Race for the Galaxy cards are not created equal. Some are workmanlike cards that form the heart and soul of the game, but do not garner great accolades. Some only fill niches that are necessary to tie some strategies together, but are often of little use. A couple are actually rather terrible, looking to sucker players into wasting valuable tableau space on them.
Game changers are the cards that announce that a player is ready to get down to business. When they are played in the first half of the game, the pace of the game picks up. Maneuvering for a card here and a build there stops, and the real business of winning the game begins. They mark a player’s intended strategy because they allow a player to pursue that strategy with a real saving of tempo, often by drawing cards while pursuing their main strategy, but it can take other forms as well. Players typically make the transition from the opening to buildup or from buildup to drive by playing a game changer.
Some game changers can also be played at the end of the game for a last-minute influx of points, but that is not what makes them game changers. Galactic Federation is a game changer because it allows you to play a steady stream of developments, not because you can put it down at the end of the game for 6-10 points. Rebel Homeworld is a great card to play at the end of the game if you can, but it is not a game changer.
It is possible to bluff your opponent by playing a game changer with no intention of following it up immediately. This is a risky tactic, however, since most game changers are quite expensive. Playing them can bring you to a screeching halt if it does not add to your momentum; you need to make sure that you can refill your hand very quickly afterward. Improved Logistics and Alien Toy Shop are partial exceptions to this, since they are cheap enough.
This is the first in a series of articles that will look at every card in Race for the Galaxy, one-by-one. I’ve elected to start with the game changers because they are individual the cards which will have the largest impact on your game. After these two pieces, I will move onto the cards that fall a little short of the game changer threshold, before moving on to the rest of the deck.
Alien Toy Shop
Unlike most game changers, Alien Toy Shop gets used in a role other than game changer or game-ending point haul. It is the least expensive non-military alien windfall world, so it is normal to play it and trade the good just to cycle cards. What makes Alien Toy Shop a game changer is that it can form the basis of a functional Consume/Produce strategy. It does need the help of some form of card production to keep up with power building strategies, especially in multiplayer games. Any time a player with other Consume capacity and a bit of card drawing in place Settles Alien Toy Shop, the drive for the end of the game has begun.
Alien Toy Shop is one half of a notorious killer opening. In a two-player game with advanced rules, Earth’s Lost Colony Settles Alien Toy Shop in the first round and closes out the VP chips during the seventh round. Playing this combination, you will score 26 points, provided your opponent can’t get enough of the VP chips for himself to cut the game off a round sooner. There is no doubt that this is a deadly combination, but its Achilles’ heel is a complete lack of card production. A resourceful and lucky opponent can exploit this by building a leech and throwing down builds for as many points as possible. This killer combo is slower and easier to fight in multiplayer games, since the other players can work off of each other to take advantage of its lack of card drawing, even without explicit collusion.
Alien Toy Shop also works well as part of an alien strategy, a Terraforming Guild strategy, and as a strong leech on an opponent’s Consume strategy with Alien Rosetta Stone World or Galactic Engineers.
Consumer Markets is always worth playing if you Produce more than one novelty good. Its card production stacks with any other effects you may have, so it can turn a shaky Consume engine into a dynamic Consume-and-build strategy. As a bonus, it provides a huge boost to your Consume capacity as well when have more (novelty goods) production than consumption.
Consumer Markets works well with Free Trade Association, and together they form the heart of the most powerful version of the novelty goods Consume strategy.
In a pinch, the novelty commodity worlds, Gem World and Galactic Studios, make a decent substitute for Free Trade Association.
Like Consumer Markets, Diversified Economy can create a Consume strategy in a hurry. Unfortunately, the requirement for three different types of goods can be tricky to set up in a timely fashion. In fact, it is probably better to look at Diversified Economy as a way of gaining cards during the Produce phase. Two cards per Produce phase will go a long way toward getting your third good type into play.
When it does come into full force as a Consume dynamo, six points and 3-4 cards per Consume/Produce cycle can put opponents on their heels. If you have other Consume powers you can grow your Consume strategy into an unstoppable juggernaut.
Diversified Economy is a strategy unto itself, although playing it in combination with commodity worlds can leave an opponent with no good options.
Almost any strategy that scores points by playing 6-developments will benefit from Galactic Federation, and playing it early in the game is a clear statement of intent. Other articles will discuss the fine points of the different forms of this strategy, so for now it is enough to point out that the −2 discount Galactic Federation grants when building developments does a lot to ease the hand management issues 6-developments cause. Normally card drawing is stronger than an equivalent discount, but discounts make it possible to build several large cards in a row without discarding potentially valuable builds as cash. It takes several cards in combination to really match Galactic Federation‘s effect.
The points from Galactic Federation alone won’t win the game for you. You also need cards in play that will score bonus points from the 6-developments you intend to play, even if it is only as a leech on your opponent’s play. Developments work a little better than planets; Galactic Federation will score a point for them and many 6-developments score more for powers on developments that they do for the same powers on worlds.
Although it seems like Investment Credits is a natural fit with Galactic Federation, further discounts aren’t as important as getting cards into your hand. Aside from a good leech, Interstellar Bank and Public Works are the obvious way to do this.
