Race for the Galaxy
Category: Card Game
Designer: Thomas Lehmann
Publisher: Rio Grande Games (2018 English edition)
Year Published: 2007
Playing Time: 30 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play
The year: 2002. The game? Puerto Rico, a strategy game set in and around the Spanish colony of San Juan. Puerto Rico is noteworthy as a game with almost no variance. Everything is consistent from game to game without even a deck of cards or a pair of dice to introduce random chance. The only exception is a single mechanic: a random bag of plantation tokens of which five are drawn at the beginning of each round. It’s just enough to make you think on your feet a little, but really the game plays the same way every time. And, to that end, you can find hundreds of pages of Puerto Rico strategy online. The game is so well-balanced and well-structured that it is widely regarded as one of the best board games ever made. 18 years later, it sits comfortably at #25 on boardgamegeek.com’s overall rankings. Think of Puerto Rico as the modern equivalent of Chess: a classic game with many well-established openings, gambits, and counters.
At the beginning of a round in Puerto Rico, the first player will select a role tile and take that role’s action. Then the other players also get to take that action. However, the player who selected the role gets a special privilege, usually a bonus or discount to incentivize picking a role rather than waiting for another player to do so. Once everyone has taken that action, the second player selects one of the remaining roles, and then all players get to take that action. So while there are seven role tiles, you have to plan your strategy around what you expect the other players to take. But I’m not here to review Puerto Rico, so let’s move on.
Puerto Rico’s success led to a card game spin-off called San Juan. San Juan simplifies the game immensely by abstracting currency and trade goods as face-down cards. It kept the role selection mechanism from Puerto Rico with only a few slight tweaks, though, making it instantly recognizable as a relative to the original hit. Needless to say, San Juan’s variance is immense compared to Puerto Rico’s. While there are multiple duplicates of every card in the deck, you’re still playing a card game. Variance is baked into the design. To mitigate that, San Juan lasts a fraction of the time as the original game. Puerto Rico lasts one and a half to two and a half hours, on average. San Juan is generally finished in 30-45 minutes. So if luck isn’t on your side this time, well, you won’t have to suffer through the loss for too long. But this also isn’t a San Juan review.
Puerto Rico and San Juan are the brainchildren of designer Andreas Seyfarth. When Alea commissioned Seyfarth to design the card game spin-off, they also asked designer Thomas Lehmann to work independently on the same project. The two designers worked separately, but occasionally exchanged ideas. Elements of each other’s designs ended up appearing in the drafts they submitted. Alea selected Seyfarth’s version, leaving Lehmann to continue revise his design. In 2007, Lehmann’s design was finally published: Race for the Galaxy. Now the review can begin!
Like Puerto Rico and San Juan, Race for the Galaxy’s core mechanic is role selection. Each round will see the players play through the phases that are selected at the beginning of the round. But Race makes one critical twist. In Puerto Rico and San Juan, the players take turns selecting roles. Once someone has picked a role, no one else can. Race for the Galaxy gives each player a hand of phase cards, and has the players select one simultaneously. Everyone reveals their cards, and then the phases corresponding to each card are executed in a set order. And like the older games, the players who select the phase cards get a privilege effect as well during that phase.
Are the possibilities running through your head already? In a four-player game, you could have a scenario where each player picks a different phase. Thus, each player can take four different actions in sequence, and get a privilege for the one they picked. But you could also have a turn where everyone picks the same phase. In Puerto Rico, you try to guess what roles your opponents will take so you can make use of those incidental actions instead of letting them go to waste. In Race, you can choose whether to pick the phase that is most necessary for your immediate strategy, or the phase that will give you the greatest benefit if another player picks a synergistic phase earlier on in the turn order.
So what do you do on these phases? Basically, you either draw cards or play cards from your hand. Each card in Race for the Galaxy either represents a planet that can be settled or a technological development your civilization can implement. When you play a card, it joins your starting world on your tableau. As you build your tableau, you’ll have access to more and more card abilities.
The five phases, in order, are Explore, Develop, Settle, Consume, and Produce. Explore lets players draw two cards, but only keep one. Develop lets players play development cards, and Settle lets players settle worlds. Consume allows players to use goods that have been produced by some of their worlds to earn more cards or victory points. And then Produce allows worlds that can produce goods to do so. And that’s it!
Race for the Galaxy is a card game, and you use cards for almost everything. If a world has a settle cost of “3,” it means you have to discard 3 cards from your hand to play the card. If a world produces a good, you draw a card from the deck (face-down) and tuck it under that world until you’re ready to consume it. You will never draw that card into your hand. If you consume that good, it gets discarded face-down and you either draw a new card from the deck or earn a vp token (the only thing in this game that isn’t a card) depending on the consume power you’re using.
