International Games Week October 29 – November 4

International Games Week

Game profile: RoboRally – emergence from procedure

Posted on September 22, 2014

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 modelling 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!

LEGO RoboRally - board
A wide shot of the board - sadly in low resolution.

LEGO RoboRally - control system
A (slightly blurry) shot of the control system. Note the conveyor belt (on the left) feeding the "cards" into the reader.

LEGO RoboRally - robots 1
A closeup on half of the robots (note that some of the base characters have been replaced with slightly more famous robots/droids/Androids)...

LEGO RoboRally - robots 2
...and the other half.

LEGO RoboRally - sign & QR code
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!)


What’s afoot: News from the world of games

Posted on May 19, 2014

Hi folks! Our third-Monday-of-the-month series is going to be news from the world of games. We're still getting everything up and running, and the tabletop games business is quiet at the moment as it's gearing up for convention season, so this month's entry will be a bit short. But still hopefully of interest!

General upcomings

There have been a few interesting announcements about upcoming releases in games - some of which are not so new, but perhaps newsworthy to library folks.

Trading card game Magic: the Gathering has just announced its next big September expansion is going to be called Khans of Tarkir. Rumours are that dragons will play a significant role in the fictional world of the game - one to keep an eye on if you have patrons who like dragons. They also have a new multiplayer set called Conspiracy coming out shortly featuring intriguing [pardon the pun] multiplayer mechanics.

Speaking of TCGs, our sponsors Konami (thanks again!) have just released the latest set for their card game Yu-Gi-Oh! The set is called Primal Origin and is the final set in the 8th series of the cards.

The 5th edition of iconic tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons,  which has been playtested extensively under the working title D&D Next, is slated for release this August at Gen Con and generally on August 17. It could be worth thinking about as a school holiday program - pick up the rulebooks and run a few games, then point the players at a display of the tie-in fiction.

In a surprising turnaround, Microsoft have announced that they will be selling their XBox One console in a new Kinectless bundle. This is noteworthy because they have stuck to their guns about requiring the Kinect motion sensor/camera, to the point of costing US$50 more than rival console the PlayStation 4, despite both considerable market friction on the higher price and consumer resistance to the idea of a compulsory infra-red camera attached to the TV (and, usually, an internet connection). The announcement means they'll now be selling the console for the same price as the PS4 (or, so reports say, $50 less here in Australia) - and also does away with technical and privacy issues that might have made it harder for libraries to include the consoles in their facilities.

Interesting reads/views

From the Department of Ingenious Absurdity: Mario in a box - - Possibly useful as an inspirational tool for a robotics (or game design) session at your library?

From the Department of Archaeotechnology: The Atari landfill excavation - - A story about the proof an urban legend turning out to be true (pretty much). There have been stories about an early ET tie-in game being so bad that Atari buried copies of it in landfill circulating for years - certainly the game was pretty bad! Personally I thought the story was worth it just for the mention of "Atari truthers" at the end.

From the Department of Good Fun: Games for Good video update - - Games for Good is an initiative of games consultant and writer James Portnow (Extra Credits) that was funded via crowdfunding site RocketHub last year, to highlight the many positive contributions that games make, and to enable and encourage gamers and game-makers to collaborate with other folks doing good in the world. In this video (recorded during a livestreamed update to backers) Portnow talks about what he and collaborator Soraya Een Hajji have been up to - and it's pretty impressive! The update is followed by a lengthy Q&A, which might be a little more skippable to a less invested audience; but as an introduction to the kinds of inroads games are making into the wider culture - and their ambitions to do good things along the way, which notably for libraries prominently includes standing up for Net Neutrality - it's not a bad place to start.

That's it for now! If there's anything else you'd like us to add, please feel free to be in touch!

Translate »