Linnaeus

Strategic Bricolage

In boardgames, game design, mechanics, race for the galaxy, techniques on October 5th, 2010 at 10:32 am

One reason why I love Race for the Galaxy so much is the strong exploration element. You find new combinations of cards and powers regularly – even after hundreds of plays – which keeps it a fresh, fun experience. The reason Race for the Galaxy maintains this for so many plays when other games are exhausted after a handful of times is that it demands strategic bricolage.

bri·co·lage

[bree-kuh-lahzh, brik-uh-]

–noun, plural bri·co·la·ges [bree-kuh-lah-zhiz, -lahzh], bri·co·lage.

  1. a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things.
  2. (in literature) a piece created from diverse resources.
  3. (in art) a piece of makeshift handiwork.
  4. the use of multiple, diverse research methods.

dictionary.com

In Race for the Galaxy, you must construct a strategy from the parts you have at – or rather, in your – hand. Only Explore and, as of the release of The Brink of War, Search give you no options without some connection to your existing tableau, and even that’s debatable if you have Explore powers in play. Then, once you execute a bit of your plan you find yourself with a new hand of cards and develop the next piece of your plan out of what you have available to you now. With a bit of practice, play amounts to developing a coherent position ad hoc from the tools that your previous plays and your current hand give you. It doesn’t always work out well, but it works more often than new players might expect. To the best of my knowledge, no other game has this quality to anything like the degree Race for the Galaxy does.

Why does Race for the Galaxy produce this effect? I’ve identified three key factors.

Almost every card features a power that is useful on its own, independent of any combinations you create later. Therefore, playing almost any card helps your situation, even if you do not have other parts of a combination that works with the card you just played in hand. You don’t have to spend time churning cards looking for a complete combination before you start putting cards into play, you don’t have to clog up your hand with halves of combinations and playing a card that later forms part of a combination isn’t really a speculative play. This creates important opportunities for discovery – Hmm…I never thought of that combo before, but here it is in front of me and it looks good – without imposing penalties for exploring the strategic space. In fact, this element of play rewards exploration, since it is often more efficient than digging for the perfect plan. The improviser is ready to roll before the stereotyped plan is, and can finish the game while a standard strategy is getting warmed up.

Power cads tend to be built from many powers, not a single dominant power, and many cards have multiple hooks (colour, keywords, and their own powers, for example) for powers to latch onto. This gives any given card a significant chance to combine fruitfully with any given power card, and some chance that it will have some synergy with a random card from the deck. Most of these synergies are standard interactions (production world plus Trade power or Consume power, Settle discount plus non-military world, etc.) and many of the others are minor or indirect effects (a small development scoring a point for Galactic Federation or Galactic Bankers). These small and obvious interactions have a funny way of becoming the building blocks complex networks of effects that come together when the right power card, featuring just the right set of powers, comes into your hand. For me, The Brink of War is an exciting addition to Race for the Galaxy because many of its cards add new combinations of hooks or feature powers connected on a single card in new ways. The addition of Prestige as another hook – and the kind of hook that it is – increases the potential combinations in the game an enormous amount, as well.

Finally, Race for the Galaxy lets you cycle through a huge number of cards during the course of a game, and rejects still serve a purpose (money). This means you are likely to find a series of cards that work together to form a strong combination, while your hand will not get cluttered with marginal or useless random cards. This is why Race for the Galaxy offers the combinatorial play of collectable card games without relying on prebuilt decks, which limit the potential for bricolage in Magic: the Gathering and its kin.

I’m not the first person to point to this aspect of RftG as its killer app, but I think this article helps to bring attention to how the game accomplishes it. Because I love the improvisational, yet strategic form of exploration Race provides, I hope other designers can replicate it in other, new systems, bringing fresh vistas to the gaming landscape. Hopefully it will even happen before we are buried under an avalanche of rehashes of the Race for the Galaxy mechanics.

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  1. Will you be planning to post a thread on Brink of War? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the prestige system, and prestige generating cards. From what I have read, your strategic and tactical analyses of Race for the Galaxy is profound in a somehow succinct, pleasant manner.

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