Empire State of Mind – Race for the Galaxy review

RaceCOVER

The story behind Race for the Galaxy is an interesting one. Originally conceived as a card game version of Andreas Seyfarth’s classic Puerto Rico, designer Tom Lehmann’s work was seemingly all for naught when it was revealed that Seyfarth had actually been working on a follow-up called San Juan all along.  Not one to chuck away a good idea, Lehmann continued developing his new game and eventually ended up moving it into the realm science fiction. Now, some six years after its initial release, Race for the Galaxy has surpassed all expectations and easily outstrips San Juan in the popularity stakes. With three expansions out already and a fourth on the way, what is it about Race that means it is so well regarded?

Simply put, it’s a card based game of civilisation building but there’s so much more to the experience than that. The cards you hold in your hand are split into either Worlds or Technologies, both types of which will help you expand your galactic empire in countless different ways. Once a player has at least twelve cards in front of them, the endgame is triggered and the highest points total is the winner. The journey to get that victory, though? It’s immense, filled with choices and knife-edge decisions that can make or break you in the space of moments.

The seven standard Action cards - choose one each turn and everyone gets to do it. You'll be rewarded with a bonus.

The seven standard Action cards – choose one each turn and everyone gets to do it. You’ll be rewarded with a bonus.

The engine that runs the game are the Action Selection cards that are the same for each player. At the beginning of each turn, players select one secretly and all are simultaneously revealed. With seven different options available to the players, only the Actions that are chosen will actually happen in that round; for example, if in a three player game two were to choose Settle and the third Develop, only those two would occur.

The order of the Actions is vital – most of the time your plans will take place over the space of a couple of rounds, so be sure you know exactly what you want to do but keep a second option open at all times. In order, you can choose from one of the following:

–          Explore, which allows you to draw extra cards to your hand

–          Develop lets you play a Development card to the table from your hand

–          Settle brings World cards to your tableau

–          Consume is all about spending goods created by your Worlds to get points or more cards

–          Produce refills goods on certain Worlds

Now, you’ll notice that there’s only five Actions there; both Explore and Consume actually have two different ways of being used. When an Action is chosen every player at the table gets to perform it, but those who actually flipped the card to make it happen also get a bonus. It may be a discount on bringing a card out or a way of getting some extras into your hand – whatever it is, these boons are very useful indeed and if you can manage to pull them off at a time when your selected Action isn’t so useful for everyone else, you’re well on the path to winning.

A selection of Developments. The cost is in the diamond while the hexagon shows how many Victory Points you'll get at the end of the game.

A selection of Developments. The cost is in the diamond while the hexagon shows how many Victory Points you’ll get at the end of the game. The  6-cost improvements can be gamechangers!

You may be wondering why there’s so much emphasis on getting cards. Well, not only will you be playing various Technologies and Worlds down in front of you to score points, you also have to use cards to pay for them – yes, they’re the game’s currency too. Any time you decide to Develop or Settle, you’ll need to discard the amount noted in the top corner of your chosen card. Exploration and Production will expand the number of cards in your hand, not only opening up your options but also allowing you to pay for them.

Much has been made of Race for the Galaxy’s use of iconography and while it is true that it can be spectacularly confusing when you first get into the game, it only takes a few plays with a decent crib sheet at hand before you start truly understanding the symbols. Playing a game like this requires investment of your time to grab hold of its nuances – I’ve been playing it regularly for a year or so and still only feel like I’ve scratched the surface. There are a ridiculous amount of paths to victory, and no matter if you’re reacting to your opponents or forging ahead with no regard for anyone else you will always have a way of pulling things around your way.

A sample of some World cards. Again, the cost is in the circle. This also says what kind of goods it will produce.

A sample of some World cards. Again, the cost is in the circle. This also says what kind of goods it will produce. The symbols next to the numerals down the left side show when special abilities may be triggered. Bring your cheat sheet of symbols!

Race’s reputation as one of the Great Games is well deserved. The amount of work that has been put into it is well documented – Tom Lehmann is one of my dream guests to get on the podcast – and the care that has been put into its development shines through. Years of playtesting, not just for the base set but the expansions too, mean that you have a game before you that is smooth and streamlined. Yes, it takes a bit of effort to become fluent in the language of the game but with a little determination you’ll soon discover something incredible inside that small box. Such depth of play doesn’t come along too often, so if you’re seeking a challenging game that will be nearly endlessly replayable, this should be high up on your list.

Race for the Galaxy was designed by Tom Lehmann. Originally released in 2007 by Rio Grande Games, between two and four can play using the base set alone – expansions bring in more players as well as the option of solo gaming. A copy from Gameslore will set you back £23 with expansions normally coming in at around £17 apiece. A single game should normally take you 30-45 minutes, but as you get more experienced you should be able to knock that down significantly! And if you’re looking for a good way to learn the game, check out the How To Play Podcast with Ryan Sturm – I highly recommend it.

 

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