My Race for the Galaxy Comments

In appraisals, boardgames, race for the galaxy on January 28th, 2008 at 4:29 am

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.

  1. I can feel the money oozing from my wallet…

  2. I would’ve felt it as well, this weekend, had there been any copies available at OxCon…

  3. Iain,

    Please be sure to notify Tom Lehmann of this, so I can get my commission 😉

  4. Monday Gaming

    My one game of Race was interesting enough. (Oh, Linnaeus posted his thoughts about Race. And Mikko p…

  5. So I finally played my first game of RftG today and to nobody’s suprise, I loved it right off the bat (Well, maybe Gil was suprised, but he was happy). I hated, hated, HATED the cards! I think I’m still squinting… small text, small icons, dark titles… all ugh! My experiences with San Juan & Puerto Rico finally came in handy for something: I ended up using the equivalent “City Hall” and “Guild Hall” buildings out of sheer recognitiion of what they did. Time well spent with the deck will produce a better understanding of all the symbols and doohickeys etc., which I hope will lead to better building choices in future games.

    Final tally: Gil: 38 Heather: 37

    I *will* win tomorrow

  6. *grin*

    Careful, Heather. This is one of the ultimate “Ah, just one more” games 🙂

    I’m happy you took to it so quickly, since i figured it would be your cup of tea. The icons will become more natural after a couple more games (I think).

  7. At the moment, I’m clearly addicted to this game. I’ve played it about 10 times, and can see it easily replacing San Juan as my go-to medium-filler game. But so far I’ve been lucky in being able to implement the Alien strategy in my two-player games, and I win EVERY TIME with that strategy. If that becomes the standard strategy, I’m going to get bored with the game fairly quickly.

    Twice I’ve gone for the “6 VPs every other turn” with the “two rare earth elements for 3 VPs, x2” strategy, but neither time was it enough to give me the win. It seems to take too long to build up the engine to churn through those VPs, and since it pretty much keeps me from building or getting cards as a result, I can’t acquire enough points to even be competitive during the scoring.

    Also, I’m not seeing a lot of cases where the game ends when the VP chits run out. I’ve had that happen twice, and once was during my first game, when I was floundering just to figure out how the game worked. Players tend to focus on points through the buildings (oops, sorry, WORLDS), and rarely use the consume action. Is that normal?

    Am I missing something obvious?

  8. Isaac,

    From what I have read on Boardgamegeek and what I have experienced with my own group, there can be a real element of groupthink involved in RftG strategy. A group will find a rut with a dominant strategy, then someone will win one time with something else, either through luck or intentional experiment, and the strategic landscape will shift for a while until a new rut is found. Rinse-lather-repeat until the group settles down into a place where a wide variety of strategies are played.

    In the specific case of shipping, I suspect that someone in your group will soon figure out how to get their point engine up and running a tempo or two faster, at which point shipping strategies will dominate play for a while.

  9. The trick with the consume x2/produce engine is to have card draw built into it.

    For example, a novelty (blue) consume x2/produce engine looks to have Consumer Markets (CM) and/or Free Trade Association (FTA) in play. Why? With CM, you’re drawing 1 card per novelty good on a produce action (not to mention the consume power it provides). With FTA, you’re consuming up to 3 goods for 1 vp & 1 card each. In both cases, your consume x2 and/or produce action is not just netting you VP but also cards.

    A good consume x2/produce engine isn’t about being able to consume for > 6 VP per cycle, it’s about being able to do so while having enough card draw to (occasionally) leech off other players’ actions (develop/settle). Once you get this dual technique down, you will definitely see games ending by the VP pool being depleted (particularly if multiple players end up in a consume x2/produce cycle).

    If you have any questions or want to discuss this further, shoot me a geekmail on BGG (Alan Stern). Cheers!

    — Alan

  10. Just to follow on from Alan’s comment, there are similar “engine” cards for each of the good types, as well as Diversified Economy for those who cannot maintain such purity in their production.

    And also, once you get production engines down, you haven’t mastered the game. You’re just ready to tackle the next stage in your development as a player 😉

  11. […] My one game of Race was interesting enough. (Oh, Linnaeus posted his thoughts about Race. And Mikko posted his review). But (amazingly), games were […]

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