Review: Race for the galaxy (Board Games)
- Release Date (NA): May 4, 2018
- Release Date (EU): May 4, 2018
- Release Date (JP): May 4, 2018
- Publisher: Rio Grande Games
- Developer: Thomas Lehmann
- Genres: Card, Strategy, hand management
- ESRB Rating: Everyone 10 and up
- PEGI Rating: Twelve years and older
- Also For: Android, Computer
Most games can be learned by watching. You see someone do some moves, get a bit of an explanation and might start playing before you fully understand everything. Race for the galaxy isn't such game. Seeing it played raises more questions than it answers, and I'm not sure if actually playing the game for the first time is any better. Teaching isn't easy either. Honestly: I really don't want to start out with a negative point, but the review would simply not be fair otherwise. This game IS difficult to learn. Once you get to know it, it's not that hard, but it took me at least ten games before I started to really grasp everything. The flipside, however, is that this isn't just a "good" game: it's at least great and potentially brilliant.
A failed attempt at explaining the game
If at all possible, I would suggest you take a look at the card game San Juan first. Like race for the galaxy, it's a management style game where you have a hand of cards of which you'll play some by using others as currency. In other words: each card has a casting cost of "X other cards" from your hand. The cards you play and the actions you'll take will earn you new cards and/or extra victory points. At the end of the game, the player with the most victory points wins.
Like San Juan, all individual cards are either production cards or enhancements (here: planets or developments). The former tend to have gameplay mechanics to allow you to draw more cards, while the latter have different ways to influence your hand card and/or victory points count. These gameplay mechanics are parts of phases that might occur in a round. And that 'might' depends on whether players pick them or not: either game has more possible phases than there are players, so players pick one they want to happen. Then the phase happens, but the one who picked it gets a bonus. This mechanic isn't entirely the same for San Juan and Race for the Galaxy, but it seriously helps if you've played the former. The reason: San Juan is basically a simplified and streamlined race for the galaxy. The latter has a whole lot more bells and whistles to it, has all sorts of exceptions and lots of iconography. As I'll (attempt to) explain later, this creates many different routes to victory. However, it also boosts complexity a lot. I mean...I know San Juan, and rememeber struggling a lot with things (and that's with the android app doing the bookkeeping, mind you). For now, you've got to accept that the game is not more complex than it needs to be. In time, you might start to realize there's a sort of balance and elegance in it that is simply put beautiful.
Luckily, the basics are pretty straightforward:
* your goal is to have the most victory points at the end of the game.
* Each card you play gives you an amount of victory points
* you start with one starting planet in play, and six cards in hand...of which you immediately have to discard two
* selling goods can also gives you victory points. These points are taken from a stack in the middle of the table
* the hand limit is ten cards
* this point stack consists of 12 points per participating player (so 24 for 2 players, up to 48 for four players)
* the game is played in rounds. Each round starts by the participants picking a phase. A round consists of all the chosen phases
* the game lasts until the round wherein at least one person builds his/her twelfth item on the table OR when the stack of victory point tokens runs out
You all with me so far? Okay...time to get more complex...
The different phases
Rounds in race for the galaxy start with each player secretly choosing the phase they want to happen. Once everyone has chosen, the phases are revealed and put into order (the phases have a fixed order). The kicker is that phases don't just happen to you...they happen for everyone. The person choosing the phase just gets a benefit. If two or more people have turned out to have chosen the same phase, they both (all) get the benefit, but the phase is just played out once.
And to make things a bit more complex: two of the five available phases have two different benefits for the person choosing them. This means that when choosing a phase you have seven options, but when playing them out there are only five of 'em.
Let's see them in detail:
1a) explore (+5,+1)
Benefit: the person choosing this phase draws five cards, then discards all but one of these.
1b) explore (+3,+2)
Benefit: the person choosing this phase draws three cards, then discards one of these
Others: everyone else draws two cards and keeps one of these
Benefit: the person choosing this phase can play a development, at one less than the cost mentioned.
Others: everyone else can play a development as well, but they'll have to pay the full price
Benefit: the person choosing this phase can play a planet, and may draw a card afterwards
Others: everyone else can play a planet as well, but won't get to draw a card afterwards
4a) consume (trading)
Benefit: you can trade the goods of one of your planets for a certain number of cards, depending on the planet color. Afterwards, trigger all consume powers
4b) consume (double victory points)
Benefit: triggers all consume powers. If these'll give you victory points, they'll give you twice the amount of victory points instead
Others: only trigger all consume powers
Benefit: the person choosing this phase puts a "produce" card on their normal production planets, then one on one of their windfall planets
Others: only produces on normal production planets
Yes...I know this just raises questions. Please stay with me...
