I meant to review VOLT: Robot Battle Arena earlier, I really did. But the problem is that every time I opened the box so I could begin writing about it, I decided to play instead. The hidden programming game is really challenging and even more fun and there’s enough in the box to have you playing for a long time without every getting tired of the game.
In the future, technology companies have become significant sponsors of the evolving robot competitions. The public hungers for this mechanical carnage and television and attendance ratings are through the roof. Prizes have grown and robot operators are recognized as celebrities. With the stakes this high, do you have what it takes to compete in the robot battle arena?
There are two main types of games to play and each has different component requirements. The basic game uses one side of two double-sided boards, which are all set up as 9 x 9 grids. Each player gets a player board, a screen, a robot mini and three dice, a red one, a white one, and a blue one. Players also set out a control point die, damage and victory tokens and they are ready to play. The more advanced game includes a variety of modules and their supporting tokens. Modules give robots special powers like an explosive core, tractor beams, shields, or additional offensive capabilities.
The tokens, boards and screens are all good quality. The robot minis are OK, but feel a little cheap, mostly because their bases are really thin. Design is really important to me and I wish this game had a little more. If the game boards had groups of fans or something like TV cameras around the edges, it would have added a lot to the theme of a battle arena, as it is, it’s just a grid. Plus, the screens try to help as language neutral player aids, but some of the icons aren’t clear and we found ourselves referring to the rulebook often instead. However, these are my only criticisms of the game and I’m more than willing to give a smaller publisher a break on issues like these. Besides, the rest of the game is incredibly fun and great.
Setup and Gameplay
After choosing a board to play – all are similar in that they all have six control points, a repair center, and a number of deep pits – players select their robots, grab a player board, mini, and corresponding screen. Each player gets a red, white, and a blue die. Player boards and dice are hidden behind screens, robots are placed randomly on the outer edge of the board, and gameplay is just about ready to begin. Damage and victory tokens are placed nearby and a control point die is rolled to decide which square on the grid is the goal this round.
Player boards have two controls: movement and weapons. Movement is simple orthogonal directions – forward, back, left, and right. Weapon firing adds diagonal shots, forward and back, to both sides. During the placement of the red, white, and blue action dice, players manually turn their dice to the face that they want to represent their movement and firing. There are a couple of factors at play here. Upon reveal, dice resolve from low to high and the number of pips mean different things for the different actions. A die placed on the movement part of the board decides how many squares a robot will move in a direction. The number shown on a firing die shows the effect if another robot is hit (1 = no effect other than damage, 2-5 = affects the hit player’s action dice, 6 = pushes the hit player’s robot one square).
Behind their screens, players change the face of their dice and place them on movement and firing controls. A player can have no more than 2 dice on a single control; that is, you can’t only move or only fire three times. Dice are resolved in the color order of red, white, then blue (how patriotic!), which affects the decisions that players must consider when placing dice, and dice cannot be stacked (you can’t make two forward moves in a single turn). All firing and movement is relative to your player board so, no matter where your robot is, your board always dictates what direction forward is for movement and firing.
When all players have second, triple, and quadruple guessed themselves, screens are removed and programming is revealed. Actions are resolved in the following order: the lowest red die is resolved up to the highest red die. Then the same low to high order for white, then blue. There are a number of tiebreaker rules in the rulebook. Action can be chaotic, one player may shoot first while another moves before firing.
A robot who runs into another bot pushes the second robot along as it moves. Sometimes this might resolve in pushing a robot into a pit, which destroys that robot and awards the robot that caused the destruction a victory point. If pushing a robot ends at an edge of the board, movement ceases, no matter how much movement is left. Otherwise, a player has to use all of the robot’s programmed move shown on the die face.
When firing, a robot’s weapon fires until it hits another robot or a wall. Weapons do not continue past their first hits. A robot who has received fire also receives a damage token; three damage tokens and the robot is destroyed and removed from the round. The player who gives the final point of damage receives a victory point. (Each board has a repair center and if a robot stops a movement on this spot, all current damage tokens for that bot are discarded.) Firing can also cause additional effects on an opposing robot.
A firing die with a face of 2 or 3 causes the hit robot’s weapon dice to move 45º clockwise or counterclockwise on the weapons control, throwing that robot programmer’s plans into disarray. Firing a 4 or 5 moves all the hit robot’s dice 90º one way or the other, and a 6 pushes the robot one space.
Resolution continues until all dice have been resolved. If any robot ends the round on the control point that was decided at the beginning of the round, that robot receives a victory point. After the round is complete, any robots that were destroyed during the round respawn at any point on the edge of the board. The control die is rerolled for another round and play continues until a robot gains a total of five victory points, at which point the game ends immediately.
This describes the basic game. The advanced game (and a few other variants) introduces modules that give robots special powers. In the advanced game, all players use the same power tile. There are 16 in all and the powers range from defensive to offensive. Teleporters, saw blades, gravity treads, and tractor beams are just some of the choices. Other modes include a mini tournament of advanced games, a draft where each player gets a different module, and team play.
VOLT: Robot Battle Arena is an incredibly challenging game, especially when played with people who have played the game a few times. It’s extremely tactical and relies only a small amount of luck. It’s a game that really gets better every time you play it.
But be warned, although it’s very accessible to everyone, it’s not necessarily a game for the most casual players. So much of the gameplay involves trying to guess what your opponent in going to do, it’s very unpredictable. Each turn becomes a chess match, staring at your opponents, trying to decipher their intentions, while trying to mount your own offensive and protect your robot at the same time.
While the game is recommended for two to four players, it is significantly more fun with three or four, just because there are more options to have to account for — but a two player game is still extremely fun!
For those of you familiar with Robo Rally, you may notice some similarities in how the games are played. But I’d argue that VOLT is better because it has fewer rules to get caught up in. VOLT also plays faster and, because of the fact it is a bit more stripped down, it actually feels more tactical.
I really appreciate the fact that there are multiple boards included in the box. It means that you can play for a couple of hours without repeating a game. Plus, thanks to the board’s simplistic layout, one could very easily homebrew their own board layouts if so inclined. Factor in the many modules and advanced rules and the game has hundreds of possibilities for many, many hours of replayability.
The recurring theme in our games was of unpredictability, tension, and enjoyment. Every time we placed our action dice, I noticed the other players furtively glancing at the board, the control point die, and the other opponents. Me? I was a mess of worry. And that was during a basic game. Add the modules and all of those factors are ratcheted up another couple of notches.
Despite the challenges VOLT presents, it is fast playing and pretty easy to learn. Although I am one who normally thinks age recommendations are usually a little too high in most cases, I think VOLT’s recommendation of 13+ is spot on. There is a good deal of thinking and strategy and I’m not sure younger kids would get this.
The number of games where the tension is truly palpable is quite few for me. But every single time I sat staring at my dice, trying to decide if I had made the right choices and began doubting my choices for the fifth time that turn, thinking about all the possibilities three simple actions could spell out, VOLT had me chewing my fingernails. Then, all the questioning and doubt were quickly replaced by surprise, anger, disgust, or just chaos when the screens were removed and the actions revealed. That kind of roller coaster is a gaming experience very much worth the price of admission.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a sample of this game for review purposes.