A new galactic order
A powerful card enters your hand. Playing the new galactic order you just drew will let you pivot your empire, granting you a strong military. This, in turn, will allow you to conquer the rest of the planets you have idly waiting in your hand, which just might win you the game. And the profit you’ll earn, selling the novelty goods resting in your space port, will be more than enough to cover the cost of the whole operation. This is your plan. But you will not go through with it. You see, your opponent just triggered the settle phase, and the only way you’ll get to participate is if you sacrifice your new galactic order. Considering it, you realize that playing the tourist planet from your hand would open up a whole new market for your novelty goods, netting you a healthy chunk of points. You happily sacrifice the prospect of a militarily dominant empire, gunning instead for one where you sell highly marked up trinkets to foolish travelers. Unknowingly or otherwise, you just succeeded in the most important part of Race for the Galaxy. You retained your tempo.
Race for the Galaxy (2007) is a quick, lightweight tableau builder, by prominent designer Tom Lehmann. It established a handful of design elements that would become customary for almost all his later designs, and launched a series of spin offs, most of which are dearly beloved by board gamers around the world. Considering this, I want to ask if it's still worth playing, when faced with the plethora of Tom Lehmann games that share the same setting and explore similar mechanics. Should you play the original?
The five aspects of empire building
You start the game off with a singular home planet in your tableau and a hand of cards representing technologies to invent or planets to take a hold off. To assist you in turning these humble beginnings into a blossoming empire, the game presents you with 5 phases, each representing a different aspect of maintaining and growing your domain. The first phase allows you to explore, searching greedily through the galaxy, represented here by a huge deck of cards, for new prospects to add to your hand. The second and third phases let you develop your technologies and settle your planets, expanding your empire by playing cards into your tableau. The fourth phase puts your economy into motion, letting you ship goods between your planets to consume them for benefits, usually represented by victory points. Finally the fifth phase refreshes your empire, allowing planets to produce goods, readying them for the next round of the game.
And here, dear reader, we have aimlessly stumbled into the first rub of this game. Not all phases will occur every round. Rather, each player will secretly choose one of them that they wish to happen. Then every player does all the phases that all the players have chosen. To the untrained eye this might seem a novel way to force players to be prepared for all phases at all times, but once you reach a certain skill level in RftG, this turns into a vicious fight for tempo.
Catching up to a player in the lead is an uphill battle. You need to play cards to strengthen your economy, but doing so allows your opponent to place cards as well, meaning they can take their sweet time triggering phases that largely benefit them, while still reaping the benefits of your play phase. You have to pay close attention to where your opponents get their cards from and strike when the well runs dry, in the small period of time before they can dig a new one.
The building blocks of an empire
The second rub in Race for the Galaxy is the cost of cards played from your hand. Nigh all the cards require you to discard other cards from your hand as a cost, meaning you're constantly evaluating and reevaluating the cards in your hand. As previously outlined, missing an opportunity to play a card can be horrendous for your tempo, so you’ll often find yourself suffering turns where you have to pay cards, sacrificing the resources meant to fuel your actual plan, to play lesser cards because you simply cannot afford the cards you want to place yet. Sometimes you’ll even find yourself with the horrible yet delightful question of discarding the card that WAS your plan. Such decisions make sure that RftG feels fresh all the way through, and allows you to make meaningful decisions till the very end.
The predictability of 109+ cards
Upon early plays, the relatively large deck of cards might be somewhat daunting. Surely there's a lot of chance at play here? But there isn’t. You have three things aiding your fight against fate itself; the deck, phase one (exploration) and phase four (consumption). It does not matter how groundbreaking your card game is, if the cards are either too different or not different enough, it will succumb to irrelevance. Race for the Galaxy has the most perfect deck I have ever seen in any game, only rivaled by a standard deck of 52 cards. It’s stunning just how varied yet predictable it feels. Remain somewhat flexible and you will always find something in the ballpark of what you were looking for. This is greatly assisted by the previously mentioned phase one and four, which in combination let you draw more than ten cards every turn, if you’re playing well. Should you ever find yourself in a situation where nothing you drew was useful to you, know that this is not a shortcoming of the game, but rather stems from your lack of experience and tactical prowess.
A point of contention
RftG is infamous for its cryptic iconography. This is a point I will both agree with and disagree with. Yes, the first few games of race for the galaxy will be somewhat rough, requiring an embarrassing amount of referencing of the somewhat lacking player aid. I will however count its iconography as a positive, despite its bad reputation, for the following reasons. Straight up, it's really not as bad as people say it is. I will concede that it will take some time to learn, but not nearly enough to warrant avoiding the game. The second point however is where my praise lies. Once you get to grips with the iconography, a task that's much easier than one might think, it facilitates incredible speed in gameplay. Any card can be read and understood at a glance. And for the game to work this is absolutely necessary. Imagine drawing 10 cards every turn and having to read all of them. The stellar iconography almost halves the game length, making it a cool 20 minutes per game, allowing you to play over and over again; an offer that you'll be more than happy to take it up on.
The iconography is, in my opinion, representative of the whole game. Play it once or twice and it might seem novel but unnecessary. Play it 10 times and you realize there’s a reason for everything. You'll be hard pressed to find a game with a better depth to length ratio; even when considering other Tom Lehmann designs.
Is it still worth it?
I somewhat let slip my opinion of this game in the previous paragraph. Race for the Galaxy is not just “amazing for a short game”. It can easily contend with multi hour behemoths and still come out on top as the more interesting game; it’s simply an amazing game game. It works as a filler, but shines if played many times in a row, taking the space one of the aforementioned behemoths would greedily claim. If you’re the type of person who has to break the shrink on a new game every time you play, you will never be able to appreciate the full depth of RftG. If, on the other hand, you’re the type of person who adores playing a game for years to come, get this game. It will be one of the best purchases you ever make.
Music pairing: FTL: Faster than light - Original soundtrack, by Ben Prunty