How things play out
Those familiar with magic: the gathering (or just about any modern card game) already know this: cards tend to bend rules. Race for the galaxy is no different, and I'm doing my best to talk about the broad generalisation of what the game is about rather than the details. Luckily, the explore phase is simple enough to explain what I mean. Say you want to play a certain planet, but you don't have enough other cards in hand to pay for it. So you pick the second explore phase, mostly to have enough cards to pay for the first planet. However...this normally would let your opponents give 2 cards (of which to discard one), but one has a planet that lets him draw 2 extra cards while the other has a development that lets him keep an extra card. Meaning: your choice is almost better for them than it is for you.
But in the same round, one of these opponents chose to settle. He plays a planet (and gets to draw a card), but because you now have enough other cards to pay for it, you can play what you wanted to play now instead of in the next round. In other words: this time you're benefiting from their choices. It'd be even better if the planet you wanted to play is a regular production planet, and the other opponent has picked the produce phase...in which case you ALSO get to produce on this planet.
You see where this is going? Many planets and developments have this sort of thing going. "trading from this planet gives you three extra cards", "draw a card at the beginning of the develop phase", "produce on any windfall planet", and so on. The game is for a large part a puzzle finding out which card to play, as you'll never be able to play everything (again: your cards in hand double as currency: playing something with a cost of five means you'll have to discard five other cards).
And that's not all. What will invariable happens when you play your first games is that games will end a lot faster than you anticipated. How come opponents suddenly rake in all these victory points and expand their space empire much faster? The answer: they use the opportunities others give them. Let's go back to that explore phase earlier. Your pick shouldn't just consist of something that looks cool or not even just something that'll fit with your empire...it should be playable as well. It's not uncommon that when you play a planet or a development, your opponent(s) decide to do the same thing. Don't just let them get all the fun. Consider playing something when they've chosen a development or settle phase. You can even anticipate their next move to a degree. But of course, you'll need to know more about how the actual games being played...
Developments, planets, windfall and...military?
The most confusing part of race for the galaxy is the iconography. The makers crammed a lot of information in the upper left part of the card, and at first it takes quite some decyphering to know what it all means. I'm not going over everything, but some things are important enough to remember.
-developments: these are the cards with diamonds in 'em. At least these are simple: they provide you the benefit on the card itself. Nothing more, nothing less
-production planets: these are cards with full blue, green, brown or yellow circles in the upper left. Once you get them in play and someone plays the produce-phase, you may put a card on it to show that they're active. The main difference in the colors has to do with the trading, though lots of planets and developments help specific colors.
-windfall planets: very similar to production planets, but in reverse: they come with a production card on them when you play 'em, but it's harder to replenish these planets later on.
-grey planets: these don't do anything by themselves, but they have these abilities that come in handy (meaning: they're just like developments)
-military: a good amount of cards (planets and developments alike) alter your military stance, either positive or negative. The thing is: the planets mentioned above come in two flavors: military and non-military (military has the cost in red letters, non-military in black). The thing is: you can't play military cards unless you have their cost in military power (so if you have two cards on the board saying +1 and +2 military, you can play military cards with cost 3 and below). The positive news is that the amount of military is the ONLY cost -> playing military planets is technically free if you have the amount of military.
Synergy and combo's
I'm undecided whether the title "Race for the galaxy" is an incredibly smart or an incredibly stupid one. Like its sequel (roll for the galaxy, which also contains a gigantic space dice on the cover), the title doesn't mean anything in game. Yes, there are some pretty science fiction'ish themes on the cards, but with different names, art or theme, the game would've worked just as well. And the title means exactly that: you and your opponents race each other to finish the game with the most points. Hardcore science fiction addicts might dislike it for its crammed on theme, but it certainly has its strengths. Most importantly the "I love it when a plan comes together" kind of feature.
What you really want to put on the table are cards that mesh well together. Cards that increase military work well with military planets. If you have more than one windfall planet, a card that lets you produce on a windfall (in addition to what the game allows you to do) helps out. There's a green planet that increases the amount of cards you get for trading blue cards. Got more cards than you can use? Try to play a card that lets you discard cards from your hand for victory points. All in all, your strategy should be to create an 'engine' that first lets you draw more cards, which you'll then use to either play heavy planets or generate more victory points. And more specifically: you need to build such an engine faster than your opponents.
The idea of using cards as currency is a very good way to counter the luck-factor that comes with all card drawing games, but there is a drawback for race for the galaxy: the more cards you have on the table, the more specific cards you'll need to stand a chance. The development cards with a cost of six, for example, all have variable values. They add points to your total for just having planets in one color, give you your military stance in points, and so on. These can bring a massive point difference in the end game (or earlier, if you can manage to play cards that help this development later). Trading a good for one victory point is lousy at the start of the game, but if you have lots of things to trade, it adds up (especially if you use the consume with double the victory points phase).
