25 Jan

Race for the Galaxy

Filed under: Boardgames One Response

I have to sheepishly admit that one of the reasons why I was first interested in Race for the Galaxy was because it’s the most played game ever by Hiew and I thought,  “Hey this guy plays a lot of games, so this must be good, right?” Plus, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post about Dominion, I really like card-based games and I’m always curious about innovative game mechanics that designers come up with to do more stuff with cards. Then add the advantages that it’s a relatively cheap game, is quick to set up and play and has specialized rules for playing with two people.

Some thoughts I have about its design:

  • Cards serve multiple roles. In addition to being played normally, they are also used as “money” to pay for cards that are being played and to serve as trade goods on planets. Actually using counters to represents goods on planets would work just as well as using cards and the only advantage left is that you can play the game without using too much paraphernalia. But the expansions seem intent on adding more stuff than just cards, which sort of nullifies this advantage. Using the cards themselves as money is a genuinely interesting idea though and eliminates the issue of having “duds” in your hand, cards that you will never play but are stuck with. Just spend them to make them go away!
  • Uses lots of iconography. This raises the difficulty of the initial learning curve but makes it possible to implement many different effects on the cards without filling them with walls of text. Not everything is relayed only through the icons of course and there’s still explanatory text where needed, but the game strikes a good balance I think. Another observation I have is that because I have a slight red-green color blindness, games that make extensive use of colors often confuse me but I’ve never had this problem with Race for the Galaxy.
  • Cards do lots of things! Many cards do one thing in a given phase and a different thing in another phase, made possible by the above-mentioned liberal use of iconography. This creates more possibilities for different types of combos using only a limited pool of cards. Very impressive!
  • It’s at heart a combo-making game, giving you points for successfully assembling cards that work well together. That’s one of the oldest game designs in the world. Think of games like Poker or Mahjong. But Race for the Galaxy still feels fresh and interesting despite this.
  • Has significant randomness given that you depend a lot on the luck of the draw. But the game gives you so many tools that I don’t really feel constrained by it. You have access to two different types of Explore actions to go searching for cards. You can sell trade goods to draw lots of cards. Many card effects allow you to draw more cards whether through the Explore actions or the Trade action.
  • The central role selection mechanic is much weaker than its predecessor Puerto Rico, I feel. In the previous game, choice of role is greatly affected by turn order, which basically means the order than the players sit around the table. In Race for the Galaxy, actions are mostly simultaneous so you don’t really need to consider turn order when choosing action cards. This greatly reduces the amount of interaction in the game but then the mechanic in Puerto Rico can be a bit cheesy as well, so I’m not sure whether this is overall good or bad. I think I should try to play Puerto Rico more especially now that it’s the number one game again on BGG.
  • Fantastic art! Actually, some of the best that I’ve ever seen in any game. I not only like the art, which is full of small details that fleshes out the world the game is set in, but I like the art direction as well. Many games go for showy, dramatic art, but the art for this game goes for a realistic, even understated style. They don’t depict great heroes or fantastical space vehicles, they depict the universe of the game itself, hinting at how much more there is than what it is that we can see. I note that the rulebook states that its setting is inspired by the stories of Frederik Pohl and David Brin. Awesome!
  • The theme is only weakly related to the gameplay however. At heart it is still a Victory Point-chasing Eurogame with a very strong solitaire playstyle, so the theme is just window dressing. For all the cool cards you lay down, you never really get the sense that you’re sending out brigades of space marines to conquer worlds or producing consumer goods to sell to the galaxy at large. It’s all still rather abstract.

All this makes it a game that I’m very happy with. Often when I play games I’ll think, “This is neat but I bet I could have thought of the idea myself”. The design of Race for the Galaxy however strikes me as something that I’d never be able to come up with in a million years. One potential downside is that I suspect that playing it with two players and consequently being able to play two action cards every turn, results in a drastically different version of the game than the normal one using only one action card per player per turn. I really ought to try playing it with more players, but the inherent complexity and heavy use of iconography makes it difficult to teach to new people.

Written on January 25 2010 and is filed under Boardgames. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Race for the Galaxy”


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