I finally got around, after eight plays, to posting a rating comment for Race for the Galaxy over on Boardgamegeek. They’re pretty long, and there are points in them that are ripe for debate, so I decided to post a copy here, as well.
[EDIT: I somehow managed to post an earlier draft of my comments, not their final version. I have now updated this post with my current comment.]
Race for the Galaxy may be as good as this type of game (something along the lines of “strategic resource management card game”) can get. Certainly, it is good enough that many of its strengths and weaknesses point to qualities that may be inherent in the genre. Certainly, its strengths should only be rejected by designers that work in this category with careful consideration.
The rules are actually quite clean and easy to grasp, with one or two minor exceptions, if you set aside the issue of the card powers. Experience with Puerto Rico and San Juan are undoubtedly helpful, of course, but I don’t think it should be too hard to figure out how to play the game from the rulebook.
Figuring out how to play the game well is another story. RftG achieves an impressive array of strategic possibilities by taking a modular approach. A particular strategy is made up of one of the various card-generation modules that are available (say, an Alien Technology windfall world for trade, or one of the cards that gives its owner a card every time he produces a card of the specified type), plus 2-3 point generation modules (say, quick military settling plus New Galactic Order & Galactic Survey: SETI, or Galactic Trendsetters plus Galactic Renaissance) and voila, you have a strategy. Of course, some combinations have better synergy than others, so judgement and experience come into play here.
The problem is, with so many strategic “modules” in the deck, Lady Luck will walk up and bitch slap you sometimes. I’m not entirely sure how rare it is, even. You can start on a strategy in good faith, get smacked with an incompatible batch of cards from your first trade, switch plans, then get another batch of cards that fits your original, invalidated, plan again, or perhaps neither of your first two directions. While the first reverse is almost to be expected, the second, or even third, is not, necessarily, and a paucity of useful cards during the middlegame can be even worse. Adapting to this is impossible sometimes, at least at my level of skill. Fewer “modules” would ease this problem, but the price would be a cut in the delicious strategic diversity.
The range of strategies creates a steep, but interesting, learning curve for the game. A less palatable part of the learning curve for some, though, is the iconography of the cards. While I find the icons intuitive, and picked up on them quickly, my regular opponents are finding it a harder slog.
Worse, the size of the icons, mandated by Rio Grande to allow for larger art on the cards, compromises the games usability. It is essentially impossible to read what a card can do from across the table, and there is simply no need for it. The icons could have been doubled in size, maybe more, and a change to a different, less cluttered and muddy, style of illustration would have made card identification a snap. They even fouled up the card name area, using an overly bold, overly compressed font, and setting it as dark grey on medium grey. You really have to strain to make out what an opponent can do. Boo, I say.
The dark side of the variety, and this is compounded by the poor usability decisions, is that RftG will bog down the analysis paralysis-prone pretty badly. Race wants to be a 20-30 minute game, packing a lot of punch in that timeframe. One or two slow players drag it out to 45-60 minutes, where it feels more “typical.”
Oh, if you require the ability to reach out and directly affect an opponent’s position, stay far far away. Personally, I’m down with indirect player interaction, but there is a large segment of the gaming community that howl at this type of game as though it kicked their puppy.
In spite of its problems, though, Race does have that certain “something” that keeps you wanting to come back for more. The variety of strategies keeps the game fresh, and you often feel there is something worth seeing just over the horizon, or a new insight to put into use. This is what gives it a similar feel to Magic:the Gathering, even without the cardboard crack business model. This quality makes it a textbook “9″ on the BGG scale. I am (essentially) always interested in playing RftG, but, unlike a true 10, I can envision a situation where this may no longer be the case. We’ll have to wait and see how I feel after I have explored most of its nooks and crannies.