What is the Best FRC Game? (And Where Could Stronghold Fall?)

Every year, the cycle of Chief Delphi repeats itself; “Mentors do everything on team XXXX”, “Why do We Allow Adult Coaches?”, “FRC Tweeted Something Innocuous. Is it a Hint”, and of course “What was the Best FRC Game of All Time”. After seeing this cycle repeat itself for the dozenth time, I could not resist joining the fray this year, especially since a non-zero number of people voted that Recycle Rush was indeed, the best game of the past 15 years.

In order to elevate this exercise above a simple online poll, I’m going to set a few parameters for myself:

  1. I can only rate games that I participated in.
  2. I can’t select the quality of a game based on how my team did that year; good, bad, or indifferent.
  3. Games should be judged based on how they stand up to today’s standards, not the standards of when they were released.
  4. I have to provide solid evidence as to why a game is better than another

It would be easy for me to claim that 1995 is the best game ever, because only a few dozen people are still active in FIRST actually remember the game. I started FIRST as a freshman in high school in 2003 and have been active on a team every year since then, giving me 13 games to choose from. These games were all in the “Alliance Era” of FIRST, took place on a field roughly 50 feet long by 25 feet wide, and included some type of autonomous mode.

When comparing a game that dominated several months of your life, it is very easy to conflate the success of your robot or team with the quality of the game. In order to provide a good article, I have tried very hard to look objectively at the games as a fan of the sport, not as a participant.

It goes without saying that today’s games are more refined than the games of ten years ago. Technology has changed, the internet has been a huge factor in the development of FIRST and its teams, and the folks at HQ have gotten notably better at making cool FRC games.

Providing evidence to my claims is going to be challenging. While it would be easy for me to simply list the games and proclaim my gospel from the mount, I have instead tried to create some sort of a process that should lead me to a “semi-empirical” best game.  I have defined five characteristics that make a great FRC game, and given them each a weight, then ranked each game 1-13 on each attribute (see the table below):

 

Attribute Weight
Match Quality 30 %
Robot Diversity 25 %
Spectator Friendly 20 %
Strategic Diversity 15 %
Originality 10 %

 

Match Quality: Good matches are close, have lots of interaction between alliance members and opposing alliances, include a catch-up mechanism to keep the match close till the end, have few penalties, and are just plain fun to watch.

Robot Diversity:  Quality games should support at least a couple different archetypes of robots, and allow for a great deal of diversity within each archetype. If a game strongly points you down a design path, it’s probably got some issues.

Spectator Friendly: Games should be easy for non-team spectators to understand. Things worth lots of points should be hard to do, and who is winning or losing should be plainly visible to someone with only a 30 second explanation of the rules.

Strategic Diversity:  When matches play out the same way every time, thing’s get boring mighty quick. Matches and games are better when the spectators and the teams are not quite sure what each alliance is going to be doing before the match begins.

Originality: No matter how good a game is, no one want’s to play the same game twice. Games that are too similar to other years can lead to convergent designs or boring game-play, if done poorly.


Before we begin, please note that a LOWER number is better for each characteristic and the composite ranking of all five.

With that, I present the 2003-2015 FRC games, ranked from thirteen to one, starting with the worst game:

 

  1. Recycle Rush (2015)
  • Match Quality: 13
  • Robot Diversity: 11
  • Spectator Friendly: 13
  • Strategic Diversity: 13
  • Originality: 3
  • Composite: 11.5

What more is there to say that has not already been said about Recycle Rush? Matches were, on the whole, boring an extremely repetitive. Spectators were challenged to find excitement with a game that does not allow for strategic diversity, or even interaction between alliances. And while there were some role-players in this year’s game, the only real thing to do in the match is to stack totes and cap them with recycling containers. The one shining light of Recycle Rush is that, while boring, it was original and mold breaking. While we have technically done stacking of objects before, the unique rule set gave teams an intense engineering challenge.

 

  1. Overdrive (2008)
  • Match Quality: 12
  • Robot Diversity: 9
  • Spectator Friendly: 12
  • Strategic Diversity: 12
  • Originality: 5
  • Composite: 10.55

Drive straight, turn left. When your game is based on NASCAR, the sport that is universally panned as being the most boring thing on TV, you have a long row to hoe to hook people in. On the plus side, the dichotomy between fast, lap-running “rabbits” and slower but higher scoring “hurdler” robots gave teams two reasonable options for robot archetypes. But to this day, the phrase “G22” still sends a shiver up the spine of many an unfortunate FIRSTer that lost a match to that dumb penalty.

 

  1. Breakaway (2010)
  • Match Quality: 11
  • Robot Diversity: 12
  • Spectator Friendly: 10
  • Strategic Diversity: 12
  • Originality: 10
  • Composite: 10.2

Robots in 2010 fit into one of three categories: Coffee Table, Roll Cage, or Pyramid. These three generic shapes encapsulate about 95% of all robots in 2010. Game-play was pretty monotonous and lacked any sense of why someone was winning. Many live-scoring games have this issue, but the ones that do it well use scoring actions with a flourish; shooting a huge ball 10 feet into the air, spraying a fusillade of Frisbees into an impossibly narrow goal, or shooting three free throws in four seconds. Slowly rolling a ball along the ground does not evoke the same sense of excitement.

