Friday, April 9, 2010

Game Review: Ricochet Robots

I played Ricochet Robots (from Rio Grande Games and other publishers, designed by Alex Randolf) with the Guilford College Yachting Club at the cafeteria last Friday. I'd played it before, a couple of times, but I'm getting used to it now. It's actually more of a competitive puzzle than a game. The basic idea is that there is a semi-random board layout full of walls and target spaces with colored symbols on them. You add to the board in random spots a set of robots of different colors (matching the symbols). Then, you draw little chits from a bag one at a time. The symbols on the chits match the symbols on the board, and the chit you draw indicates which robot needs to reach which target space.

Then, the players all sit there staring at the board (or, if you're playing with some of the group that I did, cussing a blue streak while staring at the board), trying to find a way to get the robot whose color matches the chit to the target space matching the symbol. The board is a big grid, and the robots have two restrictions: they can only move in straight lines along the grid, and they must move along those lines until they hit something (a wall, the edge of the board, or another robot). To get the selected robot to the target space, you may find a direct set of moves, or you may need to move other robots to places where the main robot can run into them and stop, lining it up to move onto the target space.

Once you find a way to achieve this, you shout out the number of moves it takes to solve the puzzle and flip a timer. The other players have a chance to find a shorter sequence of moves than yours before the timer runs out. If nobody does, you get a point; if another player beats you (or ties your number of moves but has a lower overall score than you do), they get to steal your point. There are a series of these puzzles dictated by the chits, and the winner is the one who collects the most points before the chits run out.

This, like Set, which is also a competitive puzzle, is a game where some people just seem innately better at it, and where having a few games under your belt makes you much better than people who haven't played before. The thing feels a bit like a puzzle from an early computer game from the 1980's, or from one of those puzzle magazines from my childhood. You could certainly play it solitaire and amuse yourself for a while. But it's more fun competitively. There's a bunch of pressure while you compete, and a bunch of mental stress too as you're working out complex pathways and trying to remember them as you go. Sometimes the chains of moves reach 15-20 or more, and it is very challenging even to count them, much less remember them while the timer runs out. If a move chain is too short, it's disallowed, and the chit goes back in the bag.

The concept is pretty simple, but there are some good design decisions that have gone into making it into a better game. The rule where people who are behind can claim points merely by tying the number of moves helps to keep the game closer, since the more experienced (or plain better) players would otherwise get ahead. The inclusion of place markers for the robots (so that you can move the robots around but then get them back where they started if a move chain turns out to be illegal) is very clever. The randomized boards (four sections with two sides each that can be assembled in any combination) and the pre-set positions of goal spaces are well-designed to make it frequently tricky to solve the puzzles. Trivial solutions (short move chains) seem to come up fairly regularly, but any given game will likely have at least a few puzzles that need 10 or more moves of multiple robots to solve, and that's where the game is the most fun.

The pieces are nice enough; the robots are cute, and the board is easy to read, although the walls printed on the board are sometimes hard to see. The set I've played on doesn't fit together quite right, and the boards have warped a little, but I don't know if that's typical - this one has seen a lot of use.

A fun game; like Set, it makes your brain sweat a bit, and a lot of the competition is people sitting silently next to each other staring intently and stressing out, but I'd recommend it.

Image by Chris Norwood, used under CC license. From

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