Race for the Galaxy is one of the hot games right now. The fans — Brian Bankler, for example, his Tao of Gaming is a must read — are babbling about it a lot, and no wonder, as it really is an excellent game. I once said an ideal game would be a quick card-driven development game with a science fiction setting. Race for the Galaxy is all this.
Well, the theme of the game could be just about anything, as the cards and their functions don’t really connect. I don’t mind, but if you’re looking for a strong theme, this isn’t your game. At least the card art is quite neat and captures the generic science fiction theme well enough.
Production engines in space
Race for the Galaxy is a card-based development or engine game. Like in San Juan, players both build cards and use them as currency to pay for the cards they build. The goal is to get most victory points. Victory points are mostly scored by building cards, but there are also other means.
Each turn is split in five phases: explore, develop, settle, consume and produce. In explore phase players get more cards. Developments are built in develop phase and planets settled in the settle phase. Consume converts the goods on the planets to victory points and cards, while produce creates more goods.
Each player chooses one phase to do each turn. Only the chosen phases are played. Everybody gets to play every phase that is chosen, but the players who choose each phase get special benefits. In explore, for example, everybody draws two cards and keeps one, but the players who choose the action either draws five more cards or draws one more and keeps one more.
Planets and developments
Both planets and developments give bonuses for different actions. Planets may produce goods and both planets and developments can consume goods to produce victory points or cards. The biggest difference between planets and developments is different phases: planets are settled and developments are developed.
However, some planets are military planets and those are different. They aren’t paid in cards, but need to be conquered. Each player starts with a military rating of zero. There are cards that give military bonuses (and minuses) and if your military power is equal or larger than the price of the planet, you can play it for free. That’s an effective way to play worlds, but takes some infrastructure.
There are about 30 card powers and most cards have two or three different powers. That leads to a huge number of different combinations, and indeed, all cards are unique (there are two of some basic developments) even though powers aren’t. If you’ve played San Juan, that would mean that each indigo plant, for example, would produce indigo and have another power (or cheaper price).
The play mechanism is based on simultaneous action selection: phases are selected and played at the same time. That can lead to fast games. With newbies, the game can easily take 45 minutes. Really swift players make it in 15 minutes, while most people will probably take between 20 and 30 minutes per game. That’s very efficient. Number of players doesn’t make a huge difference.
Race for the Galaxy is a deep game, but there’s a fairly strong luck element as well. Of course, better player will draw more cards and will succeed, but unusually good or bad luck can make or break the game. That’s the price for lots of variability and I for one accept it. Flexibility is more important than a set strategy, but some strategic thinking is necessary to win against competent players.
The deepness means that for most folks, it’ll take several games before they get the game. Experience with the cards is necessary and getting hang of the card iconography will take time. Once you get them, the icons on the card are very clear and effective, but it’ll take few games.
This all means that Race for the Galaxy is not a good game if you don’t want to give it enough effort. It’s just not very good for random, casual play. Someone who plays with lots of different people might find the game frustrating, as it is best played with experienced players. Then again, world is full of easy, welcoming games, so I don’t really mind. Instead I cherish this gem of a game, as there’s plenty of learn and new things to figure even after several games.
Another reason for disliking the game would be the lack of interaction. Race for the Galaxy is by no means a multiplayer solitaire game. Only newbies don’t care what their opponents do. However, there are only few things you can do to harm your opponent. Holding on to the key cards they need is one of the most direct actions. So, if direct interaction between players is your thing, look elsewhere.
To me, Race for the Galaxy was the best game of 2007. I’m a huge fan of San Juan, but from the first designer previews at Boardgame News, I knew Race for the Galaxy would be even better. I wasn’t disappointed: this is indeed a rare gem and easily in my all time top 10, after only ten games. It’s just that good.