Anyone who sampled Terminator’s recent big-screen revival might well be convinced that a time where machines run the world is inevitable, but thankfully, right now you’d be hard pushed to find a robot that can delve much beyond opening a tin of soup for you. They might well have the brains, but our tech-laden friends just don’t have the personality to push us off the top spot. Well, that’s apart from the robots in Reiner Knizia’s Robot Master, of course.
Though world domination might not be in its remit, Robot Master is a puzzler that attempts to combine the kind of mathematical excellence so mastered by machines with the fun fuelled play more akin to us humans – and that’s an aim it arguably pulls off with some style. Played out on 5 x 5 grid, Robot Master seemingly takes place within an android factory production line, but it’s actually just a case of combining numbered cards to create the highest possible score.
In the main solo mode, you have to place a series of cards on the grid in random order, all with face values of between 0 and 5. The value of each card you place is then applied to the total for the row, both vertically and horizontally, the idea being to lift the values of each and every line, the lowest one at the end of the game being taken as your final score. The trick is to place two or more cards along each column, two matching cards from 1-5 multiplying the card’s face value, three of any number adding 100 points to the row’s total.
Of course, it’s not as simple as dropping cards down wherever you’d like willy-nilly. Naturally, conditions apply, new cards only able to be placed on squares that touch cards already on the grid. This makes playing each card a case of looking ahead and seeing where it might prove most useful in the future, even if the cards it needs to multiply aren’t yet on the grid.
With just 25 free squares on the grid at the start of play compared to the 36 cards (six of each value) available in each match, you can never guarantee that the card you need will pop up in time, making branching out and taking a risk a necessity rather than a dangerous opportunity.
Accommodating this set up into your style of play is easier said than done, but the key to getting the best score out of each line is to try and keep the variety of cards on each row down to just two, both a triple and a pair making up the line-up and sending the score sky high. It can be very easy to get distracted, matching up pairs on lines already top-heavy with points, neglecting rows with scant totals until it’s far too late, the line with the lowest current total showing up in red.
Things only get ramped up when you add another player into the fold (whether controlled by a friend, passing the phone between you, or the game itself), the aim remaining the same, but one player taking charge of the the vertical lines, the other horizontal. Here you have to make sure that each card you place helps you more than it does your rival, the temptation to place each card where it best suits you offset by the fact that doing so might actually hand them a bundle of points that plays you out of contention.
But it’s the appeal of those short, sharp solo sessions that really is Robot Master’s bread and butter, the longing to post a higher and higher score, uploading it to the game’s worldwide league table, drawing you back in for another thrash. Its mecha mania may be nothing more but window dressing, but Robot Master’s ability to dominate your playtime, convincing you that a sky-high total is just one more game away, is about as marvellously mechanical as a game can get.