 

    10. Lunacy (2009)

  • Match Quality: 10
  • Robot Diversity: 9
  • Spectator Friendly: 11
  • Strategic Diversity: 9
  • Originality: 4
  • Composite: 9.2

You’ve got to give FIRST some credit for creating a very unique game in Lunacy. Having the robots be the goals their opponents want to score in is very unique, and honestly, a really cool idea! The issue with Lunacy was really execution. Forcing teams to use a particular wheel is very limiting in the way that makes the freedom loving New Hampshire resident in me shudder. The wheels also led to many matches looking more like a group of slow moving blimps wander across the field. In the end though, the human players were the real issue with the game. Even at the highest levels of competition, human players were observed to do 50% of all scoring. That is just WAY too much for a game ostensibly about robots.

  1. Triple Play (2005)
  • Match Quality: 8
  • Robot Diversity: 13
  • Spectator Friendly: 9
  • Strategic Diversity: 5
  • Originality: 7
  • Composite: 8.9

In the next tier above the truly bad games, we have 2005. For me, this was the ultimate conundrum. In-match strategy was at some of its most demanding and exciting in 2005, but almost all other aspects of the game were decidedly “meh”. Matches were plagued by a relatively easy to acquire 30 point “penalty of death”. Einstein in 2005 looked more like a ballet than a robot match, with teams darting back and forth across the field gently placing tetras onto goals. Unfortunately, just like a ballet, it makes you say “wow that’s so cool!” and “wow, this is only marginally interesting” at the same time. The biggest fault of Triple Play has to be with the robot diversity. When there is only one thing you can do in a game, all the robots essentially became the same general robot, just optimized to varying degrees.

 

  1. Stack Attack (2003)
  • Match Quality: 9
  • Robot Diversity: 6
  • Spectator Friendly: 8
  • Strategic Diversity: 11
  • Originality: 2
  • Composite: 7.65

2003 was by far the most defensive game FIRST has made in the last 15 years. After watching the game animation, you may think that this is simply a game about stacking totes. Sadly, our friend entropy dictates that it is always easier to knock over a stack than it is to make one. Most matches could have been shortcut to a 10 second autonomous period to see who could knock over the wall, followed by a 30 second endgame to see who could finish on the top of the ramp. Robots were not the most diverse, but there were certainly role players in the form of autonomous specialists, tote clearing, and king-of-the-hill champions. Stack Attack also brought autonomous mode into all subsequent FIRST games, which is quite seriously one of the most original, novel ideas to come out of FIRST game design.

 

  1. Logo Motion (2011)
  • Match Quality: 6
  • Robot Diversity: 10
  • Spectator Friendly: 5
  • Strategic Diversity: 7
  • Originality: 9
  • Composite: 7.25

“You were the chosen one! You were supposed to bring balance to the [FIRST], not destroy it!”

Obi-Wan Kenobi 

The tragedy of 2011 is a lesson that FIRST has taken to heart ever since that year. I was at the kickoff show in Manchester when the field was revealed. The moment in the game animation that the mini-bots were premiered was by far the most animated I have ever seen a kickoff crowd of any kind. Fast forward four months to the Championship, and everyone hated them. At regionals however, minibots proved to be exciting, interesting, and lead to some very intense matches. Audiences were treated with an exciting match that crescendoed in a head to head race.

Beyond the minibots, the game suffered from some hard to see, back breaking penalties, the reuse of hanging tubes on racks from previous seasons, and the lack of diversity in robots, especially as the season went on.

 

  1. Rebound Rumble (2012)
  • Match Quality: 5
  • Robot Diversity: 4
  • Spectator Friendly: 2
  • Strategic Diversity: 8
  • Originality: 12
  • Composite: 5.3

Rebound Rumble marks the start of the “good” games on this list. Scoring balls was a serious challenge for many teams, but a challenge in the good way. It was no longer good enough to just spray objects at a target in an attempt to score points. Precision, practice, and a solid design were the keys to success. When robots were scoring, seeing them drain shots was super exciting, and very easy for spectators to grok. While most matches were as simple as “shoot baskets, shoot more baskets, then ramps”, there was some room for strategic thought depending on where each robot should go, when to ramp, and if you should do a co-op with the other alliance. The one downside to the game is that in many respects, it’s the best parts of two other games (2001 and 2006) smashed together with a little spice thrown in to make it unique.

 

  1. Aerial Assist (2014)
  • Match Quality: 7
  • Robot Diversity: 2
  • Spectator Friendly: 7
  • Strategic Diversity: 3
  • Originality: 6
  • Composite: 5.05

I’m brave enough to admit when I’m wrong, so I’ll say I was dead wrong about this game. At kickoff, I was afraid of working with my partners, and thought the concept was too simplistic to be a good game. It turns out, the things I thought were the game’s weaknesses were its strengths. As the game developed and defense took on a less prevalent role, robot archetypes and specialties took shape. Often, the top seeded team at an event would make the smart choice by picking not the second best robot at the event, but the 40th! While the game did have derivative elements, the idea of assists and shooting such a massive object game them a new and refreshing twist. If the game did fail in one respect, it was a little hard for spectators to understand what was going on until they saw a few matches.

