Saturday, April 21, 2018

GJJ Games Review - RobotLab: The Card Game by XYZ Game Labs, Inc.

Designer: Adam McCrimmon
Publisher: XYZ Game Labs, Inc.
2-5p | 10-40m | 6+
GJJ Games Review - RobotLab: The Card Game by XYZ Game Labs, Inc.
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Game Overview:
Another game I received to review this past November was RobotLab.  The box for RobotLab says it is a "STEM-inspired, color matching, robot building race of invention" and a "deceptively simple race for science".  Since my family loves both games and science (and especially robotics), this sounded like a fun game to try out.

RobotLab is for 2-5 players age 8 and up (6+ according to BGG - and that's probably more accurate), and plays in 20 minutes (10-40 minutes according to the BGG entry).  The play time is probably the biggest wild card since games can be over pretty quickly or take a while.  20 minutes is probably an average time for 2-3 players, and my 4 player games took about 45 minutes.  Some games could go even longer than 40 minutes, depending on the play style of the players and the luck of the cards.

Components & Packaging:
There's really not much to RobotLab.  The game consists of a deck of 75 cards and an instruction sheet.  The box is decent quality and has a nice plastic insert.  The cards are decent quality and have a linen finish.  The artwork in the game is cartoony and fun.  It's nothing to write home about, but looks good and feels well integrated with the theme and style of game.
Box, cards, and rules, that's it.  Nothing outstanding, but nothing chintzy either.
I think my only issue with the packaging is the back of the box.  There's a description of the game that does absolutely nothing to describe the gameplay.  The game's taglines on the front and back of the box paint an exciting picture of using science and technology to build robots.  There's  a description of some of the actions you'll be doing in the game, from a thematic perspective (e.g. doing research, digging in the trash, and outwitting other scientists), but no description of how to actually play the game.  The box does nothing to interest me in the actual game, only the theme.  The theme sounds great, but I have other issues with the tag lines and details on the box that I'll get into later in the review, too.
After you've played, the back of the box makes sense, but as for selling the game? 
It tells you nothing about how the actual game plays.
Suffice to say, the game's components are fine for what they are, and the packaging is good quality even if the artwork is a bit uninspiring.

Score: 7/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
Rules and setup are a piece of cake.  All you have to do to set up the game is pass out the Robot Body cards to the players and then shuffle the deck of Part and Action cards.  Then deal out starting hands of 3, 4, or 5 cards depending on each player's position in turn order, and you're good to go!
Five robot bodies for up to five players, plus a reference card that pretty much covers the full rules.
The rules for Robot Lab are just as simple.  On your turn you simply play a card from your hand, then discard cards if you like, then refill your hand.  The first player to build their robot wins!  There are a few more details, and some things that can change a turn up a bit, as well as a few cards you can play out of turn, but that's the crux of the game.

When it's your turn the first thing you'll do is play a card.  There are two types of cards: Parts and Actions.  If you play a Part you can build it onto your own robot body, or any other player's robot body.  The goal of the game is to complete your own robot, but in order for a robot to be complete, all attached parts have to be the same color as the body (or wild, rainbow colored parts).  So if you have a part in your color you'll add it to your robot, and something else you'll put on someone else's differently colored robot.
Trying to decide which card to play.
Things get a bit more exciting when you play an action card.  There are two main types of action cards: standard action cards that can only be played on your turn, and bonus actions that can be played on your turn or even someone else's turn.  Three standard action cards let you do research, dig in the trash, or reboot.  Robot Research lets you reveal the top 7 cards from the deck and attach one to your robot or put one card in your hand, and discard the rest.  Dig In the Trash lets you take any card from the discard pile and put it into your hand, and, optionally, if anyone's robot has more parts than yours, play that card.  Reboot lets you discard your entire hand, draw five new cards, and optionally attach a part.  There are also three bonus action cards: Error, Malfunction, and Disassemble.  Error lets you cancel any played card.  Malfunction makes all players with the most parts on their robots discard a card from the robots.  Disassemble cards are almost the same, except the cards can go back into players' hands instead of being discarded.  My copy of the game also has the Kickstarter exclusive Mad Scientist that lets you play any card at all, at the expense of having an empty hand on your next turn.
All the possible action cards, including the Kickstarter exclusive Mad Scientist.
After you've played a card and resolved any effects you may discard cards from your hand.  You can discard any parts of a single color and/or any action cards.  Then you can draw back up to a hand of 5 cards.  Turns continue until someone has completed their robot.
A completed robot.  It's all green and wild!
Score: 7/10 x2

