Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Review: RoboRally

For quite some time now, the only way to get a copy of Richard Garfield's RoboRally has been to find a used copy and beg the owner to part with it. Generally that meant going on eBay and paying a hefty amount. Well all of that has changed now that Avalon Hill has released their new edition of the game. There have been a few minor changes, mostly for the better, but the new edition is still basically the same great quirky game.

So what's it all about? RoboRally is a zany race where robots zoom across a factory floor trying to reach a series of checkpoints while avoiding obstacles and each other. The clever part is that instead of moving the robots directly, players must program their robots several moves in advance and then hope that when their robots execute the programs all goes according to plan. Here's how it works.

On each turn, players are dealt a hand of nine cards. Each card contains a single instruction that causes the robot to move. There are cards that instruct the robot to turn left, turn right, turn around, go forward one space, go forward two spaces, go forward three spaces, and go back one space. Players select five cards from their hand and place them face down in the order they are to be executed. The other cards are not used and will be discarded at the end of the turn. Each player then simultaneously reveals their first card and moves their robot as indicated by the card. Then the second cards are revealed and executed and so on through the fifth cards. In cases where turn order matters, cards are executed in order of the priority numbers listed at the top of each card (larger numbers go first).

That's confusing enough but where things get really interesting is that after each card is executed, players check to see how their robots react to the board elements and the other robots. Robots can push other robots and if your robot gets pushed you may find it going way off course. What's worse, the board is littered with conveyor belts, gears, pushers, laser beams and pits, all of which affect any robot that happens to come into contact with them. Stand on a conveyor belt and your robot will be whisked along with the conveyor. Stand in front of a laser and your robot takes a point of damage. Fall into a pit (or off the board) and your robot dies. Each robot also has a forward firing laser. If your robot steps in front of another robot then it takes damage.

Taking damage affects your robot's ability to think. Normally, players are dealt nine cards each turn but for each point of damage you've received, that number is reduced by one, limiting the number of instructions you have to work with. Things get really interesting when your damage reaches five or more. At five points of damage, your fifth register (card position) is "locked" and you're only dealt four cards. That means, whatever instruction card is in that locked position remains there from turn to turn and cannot be changed. You'll just have to make sure that the previous four instructions work well with the fifth. Each point of damage beyond that locks another register and reduces the number of cards you're dealt. Take a tenth damage point and your robot is dead.

When a robot dies, it's removed from the board and it loses one "life point". On its next turn it reenters the game at its latest checkpoint with two damage points. Checkpoints are scattered across the board so dying isn't necessarily as bad as it might seem. In fact, it's bound to happen one or two times during the game. But don't die too many times. If a robot loses all of its life points then it's out for good.

The playing surface is constructed from a set of modular boards and plastic flags that can be combined however you like. The game comes with a few suggested courses but you're free to make up whatever crazy course you like. One word of warning though: start small. The more boards and the more flags you use the longer the game will take and I've seen games where people got too ambitious and ended up making the game go way too long. It's almost always better to keep the board small and crowded. Save the big layouts for later, once you've got a feel for the game and understand the consequences.

Those who are familiar with the original 1994 edition will notice a few changes in the new edition. The double-sided modular boards are still there and for the most part they're the same although the layouts have been tweaked a bit. Instead of all robots starting at the same point, there is now a thin starting board that contains separate starting spaces (or starting gates) for each robot. This allows the elimination of the "virtual state" rule that many players found confusing in the original edition. Of course there's nothing to prevent you from using the old rules if that's what you prefer. In fact, overall the rules for the new edition seem to be streamlined and simplified just a bit. The rules are mostly the same as I remember but they seem to be explained a little better. Also, each player now gets a handy playing mat that contains a turn summary as well as spaces for the registers and spaces for recording damage and life points. The new playing mats make it a snap to remember when registers are locked, when board elements move, etc. The new edition also comes with a 30 second sand timer which can be used to encourage players to "stop thinking already and just choose your cards!"

One change for the worse is that the lovely pewter robots from the original edition have been replaced with squat plastic robots that aren't nearly so cool. On the plus side though, the new robots each sit on a base that has a pointer to clearly mark "front". In the original edition, players often had a difficult time distinguishing which direction their robot was facing. I really wish that they had molded each robot in its own color but instead they chose to paint them all with the same silver metallic paint, making it a little hard to distinguish one robot from another. That's nothing that a little paint can't solve though and if the previous edition is any indicator, plenty of people will come up with clever paint jobs for their robots.

All in all, I'm quite happy with the new edition. I never actually owned a copy of the first edition myself (I was introduced to the game after it had gone out of print) so I was particularly happy to finally have the chance to get my own copy of the game at a reasonable price. I like the new rule book and I really like the new player aids. Those who have never played the original are in for a real treat. Two metallic thumbs way up!


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