What’s this? Two posts in two days? Madness!
I’m enjoying the retrospective look at my favourite games, and I’m excited to work my way down the list. Yesterday we had Merchants & Marauders – a ruthless game of high seas conflict – but today’s theme couldn’t be more different.
Let’s get on with it, shall we?
10) Merchants & Marauders
8) Space Alert
7) Terra Mystica
4) Space Hulk
2) Galaxy Trucker
1) Pandemic Legacy
RoboRally (Wizards of the Coast, 1994, Richard Garfield)
This is a silly, silly game. It’s also one of the oldest board games in my collection – I’ve had it since I was about 17, having picked it up from my old local gaming shop (Maidstone Games, which was not in Maidstone, and sadly closed down a few years later). It’s a bit tatty, one of the (pewter!) robots has a really naff paint job, and until recently I hadn’t put any of the tokens in plastic bags. They were just rattling around inside the box, can you imagine? The boards are a bit warped with age, the tokens are starting to separate into their component layers, but the love I have for this game has endured a lot better than the contents of the box.
Before I get into the game itself, I want to tell you a story about it, because it played a huge part in the history of modern tabletop gaming. Now-legendary designer Richard Garfield first came up with RoboRally in 1985, back when he was just a recent university graduate looking for work. A few years later he approached Wizards of the Coast (which, at the time, was a home operation publishing roleplaying supplements) to see whether they’d be interested in publishing his game. The WOTC guys thought it was cool, but they were concerned that it was a bit beyond their means to publish and distribute. “Tell you what, though,” they said, “could you make us something portable that would be good for people to take to gaming conventions?” Garfield went away and, dusting off a couple of old designs and reworking them into a functioning prototype the space of a week, he came up with a little throwaway game.
You might have heard of it.
A bit of time passed. Magic was finally released in 1993, and it goes without saying that it was a success. Garfield joined Wizards as a full-time designer, and a year later, he said “hey, remember that game I originally approached you about?”. By this point the company had grown, thanks in no small part to the success of Magic, and his wish was granted. Almost a decade after he first pitched it, the game was released.
I love that story. To me, it sums up what the games industry was like in the 80s, and in a lot of ways, what it’s still like today. It’s all about getting a foot in the door and not giving up – because even if you have to do something completely different first (which might well overshadow the thing you originally wanted to do), perseverance really can pay off.
Anyway, I’m rambling! RoboRally’s had several editions since it was released, but the one that Wizards put out in 1994 (and the 1995 reprint, which is the version I have) is an absolute classic, and that’s the one that’s number nine on the big list. Let me tell you all about it.
In RoboRally, you take control of one of a number of dysfunctional robots, dashing around a factory floor (after hours, of course) in a race to hit all the checkpoints and be crowned the winner. It’s not as simple as all that, though – the factory floor is a nightmare to navigate, with lasers, crushers, conveyor belts and a load else standing between the robots and victory. Each turn you have to lay out your robot’s actions using five Program cards, each of which features a simple instruction like “turn left” or “move forward 3”. Everyone’s cards are then resolved simultaneously, one at a time. Everyone’s first card is played, then their second, then their third, and so on.
This ‘action programming’ mechanic has been used several times in the years since (Space Alert, number 8 on my list, uses it beautifully) but I’ve never seen it put to more hilarious use than it is in RoboRally. When I talk about game design, one of my favourite terms is ‘slippage’ – the feeling of a lack of control over what you can do, when the game makes it difficult for you to act out your plans. In most cases, slippage is a bad thing, a result of clumsy design. RoboRally wields it like a surgeon’s scalpel. Here’s how it does it.
- Each turn, you receive a hand of nine random Program cards, which leads to improvisation. Want to turn left but haven’t got any left turn cards? Looks like you’ll be turning right three times. Or turning right once and backing up.
- Other robots are going to spoil your plans. You’ll plot a perfect route through the deadly obstacle course ahead of you, only for another robot to bump into you on the first card and shunt you one space to the left. The worst part is, you know what’s going to happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it but hope that you get nudged back on track by another robot (or nudge someone else and take them out with you!).
- For some reason, the human brain seems to have a frankly hilarious blind spot when it comes to recognising left and right while under pressure. So many times I’ve wished that the cards said ‘clockwise’ and ‘anticlockwise’, but that’s missing the point – Garfield clearly realised that people were going to get confused, and that adds so much to the game. The howls of frustration when a player smugly turns over the first card of their carefully planned program, only to realise that they’re going to turn the wrong way and drive straight off the board, is priceless.
- Every robot has a laser, which hits anything that ends a move in front of it. There are also lasers on the factory floor. If you get hit by a laser you suffer damage, which reduces the number of Program cards you get each turn. So yeah, you get to the point where you receive five cards, giving you no chance to discard any of them – you just get to work out what order you do them in. Suffer another point of damage, and you only get four cards next turn – meaning the last card in your program this turn is locked, and you have to play it again every turn until you repair. If that’s a Move 3, you’re in for a wild ride.
Funnily enough, not everyone gets on with RoboRally. Sophie can’t stand it! It feels like, if your brain’s wired a certain way, you’re just going to struggle to the point that it’s just not fun. This means that I don’t get the game to the table anywhere near as much as I’d like to, but that doesn’t change the fact that it holds a special place in my heart.
So that’s RoboRally. Next up is Space Alert, which has some similar mechanics – I’ll talk about how the games are similar and how they’re different in the next post!
Again, if you’ve played this game and have your own thoughts, drop a comment below or tweet me @lagoon83. (Or get Sophie on @sophiesaurus_rex and try to convince her that this game rocks.)