The gameplay is very simple.  There really aren't any hard decisions in the game and it relies very heavily on luck.  There are a sufficient number of different part cards in different colors, and a good distribution of action cards, so you always feel like there's something you can do.  Rarely though does something jump out as being an exciting move.
The game is all about messing with your opponents. 
RobotLab is a light take-that game, however the take-that actions don't seem to be very mean.  It's casual enough where you can play with the family without fear of Monopoly style arguments (usually anyway).  However, the game is all about screwing over your neighbor, either by adding incorrect parts to their robots or by causing them to remove parts from their robots.  The problem is though, there's no way to purposely modify your own robot.  If someone sticks your red robot with a green head the only way to clear that out is to add enough other parts to your robot so that you have the most parts, then play a Malfunction or Disassemble card.
Bonus action cards can be used to prevent someone from winning. 
Or you can choose to not play then so the game finally ends.
We also found that the action cards were a bit confusing.  Disassemble and Malfunction are so similar that we wondered why have both, and it was actually on my second playthrough before I realized that one made you discard the part and the other let you keep it in your hand.  The first time we played we missed that you could only play the card you gained from Dig In the Trash if your robot didn't have the most parts.

A better variety of actions, instead of having two nearly identical options, would have been nice.  There really needs to be a way to purposefully manipulate your own robot, too.  Without that control we found that the game dragged on a bit too long and was driven more by luck and vindictiveness than any real strategy.  In fact, every game I played ended, not because someone won, but because someone else decided not to stop the person from winning.  Every game overstayed it's welcome by about 10 minutes.
A lack of meaningful decisions and heavy reliance on luck makes the game drag.
If you're looking for a very casual, lighter take-that game that can be played with younger kids, or by a group of adults wanting to chat more than focus on playing a game, RobotLab might be for you.  Just be aware that games can drag on if players decide to be especially cruel to each other.

Score: 5/10 x3

With the right players I can see RobotLab being played repeatedly.  It's casual enough that it'll be easy to pull out occasionally, but for my group it's much too light.  Even as a filler, the lack of control and drastically variable play length isn't something my group is interested in.  Some people may find the auto-play feel to their liking, especially if they want to socialize instead of pay close attention to a game.  However for the groups that I game with, including my family, this doesn't have much replay value.  I'd be surprised if it ever hits the table again.
The kids had fun, but there are other games that they would prefer to play.
Score: 4/10 x1

General Fun:
RobotLab starts out feeling like it'll be fun, and even a bit silly (my sons like to put robot arms in the leg spots and legs in the arm spots, and heads wherever they'll fit), but quickly the novelty of the game wears thin.  Every game I played felt like it should have ended at least 10 minutes before it did, and every game ended simply because the players got tired of stopping each other from winning.  With the right group I could see RobotLab being fun to play, but mostly because it would be something to do while visiting, not because the game itself is fun or exciting.
RobotLab has it's moments, but it's mostly because of the company you keep, not so much the game.

Score: 4/10 x2

Overall Value:
RobotLab retails for $20 and can be picked up from or possibly in your FLGS, especially if you're in the Chicagoland area.  This is a little on the high end for a game with less than 100 cards, but it's not overly expensive.  The nice box and insert give the game a higher end feel, which helps justify the price, too.  Unfortunately I don't feel the gameplay is worth $20, but your mileage may vary.
$20 is the most I'd pay for a game like this, but $12-$15 would be more what I'd expect this to cost. 
Score: 6/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
Sadly, I wasn't overly impressed with RobotLab.  The game plays smoothly enough, but tended to go on longer than we'd have liked.  I think the game would play best at 2 or 3 players.  With 4 or 5 players there's just too much opportunity to mess with your opponents, or to be messed with, and games feel like they'll never end.  As I mentioned above, every game I played overstayed it's welcome, and only ended because players decided not to prevent someone from winning.
The kids enjoyed building robots with appendages in weird places.
My other big complaint about the game is with how it is marketed.  I hinted at this in the section about components and packaging, and I'll expound on it here.  RobotLab bills itself as a STEM-inspired game.  The packaging implies that you'll be doing stuff in the game that relates to science, technology, engineering, and math.  Right on the front of the box it says it is a "deceptively simple race for science".  You might be tempted to pick this up for your kids to spark their interest in those subjects, because of course building robots is going to be exciting.  However, aside from having cute robot artwork and a few techie sounding words in the flavor text and art, this game has absolutely nothing to do with science, technology, engineering, or math.  This is about as inspired by STEM as Uno is inspired by Hispanic culture.  I was hoping for more after reading the description on the box, so I was pretty disappointed with the simple set collecting mechanics with a bit of take-that and very little control.
RobotLab is a color matching game.  There's nothing scientific about it.
So, who would this be good for?  It's a good game to play with younger kids.  I'd recommend ages 6-10, and no more than three players.  It's also a good game to play with adults who are more interested in socializing than paying attention to a game.  If you don't care how long the game plays, or how close you have to watch the game, or whether or not someone actually wins, this is a fine social distraction.  This isn't for anyone looking for any kind of serious decisions, and not for anyone looking for something that is truly STEM related.

Overall Score: 54/100

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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