138 Games: From RoboRally to High Society

This week’s entry in the 138 Games series takes us from frenzied robot programming to ostentatious auctions for the rich and famous.  The theme for a game that you must play can clearly be anything.  It might even be based on a 19th century short story and magically bring that story to life with just a few cards and simple rules.  These games are all from 1994 to 1995 and they’re all games that the Opinionated Gamers think you’ve got to try.

– RoboRally –

Matt Carlson:  I have a personal love for this game as it is my wife’s favorite game, and one of the few she even enjoys playing.  Unfortunately, it really only shines when you get at least 4 or more people playing so their robots are far more likely to cause havoc for each other.  Players drive armed robots around a hazardous area full of lasers, conveyer belts, and bottomless pits in a race to be the first to tag the racing flags in sequence.  However, players must move via a limited hand of cards, and must “program in” their moves 5 at a time.  Make a mistake on your second card, or get “pushed” unexpectedly by another robot early in the card sequence and you may quickly find yourself barreling off a cliff!  To heighten tension, as robots take damage they receive fewer and fewer cards with which to program their moves.  Repairing oneself costs time, and the game is a race – presenting players with tough choices once their robots start to take too much damage.  All is not a bed of roses, the programming of turns has a bit of a learning curve, and the game can suffer from runaway leader problems if there is no one to challenge or bother the lead robot.  These can be mitigated by taking things slow with new players at first, and designing courses so there are plenty of overlapping paths along the way.

– Carabande –

Jeff Allers:  It may not be the first disc-flicking game, but two elements make it stand out from the others of the genre.  First, it is a racing game, as opposed to Crokinole, which is about placing your discs in point-scoring areas while knocking out your opponent’s pieces.  In Carabande (and it’s remake, Pitchcar), players can still knock their opponents’ pieces into difficult places, but sliding past them is the goal, as the first player to complete the circuit is the winner.

The second element that makes this game stand out is the modular track pieces.  Besides increasing replayability, part of the fun of the game is to exercise creativity in designing a new race track.  For this reason, the expansions that add bottlenecks and jumps are a must.

Like many dexterity games, this one is highly accessible, visually stunning, highly interactive, and always draws a crowd.

– El Grande –

Matt Carlson:  The first game I think of when I hear “area majority.”  I have a soft spot for this game as it was one of my first true “eurogame” purchases.  Yes, it is area majority, so the game has many of the disadvantages of that genre – the picking on the leader, the danger of some players fighting over territory while others freely expand unchallenged, etc. – but what makes El Grande so “grand” are the subtle interactions of parts of the game that must be carefully managed.  To start a round, players choose a card which dictates the order they play, along with how many pieces they get to move into their “active” pool.  Going first (most of the time) can be very advantageous (you get first pick of locations and powers) but it means you gain fewer cubes into your active pool – which is where all your cube placements must come from.  On your turn, you can choose between several different actions (which change round to round), with weaker actions actions allowing you to also place more cubes onto the game board.  Finally, I must remark on the Castillo – the little tower where players can hide cubes during the game and secretly move them onto the board just before scoring areas.  This makes a “sure thing” far less of a “sure thing” and keeps all players on their toes.

The game is a classic due to its wealth of decisions that must always be balanced with each other.  For example, during scoring rounds it may actually be beneficial to move last, however only one player can play their “lowest” turn order card in any given round.  This means there is sometimes a rush to go first the previous round, just so a player can go last in the next.  This sort of rewarded long-term planning keeps the game high on the popularity charts years after its initial release.  The game can sometimes suffer from players with analysis paralysis, but if players are encouraged to keep things moving, the time/enjoyment ratio of the game is perfect for me.  Designers and gamers wishing to experience both a classic and an area control game “done right,” need to check out El Grande.

– Flaschenteufel –

Luke Hedgren:  I absolutely love trick taking games, and I am always searching for the next twist on the genre. With games like Bridge, Clubs, Whist, Hearts, Pitch, and Euchre forming the backbone of most people’s knowledge of trick taking, I nominated Flaschenteufel as a game that people should play to show off what the hobby game industry can do to trick taking games with a customized, dedicated deck of cards. Suits? 3 not 4.  Ranks? Different for each suit, and don’t overlap.  Trump? Based on the rank of cards played compared to a starting value.  Score? Each card worth a different amount of points, if you avoid losing the hand.  A theme? Seriously?! Absolutely, and one that works so well with the trick taking mechanisms, the integration makes the game a breeze to explain, though comprehension takes a hand or two. This game is deep, rewarding of good play, and is excellent for 3 players. I discover new things each session, and it is a classic of the genre.

Joe Huber:  Well, Trump overstates matters – there aren’t trump per se, but rules for taking a trick which are entirely independent of the suits.  I’d recommend reading The Bottle Imp before playing – it’s a very enjoyable story, and it will help in learning the game.  (Although, as noted above, the game is not hard to learn even without familiarity with the story.)

But what really makes the game stand out for me is the fact that it pits the risk takers against the cautious, in a fascinating way.  Each hand, one player will receive a negative score; the other players will score positively (or at least non-negatively).  It’s possible to play a very conservative game, and usually avoid being stuck with the bottle imp – and the negative score.  But conservative play rarely leads to high scores – and as a result a player who mixes big positives with more frequent negatives can win out.  It’s really well balanced, and makes the game ideal for a longer session (a full game to 500 points, for instance) rather than a few hands.

Two last points about the game.  First – while it is, as Luke notes, an excellent game with three players, it’s also very enjoyable with four.  Second – the original edition of the game has striking artwork, which seems to engender strong reactions in both direction, as compared to the more traditional artwork of later editions.  There are also some small but notable differences in the distributions and points between the first edition and later editions.  For those who try and enjoy the game, I’d strongly recommend trying both versions, to find which one you enjoy most.

– High Society –

Greg Schloesser:  In spite of my normal aversion (probably due to my consistent horrible play in them) of bidding type games, this one hits the mark.  Players must keep an eye not only on their own money, but on the money which has been spent by their opponents.  Remember – the player with the least amount of cash remaining in their hand at game’s end is OUT, regardless of the value of his acquired cards.  In addition, one must also make tough decisions in regards to how much to bid on the cards, keeping in mind to hold enough cash to be able to bid appropriately so as not to get stuck with the ‘nasty’ cards as they are revealed.

To be continued…

This entry was posted in 138 Games. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 138 Games: From RoboRally to High Society

  1. To busy with PLAY: The Games Festival I forgot to post my comments on RoboRally, one of the greates games ever!

    good play

  2. David Brain says:

    One of the rare moments of my life I can pinpoint with accuracy: I first played Magic the Gathering, Roborally and The Settlers of Catan at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow in 1995. What an evening that was… (Mind you, I also remember that event because I finally met one of my literary heroes, John Brunner – and he died later that evening!)

  3. David Chappelle says:

    I’ve played and enjoyed Flaschenteufel, but on Joe’s suggestion above, I sought out the original story by Robert Louis Stevenson at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/bottlimp.htm. Agreed! A nice little story.

Leave a Reply