Just to get everyone (including me) warmed up, I’m starting off with a few fundamental points. These are concepts that can help you refine your play in most stages of the game, across all strategies, but do not amount to a strategy, or even a direction of play, by themselves.
The Point is to Win, not to Obey Poncy Strategy Articles
This series lays out a number of strategic ideas and guidelines, and most of the time they will lead you to greater success than ignoring them will. The bottom line, though, is that you are trying to win the game. Strategy tips and rules of thumb can help you find the right path – largely by helping you weed out poor options – but ultimately you have to concretely assess the possibilities in the current situation, weighing the costs and benefits that different paths offer you and the other players. Only then can you decide what the right play is. Occasionally you will be in an unconventional, or even downright bizarre, situation where normal strategic considerations have to take a back seat. At other times, two ideas that I present will lead you in different directions.
This does not render this series pointless. Race for the Galaxy is not so chaotic that it makes analysis pointless. Mindlessly applying rules and guidelines to your play will lead you astray sometimes, though. More importantly, Race is complex enough that it offers more possibilities than any series of tips can possibly consider. That’s why it’s so fun!
I hope that this series will provide you with a solid foundation from which to launch your own creativity and and insight.
Be a Fox, not a Hedgehog
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing
It is tempting, when playing Race for the Galaxy, to focus on doing one thing very well. Building your military score as high as possible, throwing out production world after production world with accompanying consume powers, or getting all of the Develop boosts (Galactic Federation, Public Works, Interstellar Bank and Investment Credits) down, for example.
Being this inflexible causes real problems, though. It removes a major source of uncertainty for your opponent and makes it easier for them to make plans because your role selections are so predictable. Worse, this focus makes it harder for you to take advantage of your opponents’ role selections. If you only do one thing well, taking other actions is, by definition, inefficient. Leeching – gaining a benefit from your opponents plays – requires some degree of flexibility by definition.
You will rarely create a situation where you come out ahead no matter which roles are chosen, but if you create a position where any role selection gives you some benefit you are likely to dominate the game.
A diverse position is also a good way to reduce the luck factor inherent in the game. A diverse position can leverage more power cards than a more single-minded one, and it has more ways to recover quickly when playing a power card drains your hand.
You Do Need Focus, Though
Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic, and ultimately absurd. But if it is not an aid to serious criticism, neither should it be rejected as being merely superficial or frivolous; like all distinctions which embody any degree of truth, it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting-point for genuine investigation.
-Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox
Leeching and flexibility are means to an end, however, and that end is scoring points. Since you only get to choose one or two roles each round, putting a majority of your resources into scoring from one or two roles is more efficient than a more scattered approach.
Most of this series will describe various means of developing this focus.
Don’t Fight Your Hand
It’s pretty common early in the game to look at your tableau, then at your hand, and realize that they have nothing to do with each other. The natural response at this point is to call Explore +5 to dig for something related to what you have in play already.
This can even happen right at the beginning of the game. New Sparta, Old Earth, Earth’s Lost Colony and, to a lesser extent, Alpha Centauri all point strongly in a certain strategic direction, and it is easy to view this as a mandate rather than a nudge.
Several factors work together to make playing your hand more important than playing your tableau in the first half of the game.
Fighting your hand requires digging a lot of cards out of the deck to find something more useful than what you already have. Since the focus is largely on smaller moves in the early part of the game, you are unlikely to improve your hand enough with an Explore +5 to make the loss of time worthwhile. Trading a good for cards is more acceptable since it fills your hand at the same time, but not when you expend a lot of time to set up a mediocre trade. If you genuinely have nothing that will help you build a position, though, it may be worthwhile to Explore +5 or (in Advanced 2p) Explore +5/Explore +1/+1 to get a build or two.
Even if exploring does turn up a useful build, what do you do once you play it? Explore again for your next build? I can tell you from harsh experience that having to do this more than once or twice is the road to ruin. Better to make a small improvement immediately, and see if you get a chance to leverage it next round. At worst you have pushed your search back a round, at best you get a free card or two from an opponent’s Explore or a development you have in play, and it turns into another good play without wasting time.
Also, strategies have a strange way of building organically from small pieces. If you play a small but productive card here and another there, they will start to become stronger than the sum of the parts while cycling cards through your hand. When a strong card finally comes along that combines well with what you have in play and it gives you direction and, bam, you are driving for the finish line.
Once you have started on that drive for the finish line, however, focus is more important. Your position will now have one or two methods of generating meaningful amounts of points, and one high quality play typically scores more than two or even three lesser plays. At this point, taking time to search for high quality cards is necessary sometimes.
Nothing is More Vulnerable Than an Empty Hand
If fighting your hand is bad, having no hand to fight is even worse. Generally you will be forced to waste several actions on trying to rebuild your hand while your opponents gleefully select Develop and Settle, secure in the knowledge that they are gaining on you. Worse, their builds may let them leech off your rebuilding efforts, leaving you further behind. At least when you have nothing to build, but have cards in hand, you can Explore for something good or, better yet, put up a front of working toward something significant.
Only let your hand empty under the direst of circumstances, or when you have a way to refill it (to the point of making at least one good build) quickly; within a round at most. Doing otherwise will be painful at best, fatal at worst.
Building Better Wins Over Building Faster
Although it seems to contradict the last section, it is nevertheless true that quality builds will usually, over the course of a game, beat fast builds. The significant difference here, though, is that you are letting a build pass because you want to play something stronger that you already have in your hand. You are not speculating on your ability to get something stronger by exploring or trading. You know that, with another card or two, you will play something strong.
The return on cards invested tends to go up with the cost of a card (there are exceptions to this), so a single card that costs 3 or more can be equal in power to two or even three smaller cards, especially when it has synergy with other cards in your tableau or in your hand. Falling a build or two behind your opponent is a small price compared to delaying the engine of your strategy several rounds. Typically, if you get your strategy up to steam faster than you opponent does, you will catch up to your opponent, with interest, later in the game.