Race for the Galaxy.

Race for the Galaxy is a card game for two to four players that uses the same basic engine as San Juan while borrowing more heavily from San Juan’s parent game, Puerto Rico. Race junks the colonization theme in favor of a space-exploration one, where players settle worlds and build developments to create the top-scoring civilization. It’s a rich game, different every time, but ultimately has two drawbacks that prevent me from giving it a full recommendation.

Each player starts with a home world that has one or two powers, and then lays other cards representing worlds or developments along side it. Players acquire points for the cards they lay and for producing and consuming any of the four types of goods, represented by cards laid face-down on production worlds, then removed during the consumption phase in exchange for more cards or for points. The game ends when the supply of victory point chips is exhausted or when any player lays his 12th card.

In a turn, each player simultaneously chooses a role from the seven options: Two “explore” roles that allow for card draws; a “develop” role that allows a player to place a development card by discarding a certain number of cards from his hand; a “settle” role for placing a world card in the same way; “consume-trade,” where the player trades in one good in exchange for more cards, then consumes the rest (if he has cards with consume powers on the table) for victory points; “consume-x2,” where the player consumes goods for double points; and “produce,” where each empty card with a production ability produces exactly one good. All players use all selected roles in that round, but receive some extra ability or bonus for the roles they chose themselves – for example, the developer can develop at a cost of one fewer card than the regular price.

Nearly all cards bring some special ability to the table. Some cards allow the player to consume a good for a specific gain – usually a victory point, a new card, or one of each, with a handful of cards offering higher bonuses. Others take a point off the cost of developing or settling a world, or give the player a card draw when he does so. There are “windfall” worlds that only produce goods when the player chooses to be the producer or if the player has another settled world or development that has a windfall production power. So when players have 10-12 cards down, there’s a lot to track, and I’ve found it’s easy to overlook a bonus you might have on one of your cards.

If all players have some experience with the game, it’s going to move fairly quickly. But the first drawback to the game is that it takes many plays to learn the game’s strategy, because you can’t map out a strategy if you don’t know the cards well, and you have to play several times to get to know the deck. I downloaded a free version with strong AIs and played at least 20 games (they take a few minutes), after which I knew the key cards for the two main strategies I use. That’s a lot to ask a newbie to do, especially one who’s playing for fun rather than with the goal of reviewing it. And without those games on the computer, I doubt I would have grasped some of the badly-written rules as quickly as I did. (It’s also extremely helpful to have the computer handle the scoring and keep track of Consume powers for that phase.) The cards also express their abilities in icons unique to this game, which seems to be a frequent criticism in online reviews, although I thought they were pretty straightforward once I learned them (and it’s fair to say that learning them is a time commitment not everyone will want to make).

The second is that there’s one strategy that will win the majority of the time, pointed out to me by Tim K. – the produce/consume-x2 strategy. Beating it requires a fair amount of luck in card draws; I’ve won with a military strategy twice, but needed to nail a couple of key cards to pull it off. There are many more production and consumption cards in the deck, meaning a produce/consume-x2 strategy is more flexible and more likely to work, especially if no other player tries it. (Your strategy choice is somewhat set by your start world; if you get the military world New Sparta up front, you’re at a disadvantage if you want to try the produce/consume-x2 strategy.) I’ve read descriptions of Trade and Develop strategies, but I think the extent of luck in card draws required to pull those off must be very high. And if another player shoots for produce/consume-x2 using low-cost blue good cards, he’ll probably finish before the Develop strategy can lay its first big-bonus development.

With some of your recommendations for Race for the Galaxy and its very high rating on Boardgamegeek (#13 as I write this), I was predisposed to like the game, but the combination of high randomness in card draws and high complexity in resolving consume phases doesn’t validate the high ranking. San Juan is simple when compared to this, and I understand that it’s too simple for some people, but the simplicity means that the randomness of card draws has a much lesser effect. Everyone has the same fundamental strategy because San Juan doesn’t allow for as much variation. Race for the Galaxy gives you the variation and thus the multiple strategies, but one strategy can rule them all, and keeping track of all those abilities and bonuses starts to feel a little like work. It’s good, better than most games out there, but I have high standards and Race doesn’t quite meet them.


  1. Galactic Trendsetter

    Interesting take. Thanks for posting — more awareness around these types of games is always better!

    I’m a big fan of the game. I’ve found the consume-x2 strategy wins more than any other strategy, but I don’t think I’ve found it to be as dominant as you have. In fact, people who’ve played the game a lot more than I have say that when you really know what you’re doing, the consume-x2 strategy isn’t as powerful because you’ll have a better idea of how to counter.

    On the other hand, I’ve read other people say that once you’ve found the consume-x2 strategy to be dominant, then you’ve graduated on to “The Gathering Storm”, the first expansion. For what it’s worth, TGS does a lot to balance out the consume-x2 strategy.

    But then all this assumes that you really want to get into the game, and that you’re willing to spend some more money for expansions. I was and don’t regret it, but I don’t know why you would if you didn’t really enjoy the base game to begin with.