 

  1. Ultimate Ascent (2013)
  • Match Quality: 4
  • Robot Diversity: 7
  • Spectator Friendly: 3
  • Strategic Diversity: 4
  • Originality: 8
  • Composite: 4.95

Close behind Aerial Assist is Ultimate Ascent. Matches in 2013 were dynamic and faced paced, with lots of last second hangs, and some spectacular falls from the top of the pyramid. For a spectator, what could be easier to understand than “shoot Frisbees, then shoot more!” As the season went on, strategies developed based around a mix of full field shooting, “shuttling” discs from the human player to the pyramid for easy scoring, scoring in autonomous, climbing to the top of the pyramid, and playing defense. In the end, all these strategies were viable if used in proper combinations and executed well. Despite the different kinds of robots, the premier of Robot in 3 Days led many teams down one road, leading to a ton of Ri3D clones across all levels of competition. But hey, whatever works!

 

  1. Rack ‘n Roll (2007)
  • Match Quality: 3
  • Robot Diversity: 3
  • Spectator Friendly: 6
  • Strategic Diversity: 2
  • Originality: 11
  • Composite: 4.25

This game is probably the hidden gem of FRC. While simple on the surface, the number of different strategies and combinations of robots was nearly limitless. Placing tubes at the correct positions on the rack based on what your opponents were doing was vital. Quality ramp bots were at a premium at most events, leading many teams to have to make a difficult decision to try to win with ramps, or gamble on the rack ending in their favor. Spectators could easily see who was leading on the rack, and whether or not a robot was lifted by its alliance partner (whether the lift was for 15 or 30 points was a little less clear). This game falls into the category of “good stuff” games along with 2012 and 2004, where the GDC added good elements from previous games to create an overall great game. I guess if it isn’t broke…

 

  1. Aim High (2006)
  • Match Quality: 2
  • Robot Diversity: 5
  • Spectator Friendly: 4
  • Strategic Diversity: 10
  • Originality: 1
  • Composite: 4.20

Barely edging out 2007 is what many consider to be FIRST’s best game of the 3v3 era. Aim high had so many unique and new elements; timed periods of a match, restrictions on leaving your frame perimeter, winning autonomous period, BUMPERS, and most importantly, shooting! While strategic diversity was pretty limited in a game that mostly required teams to score early, then score often, it’s hard to argue that the game was anything but totally cool through and through. Shooting balls, and having a dedicated offense and defense period are probably some of the simplest things you can explain to a spectator. With the exception of a couple sets of clones and triplets, you’d be hard pressed to find two teams with closely related designs.

 

Well, with 12 down and one to go, the winner is…

 

  1. FIRST Frenzy: Raising the Bar (2004)
  • Match Quality: 1
  • Robot Diversity: 1
  • Spectator Friendly: 1
  • Strategic Diversity: 1
  • Originality: 13
  • Composite: 2.2

OK, so to get it out of the way, 2004 is basically the best parts of the 1999, 2000 and 2002 games thrown together into an amalgamation of robotic competition excellence. Also…the name is kinda weak.

Once you get past originality, this game has every element a good game should have. With so many different, evenly balanced game objectives to complete, each match was a blank slate that could be approached from tons of different angles. The four PVC goals acted like graduated cylinders, making it easy for teams and spectators to see who had more points than the other. Hanging off the incredibly high bar also made for some unforgettable battles for supremacy that left more than one bot on its back. Robots came in many different shapes and sizes with different strengths and weaknesses. Very few robots could do everything in the game, with even fewer doing everything well. All of these aspects create an environment where matches require great teamwork, defense, smart match play, and some last second heroics to secure victory. Anyone who played this game and has continued with FIRST will say that 2004 is the best game, by far, and with good reason.

hanging_mess


 

While the end result of who was on top and who was on bottom was not a surprise to me, the fact that 2005 scored so poorly and 2007 scored so well were huge shockers to me. I don’t claim to be 100% perfect with these rankings, but it is certainly an entertaining exercise.

So there is one modern FRC game that I didn’t mention, which is Stronghold, of course. It is obviously WAY too early to judge where this game sits on the list, but from a originality standpoint, it is giving 2006 a run for its money. Being able to set the field up how you wish is something that many people never thought was possible in an FRC game. While shooting balls into low and high goals is pretty common at this point, every other aspect of this game is so cool and unique, it is easy to overlook the shooting aspect. Stronghold is also likely to be spectator friendly, with lights everywhere, a lot of varied match situations, and a really solid and well executed theme that just about everyone can relate to.

Check back at the end of the season to see where I think Stronghold belongs in the FRC pantheon. Until then, be sure to leave a comment on your thoughts!

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s