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.