Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The great cardboard train robbery

The train robbery is a standard western trope, from 1903's The Great Train Robbery all the way through to the two spectacular train action sequences in 2013's The Lone Ranger. Joss Whedon even used a train robbery as the centerpiece of the first regular episode of his space western TV series Firefly.

But imagine the chaos if six different bandits all tried to rob the same train at the same time. I don't think that's ever been done before, but it's what happens in Colt Express.

The playing area in Colt Express consists of several train cars loaded with money and jewels, along with an engine that contains a box full of money but also an ornery Marshall who will kick bandits out of any train car he finds them in. Rather than a flat board, the game gives you a charming set of three dimensional train cars which allow players to move their pieces through the interior of the train, and also on the roof.

Players take the roles of individual bandits, each with a unique ability. Play consists of several rounds of playing move cards to a common stack, and then resolving those move cards in the order they were played. Since some cards are played face down, you don't always know what your opponents are doing, and some actions can result in your piece being moved unexpectedly, which can throw off the rest of your moves. The goal of the game is to have the most loot when the game ends after five rounds.

The predetermined moves aspect of the game invites comparisons to Robo Rally, but Colt Express manages to be a lot less frustrating and a lot more charming (I've played with people who hate Robo Rally but really liked Colt Express). I think the fact that you don't have to plan all your moves for the round at once is one reason. When playing your moves, you can react, in a limited fashion, to what your opponents are doing. The limited time frame is another plus; one of the main complaints I often hear about Robo Rally is that it can sometimes take hours to play. A game of Colt Express generally takes 30-45 minutes, and the pace is much faster. There is never a sense of being "stuck" like there often is in Robo Rally.

The playing pieces themselves are delightful, if a bit small for adult hands. The three dimensional train cars are beautifully illustrated, and the game includes pieces of scenery that have no bearing on game play, but can be scattered around the table for decorative effect.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Out of a few recent Robo Rally-like games, this one is a clear favorite, not just for the western theme (always a plus for me) but for the light, fun tone and fast-paced game play.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

For people who don't like Robo Rally

Robo Rally is a very divisive game: some people really love it, and others just cannot stand it, to the point where they'll get up and leave if it hits the table. Personally I've loved it since I first played it, but I definitely understand why it drives some people crazy, as their carefully constructed movement plans inevitably fall apart over the course of what are often confusing, non-linear turns.

VOLT: Robot Battle Arena appears to be an attempt to capture the intent of Robo Rally (robot races and battles with pre-programmed moves) while eliminating the frustrations, and it largely succeeds.

The game is played  on a simple grid map (the game comes with a few different ones to choose from), and each player uses a hidden player board to plan their three moves for the turn, with choices being to move forward, backward, left, or right, or to shoot in one of nine possible directions. The moves are planned using six-sided dice, but they aren't rolled randomly. Rather, the player chooses what numbered side to place on each move, with the number determining either the distance moved, or the severity of the attack.

The only catch is that you cannot do the exact same maneuver twice in one turn. For example, you can't move a number of squares to the left, fire off a shot, and then move left again. This makes strategic planning a bit more important.

Players earn points by occupying certain board squares at the end of a turn, or by destroying opponents' robots. The game ends when a player has scored five victory points.

An advanced game option adds module tiles that give players special abilities for their robots, as well as a few additional game variants such as team play and a best-of-three multi-game option for longer games.

By eliminating Robo Rally's randomized deck of movement cards, VOLT gives players more deliberate and useful options each turn. The reduced player count (2-4, as opposed to Robo Rally's 2-8) keep the games a little shorter, and the increased emphasis on taking out opposing robots means you have to pay a lot more attention to what your opponents are doing, where in Robo Rally you're just hoping they'll stay out of your way.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) I would give VOLT a 3.5  if we were doing half stars. It's a fun and engaging game that is simple to learn but gives you a lot to think about while playing, but that same simplicity keeps it from being something I want to play often.