The act of phase selection (or role selection, a legacy from its Puerto Rico heritage) lies at the heart of Race for the Galaxy, so it should surprise no one that improving your play in this aspect of the game is an important part of winning. Unfortunately, genuine mastery is not possible: there is a healthy dose of art amidst the science. Nevertheless, there are several rules of thumb that can help you find your way.
Play for Marginal Advantage, Not Absolute Gain
When choosing a phase, look for the one that will give you the greatest marginal advantage over you opponents. That is, you want to choose the phase that will let you gain the most on your opposition, not the one that does the most to build your position. No matter how much you get out of a phase, it does you no good if the other players gain more from it.
It’s not as simple as saying, “Develop will gain me five points, and it’ll let Mary gain three points and Joe can get three, but Produce will net me four points while Mary and Joe only get one each,” though. You don’t know what cards your opponents have in hand, nor do you know which opportunities are waiting just around the corner to reveal themselves.
There is information available that can help you decide what play is in your best interest, though. You know what you have in your hand and your tableau, what your opponents have in their tableau, and how many cards they have in hand. Although this is not the same level of information you have in, say, Caylus, it does give you an indication of which directions your opponents are going in, and what strong plays you have available. If Heather has Interstellar Bank and Investment Credits in play and eight cards in hand, you don’t want to choose Develop unless you have an extremely important development to play. Somethin on the level of Consumer Markets when you already have Artist Colony, Spice World and New Vinland in play, for example.
Sometimes the best marginal play is a relatively small play. Calling Produce is the right move when you have a rare elements world in play, but your opponents don’t have any production worlds at all and you don’t have any strong cards in your hand. It sets you up to make a small Consume/Trade the following round and does not hand your opponents a chance to play a strong card while you play something pedestrian. If you know that you can play another production world – especially a genes world or a world that generates cards when you Produce on it – if Settle is called, there is little to lose from this play and a lot to gain.
When all else fails, Explore as a delaying tactic can work, especially in the early stages of the game. You take a shot at getting a card that can help you build momentum, and you don’t risk giving your opponents more opportunities to out build you, out produce you, or outscore you (although you do risk an opponent drawing something useful). You want to avoid doing this as much as possible unless you have cards that make exploring very strong. When the alternatives guarantee that your opponents gain ground on you, though, it is the lesser evil.
Although leeching is a useful trick, it is not the only way of benefiting from your opponents’ phase choices. Much like a bicyclist following in the draft of a pack leader, you can also following in the draft of another player’s role choices, using your opponents’ energy to make your own task easier. Taking full advantage of your opponents’ phase selections more often that they take full advantage of yours will give you a large lead in development, especially in the early stages, when every action has a disproportionate effect on the course of the game. Drafting lets you take more turns than your opponents, so you build faster than they do, and this advantage multiplies over time.
Even when you have a very strong play for a particular phase, it may be worthwhile to leave that role for your opponent to choose if it is a phase she is well positioned to take advantage of. If you choose another role that also helps you, you may be able to get even further ahead; not just drafting, but slingshotting ahead. When you try this it is important, unless you are desperate, that the role you choose is good for you even if the first role is not chosen. At the very least, it should be unlikely to hurt you if the first role is not chosen.
The classic example of this sort of play is selecting Consume/Trade early in the game with no goods in play. You gamble on another player choosing Settle for you, letting you play a windfall world, gaining a good that you can then trade.
For a less generic example, consider the position from the last section where you have Artist Colony, Spice World and New Vinland in play, and Consumer Markets (plus a bunch of minor cards) in your hand. Heather, your opponent, has Interstellar Bank, Investor Credits in play, and we’ll also give her a couple windfall worlds in play and, thanks to a trade last round, eight cards in her hand. While the conservative play is to call Develop so you are sure to get Consumer Markets in play, Produce is stronger.
Heather, with her large hand and relevant cards is well positioned to go on a run of Develop calls, which suits your needs nearly as well as choosing Develop yourself does. If she does select Develop, you will get Consumer Markets anyway and, further, you will have several goods to consume with it, and a partially restocked hand, hopefully with a useful development that you can build next round.
You should only try this sort of gamble when no other players can take advantage of it, or when your situation is so dire that it won’t matter if your plan blows up in your face. If, in the last example, Heather catches you off guard and does not select Develop, her windfall worlds will not be restocked (or, at most, one will be if she settles something like Galactic Engineers, or she might get a production world into play, but you can probably get another production world down, too) by your Produce call, while you will have three goods that you can Consume/Trade to fill your hand. While it’s not as breathtaking as the ideal situation, you still gain more than Heather does from producing.
