Atlantic Robot League offers inspiration. You inhabit the role of a savvy gambler, placing indiscriminate bets on mile high robots slugging away at each other. It’s the kind of dramatic far-future concept I’d liken to Robot Jocks meets The Cincinatti Kid. Plus, it’s a Wizkids game. I don’t embrace all of their releases, but Zev Schlasinger does a fantastic job in selecting quirky off-beat designs. I’m never quite sure what one of their titles will deliver. I’m in for that mystique.
There is an interesting duality of mechanical spheres in this small box. At a high level exists an expectation of something like Reiner Knizia’s Colossal Arena. But it’s more peculiar than that.
There is a primary betting element. First you pick which team of robots you assume will have the most survivors, which will be the first to fall, and which will dish out the most knockouts. You then mark a pentafecta – which is two magnitudes better than a trifecta – of specific mechs that you believe will be the final five standing at the end of this brisk 20-minute game.
This seems somewhat random and built on hope, just as selecting the trifecta of finishers is in an actual race. But you will have some mild intuitions. If the yellow team – the “Beasts of the East” – were randomly slotted into mostly outside spaces of the arena, you may feel they have a better probability of achieving most survivors, and then are likely to also pick a couple of their robots among the final five. It’s mostly a guess, sure, which is odd as it’s a crucial element of scoring.
ARL admits as such by allowing you to spend currency in the middle of the game to adjust your pentafecta selections. The clever bit is that it can only be performed until the first faction has been eliminated. This puts a natural tension upon holding off in nudging your betting card until the last possible moment versus waiting too long, which is a devastating mistake.
Still, it struggles to shake off the notion that players who luck into strong opening bets are simply better off. Sure, you play multiple rounds to increase the sample size and reduce variance, but that doesn’t fundamentally change how the game is experienced or felt. You shrug at the box and it just shrugs back.
This would be enough of a concept to form a game. It wouldn’t be a terribly strong one, but it would work and have a sense of internal consistency. Yet, Atlantic Robot League and designer Camden Cutter want more.
So, there’s this whole nother abstract system of shuffling mechs around and removing targets that are KO’d.
It’s odd. You just slide a bot orthogonally to an open space, and then remove an adjacent target if their team appears on the attacker’s tile. You see, each mechanized gladiator has two teams which they can harm. This synthesizes with the random dealing of tile positions to produce a puzzle of sorts. Your options are pretty narrow though, as you only have a couple of movement options with clear meaning. Much of the impact of your action trickles down to future turns.
Sometimes you can purchase special cards that allow for a momentary boost or breaking of the normal rules structure, but often things don’t align. Instead, there’s this illusion of control concerning the intersection of your betting card with your arena action. It never really materializes, however.
What’s strange about this sub-game is that it’s so cerebral and slow. It collides unfavorably with the fervor of betting and the natural speed of such a light and brisk gaming experience. There’s no random element to the movement so you can sit there and plot away, considering a number of different moves and how they impact the future. It’s as much about limiting your opponent’s agency as it is about pursuing your own gains.
This also results in interminably sluggish play at higher participant counts. This design feels like it should be positioned at the edge of the party-game spectrum – much like Long Shot: the Dice Game – but it actually degrades with more participants. With an increased turnstile number, it’s simply too unpredictable between turns to plan ahead. This weighs down the pace of play. You also have less say in how things play out, so it further emphasizes the shortcomings of the highly random betting structure.
It does perform somewhat better with fewer participants, but it still never quite reconciles its dichotomized game systems. There are more moments where the connectivity between the two mechanical domains is realized, but they’re still limited in scope and occasionally feel incidental. But the pace is snappier and it’s a little more freewheeling. From the unreality of a vacuum, it comes close to earning its keep in this format. In reality, it fails to elevate its status commensurate with the sheer quantity of solid designs with brief time commitments that already exist in the marketplace.
The real failing here is that Atlantic Robot League is more enjoyable if you don’t care. There are more smiles when things are moving quickly. There are more laughs when robots are falling like leaves cast from autumn branches. But playing this way ensures poor performance. A design shouldn’t make you choose between success and pleasure. This isn’t life, cold and insufferable, but instead a game which must promise more.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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