Imperium Lords is a 6-development that can score large numbers of points that also has a phase power that is scary and useful to a wide range of strategies.
Against a Consume-based strategy, Imperium Lords lets a military strategy churn through cards to find large military worlds, increases in military power and useful 6-developments without wasting tempo on Explore or Consume/Trade. The cards you don’t want serve as cash to play the developments you need.
Against another build strategy, set up a couple Consume powers, preferably with some card drawing, and leech your opponent’s build calls using the cards you draw while gaining on him with a Consume/Produce cycle.
Don’t overlook Imperium Lords‘ usefulness to Contact Specialist strategies, either. If anything, they need that card drawing power of this card more than standard military does.
As mentioned, Contact Specialist can get the cards it needs to function from Imperium Lords just as easily as a standard military strategy can.
Imperium Lords can give a Settle strategy the cards it needs to go full tilt with Improved Logistics.
Galactic Imperium scores two points for Imperium Lords as a card with the Imperium keyword, and they both score bonus points for the same military worlds. Rebel worlds are especially useful in this setup.
The power of playing two worlds every round (or four each round in two-player advanced) is fairly self-evident, but it is difficult to sustain. Even a military strategy can only hold so many useful worlds at once comfortably. The real power of Improved Logistics is that you can build fast enough to keep up with strong Consume strategies even when you need to take a tempo here or there for an Explore or Trade here and there.
It also lets you overshoot the normal limit of 12 builds at the end of the game, if things go well. With help from your opponents you can reach 14 cards in your tableau, more in two-player. Setting such a large finish up may take an extra round or two of preparation, though, so weigh carefully whether it is worthwhile to give your opponents the extra time.
It’s easy to trap yourself into thinking Improved Logistics is only for military strategies, but any Settle-based strategy should give it careful consideration if it appears in your hand. Even a gain of one or two builds can make an enormous difference in the final result.
Replicant Robots makes non-military applications more efficient.
Contact Specialist opens up the number of cheap builds that are available for a blitz Settle strategy.
When playing military or Contact Specialist, Imperium Lords is an excellent way of searching for more builds without using time if your opponent is playing a Consume strategy. Black Market Trading World and Trade League can also fill this role if you have a means of producing.
Terraforming Robots and Terraforming Guild also let you draw precious cards without taking time away from building. The latter also makes windfall worlds, which tend to be easier to play, more valuable.
Improved Logistics can give any strategy a shot in the arm if it is centered on 6-developments that score for planets in your tableau.
If I were to point to one card in Race for the Galaxy as broken, it would be Terraforming Guild. The mere fact that it would still see frequent play if you cut the 6-development points for windfall worlds in half is one sign of its strength. How easy it is to score 10-14 points with this card is another. Add in a pair of solid phase abilities and the fact that it turns a previously dubious set of strategies (those based on playing windfall worlds) into powerhouses and you can see why I look askance at it.
Normally I would not call a card that is mostly useful because it lets you score a pile of points a game changer, and Terraforming Guild’s powers are solid but not game changing. I get the same feeling in the pit of my stomach when an opponent plays Terraforming Guild that I do when I see other game changers played, though, so I have made an exception here.
Terraforming Robots scores bonus points for Terraforming Guild, and combining their Settle-phase draw powers makes settling windfall worlds a nearly self-sustaining activity.
Contact Specialist lets you Settle every small windfall world except Alien Robot Sentry for minimal investment. Space Marines isn’t as versatile, but you exchange Rebel Warrior Race for Alien Robot Sentry and all the military windfalls you can play are free, not just the one-defense ones. If you get Former Penal Colony you have a small chance of building significant military power without playing other developments. Drop Ships, on the other hand, doesn’t gain enough over Contact Specialist or Space Marines in this role to justify the extra cost if those cards are available. Exploration Force alone is worth considering as a play on another player’s Develop call if nothing better is available. Space Mercenaries isn’t worth giving up the space in your tableau in this role; the 0 VP factor is huge when playing build strategies.
Galactic Engineers lets you Produce on a second windfall world, making a significant Consume/Produce leech feasible. The Trade bonus can come in handy as well.
On the surface, Tourist World and Galactic Trendsetters serve a similar purpose of making your Consume engine more efficient than 2 points per good consumed. The reason why Tourist World is a game changer and Galactic Trendsetters is a near miss is that Tourist World saves a tempo by consuming two goods instead of just one. A Consume player needs to be consuming as many goods for points as possible, and often has more production than consumption. The ability to address this problem more quickly with Tourist World while also consuming more efficiently points-wise is an enormous gain from one card. Tourist World is very nearly a competitive Consume strategy by itself. Galactic Trendsetters needs other Consume powers along with it to fully shine.
(Alien Toy Shop is stronger than Galactic Trendsetters for a similar reason: it saves a tempo by coming with its own production capacity if you are the one calling Produce)
Mining League and Galactic Genome Project can fill a similar role, but they are more expensive, and serve a narrower niche of Consume strategies.
Tourist World is one third of a notorious three-card opening combination, with Alpha Centauri as your start world and Artist Colony. This is a tempo slower than the Earth’s Lost Colony/Alien Toy Shop combo, and I’m not sure how strong it actually is in multiplayer, where you need some help from the other players to get up and running quickly.