Race for the Galaxy – Review of the Popular Card Game

In some ways I almost feel silly (as well as intimidated) writing yet another review of this much talked-about game, but I still feel obliged to do so. My reasoning is that every opinion counts and I suspect that while my opinion will mirror some, in some ways it will diverge from others. I have the advantage and disadvantage of going into this review knowing that the game is immensely popular. I could for example try to write a very negative-minded review for purposes of garnering attention for the blog (there is no such thing as bad publicity) but I will not do that.

What I will try to do is describe the game in my own words, the basic play of it, and then describe what I like and what I don’t like. This is essentially what I always try to do, which is why I generally stay away from giving my reviewed games a “score” of any sort but it is certainly far more intimidating when I am dealing with a game such as Race for the Galaxy. Race (which i will often refer to it as) has been both heaped with praise and analyzed by many that are certainly smarter than myself. Still, I will do my best.

Race for the Galaxy Box Cover

Overview

In some ways Race is a very simple game. Players are each trying to build a galactic civilization by developing technologies and settling on new worlds. The game is played in a series of rounds with each player choosing one of seven action cards before each round begins. The action cards represent certain Phases (of which there are five, two Phases have two cards each with different special effects depending on which the player chooses) that take place each round. All players participate simultaneously in each Phase that is chosen but receive a bonus if they themselves chose that Phase. Once the final Phase is played out for a round players choose a new action card for the next round and so forth. The game ends either when all Victory Point Chips have been claimed (an ending I myself have never seen) or one player has 12 cards in his tableau (a fancy way of saying “sitting in front of him”). The winner is the player with the highest total Victory Points.

How to Play

There is quite a bit of subtlety to Race for the Galaxy and writing the specifics of the “how to” is rather daunting. Again, I will do my best to explain things while still trying to be brief as the rules (which can be downloaded and read) do a better job than I can hope to of explaining exactly how the game is played.

Setup

Players each receive a set of action cards (the cards that dictate which Phase the player is choosing) and a random start world. There are five different start worlds in the basic game. Then each player is dealt six cards, of which they keep four and discard the other two. Lastly, 12 VP Chips are placed in the middle of the table for each player in the game. (Note there are some exceptions to this set up as dictated by specific start worlds.)

Beginning Play

As already stated the game is played in a series of rounds with players choosing a Phase from their action cards each round.

The five Phases players can choose are:

  1. Explore
  2. Develop
  3. Settle
  4. Consume
  5. Produce

Each round the chosen Phases take place in the above order with those not chosen being skipped. Potentially a round could only have one Phase if all players choose the same one.

Brief Explanation of the Phases

Explore

The Explore Phase involves players drawing cards with the players that chose the Explore Phase drawing more cards than those that did not. There are two options for the Explore phase among the action cards with one only letting you draw (and keep) one extra card while the other only allows you to draw extra cards but not keep any extra. A normal unmodified Explore Phase has a player draw two cards and keep one of them.

Develop

In Race players can “develop” new technologies by purchasing Developments. Developments are payed for by discarding cards equal to the developments cost (thus in Race cards are both what you play to do things as well as what you discard to pay for doing those things). Most developments give the player an advantage that will be useful at other stages of the game. (Examples include, making it cheaper – less discards – to settle new worlds or drawing more cards during the Explore Phase.) Developments are also often worth Victory Points for the end of the game. A player that played the Develop action card pays one less (one less discard) for a development that they play that round. (Note, generally a player can only play one development card per phase.)

Settle

The Settle Phase is similar to the Develop Phase but is for playing planets instead of developments. Cards are discarded to pay for the planets in the same was as paying for developments with one exception. Some cards are designated as military worlds. These planets cannot be settled normally but must be conquered through military force. A player must have a total military force equal to or exceeding the defense of the planet to play the card. The advantage to military conquest is that no cards need to be discarded as long as the requirements are met. There are few cards that modify these general rules such as the Contact Specialist but this is generally how Settle works. If a player played the Settle action card this round, that player draws one card after they Settle. (Again, normally a player may only Settle once during the Phase.)

Consume

During the Consume Phase a player must consume any goods currently on planets that are able to be consumed. (Resources are produced during the final Phase.) Often planets will have specific goods they are willing to consume but sometimes they will consume any good. Consumption of goods generally gives the player something, such as VP Chips or card draws. There are two different Consume Phase action cards a player can play. One of the cards gives the player double VP Chips for that round while the other gives the player a bonus phase in which they can “sell” one of their goods which allows them to draw cards.

Capsule Review – Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm Box Cover

Race for the Galaxy has already been expanded and as is evidenced by the fact that some descriptive words on the cards are not yet used (Uplift for example is a highlighted word on some cards but has no game effect as of yet.) The Gathering Storm is the first of several expansions for the game. In this expansion we are given a couple of interesting and useful additions.

