Race for the Galaxy

A memo to the next leader of Alpha Centauri:

Congratulations Viceroy. We are quite pleased you won so decisively in this past election cycle, and the people seem quite taken with your expansionist platform. It would appear that you were right after all: as a prosperous planet, it is time we make use of our ample and skilled labor force to once again spread out into the stars. With the discovery of JumpDrive technology, there is no limit to what we can achieve. The people have asked for change, and they have chosen your vision to start the next chapter in our civilization’s history. Viceroy, please let myself or my staff know if we can be of service in these uncharted days ahead. 

-Adjudicator Enth, Department of Transglobal Affairs and Logistics


The Premise

Humanity has expanded out into space to form individual colonies, albeit initially at a slow pace. With the invention of new technology capable of interstellar travel, exploring – and ruling – that sector of space, is now within its grasp. The only question becomes, which colony will create the right mixture of economic, technological, political, or military options to become the dominant faction in space. Players portray the various home worlds vying to do exactly that.


The Rules:

Race for the Galaxy is a tableau-style card game where players build an empire based on the cards and resources available to them. There is no board to worry about, nor is it a deck-building game with various card stacks to place. Because of this, Race can be set up very quickly. To start, find the five numbered starting worlds from the main deck, noted by having a red or blue square in the bottom right corner. Deal one of these randomly to each player face-up, and shuffle the rest into the main deck of cards. Each player receives a colored set of seven action cards. Then, create a victory chip pile by adding a value of 12 VP chips per player into a pool; the rest are set aside. Finally, each player is dealt a starting hand of six cards from the central deck. Players will look at their hand and choose four of them. The remaining two cards will be discarded face-down to create a discard pile.

In Race for the Galaxy, the available turn actions are separated into five possible phases: Explore, Develop, Settle, Consume, and Produce. Which phases will be available are determined by the choices that players make with their action cards. Players have an action card that represents each of the phases, with Explore and Trade having two different options. Each round, players will secretly choose one action card to play. Once all players have done so, the action cards are revealed, determining which phases will be played that round. (For example, if no one reveals the Produce card, that phase is skipped.) The rulebook goes into further detail, but it is useful to know a brief explanation of each phase:

  • Explore allows players to draw cards and keep a percentage of them, depending on which Explore option is chosen.
  • Develop and Settle allow players to put cards into their tableau by discarding a number of other cards from their hand equal to its cost amount, which will be the large number in the top left of the card. Development cards represent technological advancements, while Settlements are various worlds. (One can also conquer them if playing a military strategy.) Each card has a list of the phases that tell you what benefits that card provides at different times in the game.
  •  Consume and Produce deal with creating and spending color-coded resources from certain planets players control in order to draw more substantial amounts of cards or gain VP.

Phases in Race for the Galaxy are played out simultaneously, with each player independently affecting their own play area. The base action for each player will be the same, but players will end up with additional or modified benefits during those phases as they add cards to their tableau. Additionally, each player who chose the action card for the current phase gain a bonus for doing so. (If players are in the Develop stage, for example, any player who chose the Develop card will be able to play Development cards at a -1 cost).

The game ends at the end of any round when a player contains twelve or more Development and / or Settlement worlds, or if the VP chip pile is empty. Each card in the tableau has a VP amount that is calculated by the hexagon number next to its cost. Players add up the value of their tableau, along with their loose VP chips. The player with the most VP wins, as they have shown themselves to be the most efficient ruler of their civilization.


All You Need is a Rosetta Stone

The first thing you’ll notice when you learn this game is that there are symbols everywhere, and all of them mean something different. This symbol means you get to draw a card; that symbol provides you with military strength; this one means your world starts with a one-time resource instead of generating them. There’s probably one in there that signals Batman. Then you have to take into account the color-coding: the game contains four resources of different values, and there are worlds and mechanics that interact with specific ones. For someone new to Race for the Galaxy, this can be a bit intimidating unless you have a background in studying pictographs. Should new players just call it a loss,  then?

Well, no, actually.

This is one of the two common assumptions made with Race to the Galaxy. Yes, there are a lot of different icons to understand, but the creator of the game planned for that. The game provides players with a very detailed player aid of the more common symbols you’ll encounter throughout the game, as well as a detailed breakdown of what each part of the card means.

