

ACCESSIBILITY: This isn’t an easy game to learn.  The programming aspect is complex, and new players often get confused about how all the board elements and other robots will affect their movement.  However, it’s also not an inaccessible game for people.  Once you get it, you get it.  You may not do well, but you at least understand what’s going on.  I’ve had non-gamer friends and family try this game and go out for their own copies.  I’d put this solidly as a next step type of game.

REPLAYABILITY: Because of the different board layouts, as well as the different cards you’ll get, this game has high replay value.  You can never have more than four boards out at once (unless you buy multiple copies of the game), but be warned that more boards means more chaos and a MUCH longer game.  There are people out there with all the original expansions that just lay everything out and go nuts.  I’m personally happy with just the base game – each board provides its own unique challenge, and there are some scenarios in the rulebook to help you build your maps.

SCALABILITY: RoboRally is playable with 2-8 players, and this is a game that I definitely say is better with more players.  2-3 players is kind of dull without much conflict going on.  The sweet spot is probably 5-6, but I like it with a full complement.  There’s no downtime since everyone is programming at once (other than waiting for slowpokes), and the movement phase goes relatively quickly.  Eight players is extremely chaotic, and I wouldn’t want to try that many with new people, but for experienced players, eight is a blast.

FOOTPRINT: This game takes up quite a bit of space, particularly with more boards and more players.  Each player has to have their own register board space, and the map will take up a variable amount of space.  This is definitely a big table game.  Plus, it takes up a weird amount of space on your shelf (see my comments earlier on the box size).

LEGACY: As I’ve mentioned, RoboRally is the ultimate programmed action game.  There’s really nothing else that comes close.  It really is the purest form of the mechanism, and I love it.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  Despite its flaws – player elimination, luck, possible runaway leaders – it’s a ton of fun to play.  Wild and chaotic, sure, but a blast from start to finish, win or lose.  I highly recommend it.  Thanks for reading!

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