- Plays: Physically, 2. On Board Game Arena, 148
- Game Length: Physically, 30 – 45 minutes. On Board Game Arena, 10 minutes
- Mechanics: card drafting, tableu building
- Release Year: 2007
- Designer: Thomas Lehmann
- Artist: Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan, Mirko Suzuki
I like playing Super Smash Brothers, I always have. I’ve played every iteration, and it’s one of the few straight-up fighting games that I actually enjoy (sidebar, I recently borrowed Pokken Tournament from the library only to be reminded how much I don’t like fighting games). My enthusiasm for Smash Bros has led me to exist in a very weird state. I can crush all of my friends, no competition, but I’m not good enough for the competitive scene. The few times I’ve dabbled in tournaments, I’ve gotten eliminated almost immediately. This is the state I find myself with Tom Lehmann’s Race for the Galaxy, I feel like I have an advantage over my friends, simply for having played it over 100 times, but when I approach other enthusiasts, I’m still a beginner, comparatively.
How to Play
Race for the Galaxy is a fast tableau builder. The entire game is managed via cards, with the only cardboard components being score chips. Race for the Galaxy begins with each player getting a starting world and a hand of cards. In your other hand, you’ll have cards depicting each of the actions that are available to you. At the start of the game, each player simultaneously picks one of the action cards and places it face down. Once all players have selected their action, the cards are turned face up.
Now, here’s the trick of the game. Only the actions selected will be available this round, and the action you selected will be taken by everyone else (you’ll get a small benefit for choosing that action). Actions are always taken in the following order
- Explore – Draw cards from the deck
- Develop – Play development (diamond) cards from your hand, discarding cards equal to it’s cost
- Settle – Settle a planet (circle cards) from your hand, discarding cards equal to it’s cost
- Trade & Consume – Discard one of the goods on one of your planets to draw cards, then use other planets consume powers, generally discarding a good to earn points or to draw more cards
- Produce – Place one card face down on each of your planets that can produce a good. These are used during the Trade & Consume phase.
Once you’ve gone through all the actions that will be taken this round, you pick up your action cards and start again. The game ends when someone has played their 12th card in front of them, or, when the supply of victory points has been exhausted. The player with the highest score is the winner.
To preface this review, I have only experienced the base game of Race for the Galaxy. My opinion is free from any expansions, which may or may not be sacrilege, depending on who you’re talking to.
I don’t often do this, but let’s start with the negatives. First, the art. The art in Race for the Galaxy is reminiscent of those old paperback sci-fi books that used to clutter my shelves, and it can serve as both a high or a low point, depending on your nostalgia. Many cards will look dark, boring, generic, or confusing, offering only a sliver of a story. The Glactic Federation is a yellow dome against a bloe background, and the Trade League is just two faceless people talking. For some, this style will hearken back to a by-gone era of science fiction, but for others, it comes across as dated and unattractive.
The other most common complaint is the heavy use of iconography. Personally, I find the icons incredibly apt at conveying information, but only because I’ve learned the language. Once the icons and card layout clicks with a player, Race for the Galaxy is a joy to play. You can understand what each card in your hand does with just a glance along the left side of the card, allowing you to quickly parse the information. Nothing feels obfuscated once you understand how to read Race for the Galaxy.
The goal of the game is to build an engine that can generate cards that will allow you to place more planets and developments into your tableau. Points are earned passively as you play planets and developments, and further points can be earned by consuming the goods of your planet’s produce. Some games will have a player rushing to get their 12 cards laid down to end the game, hoping their quantity of cards will overcome the quality cards the other players managed to get onto the table. Other games will see a player just consuming and producing ad nauseam until the supply of victory points are exhausted, which also triggers the end of the game. No matter which way you play, once you have your engine set up, it’s fun to see it run and produce a volume of cards and points that feels ludicrous compared to what you could do at the end of the game.
Each round of Race for the Galaxy is straightforward and quick. Once all players have selected just one action card, they’re revealed, and players move through the actions in order together. Any actions that were not picked are not taken, and once the final action is completed, players just pick up their action cards and choose what’s going to happen in the next round. It’s such a simple system, but it creates an amazing amount of tension. You’ll worry and fret over what other players will play, should you play your settle action so you can place a world? But if Bigfoot plays the settle action, you can play your world down anyway, so maybe you should choose to produce. But if Bigfoot doesn’t play Settle, you won’t have any worlds to produce! What to do?!
In a two player game, both players get to choose 2 actions per round, which I find absolutely wonderful. It gives you more control over the game, but still keeps the tension of trying to correctly assess what your opponent will be trying to do on their turn, so you can optimize and get the maximum benefit from their actions.
Race for the Galaxy is such a good tableau/engine builder, that it sours me on other experiences. I have a hard time playing Terraforming Mars, Wingspan, or Ark Nova because I would rather play this. In each of those games, your ability to draw and search for cards is sincerely limited. You’re at the whim of each game’s massive deck to deliver the prerequisites that you’ll need to get your engine going. Race for the Galaxy allows you to both search the deck with great speed, and has very few prerequisites that really require other cards, meaning that you’ll rarely be blaming the deck should you fail to get your engine going.
Just to drive the point home, in my last game of Terraforming Mars, I chose the starting corporation that gives a benefit to playing Jovian cards, as I had one Jovian card in my hand. I figured I’d dial in on that strategy, play the most Jovian cards possible to maximize the benefit from my corporation. Then, I didn’t draw a single Jovian card for the rest of the game. I had a similar issue in Ark Nova, where I played a card that would benefit me for every gorilla tag I played, then proceeded to not see a single card with that tag for the rest of the game. In both those examples, my ability to draw more cards was fairly limited, and I was locked into a two-hour game with an engine that wouldn’t turn over.
In Race for the Galaxy, I can draw 6 cards every turn if I want to, and still benefit from the actions other players take. There’s only 4 types of goods exist, so finding both a planet to produce a certain good, and a card that will consume that good is not difficult. And in the very worst cases, the game ends after 20 minutes. If you’re having a bad time, at least it’ll be over quickly.
Race for the Galaxy is a game that rewards multiple plays. Understanding and internalizing each of the actions and how to flow from building to producing to consuming to settling, and being able to accurately predict what your opponents are going to do and leverage their actions in addition to your own, makes this a fantastic game that pulls me back again and again. I do admit that I have a hard time justifying actually buying a copy of Race for the Galaxy when the version on Board Game Arena is freely available. No need to shuffle, no accidentally misplaying cards, and a plethora of people to play with makes it a fantastic way to play this clever card game. And, it even has tooltips, allowing you to hover over the cards to see exactly what they do, removing the need to learn the iconography up front. If you do learn that iconography, then games can be completed within 10 minutes, making this one of the fastest and deepest experiences on the site.
I adore Race for the Galaxy. It’s a fast, tense, excellent engine building game that offers a pure experience with lots of choices and strategies. Players have room to pivot, should a strategy not pan out, and when you can correctly identify the action your opponents will play and being able to capitalize those actions, the feeling of satisfaction is hard to beat. It’s eminently replayable, as evidenced by my 150 plays of the base game alone. I know some people swear by certain expansions, and maybe one day I’ll get into them. But for now, I’m just having too much fun with the experience that comes in the base box.
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