There are some less common symbols referenced in the back of the rule book itself, but for getting a player going, this well-designed placard really helps players catch on. The symbol volume can be daunting, but the turn structure of the game is very simple, which helps to offset potential complexity creep. Even still, it will probably take a player about half way through a game before they fully grasp what they are supposed to do. We suggest with new players to Race for the Galaxy to try a couple practice rounds to familiarize the flow of the game.

The other logical assumption often made is that this game is lengthy. Most games where you’re dedicated to build something (i.e. a building, a city, an army, or an empire), take ample time. You usually have to amass materials, research technology upgrades, and deal with setbacks, all while potentially fending off other players. To that end, Race for the Galaxy is a pleasant surprise, as games don’t generally go more than about 45 minutes (about 10-15 rounds). This was done deliberately; the game designers have stated that they implemented the cut-off point where they did because going any further usually doesn’t change the outcome of who would win.


“My Kingdom for a Horsehead Nebula”

That isn’t to say that Race for the Galaxy is without its challenges. For starters, it is a prime example of a game that can fall prey to analysis paralysis. Every card in a player’s hand serves multiple purposes, such as playing it into your tableau  or using it to pay for a different card. And there are more symbols floating around than the Giza Plateau. Even once you are comfortable with the rules, there’s a lot of options as to how you can grow and expand. It never gets to being overwhelming – which is important – but the choices you make do have repercussions.If you decide on an economic strategy around the Novelty (Blue) Goods, but toss away a really useful world for it, you could set yourself back. It is these decisions that keep the game interesting with high replay value, and it’s he type of game that Tacticians in particular are going to certainly enjoy.

What’s more, you’ll be able to refine that strategy uncontested, as the game is compartmentalized for each player. Architects, by their nature of “Build First, Expand Second”, are quite content to play the game as it exists. Strikers too may highly enjoy being able to execute their plans efficiently, pitting their wits directly against other players, though a subset of Strikers may not feel quite right if they can’t use their strategic advantages against other players.

The same can be said about Daredevils as well. Daredevils might not like being able to throw a wrench into your gear workings across the table, but they could also appreciate that you can’t do that to them either. This allows them the sandbox freedom to experiment with lots of different types of card interactions to see what happens. It may or may not always work, but with a good supply of cards, there will always be more to try.

If Race for the Galaxy stumbles anywhere, it is on the social depth. Race has a wide variety of unique planets and technologies, making the game very flavorful. The overall story though, is relatively surface-level. The cards allude to an issue with some Rebels, a lost alien species, an Imperium of some kind, and so forth, but it’s never laid bare in detail. Immersionists that like to try to piece an overall story together through the cards, much like some do with card games like Magic: the Gathering, won’t mind the subtlety of story that Race offers. However, those that hope for an intriguing backstory played out within the game probably will be a bit disappointed. Likewise, because so much of the game does focus on the simultaneous turn-taking and individual strategy, Socializers will likely not find here the type of reprieves they desire out of games.


The Takeaway

Race for the Galaxy very much lives up to its name. It fully embraces a science-fiction themed contest to create the best empire you can. The game never drags on too long, which keeps it from getting bogged down in its own mechanics or becoming too burdened with complexity. Yes, there is a slight learning curve for initiates due to the variety of cards, but between the superb explanation by the rules materials and a refreshingly “hands-off” competition style, you’ll be able to dive right in to a game after your first session or two. Some may balk at the idea of a civ-building game lacking direct conflict with other players, but there are plenty of games out there that do this already. Race for the Galaxy stands out in that field of games because it doesn’t  let you pick on your neighbors indiscriminately. Aside from some card manipulation by others, or bad luck, you will generally win or lose on your own strategic merit. That’s what good leaders do. Race for the Galaxy is a a fantastic game that offers a relatively short strategy game with a high replay value, and if you have a chance at building the empire, you should take it.

Cardboard Republic Snapshot Scoring (Based on scale of 5):
Artwork: 3.5
Rules Clarity: 5
Replay Value: 4.5
Physical Quality 4
Overall Score: 4.5

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Photo Credits: Race Table Session by dubh.