Thursday, August 28, 2014

Controlled chaos

People who play Robo Rally usually either love it, or it drives them crazy. It is a game about carefully constructed plans which almost always go catastrophically wrong, and not everyone is able to adopt the somewhat zen attitude that is needed to enjoy it.

Each player is in control of a clueless robot running a race around a factory floor crowded with conveyor belts, laser traps, and bottomless pits. Players program their robots' moves five moves at a time using cards which detail moves such as move forward 1 square, move forward 2 sqaures, turn right, turn left, turn around, and so on. Conveyor belts on the board will also move your robot if it is standing on one after a move, lasers will damage your robot if it's standing in front of one, and if you accidentally move into a bottomless pit, you have to re-spawn at your starting space.

The goal is to move your robot to each of three or more numbered flags (in order), but there are several things going on that make moving your robot around more difficult than it sounds.

First, you have to choose your five move cards from a hand of nine, or less if your robot is damaged, and you don't always have the moves you need to get where you want to go. If your robot has taken a lot of damage (either from factory lasers or other robots), you risk locking moves in place, so you're stuck with the same "turn left" every turn. You can repair damage by skipping a turn, but since it's a race, you only want to do that when absolutely necessary.

More importantly, if another player's robot bumps into yours, it will knock you off course, and since you have to plan five moves in advance, it can be several moves before you can course correct. All it takes is one trip down a conveyor belt to put your robot hopelessly off coarse, and suddenly the moves you planned aren't taking your robot where you thought they were.

With a lot of players all trying to move their robots through the same flags in the same order, it can quickly devolve into barely contained chaos, which is what you will either love or hate about the game.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) We like the way Robo Rally forces us to think on our feet and not get to wrapped up in long-term planning, or at least not get upset when those plans go hopelessly wrong.

Date played: July 8, 2014

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