After the death of Avalon Hill as an independent game publisher (its remnants were purchased by Hasbro in 1998), it sure seemed like the era of the board game was over. SPI, FASA, Task Force Games, GDW, Yaquinto, West End Games, Fantasy Games Unlimited, Mayfair Games, TSR, and finally Avalon Hill… the leading lights of board game design in the 20th Century had all perished by the end of the 90s. It looked like those of us who loved to move cardboard counters around abstract hex grids were relegated to paying ridiculous prices for out-of-print copies on eBay.
But that was before Fantasy Flight proved there was still life in board games yet, with a stellar line up of beautifully produced — and profitable — titles. Mayfair Games returned from the dead, phoenix-like, with the English language rights to the blockbuster Settlers of Catan. Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR and built on their rich tradition with D&D-inspired board games like The Conquest of Nerath (read Scott Taylor’s terrific review here). And, surprise of surprises, Hasbro has kept the Avalon Hill name alive, putting out high quality games like Battle Cry and Axis and Allies.
So on a Sunday night when I’ve managed to pull Tim and Drew, my two teenage sons, away from Gears of War 3 and sit them down at the gaming table, I find I actually have a choice of intriguing modern games to offer them. Should we go for complex and fascinating, like Axis and Allies? Colorful and fun, like Descent: Journeys in the Dark? Quick and light, like Cheapass Games’ Kill Doctor Lucky?
Rhetorical question, of course. When one of the choices involves lasers, killer robots, and blowing each other up in a frenetic race for mechanized glory, the answer is pretty much a foregone conclusion. It was RoboRally in a landslide.
As far as I’m concerned Magic is all right, as cultural phenomenons go, but RoboRally is the reason future generations will be erecting statues of Garfield on the Magnificent Mile. Believe it.
The concept behind RoboRally is simple. You’re a supercomputer in a futuristic mechanized factory. You’re bored. To alleviate the tedium, you challenge other computers to race durable robots around the factory in a series of increasingly complex courses.
Nothing too difficult about the objective: just tag each of the flags in the right order, and be the first to reach the final one to be proclaimed the winner.
No, all the challenge comes in the nature of your idiotic robots, and the numerous ways they can stumble stoically — nay, joyously — towards their own destruction on the factory floor.
The robots, you see, have to be programmed remotely. And they can only store up to five instructions at a time. Once they’ve received their instructions, they must carry them out in the exact order they’ve been given.
Even if those instructions send them — say, just for illustration purposes — straight into a twin set of industrial lasers, and then immediately into a yawning pit. [This is why it’s so important not to confuse left and right turns, Tim.]
I shouldn’t gloat. In our very first game, on a simplified course meant to illustrate the basics, I managed to quickly take the lead only to misjudge where my opponents would land, and I stepped into a barrage of enemy laser fire.
My brave, loyal, incurably stupid pathfinder robot was swiftly crippled, so badly damaged that it was unable to accept a full set of new commands.
I had to try and control it with only four instruction cards, since the fifth instruction was jammed at “Two steps forward.” Every sequence I gave it had to end in “Two Steps Forward.”
Through clever play, it’s possible to win the game with a robot whose instruction set is jammed in this manner.
Unfortunately, once my son Tim nudged me onto the wrong conveyor belt, I discovered it’s also possible to ride a conveyor to total annihilation. Much to the hysterical delight of my two adversaries.
I got a second robot into the game immediately — but not quickly enough to stop Drew from seizing the lead, and ultimately winning the game through a mixture of clever maneuvers and beginner’s luck.
The second game went much the same, as each of us watched carefully, beautifully plotted plans result in madness and robot death.
A typical round of RoboRally goes something like this:
- These instructions I’ve been dealt are crap! My robot couldn’t change a light bulb with this junk.
- Wait! If I make use of that conveyor belt, and put these two commands first…
- Yes! Genius!! There he goes. Look at that beautiful piece of happy machinery.
- Hold on. Did Tim just nudge me over two squares? Noooo!
- My robot still has three commands to execute… and now they’ll take him right into that pit!!
- Wait — Drew just took an accidental left turn. If he pushes me one square over, I’ll miss the pit!
And on and on. Two steps genius, one step oops, two steps of maddening chaos. And five steps of pure adrenaline.
But just to give you alternate viewpoints, I’ve asked my sons to share their thoughts. Here’s Drew’s unique 14-year-old viewpoint:
Awesome. Fun. I won the first game! Definitely want to play it again. Now, back to Gears of War 3.
And Tim, my sixteen year old:
If you want everything to go exactly as planned, and if you’re incredibly neurotic and a perfectionist, don’t play this game. Something, somewhere, will go wrong with your plan. If you’re lucky, “something wrong with your plan” means your opponent gets in your way and you push them into a pit of doom or a triple-laser Gatling gun. If you’re unlucky, it means you get pushed into a pit of doom or a triple-laser Gatling gun… and hope and pray that your robot gets destroyed before he has to repeat everything you told him over and over. And over. After having legions of your robots destroyed, and plan after plan fail because someone shoved you on a conveyor belt, eventually you just give up hope of ever reaching the flag, and just try to take out the other players as fast as you can before biting it.
Yeah, it was fun.
RoboRally is for two to eight players, and takes from twenty minutes to two hours to play, depending on skill level and the course you select. The box comes with eight plastic robots, four two-sided factory floor boards, eight robot program sheets, 110 cards, and a bunch of cool extra stuff. It is manufactured by Avalon Hill/Hasbro, and retails for $49.99.