  1. New Home Worlds – A nice additional in that it forces different strategies.
  2. New Game Cards – Nice but there are only 18 of them.
  3. Action Cards for a Fifth Player – This is the main reason that people should pick up this expansion. The game works well with five players and for my group games that play less than five see much less play.
  4. Rules for Solitaire Play – Quite frankly I found these rules more confusing than any part of the actual game. They were, in fact, so confusing that I gave up on them as I had little interest in playing the game alone. To be honest, it seems they would be better off downplaying the fact that the game has been compared to a group of people playing solitaire near each other instead of encouraging the comparison.
  5. Goal Tiles – Beside the addition of a fifth player this is what makes me the happiest. Each game different goals are placed on the table and bonus VP can be gained from attaining them. This makes games a bit different from each other and enhances the experience.
  6. Blank Cards and Extra VP Chips – While the blank cards do let you expand the game yourself, I don’t see too many groups doing this. The Extra VP Chips are included simply because they are necessary when adding a fifth player.

Overall the expansion is worth the money even if it isn’t as exciting as some might have hoped. I am glad to have it and we have been playing with it since we originally started playing the basic game. The only disadvantage to the expansion is that it raises the total price of purchasing Race for the Galaxy but considering how often this game will likely be played in most gaming groups, I don’t see this as a major issue.

Produce

During the Produce Phase all planets that can produce goods do so. If a player played the Produce action card they are able to Produce a good on a Windfall planet. (Windfall planets are special planets that have a good on them when played but do not normally produce additional goods.)

Is that… It?

What I have outlined above is the basics of the game. Players all play at the same time, choosing an action card and then going through the phases. The cards they place into their tableau will alter their later plays and will set out the strategy they are hoping to use to win the game. Essentially the game is about resource management and choosing how best to use the cards you are given. Generally the game moves fairly quickly, again because there are no turns and all players are playing at the same time.

My Thoughts on Race for the Galaxy

I like the game. I would like to say that first in case some people find some of my negative thoughts disquieting. I like how quickly the game moves and I like the way that the cards interact in order to form different paths to victory. In general I have enjoyed most every game I have played, with only a few of the games being overshadowed by frustration.

There is certainly a decent amount of skill to be brought to bare. Those players who know the game best will have a large advantage over those who do not in that they will know what to look for and will more easily see how best to implement the cards they are dealt. This speaks volumes for the game by itself in that some still think of games like Munchkin or Chez Geek when they think of card games and do not expect the game to be so Euro.

The game moves very quickly and because all players play at once there is minimal down time. This is a strong selling point for many groups as it is hard for the ADD gamers to get distracted while playing Race.

Still there are several things I dislike about the game. One major complaint that has been echoed by the community at large is the lack of player interaction. In some ways Race feels like playing individual games of solitaire and then declaring one person the winner. This is partly because the interactions are rather subtle. Players can, for example, keep a card they know another player is looking for in their hand but that other player is not going to know this but in generally there is no way to “attack” another player or pick on the leader. (This changes slightly with the expansion – see Capsule Review – because of the Goal Tiles but even still it is hard to direct your play toward stealing those from the player who is winning.)

This leads to another complaint of mine which is that it is hard to enjoy the full scope of the game because there is so much going on. If a player were to see each and every one of the other players’ moves they would have some advantage but that advantage is rather slight and the time and concentration it would take would possibly detract from the actual enjoyment of the game. I am a gamer who likes watching the game happen. In Race I find that at best I can glance at other players tableau’s but in general i must focus on my own moves and decisions. For me this is a strike against the game.

One last complaint I have with an otherwise solid game is the problem with opening hands and the early game as well as the “luck of the draw” in general. That is to say, it often seems that a player with a poor opening hand is destined to lose the game while a player with a perfect opening hand is destined to win (or at least do quite well). Some of this has been depleted by experience but there are some games that are lost just as they are begun by a couple of poor draws early in the game. I’m sure some would argue that this is not the case but I think they are blinded by their love for Race. Related to the opening of the game is the “luck” of getting the powerful Development you need for victory. Sometimes you simply do not see the card you are looking for, no matter how solid the rest of your game was. Nothing can really be done about this of course, it is still a card game after all.

Conclusion

Essentially, I like Race for the Galaxy. Good play will not always result in victory but it can surely be seen to increase a player’s chance of winning and honestly, that is all that can be hoped for. Comparing this briefly to a game like Puerto Rico I would say I greatly prefer Race if only because all players taking turns at once and all players being able to choose the same phase limits what I like to think of as “position screw” in a game such as the one mentioned.

Race for the Galaxy is certainly a Euro Game, but it is a Euro Game that non-Euro-Gamers can enjoy and even come to love. It has some issues with the feelings of solitary play but for groups who do not like conflict-based games this will easily be ignored as it still has competition and the game itself is involved and fun.

I highly recommend this for almost any gaming group and have to say that this is one of the best games I have had the chance to play in recent years.

Feel free to comment below, I welcome all criticisms of my opinions!

  1.  

    I would like to make a correction. Uplift cards do have an effect on one card currently in the game, the Clandestine Uplift Lab increases its effect based on the total number of Uplift cards in your tableau. Still, my point is that I would like to see more interactions with these distinctions. Even Rebel feels as though it could be more flavorful.

  2.  

    I can see the argument that Race for the Galaxy is low on player interaction, but playing it for the first time this weekend I didn’t feel it was like a bunch of people playing solitaire.

    If nothing else it has that important element of trying to guess what your opponents will play (for action cards), so that you can play accordingly and, if you guess correctly, still get to take action in the phases they select.

    Beyond that and more subtle interactions you mentioned, it feels to me like there’s enough going on in the (very) multi-purposed cards that things worked out just fine. On the whole it seems like a great game, and I look forward to playing it again soon.