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Subject: ChambanaMoms Family Game Night: RoboRally rss

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Jeff Dougan
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Note: This appeared as my November 2013 installment of the monthly series of introductions/reviews I write for a local parenting blog at chambanamoms.com

One of the first hobby games I bought was Robo Rally. Of all the games I’ve discussed for chambanamoms to date, it’s probably my favorite, and is one of the few my non-gamer wife will play voluntarily. When you account for all the details, it’s got the most complicated set of rules so far, which means that I’ve only tried playing it with the Grasshopper once, and he really struggled at the time.



The bullet points:

Suggested ages 12 and older (workable with 10+)
2-8 players
Play time 90-120 minutes
Suggested Price $49.99



At its heart, Robo Rally is a race game similar to August’s Formula D. Rather than a track-based kind of race, though, it’s more akin to a road rally — travel to the checkpoints in order, by whatever route you want, faster than everybody else. The similarities end there, though. Where Formula D captures the realistic & familiar world of auto racing, Robo Rally is a chaotic dash across an obstacle course in which you must expect that things will not go as planned if anybody is nearby.

The first of Robo Rally’s many attractions is that the playing pieces are all tributes to classic sci-fi robots of the large and small screen that range from the original Lost in Space through Star Wars to the 1986 comedy Short Circuit. I’m fortunate enough to own a set where the pieces are pewter miniatures that a friend painted for me; newer copies have plastic pieces that I understand would be harder to paint.

The next thing I love is the nearly limitless number of ways to set up the race course. Current editions come with four 2-sided boards that can be used singly or in any combination to lay out a course of 2-6 flags for the robots to touch in order. The older edition had a total of roughly 20 board printed; most single-sided.

Although I said it has the most complicated rule set of anything discussed so far, the core of a turn is straightforward: each player is dealt a hand of up to 9 cards. They then select the 5 cards they’ll play that turn, and the order in which they’ll get played. Once all the players have “programmed” their robot, cards are revealed one at a time, with players carrying out the action on the chosen cards simultaneously. In between the cards, the board gets a turn as the various obstacles do their best to wreak havoc on the players’ carefully laid plans.

Since I’ve now said “chaotic” and “wreak havoc,” you’re probably expecting complications. You’re right; there are several. The first one you’re likely to encounter is that only one robot at a time can occupy a square on the board, so robots tend to push each other off course. In addition, the board is filled with moving conveyor belts, turning gears, industrial-grade lasers, widget crushers, and, to top it all off, bottomless pits. All of the pushing and sliding means that once a robot goes a little bit off course, these things work together to multiply the effect. Add in every robot’s forward-mounted laser and the robots can start to get beat up pretty quickly.

This leads naturally to the next complication — for every point of damage your robot takes, you get one fewer card dealt to you at the beginning of a round. Taking 10 points of damage destroys your robot and uses one of your three lives, causing you to start over at the last checkpoint you touched. If your robot becomes damaged enough, it will start to repeat parts of its program over and over until it can be repaired. The simplest way to do that is to announce that you’re skipping your next turn, although there are other ways to do so more slowly.

The third complication is that robots can acquire what are called “options.” By default, they don’t start with any, but options can be acquired through ending a turn (card #5) on a special space, and many players have adopted a house rule that robots begin with one option anyway. Like the player powers for the different roles in Forbidden Island and Pandemic, an option gives you a way to break one specific rule of the game. For example, you may receive one additional card at the start of a turn, or have a laser that shoots both forward and backward instead of just forward.

Robo Rally’s main drawback is that if you’re not careful with the course design, two things can happen. First, the time needed to play can get long if people are getting bad hands of cards or the course has flags spaced too far apart. Second, if you don’t design a course with some back-and-forth, it’s easy for somebody to get ahead and then build that lead to where they can’t be caught by anybody else playing.

This is a game that people who are good at spatial reasoning do very well at, as evidence by the fact that my normally non-gamer wife will not only play this one willingly, she generally trounces people when she does. This game also helps develop sequential thinking. The results of your moves can be very, very different depending on the order in which you play even just the same five cards. That kind of sequential thinking and logical processing is an excellent skill to have for anybody who wants to do any computer programming.

As a side note: Robo Rally is thought of highly enough the gamer community that some of the additional boards for the older printings still command hefty sums on eBay. At one point, the value of my collection probably approached $500-600, but I haven’t priced it since the most recent reprint became available.
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John Taber
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Second, if you don’t design a course with some back-and-forth, it’s easy for somebody to get ahead and then build that lead to where they can’t be caught by anybody else playing.

Re: This comment. It has been a long time but we play with a variant that make this go away.

Smear The [Insert very UN PC word here] OR Kill The Carrier
Here are the changes:
* When the first robot reaches a flag he picks it up. At this point other robots have to get it away from him.
* If he falls in a pit or is shot the flag drops on that spot.
* At the end of every turn robots shoot a laser from the front.

It went something like that...no notes with me now. That works great as everyone converges on the guy with the flag.

Anywho...nice review.
 
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Jeff Dougan
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JohnTaber wrote:
Second, if you don’t design a course with some back-and-forth, it’s easy for somebody to get ahead and then build that lead to where they can’t be caught by anybody else playing.

Re: This comment. It has been a long time but we play with a variant that make this go away.

Smear The [Insert very UN PC word here] OR Kill The Carrier
Here are the changes:
* When the first robot reaches a flag he picks it up. At this point other robots have to get it away from him.
* If he falls in a pit or is shot the flag drops on that spot.
* At the end of every turn robots shoot a laser from the front.

It went something like that...no notes with me now. That works great as everyone converges on the guy with the flag.

Anywho...nice review.


There are lots of football/capture the flag kinds of variants. Unfortunately, I didn't have the word count to mention them in the main body of the review, since my usual target is 500, with 750 as an upper limit. In that space, I get to introduce the game to parents who don't know anything about hobby games and target why they might want to play it with their kids (and which ages it might be appropriate for, with relevant hacks as needed).
 
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