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Race for the Galaxy: A Top Pick to Start the New Year

Race for the Galaxy (RftG) is a game from Rio Grande Games that combines the strategies of a living card game (LCG) with those of an empire builder. Players “race” through the galaxy to be the first ones to build a tableau of developments and planets in order to outscore their opponents. Scoring by building or by selling their wares, RftG employs a very simple currency system with a very complex system of bonuses and powers to balance an experience that can be easily taught but difficult to master. A game that plays excellently in groups and just as well head-to-head, Race for the Galaxy tops my list of must have games in any library.

The Game

Race for the Galaxy is a game where turns take place over a series of variable phases. There are five potential phases each turn that would allow player to draw cards, place different types of card, sell their goods, or draw more goods. One of the best mechanics in RftG is that players choose which phases will be played each round. No player knows the choice of the others but all chosen phases affect all players of the game; if player 2 picks a phase to settle a new planet, player 1 may also settle a planet (albeit without the bonus provided by chosing the phase). In a 4 person game, up to four out of five of the phases may happen every turn, but on the flip side to that, if all players play the same phase, well, looks like that’s it for the turn.

Image from the box, 4 players version

RftG is a deck building game, players draw cards to build hands that can then be played for various bonuses. In front of each player is what’s known in the game as their tableau. The tableau represents a player’s empire and they utilize any bonuses that exist in their empire. Cards in the hand of a player represent both the player’s available cards to purchase, as well as their money. In RftG, cards are used for money, playing, and goods to sell; this system utilizes a minimalistic approach to parts in the game. In fact, the only things in the box are the game cards, the phase cards, and victory point tokens. If a player wanted to purchase a world with a cost of 4, he would need to play the card and discard 4 additional cards; with a hand limit of 10. Resource management in Race is as much a part of the game as playing the right cards. Every card shows the same five numbers down the left side and a dollar sign, one for every phase in the game and a subphase called “trading”. Each card has symbols that may apply to different phases; some cards help in phase 1 and 2, some in 2, 4, and 5, and some not at all. While learning what all the various symbols do is taxing on first playthrough, the symbols are intuitive and greatly assist in making the game’s complex mechanics second nature after only a few games.

Most the box is… the box

The Strategies and the Struggles

One of the reasons I chose Race for the Galaxy as a top pick is due to how many different ways there are to win. Okay, to be honest, there is only 1 (have the most victory points), and the ways to earn those victory points aren’t exactly mind boggling either (consume goods or play cards worth victory points), BUT the way you play those cards and consume those goods make it seem like so much more. The deck, without expansions, is 109 cards deep; as mentioned before, every card can affect any number of phases (usually 1 or 2 each), and costs a number of cards to buy (average 3). By buying worlds and developments to combine powers that affect specific rounds, players can begin capitalizing on various phases. Some cards make it cheaper to build worlds or developments, others make it more lucrative to produce or sell goods, etc. The game is all about identifying the best strategy for the cards you have while ensuring that no strategy is surefire. Due to the hand limit and cards acting as currency, most strategies require constant resource management to effectively build your tableau before the game ends, but even that isn’t always true. Some cards allow you to build your empire without spending cards as long as you have the required military strength to “conquer” military worlds, and other cards can reduce the cost of building smaller worlds until it is entirely free. While some strategies will obviously prevail each game, just about any path you take has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.

Example of a phase 3 power that adds military strength

The struggles each player will face in RftG are all part of the game. Each player can only pick one phase per turn and every other player gets to take that phase minus the phase bonus. For example, phase 1, “Explore”, lets all players draw 2 and keep 1 card. Playing Explore allows that player to draw 3 and keep 2. Even though you got a bonus for playing it, you essentially fed your opponents free cards. I have personally (and have had it done to me) played phase 3, “Settle”, to settle a planet that costs 1 more than the cards I have because I was so sure another player would play Explore. This variable, shared, phase playing is by far the most interesting and competitive portion of the game. Knowing what others need, what phases they benefit from, and what they are most likely to do is critical in choosing your own actions, and avoiding becoming obvious as your build your own empire will allow you to reap the most rewards from the plays of your opponents. The game also has a set ending of 12 items in a person’s tableau. The round that the 12th item is played is the last round of the game. Each player can see how many cards are in front of each other to anticipate when someone will play the 12th card, but each player also has the ability to choose not to end the game for various reasons. Some strategies utilize actions to gain victory points, meaning the longer the game, the more they amass; other strategies might involve buying as many cheap worlds and developments as possible in an attempt to end the game early, before everyone else can flesh out their own plans. Keeping an eye on other players tableau will help you ascertain when the game will end, preventing you from overcommitting to the future in a game that could end in 2 more turns.

Phase cards
Hand cards

Two-Player Game

RftG gets it’s own two-player variant portion of this review for a specific reason. Many games have different rules for two-player games. Some games add dummy players, some change the locations on a board, while others change the starting hand or resource limit. Race for the Galaxy only adds the ability to choose two phases (and adds a couple phase cards so you can choose the same phase twice). This VERY simple change to the rules makes a two player game, in my opinion, play completely different than it’s three or four person cousin.

The struggle I previously brought up in Race of choosing one phase per turn also involved requiring multiple turns to complete most “moves”. In a two-player game, a person has the ability to produce and sell his goods in the same phase, or sell a good for cards and earn multiple victory points at the same time, or build a development that helps him settle a world and then immediately settle that world, or … you get the point. These examples aren’t unavailable during the 4 person game, but you would be depending on the other players to pick the exact phase you needed each time, which would never happen (see Professor X). Two-player games of Race typically end faster and allow each person to more directly control what happens each turn. It’s interactive and more like a game of chess than Chinese checkers. I don’t believe this variant is more enjoyable than the standard game of Race, but I believe it is as enjoyable and a new experience, which is hard to find in games meant to be played with four.

Conclusion

Race for the Galaxy is a solid choice in any collection. A living card game, an empire builder, and a game with minimalistic parts, RftG is not only contained in a travel size box but big enough to impress even your most die-hard board gamers. Enjoyable with a group or with a loved one, this game excels at being a jack-of-all-player combinations and sits on top of my board game collection so it’s always easy to find. If there was anything I didn’t like it would be that I constantly have to explain the game to new people so they will play it with me, so do me a favor and get your own copy so you already know. Keep on gaming on in 2017.

Way way up

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