Gaming Unplugged: RoboRally

November 18, 2010

Richard Garfield is best known for being the creator of Magic: the Gathering, the first collectible card game. Dr. Garfield’s first official game design, however, was the madcap strategy boardgame RoboRally,which was finally published not long after Magic‘s initial success back in the mid-90s.  The game has undergone a couple of cosmetic revisions in the decade or so since, but lost none of the entertaining frenzy.

The basic premise is that each player represents a supercomputer tasked with maneuvering its own factory robot from checkpoint to checkpoint. The track, as it were, is comprised of one or more boards representing different areas of the factory floor. Like any industrial factory, these areas are strewn with conveyor belts, gears, pits, and other obstacles that will push, pull, spin, and otherwise harm a careless robot that might find itself at the wrong place at the wrong time. And then, of course, there are the other competitors.

Each player is dealt up to nine program cards at the beginning of a round. These cards allow robots to move forward (from one to three spaces), backwards (one space only), or to make left, right, or U-turns. Players must program five of these cards in sequence, and then their robots will follow that program for the round. At the end of each phase (card), the factory elements usually reposition robots according to a set sequence, the final step of which is each robot’s forward-mounted laser firing and hitting the first object in its path. Once all five phases are complete, the program cards are discarded and a new round begins. That is, unless one or more phases have become locked.

See, each point of damage a robot suffers (usually from lasers) causes that player to receive one less card in subsequent rounds. Once a robot has suffered its fifth point of damage, that player would only receive four cards with which they need to program five phases of actions; this problem is “solved” (also read: “made worse”) by the last programming slot becoming “locked” and the last card assigned there being stuck until either that damage is repaired or the robot destroyed. A robot is destroyed either by its tenth point of damage or falling down a pit, and at the beginning of the next round may restore at its most recent archive location (either a checkpoint or repair station) with two points of damage up to three times. In addition to progressing a robot through the race and creating a new archive location, checkpoints and repair stations will heal one point of damage if you end the round (not phase) on them. Certain repair stations can also outfit robots with Options, which are special cards that grant various abilities (or can soak up a laser hit if necessary). After programming cards but before revealing them, a player may announce that his robot will “power down” on the next turn, which means that it will fully heal but receive no cards, spending the net round as an inert lump — a lump at the mercy of the board and everyone else.

If damage, floor elements, and an essentially randomly-assigned set of programming options were the only obstacles to overcome, RoboRally would be a difficult game. But what makes it downright devious are unexpected changes to your plans that might be caused by your opponents. Normally, all robot movement is simultaneous. However, if two robots would ever enter the same space on the same action, one of them will probably be in a world of trouble. Each action card has a priority number printed on it; in the event of a conflict, the higher priority number moves first. Robots can push each other freely in such cases, and an unexpected shove can — and probably will — send you careening wildly off your initially planned course. If you’re lucky, you can survive such a catastrophe; if not… hope you have some archives stored up. 

Besides its challenge, RoboRally‘s greatest strength is its modularity. The game supports from two to eight players, alone or in teams, and the ways in which boards and checkpoints can be combined to form a given course is all but limitless, not to mention optional rules (like “no power downs”). The simplest courses can take under an hour to complete; more intricate floor plans can consume several hours. The instruction booklet includes several suggested layouts along with their estimated difficulty level and time requirements, but the real fun for experienced players comes from creating their own. On the longer tracks it can be impossible to catch up if you fall behind, but fortunately tagging the checkpoints in order isn’t the only win condition. A player can also claim victory by being the last robot standing, and games in which that becomes a viable option for a player (or more…) are interesting to say the least.

RoboRally should be available at any retailer that stocks Avalon Hill products, usually for around $50 or less. It is also available for play via, as a premium game (free for solo play vs. AI, one-time pay for play vs. other humans). Due to the advanced strategy and forward thinking required it is recommended for players 12 and up, although there is little actual in-game reading or math required (barring Option cards).