If Heather or another player has an engine that is a little stronger than yours (but not so strong that Produce is worth their time) or a strong trade good like an alien production world or a small good with several trade bonuses, choose a more conservative path, unless you are lagging behind. The risk of helping another player more than you help yourself if Develop is not chosen is too painful.
When you try to draft aggressively, don’t cling to the idea. If your opponent does not choose the role you want the first time, it’s usually better to choose it yourself next round rather than leaving yourself in a holding pattern. Maybe you can hang on one extra round by playing a Consume/Trade or Consume ×2 if you can put it to good use.
Don’t be Predictable; Don’t Fear the Obvious
The corollary to the last section is that it is important to keep your opponents from guessing what role you are going to choose when they are in a position to take advantage of that knowledge. Any time an opponent accurately predicts which role you are going to choose he has a real information advantage over you, and every time he successfully drafts your role choice makes your goal of winning harder to attain.
Typically, your position will force you into making certain role selections, but a few times every game your hand will let you make a less obvious choice with little or no harm. You need to take every opportunity you get to throw your opponents off the scent without hurting yourself. Fooling your opponent will cause him to make suboptimal choices, both at that time and later. You can deal your opponent a blow if you catch him taking a gamble on your role selection by forcing him to pay the cost for taking that risk. Better yet, the memory of this failed gamble will lead him to be more conservative about trying to draft your role selections in the future, lest the same thing happen again.
As nice as it is to throw your opponents off the scent, though, you still need to move your position forward. If the obvious role choice is the only way to do so, don’t be afraid to choose it. It’s easy to be too clever by half and tie yourself in knots while trying to avoid the obvious play. Being predictable is better than sitting in a holding pattern.
Although predictability is often bad, calling the same role several times in a row and gaining from it each time is a powerful play. Generally, your opponents will not be in a position to exploit the role you choose every time you call it.
The most common application of this idea is when playing a typical military strategy. The military player will Explore multiple times in a row to find military developments and large military worlds, using his opponents’ Develop and Settle calls to get his military machine set up. Then, once he has a hand full of large military worlds, he calls Settle over and over (and over), hopefully closing out the game that way. Often, opponents will exhaust their useful planets within two or three Settles. At that point, they have a choice between taking an action to resupply, or letting the military player Settle solo for large point gains.
A rarer play is stringing together two, three or even four consecutive small but productive Develops at the start of the game. If you can play Interstellar Bank, Investment Credits, Space Marines and Terraforming Robots as your first four roles of the game (possibly with a small military windfall world or two played courtesy of an opponent’s role choices), you’ll have a strong opening position. Meanwhile, your opponents will be left in the dust, scrambling to get a strategy rolling before you close out the game.
A series of Consume/Trades can also be quite powerful. You have the freedom to play powerful cards on your opponents’ Develops and Settles, restocking your hand afterward. The other players have to be careful not to empty their hands, leaving you free to build alone from your well-stocked hand.
If your hand is weak at the start of the game, you can Explore over and over, looking for direction. While this is far from ideal, it at least has the benefit of denying your opponents chances at additional builds that are likely to be as strong as or stronger than anything in your hand. Once you come find something worthwhile you can kick your game into gear, possibly drafting an opponent’s build to regain a bit of ground.
Kick ‘Em While They’re Down
Sometimes you will unexpectedly catch an opponent unable to make much of your Develop or Settle call. When this happens, take advantage of it if you can by continuing to call the same role over and over. Even if you only make small plays, you deny your opponent any build at all, so there is a strong net gain. This is especially true if you already have discounts or card drawing powers that trigger off that role, so you continue to refresh your hand.
Even if your opponent Explores or Consume/Trades, it may be worth continuing with your streak. Just because your opponent drew a bunch of cards, there is no guarantee that he drew anything useful. Make your opponent prove that he can gain from your plays.
If your opponent’s hand is empty at the start of the round while you are flush with cards, call your best build. Even if you play something small, this is a great way of gaining on your helpless opponent. The only dark side to avoid is emptying your hand for little gain, risking the possibility that your opponent will do the same to you the following round with interest.
If you can start a Consume/Trade/Produce or small Consume ×2/Produce cycle with some card production while you opponent can produce nothing, do so until your opponent proves he can adapt or that he can afford to ignore you.
Whenever an opponent shows weakness, exploit it to the best of your abilities.