ROBORALLY


By Richard Garfield published by Wizards of the Coast.

This game has spawned many imitations and several expansion sets. Richard Garfield, a multi-squillionaire after designing the Magic collectable card games, presents a game in which each player controls a robot. The board represents a factory floor, covered in conveyor belts, pushers, crushers, laser beams, turning gears, walls, and pits. The players have to program their bots to race across this field of hazards, to get from one flag to another. First one to the last flag wins.

There are, however, problems. First, is that the robots are very stupid, and can only deal with five instructions at a time, and these they cannot perform in one smooth series of movements, but instead in five separate lurches. At the end of each lurch, all the other robots have a chance to move as well, and all the machinery of the factory floor operates. The second problem is that each player can only use the cards in his hand to program his bot, and the cards he is dealt are not always convenient. Third, as each robot gets damaged, its player gets dealt fewer cards. Fourth, all the robots have laser guns and at every opportunity take pot shots at each other. Fifth, robots may either deliberately or as often as not accidentally bash into each other, pushing each other off course. Sixth, even if a player has an undamaged bot, and a good set of cards, it is very easy for him to make a mistake and get his cards in the wrong order.

The program cards regulate movement. They indicate things like forwards one square, and turn about. A player looks at his hand, selects five cards, and places them face down in front of himself. Once all players have done this, the first card for each player is turned up, and the one with the highest priority number on it goes first. Very often, this number can be ignored, because it isn't critical which bot goes before another, but sometimes it can make the difference between carrying on freely, and being carried into a pit by a conveyor belt. When playing this game, players can often be observed trying to work out the effects of certain card combinations, while using their hands and head turns as conceptual aids. After each robot has made its first move, the factory floor machinery does its bit, and robots on conveyor belts are carried along, those on turning gears turn, and those under crushers get crushed. So great are the hazards of the race, that bots often get destroyed completely and have to be replaced by new bots starting from the last flag reached by the old.

The game components are quite nice. The basic game comes with six stout one-sided square boards representing the factory floors. These can be put together in different combinations, and the flags, the checkpoints of the races, can be placed in many places on them, and so each race can be different. The cards are good, and you get eight pewter miniatures of humorously sculpted robots, each with a different system of movement. One is on a big roller, another on double tracks, another on triple tracks, one is a hovercraft, another has two wheels, one has three legs, one spins on a ball, and one looks like a television on two legs. A couple of them look mean, but most of them look frightened. I have painted mine, but they come unpainted.

The game also comes with lots of fiddley little cardboard counters for keeping track of damage and the like, and two rules summary cards which don't have enough of the rules on them. There is also a small pack of options cards which describe special upgrades that the robots can get during the race, such as improved software, and bigger guns.

The back of the box boasts that the rulebook is fifty-six pages long. This is too long. The rules are difficult to absorb in one go, and finding a rule in the rulebook can be very difficult and frustrating. The rules are not brilliantly explained, and are badly laid out. The game isn't actually very complicated, but the rulebook makes it appear that it is. The rules need a bit of pruning, and rewriting.

The races recommended in the rules are too long. The way to get fun out of this game is to keep the races short. One big flaw in the game is that if a robot can get significantly ahead of the pack, it becomes almost uncatchable. The fun of the game is in the interfering with other players' robots, and this happens when the robots are all near each other. Once one robot has put some distance between it and the rest, it is very unlikely to be hit by a rival's laser, or pushed off-course. To get a good game, therefore, you need to have a shortish race (one or two boards only), and lots of players. The game says that it is suitable for two to eight players, and I have played it a few times with two players, but it is MUCH better with more. The real fun is in the five-to-eight-players range, with the more the merrier. With eight robots all starting the race in the same place, the first few turns are a maelstrom of crashing, shoving, laser blasting, and wreckage.

Another flaw is that there is no penalty for taking ages over playing cards. With a two-player game, you might be able to solve this with a chess clock. With many players, a better fix is to force the last player to play down his cards to pay a penalty. This would mean that the players would race every turn to play down their cards, to avoid the penalty, and thus the game would speed up greatly, and have a better atmosphere of friendly panic. I suggest that the last player to make his mind up and finish laying down his program cards should have the player to his right play down the last cards at random blindly. With just three or four players, however, this would probably be too harsh, so perhaps a point of damage or some other penalty might work better.

There are a few expansion sets, with more boards, more options cards, and more rules. I am not convinced that these make the game better. They may just make it more complicated and lengthy. They certainly make it a great deal more expensive, as the expansions are far from cheap (about 30). I cannot comment from an informed position, since I have not played the expansion sets. Armed and Dangerous adds a lot of deadly weapons to the robots, which can be fun, but the game is pretty dangerous enough as it is. Expansions also add more hazards on the boards such as water and oil.

Roborally is a good idea for a game, but the result is not perfect. It is a bit on the pricey side, and only works well with lots of players. It also has an unsatisfying balance of skill and concentration. You have to concentrate quite hard to work out what cards to play, and so it is not a game to try when you are drunk, but even after all that concentration, things are likely to go very wrong when someone else's robot smashes into you, blasts you causing one of your registers to lock (one of your five program cards to remain in place limiting your ability to program your movements), and shoves you onto an express conveyor belt heading for a large pit. You may have a turn to rescue the situation, but you might not get a helpful hand of cards. You are required to take it seriously enough to concentrate on the rules and cards, but not seriously enough to make you care much about the misfortunes that will befall your hapless bot.



BACK TO GAME REVIEW MENU    BACK TO GAMES MENU

Click here to go back to the home page