  2. The consume x2 strategy becomes much less dominant once you start adding in the expansions – in fact by the 2nd expansion you almost HAVE to have some kind of military component to your strategy, although they do add in a ‘takeover’ mechanic to try and balance that out.

  3. For me, the main turn-off is how little interaction there is. It felt like nothing so much as three players each playing solitaire from the same deck.

  4. I am a big fan of this game, and am probably one of the people that recommended it to you.

    The randomness has never been a problem for me. More skilled players will win more often. If someone gets a “god draw”, it’s never a big deal because the game is over so quickly.

    I don’t feel like the dominance of the produce/x2 strategy is a problem either, as that’s only part of the game. Pacing, anticipating your opponent, and establishing cards that allow you to benefit from your opponents’ calls (leeching) or discourage them from calling certain roles (blunting) are all very important. It’s an extremely tactical game where you may find yourself abandoning your initial strategy for another one.

    A big part of it is making this separation: The goal is not to score the most possible points. The goal is to score more points than your opponents when the game ends.

    From my own experience, and from other anecdotal evidence, it seems that RftG works best when you are able to learn the game along with a group/friend/partner. It’s a game that rewards those that take the time to explore it. If that’s not your type of game, then RftG isn’t for you.

    I also want to second that the first expansion makes it better by introducing a couple of key cards as well as goals.

  5. Disclaimer – I was one (of the many) playtesters for the game, in addition to being friends with Tom.

    I’m not surprised that the randomness bothers you, based upon your reaction to other games. As a practical matter, the randomness will make a large difference in a small percentage of games, and a small difference in the others. But the large difference isn’t as important as the difference between 10 plays of the game and 200. The small difference will matter in a game between closely matched players, but otherwise won’t matter a whole lot. But if you don’t enjoy dealing with what you’re dealt, Race probably isn’t an ideal fit regardless.

    But – having played the game more than a thousand times in person, and as many against the AI – I see no evidence produce/consume is a dominant path. I’m actually surprised that you point to it; most often I find that players new to the game point to military as the dominant path. As a practical matter, both are fine paths, as is the development path and, in the right circumstances, the settlement path. _Any_ of these paths can dominate against players who haven’t figured out what to do about them.

    A couple of years ago, I kept statistics from a series of two player games with a friend; they can be seen at: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/345831/200-2-player-games-statistics

    Note that Earth’s Lost Colony – which should have an advantage in a produce/consume path – actually did worst of all of the homeworlds, while New Sparta, which rarely leads to a produce/consume cycle, did best. There’s more to it than that – and I did not track the “primary path” (and have seen enough games won without a primary path to not believe one necessary), but it’s at least some contrary evidence.

  6. I guess my feelings on the Produce-Consume x2 come from my extensive playing with the AI and my limited play to a few games within my play group and at the WBC. Of the 500 or so games I’ve played on the AI (I admit I haven’t kept track of the statistics — about half are 3-player and half are 4-player), when I win (about 20% – 25% of the time, so I’m not a great player), I would say that 80% of the time it’s with Produce-Consume x2, with the other 20% coming from some type of settling strategy (either militarily or Alien world). Of the 80% of games I lose, I would say that 75% of the AI wins come on a Produce-Consume strategy from the AI. Maybe the issue is that the Produce-Consume x2 strategy is the one that seems really easy to do independent of all other players. If you can get 3 or 4 product worlds and a solid VP-planet like Galatic Trendsetters + Free Trade Assoc., then the game is all but over.

    It seems to me that the majority (60%) of the time, one of the players gets a decent enough card draw to do Produce-Consume x2 and then they just run with it. I would put the Produce -Consume x2 strategy equally divided between the cheap blue good worlds with Free Trade Association & Consumer Markets or the Mining strategy.

    I think has been my one complaint with the game (and to echo Keith) is that it feels like one needs to play 30+ games just to get a good feel for all the cards that are out there, meaning one doesn’t really start getting into the subtelties until numerous plays. For me pesonally, I just don’t have the face-to-face game-playing bandwidth to do that, as I’m lucky if I get a 4+ player evening once a month. Personally, that’s why I love a game like PowerGrid where one has really seen the whole gamut within 3 or 4 games and one focus on the subtleties of the game by the 3rd or 4th play, not the 30th play.

  7. I enjoy this game, especially now that I know the deck pretty well. We can get through games in 20 – 25 minutes a lot of the time with three players. My complaints:

    – I’ll echo what others have said: sometimes it feels like people playing solitaire at the same table rather than an interactive game. And the element in the expansions (taking over worlds) that would help solve that problem is by far my least favorite aspect of the game. We usually don’t even play with those rules because we dislike them so much.

    – I wish the game was just a tad longer. We play games to 15 cards sometimes, just to make things interesting (we play with all of the VP chips as well so those don’t run out), but then you throw off the balance of the game. I don’t want something like Monopoly, or even Puerto Rico, but a 45-minute game would be ideal.