So you’re wondering if Roborally is right for you. You already know that this game has robots and those robots have lasers. I know what you’re thinking. “Of course this game is for everyone – this game has robots that blows stuff up with lasers!” [endquote reader’s thoughts].
Well, before you get too caught up in enthusiasm over droids and focused beams of light, it’s probably a good idea to read on a bit and find out more about this game.
The game is structured alternating between a planning phase and a resolution phase. All the decisions are in the planning phase. You make all of your choices at the start, and then bite your fingernails as you hope all of your planning pays off. Kind of like a windup toy, you do all the work up front and then let it go and see where it runs off to.
At the start of each turn you are given up to 9 cards. These are your choices for the round. Each card has a simple direction on it, such as rotate left, rotate right, move forward, U-turn, etc. This determines where your ‘bot will travel. Each turn you’ll select five of those cards and choose the sequence that they’ll be played. This is done simultaneously and secretly by all players.
As you execute the moves you’ve chosen, other players are executing their selected cards. If they bump into you, it’ll send you moving in a different direction. Instead of riding the conveyor belt to victory, you could be sending your robot barreling down a bottomless pit to its death.
This brings me to the heart of this game: making decisions amidst chaos. You have to pre-plan a series of multiple decisions without the advantage of knowing the outcome of each individual decision and being able to calibrate accordingly.
The bedlam in this game is distinctively not due to random elements. In fact the only random element is the shuffled cards that you receive. However, you’ll generally be drawing large amounts of cards and there’s relatively low differentiation among the cards. The card mix doesn’t have a large impact on who is the victor as you might suspect. The chaos comes from other players. Not random factors, but their decisions. Things will happen to you that you did not choose or plan on, but it didn’t happen because dice landed on an ill favored side. It happened because of the choices of others. If they push you off the map into your demise, it can really change your plans. The victor will most often go to who can manage the disorder.
The same kind of decision can be found in Shogun. In Shogun, if someone attacks your territory where you were planning on collecting tax, it could really ruin your day. The big difference is that Shogun creates an atmosphere of being a very serious, thoughtful game. The visual presentation of RoboRally, in contrast, lends itself to a more lighthearted tone. I don’t say that to diminish the meaningful decisions in RoboRally, but the premise, artwork, and color scheme all facilitate creating more of a playful atmosphere. This creates a setting where hopefully you can laugh at your robot falling into a bottomless pit instead of being angered by it.
I mentioned that you’ll be given 9 cards. But the decisions in the game really aren’t about hand management. You won’t carry over cards from turn to turn. There’s no holding a card for the right timing later. Choosing cards from your hand is all about executing the current turn. You can’t influence next turn by keeping cards for later. This immediacy feeds into the chaos. Sometimes a player finds themselves with a hand that takes them in unexpected directions.
You do, however, have damage management to work with. You can heal damage by skipping an entire turn. How you manage your damage is a crucial decision. The less damage you have the more cards you’ll draw. However, to heal damage you have to power down and miss an entire turn. Do you invest time in a lost turn in order to heal damage and have better options?
The game favors those who are able to visualize where their robot will be. It’s not so easy. After doing your movement from your card, board elements then take effect. There are conveyer belts, pushers, and gears. They will drag, push, and spin your robot in all sorts of uncomfortable directions. You make 5 movement decisions, and there could be five times your automaton’s position will be altered by board elements. So for example when you’re selecting your 3rd order, it becomes a little involved to visualize where your robot will be and what direction it’s facing. This little bit of complexity in planning your moves can lead to movement selection where you thought you were on track but instead are moving back. You won’t be able to make good decisions on where to go if you don’t know where you are. If you falter keeping track of where your robot will be, the chaos increases.
The game also comes with a sand timer. This timer has an important impact on the game. During the planning phase, each player will announce when they’re done. When there’s only one player remaining to make their decisions, then the 30 second sand timer gets flipped. One benefit is that because decisions are made simultaneously, the game can go about as fast with 8 people as it does with 3. The only limiting factor is the slowest player. The sand timer puts a cap on even the slowest player, greatly speeding up play.
But the sand timer has an even more important impact on the game. It puts everyone under pressure. I’ve rarely seen people run out of time. On the other hand, in every session I’ve felt the pressure to make my decisions quickly. Not only do you have to track multiple cumulative movement decisions, but you must do it under a time constraint. This increases the chances for chaos by making it more likely players will choose unpredictable moves, leading to more collisions, and ultimately feeding into the vortex of RoboRally chaos.
If you’re considering this game you have to also consider if you can handle the high chaos levels. You really need to ask yourself: Are you Batman, or the Joker? Both Batman and Joker presumably are huge fans of robots and lasers, but they have very different levels of chaos tolerance. If you, like Batman, seek order and justice, then this game will be an affront to your sensibilities. Also, if you were orphaned by a robot that killed your parents, you, like Batman, may be prone to dislike this game. However, perhaps you’re more like the Joker. Do you seek out chaos? Do you laugh in the face of wanton destruction? Can you even laugh at your own chaotic misfortunes? Then RoboRally may bring a large, distorted smile to your face.