Parcours.robo really, really wants to be RoboRally, the well-received 1994 board game from Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield. Whether because the developer, Impara GmbH, didn't want to negotiate for the actual board game licensing rights or for another reason, the game plays a lot like RoboRally, but it's actually a sad little clone that also makes me really, really want it to be RoboRally.
It's not a bad game, but Parcours.robo's biggest impact is that it makes me realize that what the App Store needs is an official RoboRally port, full of the board game's crazy "automated" movement; it could be amazingly animated on an iPad without losing any of the tension in the game's secret planning. Until that happens, though, read on to see what Parcours.robo has to offer us today.
RoboRally is a game of calculated chaos. If it were just a solitaire game – something that Parcours.robo does offer – then it's not much more than a puzzle: can I get my little robot from Point A to Point B given the movement cards in my hand and taking into account the various traps and items on the board. A RoboRally-style puzzle can be fun, but playing this way misses the point entirely if you're one of the people who think the thrill of the game is in mucking with your opponents' robots and shooting them into unexpected, crushing jaws of steel.
I won't go into detail about RoboRally's rules (click here to learn more about the game than you'll ever need to know), just the parts where the tabletop board game and the app are the same. The game revolves around robots that are moving on a board of squares and trying to reach particular goals. Each turn, players can play cards with movement commands (e.g., "move forward," "turn right") face down into a row (not face down in the app). Once everyone has played their cards, they are revealed and carried out one by one, and the robots on the board interact with each other when they come into contact (or, in RoboRally, when they can shoot each other). So, you might think your little mechanical friend will be marching happily over to the recharge station when, instead, an opponent's robot will run into him and send him down a conveyor belt right into a laser beam ... that kind of thing.
In multiplayer Parcours.robo, when the robots collide, all that happens is that there is a slight "clanking" sound, and the robot that has the higher energy level has the right of way. The rules say that, "The energy level depends on the number of moves, but also on the time taken to set up the moves," so it does help to be fast. Of course, since the iPad has a hard time displaying hidden information in board games (the way that Small World handles the hidden money or the way the iPad Scrabble version offers the free "Tile Rack" app are notable exceptions), you can also allow yourself to be a little bit slower than your opponent, read his tiles and then plan to avoid him. Of course, that's kind of against the spirit of the game, and it might be detrimental to your goal of making it to the exit square. Still, this is where the app and the board game are very different experiences.
As stated, Parcours.robo will play two players on the iPad, and that's the best way to play the app. There is a multiplayer option on the iPhone/iPod touch, but all that is is the ability to play someone using Game Center, and not on the same device. Sure, the iPhone screen is small, and maybe two players would be impossible to implement on that device, but it'd be nice to have. The main problem with "multiplayer" on the iPhone is that whenever we tried to have the system find us an opponent, there was no one available to challenge. So, we didn't get to play at all. If you don't have an iPad, just think of Parcours.robo as a solitaire experience.
The game isn't without other faults, one of which you'd think would really be in the developer's interest to get fixed. The biggest example: I could not figure out where to tap to make the in-game purchase to upgrade to the full version and all the boards. The free app comes with eight levels – including a few that are just there to teach you how to operate the robot – and that's just enough to make you want to upgrade to the full level set for $1.99 if you enjoy the gameplay.
The game has been updated a few times since it was originally released (Version 1.4, which was released in mid-December, is reviewed here). Version 1.1 even got a press release announcement, which provides good details of the gameplay and also offers this choice quote from John McIntosh of Corporate Smalltalk Consulting, Ltd, which co-developed the app, "Parcours.robo 1.1 is a game of pure logic that incorporates killer laser beams and mechanical crushers."
Parcours.robo does, indeed, do these things, but not in an interesting enough way. A universal app, Parcours.robo is much too gray. The look is minimalist industrial, which kind of works for the theme, but for a game about rampaging, rushing robots, I'd rather see a lot of steam punk machinations, animated smoke billowing out of the walls and pieces falling off the robots as they get beat up. In short, I want a big app studio – or a little one with big dreams – to make an iPad version of RoboRally. For now, we have Parcours.robo. It's not a bad experience, it's just not all it could be. Oh well, there's always RoboRally online at Game Table Online.