Every so often, I chance upon a game whose simplistic appearance belies its strategic potential – where simple yet well implemented mechanics make for an experience both enjoyable to play and strategically enticing. Games such as Sushi Go, No Thanks, and Coup, for example, earn themselves a regular spot in my play rotation for this very reason. Well, now I can add Robots & Rockets to this list, as from the very first game it’s had me engaged and thoroughly enjoying myself.
Initially, Robots & Rockets didn’t appeal to me. The name felt lacklustre and the card art simplistic, so I assumed the required strategy would follow suit. This proved not to be the case however, and while the game’s core design is simple in nature, its mechanics are detailed and suit many different play styles. Whether playing with kids or adults, I found myself enjoying this with everyone equally – for different reasons.
The premise of Robots & Rockets is simple – you represent an interstellar travel agency and must book passage for robots to the various planets. At the start of the game, players are dealt a hand of five robot cards representing either groups of robotic passengers or special actions. At the same time, the top four rocket cards are turned face up and placed in the centre of the table – these display the destination and number of available seats in each rocket. Players then take it in turns to play robot cards onto the rockets with the goal of filling the final seat to launch the rocket.
Visual aides are used very well in the design of Robots & Rockets. Robot cards, for example, provide the player with two important pieces of information – a destination and the number of robots it represents. This information is communicated via text, but also reinforced by card colouring, pips, and a graphic representation of the robots. This is helpful, not only for players who cannot read, but as a means to quickly identify cards in your hand and facilitate easy play. The rocket cards are similarly styled, with pips and colour-coded sections accompanying written values to help easily identify the necessary information.
“That doesn’t sound particularly complicated, Dave – where’s the strategic potential?” Well, I’m glad you asked! The strategy in Robots & Rockets is derived by how you play and how the game is scored. When placing robot cards on a rocket, players may play as many cards as they wish, providing all robots wish to go to the same destination. So, for example, let’s say there was a rocket with 6 available seats headed to Venus (blue) and Saturn (Yellow). In this example, you are holding two action cards (more on these later), a robot card for 1 passenger to Venus, a robot card for 3 passengers to Venus, and a robot card for 2 passengers to Saturn. If you wished to place passengers heading to Venus on that rocket, you could play one or both of your blue Venus robot cards to fill that number of seats – so either 1 passenger to Venus, 3 passengers for Venus, or both together for a total of four passengers to Venus.
The way you play your cards is crucial to your strategy, as only the player who fills the final seat on any rocket (regardless of who placed the preceding robot cards there) gains ownership of the rocket and any points it may yield. As such, it’s not always prudent to play the largest number of robots, as in doing so you may be setting the rocket up to be stolen by one of your opponents. Fortunately, Robots & Rockets comes with some action cards to help you negate some of that risk.
Robots & Rockets comes with four distinct action cards that may be played on a player’s turn prior to their robot cards – hopefully helping them steal some points or reduce some of the aforementioned risk. There are also rules about exchanging action cards for more robot cards, but I won’t detail that in that in this review. The first action card is the “Robot Transfer” card, which allows you to transfer matching coloured passengers from one ship to another. Coupled with robot cards, this can be a good way to quickly secure yourself a rocket. The next action card is called “Tractor Beam” and allows you to steal a completed rocket card (along with all its passengers) from another player. The third action card is the “Force Field” card, which is reactionary and can be discarded to void a Tractor Beam. The final action card is an “Orbit” card, which prevents players from interacting with a rocket for an entire round (thus allowing you two sequential turns on that rocket). All cards are extremely useful and add a second layer of strategy to the game.
Use of the Orbit card wasn’t clearly defined in the instructions, so at first we were playing that a Robot Transfer could still be played on a rocket in orbit. I’ve since clarified with the designer that this is not the correct way to play; however, this left the Orbit card feeling a little overpowered. That said, there are only four of each action card in the deck, so with a hand limit of five cards, it’s not like you would be able to build up a dominant hand of action cards to “swoop in for a win”. Outside the Orbit card wording, the instructions were ok – a little ambiguous at times, but they taught the basics of how to play well enough. If interested, we’ve done a “how to play” video, which can be viewed on the video tab above. The designer, Sye Robertson, has also confirmed that the instructions will be re-written for the next release of the game.
Many paragraphs ago I mentioned that a key part of your strategy in Robots & Rockets related to how the game was scored. The scoring mechanic in Robots & Rockets is something I’m still not sure I love or hate. It has the ability to turn the best laid plans on their head, providing balance and a way for trailing players to catch up – however, it can also feel unfair. The winner is determined as the player who has the highest number of passengers on any rocket cards claimed during the game. This is calculated once the game ends – after the robot card draw pile is exhausted and no further moves are available. However, players don’t score points for all the passengers they have collected during the game – only the ones that they were contracted to deliver.
Once the game reaches its end, four contract cards are revealed. Each represents one of the four planets in the game and, starting with the player who collected the most rockets, are taken sequentially by each player. Players then earn points for any robots they successfully delivered to the destination on their contract card. So, for example, if I managed to deliver 12 robots to Saturn, but I drew the contract card for Mars, then none of those Saturn robots would count towards my final score. This introduced a modicum of end-game strategy which could rapidly turn the tide and forced players to balance the robots they collected much more during the main game.
In summary, Robots & Rockets is a fantastic game that should be part of any gamer’s collection. It’s easy to learn and only takes about 25 minutes to play; however, it provides a surprisingly deep experience via the use of simple, yet well implemented, game mechanics. Simple enough for kids, yet complex enough to prove entertaining for adults. Buy it!