The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Race for the Galaxy Review

For the last three years, I’ve played the prototype version of Race for the Galaxy at the Gathering. In ’05, I played almost as many times as all other games combined that week. We’d start, and a few hours later I’d keep saying — “One more.” It’s a mantra, every 20-30 minutes “Another.”

I’ve had access to Race for 25 days, and it’s already pushing 75 plays. This year I held back, because I “knew” it would be out in July. (Cough cough). I have the most plays logged on BGG, but others have thousands of games. It’s not just me.

As you can guess from the title, the theme is Science Fiction empire building. Players colonize (or capture) worlds, develop technologies, and conduct commerce. The mechanics are similar to San Juan, one of the rare titles I rate a ’10.’ As a player, you hold a hand of cards. To build you play a card face up in front of you (“In your tableau” according to the rules) and discard cards from hand to pay for it.

Until a card is in your tableau, it’s just currency. Once down, you get the card’s abilities & victory points.

Like San Juan, each player selects one role a turn. Unlike San Juan, this choice is simultaneous. Each player has a small deck of roles and selects the one they want (along with the privilege, if there are multiple choices). Only the selected roles are activated, and in a set order. All player(s) who select the role get the privilege.

So everyone picks a role, then you conduct the selected phases (only) in order.

Explorer — All players get two cards from the deck, and keep one. There are two privileges. One lets you draw and keep an extra card. The other lets you draw five extra cards.

Develop — Roughly half the cards are developments, and during the develop phase you can build one. Anyone who choose Developer pays one card less.

Settle — The other half are worlds. Most worlds are purchased like developments … you pay their cost during the settle phase. Anyone who Settled gets a one-card rebate (after settling) as the privilege. A few worlds are Military Worlds. You don’t pay anything for them, but must have a military rating equal to the worlds to conquer it. [You build developments or settle/conquer certain worlds to raise your military rating].

Worlds typically allow you to produce (and consume) goods. A few worlds (“Windfall worlds”) don’t produce goods, but start with one when they are settled. You use goods when you

Consume — Consumption works like shipping in Puerto Rico. Most worlds can have a good (represented by placing a card from the deck under the world). During the consume phase, these goods are spent for victory points (or cards from the deck). Consumption requires demand: a world (or development) with a ‘consume’ power. It isn’t automatic. But if you do have consume power(s), you must use them all. A typical consume power might be “Consume a Genes good for 1 VP and draw 1 Card” or “Consume any good for a 1 VP.”

There are two privileges associated with consumption. One is “Trade,” which lets you consume a good for 2-5 cards (depending on type). The other doubles any victory points you earn that phase.

Produce — During production you replace all goods on (non-windfall) worlds. The privilege lets you produce one good on a windfall world.

The game ends at the end of the turn when the bank runs out of VP tokens, or one player builds a 12th card. If not, then you just repeat — Select roles, reveal, resolve phases in order.

Simple rules, complex decisions. There’s a lot going on. That’s why I love it.

Almost every card is unique. 95 (or so) different cards in the base set. That’s plenty of variety and combinations. You agonize over which cards to let go as payment. Spend it and you aren’t likely to see it again. Sometimes the best decision is to spend it all for the big income production, but other times you want to keep a great combination.

The abilities vary. Practically every power from San Juan exists, and tons more. Most abilities are represented by icons, but a few tricky ones have a line or two of english (or whichever language your set is in). Expensive (6 cost) cards provide a chunk of victory points at the end, but these also provide benefits earlier. Building a City Hall (or Guild Hall) early in San Juan is suicide. Forming the Galactic Federation as your first card is reasonable.

So you not only have more cards, they have a wider range when they can hit the table. Additionally, each player starts with a “homeworld.” This differentiates the players from turn 1. New Sparta plays differently from Alpha Centauri.

All told, Race for the Galaxy’s replay value dwarfs its predecessors.

The simultaneous selection of roles completely changes the nature of the game. Often you’ll choose between a safe play to guarantee a necessary role, or gamble that someone else picks it.

A typical example — playing Consume/Trade when you don’t have goods available. If someone settles, you can colonize a windfall world (which starts with a good). You are swinging for the fences … either a home-run or a strike out. [Note that production won’t help you, since it occurs after settling]. This turns role selection from a “what’s my best move” tactical analysis to a “what are they going to do?” guessing game.

Honestly, I don’t always like that. But I don’t mind here. First of all, Race is a fast game. Guess wrong and fall behind, you only need wait a bit (if you absolutely can’t recover). The simultaneous selection also allows the nature of each game to change quickly. [This wouldn’t be true of a blind-bidding system … which just changes who gets what]. Other games with role selection have one phase per player … here the number varies. This means leads aren’t as safe … you may build up a big hand between getting new cards, or have to race. Given two distinct ‘builder’ phases, Zero, One or Two cards may be built each turn.

I’ve played hundreds of games of San Juan and Puerto Rico, but they don’t feel that different than the first fifty. I still enjoy the optimizing, but I’m nowhere near that with Race.

That’s also due to the complex economics. There’s ramping production, but its acceptable to miss builds for a good combination (or a great card). Alien goods trade for more cards, but with the right consumption powers you’d prefer “cheaper” goods. This makes combinations more important. I’ve (probably) played every card in the game … but I doubt I’ve played every two card combination. If I’ve done the math right, it takes 67 games just to accomplish that feat, assumeing you build to 12 cards each game, and were optimal. (And assuming build order doesn’t matter).

You can see how people who like this sort of thing play a handful of times at a sitting, and wind up with hundreds, or thousands, of plays. Some people are wondering if Race is “Good value for the money.” If I buy a copy and never play again, I’m around $1/hour. I suspect I’ll be dropping that number considerably.

By now you know that I love this game. Will you love it? I hope so, but who knows?. Who doesn’t like it? People who dislike simultaneous action selection. People who prefer abstracts and games with simple rules and little-to-no chrome.

Regarding art and component quality. For me, this is an afterthought … literally. I learned the game on playing cards with labels stuck to them. If they sold that, I’d be happy. As it is, the cards sport excellent art. It’s superior to several CCGs I liked (Netrunner and INWO). Race also boasts first-rate graphic design. Most cards only have simple icons. That should minimize rules questions (always an issue in games with items that modify/break rules).

Race for the Galaxy is one of my few ’10s’. Its in the 99th percentile of games, and possibly my favorite game ever (ask again in a year). My long wait has almost ended.

Update: I posted this review on BGG, and answered questions there.

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Written by taogaming

October 6, 2007 at 8:15 pm

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