VEX In the Zone logoIf you are a coach or mentor out there reading this, I implore you to learn the rules like the back of your hand. (Act fast! Download your rule book today!) As a mentor, you should know the rules at least as well as any student on your team, and hopefully much better than that.

Why, exactly? First, the manual has rules about the construction of the robot—maximum dimensions, motors allowed, non-VEX parts allowed (or not)—and what’s permissible (or not) during match play. It’s your responsibility as a coach or mentor to keep your kids from going down a brainstorming–>prototyping–>building avenue that is out of spec, or that relies on a strategy that is actually against the rules. Alternately, teams can build a robot that doesn’t make use of the rules in the most effective way, and end up with a robot with lower capabilities than their competitors because “we didn’t know you were allowed to do that.”

Learning the rule book, in order of priority:

  1. In The Zone - game manual coverPrint out a hard copy that you can write on, including Appendix B (Skills Challenge Rules) and Appendix A (Field Specifications). Keep this copy where it can be consulted conveniently in your lab (I put mine in one of those manila folders with the 3-hole-punch metal “wings”). It’s easy to look things up if the rule manual is close at hand. Without it, it’s easy to ignore those small questions that turn out to have been really important. (Yes, yes, paper is old-school, but in this case it’s much, much better than reading the game manual PDF on an iPhone.)
  2. Know pages 3–17 “The Game” like nobody’s business. Getting there will require reading the manual more than once. (I recommend 3 times.) Get yourself a highlighter and a pen; make notes in the margins, underline things, circle things, whatever. And when you read it the second time (or the third), pay close attention to the things you didn’t highlight last go-around and see if you missed anything; it’s really easy to miss small details that make a huge difference. Sometimes the “robot-speak” of the rule manual obscures things on first read.
    • In The Zone - Skills Challenge rulesWhile you’re in rule-mode, read Appendix B – The Robot Skills Challenge. Skills challenge involves your team’s robot, on the field by itself, scoring as many points as possible in 60 seconds. There are separate scores for Driver Skills (student/joystick controlled) and for Programming Skills (same thing, but completely autonomous for the full 60 seconds); the total of the 2 scores is your team’s skills score that’s used for rankings. Skills Challenge has very similar rules to regular match play, but there are always a few wrinkles given that it’s not a 2-on-2 match. You need to know what the differences are between skills and match play. Again, know it like nobody’s business.
  3. Read pages 25–32 “The Robot” very closely. Take notes; highlight stuff. This section doesn’t change tremendously from year to year, but you still have to read all of it and understand exactly what building restrictions and limitations are in place for this year’s game, because something in there is going to be different from last year.
  4. Pages 18–24 “The Tournament” are critical to read if you’re new to VEX or maybe just have one season under your belt. This section explains how rankings are established: win points, autonomous points, and strength-of-schedule points (the latter being extremely confusing to all but the initiated). This section also describes how the alliance selection/playoff system works (also a bit mind-boggling if you’ve never seen it before). If you’re already familiar with tournament play, you still need to read this section once, thoroughly.
  5. Appendix A, Field Specifications. At first glance, this seems like an assembly manual for putting together a field perimeter. Yes, there are pages devoted to that; there are also the following very useful pages:
    • Page 3 has an excellent “skyline” view showing the game setup, as seen side-on. It gives you a better sense of the height of the different game pieces.
      In the Zone game pieces, side view
    • Page 9 shows exactly where to put down the white tape lines.
    • Page 17 has a complete list of all of the game pieces and where they will be placed at the start of the match.
    • Pages 21–27 show the exact dimensions of every single game element, like this:
      In The Zone -base dimensions      In The Zone - cone dimensions

Keep Tabs on the Forum

Even after all this reading, there will most likely still be things that you’ve overlooked. (This is not an insult! This happens to me every year!) So I also strongly recommend looking periodically at the VEX Forum, both in the Official In The Zone Q&A and the general In The Zone discussion. We’re all busy people, I get it; the good news is that you don’t have to read all of every post to learn stuff. First, look at the comment count over in the far-right column; a “0” means that no one has responded to that question at all, so you may just want to skip those until your next Forum visit.

Official In The Zone Q&A Forum

Start by cruising the Official Q&A channel first; questions here are answered by the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Many threads are answered by the famous Karthik himself, and each thread here is only one-item long because this channel permits no back-and-forth discussion. People ask a question, VEX answers it, and that’s the end of the story. Pay close attention to questions around specifically-named rules, especially if there’s a lot of questions about one particular rule. When you see this, there’s probably some subtlety in the rule’s wording that you have not yet noticed. In the game manual, rules are written something like <G6> for the 6th item listed in “The Game” section, or <R2> for the 2nd item in “The Robot” section, and people often reference these rules by name when they have a question.

General In The Zone Forum

Next go to the general In The Zone discussion forum; start by reading the topic titles and focus on ones related to strategy, rules, restrictions/limits, etc. (Beware, it’s easy to get sucked into reading long, not-related-to-the-rule-book threads.) Dive in!

Come Back! The Forum Is Lonely Without You!

Come back to the VEX Forum once a week or so and catch up on what the rest of the world has been talking about for this game; the Forum is basically crowd-sourcing ideas for you from all over the world—make the most of it!

Rules Updates Ahead!

If you’re a new coach out there, or this is your first time really diving into the rule book, it’s easy to overlook this tidbit on page 14:

All rules in this manual are subject to changes, and are not considered official until August 17th, 2017. We do not expect any major changes to take place, however we do reserve the right to make game changes until August 17th, 2017. There will also be scheduled manual updates on June 15th, 2017 and April 5th, 2018.

a. The Game Design Committee reserves the right to make changes to this manual in the April 5th, 2018 release specifically for the VEX Robotics World Championship. Specific items which will be considered for changes are the number of Cones and Mobile Goals.

What?!? These aren’t the final rules??? Yes, it’s true, these may not be the final rules that we will play by. However, we’re not going to all-of-a-sudden be picking up balls instead of cones, but there may be very important minor changes that affect your team’s strategy or the specifics of what you are permitted to do at various points in the game. In addition, there are often slight changes to game definitions or changes that serve to clarify an existing rule that may have had ambiguous wording.

Mark your calendars now for June 15th and August 17th—set an alert for those dates to remind you to get online and check. (I’m serious about that; it’s the middle of summer, and you will probably be thinking of other stuff.)

Incorporate the Changes into Your Hard Copy

You may have to poke around the forum to find a thread that just lists the changes; this saves you from having to do some crazy side-by-side comparison of versions to figure out what’s new. But wait! I’ve already highlighted & carefully marked up my current copy of the rules; do I have to do it all again?!? Well, what I did last year was print out the pages with the updated items, cut out the specific rules that were new, and tape them into my book, on top of the old rules. Sometimes you have to be creative here, since the new rules may take up more space on the page. Or you could cross out the old rule in your book and insert the new page after the existing page with the new stuff highlighted. You get the idea.

I’ll say it again here in closing: Mentors and Coaches, learn the rule book like the back of your hand!