I first saw Robo Rally back in 1994, at around the time of its launch and being demoed by members of the Wizards of the Coast team. What struck me then was the presentation, it looked fantastic. Of course there is more to a game than looking good. Robo Rally got a lot of attention and plays at that convention because it is a lot of fun.
The 2016 edition has been updated a little, I’ll come back to this. Ultimately, it is still a game of two to six robots dashing around an obstacle course with added guns and mayhem. It’s best with four or more players and best on a small and tight board so the robots interact more.
At its heart, Robo Rally is a game about programming. Each player will have a deck of cards, from which a hand is created with which to programme their robot, these cards might say move forward two spaces, or turn right, or turn left and so on.
The individual decks is one of the differences from the original Robo Rally, and one I think works very well. Other cards can be added to this deck, power ups and upgrades can be purchased, and damage can also be added. Damage is represented by programming error cards, these like the upgrades are new to the updated Robo Rally, so if a robot gets damaged, cards which have a null or negative effect get added to the programme and deck.
This mechanic, the individual decks to which other cards, good or bad can be added, and a hand drawn from which cards are used to programme and move the robot works very smoothly, it is fast and intuitive, a big improvement.
So this is the basic mechanic, drawn nine cards, use five to programme, discard the remainder, and it is used to guide the robot around the board. Use this to programme the robot to pass over energy cubes, necessary for purchasing power ups. Use this to programme the robot and pass over the three or more checkpoints. The first to pass over these checkpoints is crowned as the winner. Sounds simple enough.
Of course nothing is this simple, there are other robots controlled by other players. They will do things to each other, and this is where the fun really starts. So, every robot takes one action, then any that are facing another robot gets to shoot it, adding damage and potentially knocking the robot off course. Then the next action in turn, and so on until each programme is completed.
Knocking a robot off course will undo all that careful programming and now the robot will still respond as programmed, but not from the initially anticipated position or order. So now everything has changed, the robot may now pass through a laser beam taking further damage, or get caught up on a conveyor belt and be whisked off in the wrong direction, or even drop into a pit and need to be rebooted, or perhaps accidentally collect some energy. There is only one certainty, the robot will not end its movement in the planned for position.
Then it starts again, players shuffle cards with any additions, draw a new hand and re-programmes. It’s all fairly hectic and to speed programming there is a timer, the first player to complete programming can flip the timer and everyone then has a very limited amount of time to finish programming.
The multiple modular game boards are good, and can be configured in a variety of different ways creating new challenges. The robots are painted minis and look reasonably good. The rule book is clear and well presented. The cards and counters are on thin stock, and some of the cards are very small.
It’s a real shame about the cards and counters, especially the cards because they are going to get a lot of use. The cards really do need to be put in protectors if they are going to have any durability.
Robo Rally Conclusion
Robo Rally is at its most fun when the board is small and the action compacted into a small area. It makes the game faster, more interactive and more chaotic. It is also more enjoyable with more players, so is best with four or more players, and as I said, keep the board tight.
On a small and tight board the game will take an hour or so, maybe less, on a larger board which might initially seem a fun idea the game may go on for a long time. Robo Rally really is at its best when compact and more interactive. It is also a great game to play with children, they’ll pick up the rules easily enough, they’ll get the idea of robots, guns and mayhem, and this is another reason for keeping the game short, small and tight.
It is a pity about the production quality of the cards and counters, and visually it is not as pretty as the original game. On a more positive note the rules have been simplified and as a result the game is more engaging with less down time. It can still be overly long on a big board with many checkpoints, so as said, keep it small and tight, it’s also more fun this way.
Overall the changes from the original Robo Rally are positive and are an improvement on the original game. It is more than simply a game reboot, or a repackage with a tweak or two, or errors addressed. Robo Rally 2016 Edition has some new and innovative mechanics which serve to bring the game to life and speed up game play.
Robo Rally 2016 Edition is a fascinating blend of order and chaos, order being the programming of the robot and planning how it will more, chaos being how the other robots interact with each other and aspects of the game board such as treadmills, lasers and the rest. I really like how in this version the robots can be upgraded, and the deck building and hand management elements. It’s not a game to be taken too seriously, but it is a lot of fun.