What’s really cool about this game is that every card has the five phases listed along the side of the card. Some phases will have symbols next to them, representing a power that the card grants you during that phase. So you might settle a world that lets you look at one extra card while exploring, and lets you consume a good from any world in your tableau for one card AND one vp chip. Or you may settle a world that will produce a “Rare Minerals” (brown) good during the Produce phase, but has no other effects. The trick is to find a combination of worlds and developments with powers that form a synergistic engine that you can use to accumulate the most victory points.
Victory points come from three sources in this game. Every card is worth some number of victory points, ranging from 0 to 7 in the base game. That number is displayed on the card so at the end of the game you just add them up. Also, some worlds and developments let you consume goods for vp chips. These are actually an alternative game-end condition in addition to being a source of victory points. If the supply of vp chips runs out, no matter how far away some players might be from reaching 12 cards in their tableau, the game ends. Each vp chip is worth 1 point.
And then there are the special development cards known as “6-cost” developments. These are expensive cards that are always worth a variable number of victory points. There are over a dozen in the base game, and each one rewards you for pursuing a certain strategy. Some can synergize well with each other, others don’t, but either way they’re worthless if you don’t have the right cards to support them in your tableau.
There’s one final element to mention, and it’s right there on the title. Race for the Galaxy is a race. You could spend many turns digging through the deck to find the perfect card to complement your tableau and create a powerful engine that will catapult your score to the stratosphere. But if you try that, you’ll find that another player will just play 12 random cards, with barely any synergy, and they’ll end the game before your perfect machine can get off the ground. Your machine can do many things, but if it’s not fast, it’s worthless. But synergy is powerful. A fast and synergistic machine will beat 12 random cards nearly every time. The key decision you make in this game is when to invest time in making engine more effective, and when to focus on just getting as much out of your engine as possible before the game ends.
Race for the Galaxy does a lot of things right, and its 13 years near the top of Boardgamegeek.com’s highest rated board games (currently #51 out of over 10,000 titles) confirm that. However, it struggles with a high barrier to entry. Nearly every card is unique. Compare that to San Juan, where every card has duplicates and the game itself has a smaller overall deck. Second, this game uses a sophisticated menu of symbols instead of words to describe card effects. This is a mixed blessing. Once you learn the logic of these symbols, you can understand any card with ease. And with minimal text on each card, localization is far simpler. Someone who doesn’t speak a word of English or German could sit down and play Race for the Galaxy with minimal difficulty. But since you can’t simply read what a card does, you have to invest time and energy learning these symbols.
Okay, you don’t HAVE to learn the symbols. The game comes with a reference card that explains every possible symbol. The problem is, there are SO MANY different ones with subtle variations that the card is utterly overwhelming for new players. It’s better to just play this game with a more experienced player several times. And to the game’s credit, the symbols are very well designed. Once you understand the symbol language, you’ll never think “wait, why does it mean THAT?” The underlying logic of the symbol language is consistent, so once you learn what some symbols mean, the rest will clear up quickly.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: this game has EXTREMELY high variance. You may start a game intending to follow one strategy and draw none of the cards you need to make it work. Or you may draw everything you need to go on an absolute tear that no one else can match. But despite the significant role luck plays in the game, I’ve found that most of the time the most skilled player wins. You can’t rely upon planned moves and crafted openings like you can with Puerto Rico. Instead, you have to be a skilled improviser. Sometimes that means taking cards you usually avoid and finding ways to incorporate them because you have no choice.
That being said, I’ve played the base game over 1200 times, and in that time I’ve made use of literally every card in the deck. Yes, even the ones that most players agree are “bad.” Because none of the cards in this game are empirically “bad,” it’s just that some are more situational than others. In other words, Race for the Galaxy’s high variance enables new players to have a reasonable chance at beating a more experienced opponent, but it also provides skilled players the opportunity to challenge themselves and find new strategies to overcome poor luck.
Race for the Galaxy was a humongous hit. Since its release in 2007, there have been five expansions. Each adds a small number of cards to the game that make small but incredibly noticeable changes to the flow of the game. In 2014, Rio Grande published Roll for the Galaxy, a dice game spin-off (much like how San Juan was a card game spin-off from Puerto Rico). In 2017, they published Jump Drive, a lighter and faster (yes faster!) card game set in the same universe. And 2018 brought New Frontiers, an actual board game based on Race. Talk about going full circle!
If it wasn’t obvious already, Race is one of my top 10 games. I play it all the time thanks to the excellent mobile app. The first expansion also provides components to play the physical game solitaire against an AI bot. The AI in the expansion is brutal, and the one in the app is remarkably capable. I’ve lost hundreds of games to both. But that training has helped me become a better player, and I can hold my own quite well against human opponents now. Among players who all know the game fairly well, Race is an excellent quick game to jam a few times while waiting for another game to finish or for other folks to arrive. But for new players, it can be immensely intimidating. You have to invest time into learning the symbols, which is best achieved by playing three or four games back to back. But if this game captures your love and attention the same it did mine, you’ll find the experience immensely rewarding. You should play this game.
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