3 Chits, 3 Giggles
For some peculiar reason, robots were a big deal in the 90's. Blame it on Terminator, Johnny 5 or Inspector Gadget if you like, but the hype was distinctly real and you couldn't look anywhere without being confronted by the buggers. Such it was then that Robot Wars was a big deal on channel BBC2 (if you’re reading this from outside the UK, think of it like you would your drunk uncle who would only ever talk about cars and tell occasionally funny jokes). Even if you weren’t a viewer and had only heard of it, you can pretty much guess what it was about; toaster-esque creations smashing each other to bits until they no longer worked. It was an unashamedly cheesy production with a decent following, so if only Shunt, Matilda, Sir Killalot and the gang had been merchandised via a decent board game (ignoring the fact that a sub par game was released under the name back in 2002) they probably would have ended up with something that looks a lot like Robo Rally.
Robo Rally, harking from the 'good old days' of 1994, is a game about robots designed by Richard Garfield, who would go on to create a game you may have heard of called Magic: The Gathering. Here however, you take control of a robot, and must get to all the required checkpoints before anybody else does while trying to stay in one piece. On each board, of the many included in the pack, there are numerous obstacles to overcome including travelators which will move your robot around, pits they can fall into and even bumpers that can push your robot onto other spots, depending on the turn number. It’s all a bit chaotic, including the method with which you choose your moves in the first place.
This is what we call a ‘programming’ game, meaning all players have to plan their moves in advance before seeing them all play out at once, together. At the start of the game you’ll have a fully functional robot, with five moves to choose every round and nine randomly dealt cards to choose them from (these are all very basic actions like move forward, reverse, change direction and make a U-turn) However, each time you end a move with another robot facing you, you’ll take a point of damage. Take too much though, and soon your choice of cards is limited and eventually your cute little bot will start being dealt some of its moves randomly which can leave you out of control.
Adding to the stress of this is the addition of a rule, not unfamiliar in other games, which I like to call ‘thought punishment’. Whenever the second to last player has declared themselves done picking cards, they’ll start a thirty second timer which is now all the last remaining player has left to choose theirs. Any cards they don’t pick before the time runs out are dealt randomly from their hand instead, therefore screwing up their plans and making their considered strategy all for naught, which sucks for them... Who am I kidding, it’s always me! Why must I struggle so much with making quick decisions?
The simplicity of options combined with the unpredictability and time sensitive nature of choosing them is why this game goes from one primarily for the more hardcore gamer who takes everything a little too seriously (like I imagine the contestants on Robot Wars) to one which is a little more mainstream and mass appealing (like I imagine the viewers of Robot Wars)
Sure, there are elements to the game that elevate it above being basic, like the upgrades you can get for your metal contraption, the way turn order plays out and how exactly the elements on each map can affect your placement, but it is a game with a satisfying learning curve. You can introduce elements slowly by picking the boards with the right amount of features, starting with the most basic and moving on from there. The power ups that you can activate are neat but it’s rarely worth the trip to get them, as getting to that exact spot can be difficult, particularly when you have others tussling for the same place, and all it takes is one nudge or the lack of a certain card to see you go completely off course. In the meantime, your friends are already hitting the checkpoints that get them closer to the end of the game. This is exactly why the game is such a (PUN ALERT!) 'blast'.
It’s not a particularly pretty game, and I’ve mentioned before how important it is for a game to visually please the player, but that’s very much this games chosen aesthetic and it works. You’re not playing as some cutesy character and moving them around a fairytale forest; you’re a filthy appliance out for black blood in a grim looking warehouse, so the rough-around-the-edges grey crappiness feels just right for the situation. The detail on the pieces is decent, though you can never not want nicer build quality where figures are involved (even if it would come at a higher price.)
If you’re into games which snowball quickly down a slope dusted with bad luck and terrible decisions (Galaxy Trucker is probably a prime example of this) then you’ll appreciate the mechanics involved here. If you’re after something that rewards careful thought and perfect decision making, this might not scratch that specific itch. Ultimately, it’s a very fun game that owns its style and offers fun and frantic entertainment and doesn’t get lost in its own cleverness. Which is pretty much how I’d describe Robot Wars. Now where’s the remote?
Review by Russell Chapman