Gaming Unplugged: Race for the Galaxy

July 21, 2009

Race for the Galaxy & RftG: The Gathering Storm

Until late 2008, the #1 ranked game on (BGG) for some time was Puerto Rico. A couple of years after Puerto Rico‘s release, a spin-off called San Juan was put forth, containing themes similar to Puerto Rico‘s with exclusively card-based mechanics. While it was the original designer of Puerto Rico, Andreas Seyfarth, who would ultimately come up with San Juan‘s design, he collaborated with another game designer working on his own San Juan prototype, Thomas Lehmann. Lehmann took his design and shifted the concept from colonial Puerto Rico to a Star Wars-like sci-fi setting, ultimately giving birth to Race for the Galaxy (RftG).

During each round of RftG, each player secretly selects one of his seven phase cards and then all are revealed simultaneously. All players will execute only the phases chosen by the group, with the player who chose each specific phase receiving a bonus for doing so. These phases and their bonuses are: Explore (look at additional cards and/or keep additional cards); Develop (receive a one-card discount on your Development); Settle (draw a card after placing a World in your tableau); Consume (either trade a good for a number of drawn cards based on its type or receive twice the point chips for consumed goods); and Produce (produce a good on any one windfall World, which normally do not replace their consumed goods). Costs for playing Developments and settling non-military Worlds are paid by discarding other cards from your hand; military Worlds are simply conquered if your combined strength is equal to or greater than their defense. At the end of the round, anyone with more than ten cards in their hand discards down to that number and then phases are selected anew until one of the end conditions has been met. In a two-player variant each player selects two phases, and it is possible to select the same phase twice in most situations.

The goal of RtfG is to amass the most victory points (VPs) when the game ends; this occurs either when one player has placed his twelfth card in his tableau or when the pre-set pool of point chips (12 per player) has been exhausted. Cards in your tableau are worth the number of VPs indicated on them (with some being variable based on other cards in your possession), and each chip is worth one point as well; ties are broken by produced goods and cards in hand, so the entire last round is finished even if someone meets an end condition before all of the phases are selected.

RftG utilizes a kind of passive/parasitic interaction between players that gives it a “confrontation-less” feel. Cards you have in your tableau usually provide additional bonuses and/or abilities during one or more phases, whether or not you were the one who selected the phase. For example, if you have cards in play that give you additional benefits during Explore phases, each time an opponent chooses to Explore for his own reasons you essentially leech off their choice to your advantage while still getting your own choice in the round. This interaction is so subtle, however, that many players have branded the game as “multiplayer solitaire”, which is true of most races when you think about it but also sort of missing the point. Successfully guessing what phases your opponents will select allows you to make a different choice and maximize your turn; conversely, you can sometimes hamstring a rival by choosing a phase other than the one he expects you to select. Then again, you could just ignore your opponents completely and just try to plow through to an end condition, hoping that your blitz has caught them in the middle of their potentially powerful yet inherently slower strategies.

While a group of experienced players can blast through a session of RftG in under half an hour, the tricky part is becoming an experienced player. RftG uses a seemingly-baffling array of symbols as shortcuts for the various cards’ costs and powers that can and will overwhelm first-time players. The symbology does follow an internal logic, however, and once you “learn the language” you won’t even need the reference cards included with the base game. This also provides the unintentional reward of no longer needing to tote around the game’s ridiculously oversized box; a game that is comprised of less than 150 cards and a few dozen cardboard chips comes in a box approximately the dimensions of a thick textbook due to the width of the reference cards and rule book. Once you’ve passed the need for those things, everything can be contained in a much smaller box, such as the one containing the first expansion, The Gathering Storm (TGS).

Expanding the playability of RftG up to five players, TGS shores up some intentional balance issues with the core game. In order to teach players all of the various strategies involved in the game, a few tactics in RftG were a bit lacking to prevent them from dominating play; mostly this consisted of the blitzing military strategy I alluded to earlier. These “restrictor plates” are removed with the addition of TGS, although the slower production strategies also have some powerful new tools at their disposal. Additional scoring opportunities are also introduced, offering bonuses for both the first player to meet a specific goal (e.g., settle three Alien worlds) and for whoever has the most of a specific type of card (e.g., four or more Development cards) at the end of the game. Finally, TGS also comes with rules (and specialized dice…) for a solitaire variant; while not quite a perfect recreation of human opponents, the “cardboard AI” is still quite challenging and worth checking out if you have the down time. A second expansion, Rebels vs. Imperium, is due later this year and is rumored to feature more direct interaction between players.

With or without its expansion(s), RftG is a fun, fast-playing game suitable for most ages (suggested 12+ due to the intense learning curve) that will probably see repeated play, often in the same gaming session. Scaling effortlessly from 2-4 players (or more with expansions), it should pay for its cost in sheer volume of play time within a month.


Images by GamerChris