In 1992, Richard Garfield met with a new company called Wizards of the Coast in order to get them to publish a board game he designed with Mike Davis. They liked what they saw, but at the time they weren't interested in board games; they wanted something more portable, a game that "would go over well at conventions." For this, Garfield revisited a card game he'd first designed in the early 80's.
The card game became the phenomenally successful Magic: The Gathering, but we're not dealing with that right now. A year after Magic first hit the shelves of hobby stores, Wizards of the Coast published Garfield's clever board game about robots: RoboRally.
The premise is simple enough to be appealing. A factory's computer reprograms its robotic workers during after-hours to have a little fun. Robots compete against each other to capture flags placed around the factory, while avoiding hazards like pits and lasers, and each other. Sounds like fun? Well, it is. Eventually.
During each turn, players play movement cards to define a sequence of five actions for their robots during that turn. The resulting gameplay feels very robotic in nature (but in a good way!). Players send instructions to their robots, and the robots obey, when they can. The relative freedom of each player's moves is limited by the luck of the draw, as well as the perils of the game board.
The game comes with four different two-sided boards, and the accompanying course manual lays out over 30 different configurations for play. There are a lot of ways to play RoboRally, but there's a price to be paid for so much flexibility. RoboRally's a complicated game, with less-than-obvious rules and dozens of pieces to lose. Between program sheets, option cards, program cards, life tokens, damage tokens, power down tokens, archive markers, flags, and, of course, the robots, you'd better get a few ziploc bags to help manage the mess.
And don't expect to understand what you're doing the first time through. The best way to learn RoboRally is to play it. By the end of your first game, you'll be better tuned to the nuances of RoboRally's delicate rules. The reward for all of this complexity is an entertaining, smart, strategic gameplay experience. With a little practice, you'll be thinking like a robot in no time.
Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.