Saturday, 3 May 2008

Race for the Galaxy

By now I have played 4 games of Race for the Galaxy, on Fri 25 Apr 2008 (one 2-player game) and Sat 26 Apr 2008 (three 3-player games). This is one of the recent hot games in the boardgame hobby, so I have read a lot of reviews, about what people like and don't like. So I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Of course since the rules are available online, I have read them, and have even made a concise reference sheet for the game.

Race for the Galaxy is a card game, inspired by the currently still #1 game at BoardGameGeek, Puerto Rico. When I read the rules, I found it to be rather similar to San Juan, which is the Puerto Rico card game, by the same designer, Andreas Seyfarth. Race for the Galaxy is designed by Tom Lehmann.

In Race for the Galaxy, each round has 5 phases, but not all phases will be executed every round. It depends on what phase the players simultaneously and secretly decide to have. "Simultaneously and secretly" is one of the key differences from Puerto Rico and San Juan, where players take turn to select roles, and those already selected by another player cannot be selected again in the same round. The 5 phases are Explore (draw two cards and select one, i.e. San Juan's Prospector), Develop (develop a new technology), Settle (peacefully settle a planet or forcefully conquer it), Consume (convert goods to victory point chips and cards) and Produce (all productive planets produce goods). If the players all choose the same phase, then only one phase will occur that round. If they all choose different phases, then more phases will occur. Everyone gets to participate in all phases that occur, but those who chose a particular phase enjoy some bonuses, just like in Puerto Rico and San Juan.

You gain victory points in three major ways - (i) via the Consume phase, where you'll collect victory point chips during the game, (ii) from the cards that you have played, i.e. your scientific developments and planets, and (iii) from the special powers of your cards. The game ends in two possible ways, either when the victory point chips are exhausted or when a player has played 12 or more cards. So timing the game end in Race for the Galaxy is an important aspect. Sometimes you want to drag it on, sometimes to speed it up, depending on your strategy and your opponents'.

The cards were a little overwhelming at first. There is a very big variety of cards in the game. Very few cards repeat. The icons on the cards were also a bit overwhelming at first, but I soon found that the iconology is very good. Once you get familiar with them, they are very useful and easy to read at a glance. It is quite amazing that every card power can be expressed through icons. It is like the designer invented a language. But of course there are some powers that are so unique that you will have to read the text description. They do have icons too though, but you'd basically have to memorise the icons and remember what they mean, kind of like some complex Chinese characters. Most cards do not have text. And for some that do, I feel they are not really necessary. The icons were good enough for me.

Anyway, back to the variety of cards. I quite like the variety and the many possibilities offered. Depending on your strategy, the number of cards in the deck useful to you will differ. However I find that usually there will be some cards that you can use. I rarely get a feeling of having a whole bunch of useless cards. Usually at least some will be useful. Despite the great variety of cards, I find that the number of distinctly different strategies is the game is actually not that many. This is not a complaint. Just an observation and a supporting point that the game is not very complex to learn. There is a development strategy, where you focus on developments. There is a settle strategy where you try to settle many worlds. There is a military strategy where you try to build up your strength and go a-conquering. With the produce/consume strategy you produce lots of goods and consume them to earn victory points. One of the keys in any strategy seems to be focus. You need to focus on doing something well, and make use of that strength. Being diversified does not seem to be a good idea in this game.

The other important is trying to make use of the actions / phases chosen by your opponents. This is what many fans of the game say. You need to watch and guess what your opponents will do, and try to make use of that. If you know that they will Settle, which you need to do too, then maybe you can choose to Produce, which may be another that you want to do too. Of course, on the other hand you also want to try to avoid being taken advantage of this way by your opponents. This is a bit of double-guessing, which I usually don't like in games, but I like it here. Maybe the reason is if you don't want to bother watching your opponent and want to just happily build your own space empire, you can. (just that your win rate will probably be lower than a player who does watch his/her opponents) Also sometimes when you are desperate enough for an action, then you probably should choose it yourself instead of hoping that someone else will.

In our game I kept saying thoughtfully "Now I know what I'm going to do" (我知道我要做什么了), taunting Han and Michelle that I had guessed what they were going to do and I'd take advantage of their actions. Later even Michelle started saying that. Sometimes we also had a mini side race of being the first player to choose actions. We'd tease the last player, usually the one who had just gotten a full hand of cards from the Trading/Consume phase of the previous round.

The variety of cards in Race for the Galaxy.

From top to bottom, the victory point chips, the back of the chosen action card, and the four measly planets that I have played. Obviously I'm focusing on the blue good (but I don't remember what it is).

Michelle and Han.

In this game I was obviously going for the military strategy. I started with two military power cards, and soon drew a 3rd one. These 3 cards gave me a military power of 6, i.e. enough to conquer almost all military worlds in the deck. So there was no doubt that I should go for the military approach in this game.

It's difficult not to compare Race for the Galaxy with San Juan, both being card games inspired by Puerto Rico. I like San Juan and have played a lot of it. Now that I have played a few games of Race for the Galaxy, I think I will like it more, and probably will always prefer it over San Juan. I like the larger variety of cards, and it seems to me that in Race for the Galaxy there are more options, or rather I would less frequently feel helpless with the cards that I get. I feel there is more flexibility.

I do see that sometimes one may feel helpless in trying to stop or hinder an opponent in Race for the Galaxy. You can't really do something to directly stop an opponent about to win. I am fine with this and have accepted this. I guess this is indeed a race. You try to take advantage of actions chosen by your opponents, and try to avoid being taken advantage of, but there really is not much you can do to hold back your opponent. Well, maybe except when you force your opponent to consume an alien good (the most expensive type of good in the game, which your opponent could have sold for a lot of "money", i.e. cards), which is equivalent to shipping your opponent's coffee in Puerto Rico.

Michelle seems to like Race for the Galaxy (she often beats me at San Juan). I have ordered it now, and I look forward to play many more of it.

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