You might have noticed that thus far, I've mostly talked about race for the galaxy as if it were a singleplayer game. And that's no coincidence: there are no cards that let you steal enemy resources, blow up their planets or sabotage their phases (okay, there are in an expansion...but even then, it's not the main goal). That's probably a good thing, because making sense of what's on your board is difficult enough.
However...your opponents' actions certainly do matter. First and foremost is the end state. One does not simply win race for the galaxy on a whim. It's important to at least somewhat keep track of the amount of planets and developments on the table: the more you fall behind, the harder it'll be to recover. The same goes for the victory points: if someone rakes in six or more of these things in a single turn, the game won't last much longer. Likewise: correctly anticipating what phases your opponents pick, or using the phases to your benefit is key to victory (as an example: I had it where I picked 'settle' because I wanted to build planet A. Someone else wanted to build a development, so I changed plans: instead I discarded planet A for a cheap development that let me build a planet for free...and immediately used it in the same round to build planet B, which I otherwise wouldn't been able to afford).
But I won't deny it: these are advanced tactics. Start out by just learning the game and learning what the cards do. This review at best puts down some basic hooks that'll help. Oh, and the promise that the addiction levels will just keep rising the more you play it.
Once again, I've only played the android app instead of the real game (it's on steam and iOS as well). And in this case, that's a pity, as the game is pretty hard to come by (no wonder...it's over ten years old). Sure, it has some benefits which I'll get into in a minute, but I'd buy this on the spot if I ever see it available in a shop. It's easily worth the asking price (which is about 3 times as much as the mobile or steam version).
But price aside, does the app has benefits? Absolutely. For one, everything works as smooth as you could hope for: playing and discarding cards is intuitive, everything looks and sounds snappy and fluid. It has text and playing tutorials, but while they just provide the rules, the AI is there to get a grasp on how to chain things together.
Speaking of which: the AI. Other reviewers give this praise, and after countless games I can't but agree with them. More so: the hard AI is almost absurdly good for this price point. Getting good at this game not only means recognizing decent combo's, but also anticipation of what cards you might draw and what phases opponents will pick. Nonetheless, I've spotted my computer-enemies doing all of these...on medium level. On hard, the thing just wipes the floor with you. And that's pretty scary if you think about it: this game is wildly different than chess or go...but some guy just coded something in a 10 buck game that (from not only my perspective but from veteran board gamers as well) can just about stand toe-to-toe with algorithms that have been improved upon for decades.
Less spectacular, but very rewarding: the user interface. The more I play, the more I appreciate how the thing looks on a tablet (while playable, I wouldn't recommend it on a phone). The game uses a lot of iconography, but once you get to know it, it's actually a very easy way to quickly glance it. Of course you can always click on the enemy's board to see what he has (and doubleclick on any card to see details, including explanation), but after a while you'll find you have a good summary of what's going on in front of you (even with 4 players), a good overview of what an enemy has in one click and a detailed view in two.
Now that I've learned most cards and have a good idea of the interactions, I can finish a game in about ten to fifteen minutes.
I said it before: this isn't an easy game to start with. But it's even harder to put down. I've heard that there was quite the hype when this game came out. I have missed that. The virtual versions on steam, android and iOS date from 2017, but while it had very favorable reviews, I suspect these are the same people. Which means that it stands the test of time easily. Meaning: people love it even after ten years. And isn't that worth something?
+ A lot of meaningful and interesting choices
+ Figuring out which cards work best together
- Hard to learn (lots of iconography)
- Theme isn't very relevant
This is hard to say, as I've only played the android app (which probably ups things a bit). The cards themselves have artwork you've got to get used to, and the chips are...well...chips. The app has all the snappy sounds and visuals you could ever want.
This is where the game absolutely shines. What do you play, how will you pay for it, how will you get to where you want to go? Figuring this all out is so incredibly rewarding that it's hard to describe. But believe me: when I say that I'd rather be playing it again (with the excuse to try to find out WHY it's so addicting), I mean it. ;-)
I've played and even bought a few other games since I got this game. Even so, I always find myself being drawn in for "yet another play". And that is even more remarkable considering that this game is rather bland for a video game: there are no leaderboards or campaign, and I haven't even bothered to really get my girlfriend to play it (I'm afraid she'll like it so much as well that she'll hog my tablet too much ;-) ).
out of 10
(not an average)
I feel almost bad for not giving the extra 0.7 points. I can't deny that the cons are valid, but these diminish as you play more. But either way: this game is absolutely fantastic. Should you find it in a game store...get it! In the mean time: learn and play it on mobile and/or steam. You won't regret it.