(In this issue, we welcome Rob Schwartz to our pages. Rob enjoys gaming in general and "game breaking" in particular. Rob has the knack of finding the holes in the system that enable him to either show why a game doesn't work or romp to victory or BOTH! In his first contribution to GA REPORT, Rob rallies around this new release from the new Avalon Hill. )

ROBORALLY (Avalon Hill/Wizards of the Coast, 2 to 8 players, ages 12 to adult, 30 minutes or more; $50)

   RoboRally is a board game originally designed by Richard Garfield, creator of the immensely popular collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering.  Two editions exist, the second of which is depicted here.  For those familiar with the original version, you should find that the changes and improvements significantly enhance play. 

   Each of anywhere from 2-8 players controls a robot.  The goal of the game is to maneuver this robot through a perilous, hazard-filled board to various checkpoints, or flags.  Whoever is first to successfully touch each of these numbered flags, in sequence, with his or her robot is the winner.  Controlling one's robot is accomplished via the use of programming cards.  The provided deck consists of various simplistic robot instructions -- move forward two squares, or turn left, or the like.  On each turn, each player is dealt out a number of these program cards at random.  They then program their robots with five of these cards, face down.  Once everyone has programmed their robots, the turn is then executed.  In each of five steps -- commonly referred to as register phases -- all robots simultaneously reveal a programmed action, from left to right, and execute that action.  Additionally, various board elements -- conveyor belts, pushers, gears, and the like -- will exert their influence on the hapless droids. 

   As the robots are all attempting to maneuver through the same area, they'll occasionally bump into one another, pushing each other off of their intended courses.  Thus, the first point of intrigue within the game becomes immediately clear: it is not necessarily sufficient to simply program one's robot for a series of actions and expect him to arrive at a particular destination when finished.  The presence of other robots, pushing one another into various predicaments, sometimes intentionally and at other times by accident, will invariably lend havoc to an already somewhat chaotic game mechanic.  Add in the fact that any robot who falls into a pit -- or off of the side of the board -- is destroyed, and suddenly one finds one's self programming his or her robot very carefully indeed.  Luckily, each player is allocated three robot lives, so the occasional mishap does not necessarily spell doom. 

   Another source of danger for robots is laser fire.  Various lasers are mounted on walls within some game boards, damaging robots unfortunate enough to stop momentarily in their line of fire.  Additionally, each robot also comes equipped with its own, front-mounted laser, handy for blasting one's opponents.  Each point of damage a robot takes results in that many less programming cards being dealt to its controller on subsequent turns.  Thus, as damage accumulates, fewer choices are available during the robot programming stage, resulting in all sorts of interesting and amusing machinations.  And any robot that receives a total of ten damage points is destroyed.  Luckily, there are spots on the board where robots can repair some damage.  Additionally, a badly damaged robot can power down, losing a turn of play but erasing all accumulated damage.  Be careful when powering down, though -- your robot's still on the board, and is therefore vulnerable to more laser fire, as well as being pushed around by other robots.   

   Arguably, the ultimate provider of intrigue and entertainment is the deck of various option cards.  These can only be acquired at special power-up locations on the board, oftentimes out of the way of the flags, but enticing nevertheless.  Options are add-ons to one's robot, granting it additional powers or abilities.  Some options are weapon enhancements, others are defensive, and some even allow for new ways to use programming cards.  Also, an option can be exchanged to prevent a point of damage on a robot, so they're always useful to have.  Those familiar with the first version of the game will find that some of the more powerful, confusing, or otherwise irksome options have been either significantly toned down or removed.  Most of the old favorites are still around, though. 

   Speaking of changes from 1st Edition, it should be noted that there are no longer "virtual robots."  Every robot instead starts on a special launching platform, attached to the side of the main game board, and rules for respawning destroyed robots accommodate simultaneity without the clumsy aforementioned mechanic.  Also, the end of the rules booklet depicts a number of preconstructed map arrangements, with a chart depicting the recommended number of players, the anticipated length of play, and the overall difficulty of the map.  Of course, use of these maps isn't required, and players are still welcome to construct nightmarish mazes of fun and chaos as suits them. 

   Alas, one common source of criticism regarding the game's nature -- and this still carries over from 1st Edition -- is that once a player has managed to pull his robot ahead of the pack, it can often be quite difficult to catch up, or otherwise impede him or her.  Direct attacks against other robots can be somewhat difficult even when close by, and someone who's ahead in the game is no doubt off in some other board section seeking the next flag anyhow.  Even options are not necessarily helpful in this regard, since there's no guarantee what sort of option one will acquire or how useful it will be.  However, it does seem as if some effort was made by the designers to crisscross the flag locations so as to force robots to intersect paths more often, which addresses this issue somewhat during longer games. 

   Overall, RoboRally is an amusing and entertaining strategy board game, challenging players to incorporate both straight luck and hidden information into their tactics.  The game accommodates a wide variety of number of players with a readily adjustable length of play.  The depths of complexity can be appreciated even by hard-core gamers, yet the rules mechanics are simple enough even for children to understand and enjoy.  Recommended for anyone who either likes tactical or logistical games, or enjoys chaos and mayhem and blowing stuff up with laser fire.  Preferably both. - - - Rob Schwartz