Game profile: RoboRally – emergence from procedure

Today’s game profile is about a game whose greatest influence on the gaming world has been – or so it could be argued – the time it wasn’t published.

In 1991, when Richard Garfield met Peter Adkison (president of Wizards of the Coast) to pitch a game, it wasn’t Magic: the Gathering he was there to pitch – it was RoboRally. At the time, Wizards of the Coast focused primarily on roleplaying games, and therefore wasn’t all that comfortable (or familiar) with the manufacture, assembly, and sale of tabletop games – so they turned Garfield’s pitch down. However, Adkison recognised Garfield’s talent and asked him if he had anything a little more printing-friendly and portable. No problem, said Garfield, there was something he had been tinkering with – and he went away, polished up the design of M:tG over the weekend, came back, and birthed an entire medium, the trading card game… thereby boosting WotC into one of the premier publishers of fantasy games – or fantasy in any medium – in the world. In 1994, flush with funds from Magic’s success, they published RoboRally to considerable acclaim.

So what was this game that a game design genius considered more saleable than one of the most lucrative game ideas of all time? (I say this without irony – I doubt anybody could have predicted the explosive success of Magic, and RoboRally genuinely is both deeply interesting and terrifically engaging. Even so, I’m being slightly unfair – RoboRally was of course fully developed, whereas Magic clearly wasn’t fully fleshed out quite yet – possibly BECAUSE it was so ambitious!)

RoboRally is a game about supercomputers created to control precision robots in a widget factory who get bored during some downtime; to amuse themselves, these genius-level intellects race welding robots through an obstacle course/demolition derby.

You play by drawing a pool of cards that you then use to program 5 steps that you’ll take to move around a grid. The steps are simple movement commands: move forward 1-3 squares, back up one, turn left or right 90 degrees, or about-turn. (So far, this sounds pretty familiar to anyone whose childhood included programming in Logo.) You use this movement to attempt to reach a series of checkpoints on the map in order.

There are three catches.

  • First, you are in a factory, with conveyor belts, rotating platforms, and welding lasers. Each time the players move, depending on where they land, they might get moved along, spun 90 degrees, or zapped.
  • Second, it’s not enough to stay away from the fixed lasers. Each robot has a head-mounted welding laser that fires after each move. If you’re in front of another robot, and there’s nothing in the way, you’re going to get zapped.
  • Third, your opponents are also trying to move around in the same space, and in particular to reach the same squares as you. There isn’t that much room in the factory, and as the number of players goes up, so does the amount of pushing and shoving as robots bump into each other and knock each other off target.

Each time you get zapped, it fries one of your memory slots – which is reflected mechanically by the number of cards you get to draw into your pool. You start out drawing 9 cards a turn, out of which you have to choose a sequence of 5, which gives you decent odds of being able to get where you want to go. However, as you take more damage and get to draw fewer and fewer cards, your options narrow… and once you are drawing fewer than 5 cards, the last card in each damaged slot in the sequence gets stuck there, forcing you to mindlessly repeat that action in that slot every turn. (There are ways to repair slots and reboot yourself – but all cost precious time and risk letting your opponents gain ground in the race.)

As with many other games I love (e.g. Hanabi), the core objective of the game is a relatively simple procedure (in this case, navigate from A to B to C to D) made complex by the presence and actions of other players. The factory itself also complicates things, but conveyor belts and rotators can be a resource if you plan ahead – they can save you movement or help face you in the right direction. (Lasers and pits are never helpful, however.) But when other players enter the mix, even a perfectly-planned route can suddenly take you wildly off course if you are accidentally (or intentionally) bumped one square left of where you were planning to go – if that takes you onto a conveyor belt that shifts you two squares left and leaves you facing south instead of east, the remainder of your perfectly-planned route will play out in the wrong direction and give you an entirely unexpected path to calculate next turn to get back to where you want to be.

Thus, you have to try to take into account where you think others will try to go – and what you think they will try to do about your movement. (There is tremendous satisfaction in spotting the evil gleam in someone’s eye as they plot to knock you off your path, deliberately hold back your movement to ensure they miss, and then watching them whiz past in front of you and careen away, victims of their own cunning.)

The obvious extrinsic value of the game, the simplistic modeling of computer programming, is actually more deeply simulated here, in this business of attempting to think through contingencies and anticipate likely interactions with other elements of the system, and then plot out future actions accordingly. It showcases beautifully how even the simplest systems can, through nothing more than interaction with other equally simple systems, become deep, surprising, and interesting.

Add into this the business of reading beyond those other game objects to the players controlling them, and you have the basis for some genuinely compelling brainwork.

It helps that the robot tokens that you control each have their own cute – and silly – personalities [note that these images are of the figures from the 1994 edition of the game]. There is no mechanical difference between them, but I have still seen players get particularly attached to one or the other; they give younger players a point of identification to latch onto the game, and older players the basis for a touch of banter.

The procedural basis of the game also lends itself to reproduction in other forms of technology – one of the most ingenious game-related creations I have seen was an implementation of the game in LEGO Mindstorms at Gen Con 2011, which not only had a LEGO game board and LEGO Mindstorms-driven robots, but used Mindstorms robotics to scan and interpret the cards (which I believe were also made of LEGO) that players drew.

I’ll leave you with some pictures (possibly as inspiration for your library’s LEGO/robotics club). Enjoy!

A wide shot of the board – sadly in low resolution.
A (slightly blurry) shot of the control system. Note the conveyor belt (on the left) feeding the “cards” into the reader.
A closeup on half of the robots (note that some of the base characters have been replaced with slightly more famous robots/droids/Androids)…
…and the other half.
The sign for the game (also made of LEGO) – click on it to go to the creators’ site. (Their Monster Chess is also pretty impressive!)


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