Race for the Galaxy Makes Us All Fledgling Galactic Emperors

I started waving a checkered flag and everyone looked at me funny. I guess it's not that kind of race.

I started waving a checkered flag and everyone looked at me funny. I guess it's not that kind of race.

Every galactic empire starts out small, but if you can grow your empire fast enough, you might end up with 12 planets under your control. You can clench them in an iron fist, or build a galactic utopia. Rio Grande’s Race for the Galaxy is a planet colonization card game roughly based on the San Juan/Puerto Rico game mechanics, and it’s one of the better sci-fi themed card games I’ve seen.

Race for the Galaxy looks like a great way to get your sci-fi empire building fix in without devoting the time and money to something as massive as Twilight Imperium (although I desperately long to play Twilight Imperium). Each player starts out with a single planet. Each turn, a player secretly chooses one of five phases and plays the appropriate phase card. A particular phase doesn’t happen if no one plays the card. Therefore, in a four player game, at least one phase will be skipped each turn, more if multiple players choose the same phase. When the phase you chose occurs, you get a bonus.

If that seems a bit abstract, here’s a specific example. Phase one is Explore, during which each player draws two cards and keeps one. If you played the Explore phase card that turn, you might get to draw seven and keep one, or draw two and keep them both. Of course, if no one played an Explore phase card, no one draws any cards because the phase never happens.

Victory is achieved by gaining control of 12 planets or gaining the most victory points.  Most of the time, you’ll gain victory points when one of your planets consumes some goods that were produced by another one of your planets (two things which occur during the Produce and Consume phases, naturally). Certain cards generate victory points in other ways, like performing research or building a strong military.

There are some nice innovations that make Race for the Galaxy appealing. One is that the cards themselves are used for just about everything except tracking victory points (you get some cool spacey looking markers for those). The cards obviously represent the planets, developments, military bases and other things you’ll put into play. They also represent currency – you’ll discard cards to pay for new colonies or developments. Cards even stand in for production. When a planet produces something, you place a face down card from the draw pile there to represent it.

There’s also minimal text on the cards. A card might explain unusual effects or features, but basic information is represented with icons. It might seem confusing at first, but once you get the hang of what the icons mean, it makes all the information necessary about a card easy to see with just a glance. For example, each card has the five phases listed on the left side. A planet that produces will have a colored icon in the Produce phase. A planet that consumes will have a colored icon in the Consume phase. A research base might have a hand icon holding a card with a “+1″ on it at the Explore phase, indicating that control of the base lets you draw an extra card during the Explore phase.

Race for the Galaxy came out in 2007, but there are already two expansions available, and a third (plus possibly more) on the way.

5 Responses to Race for the Galaxy Makes Us All Fledgling Galactic Emperors

  1. This sounds similar to the Catan card game IN SPPAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaace! which is a good thing, but not necessarily enough to warrant a purchase in addition to Catan. I like the phase thing though, that is a neat trick. I wonder who thought of that. I mean, he probably can’t even see the box from where he’s standing.

  2. I bought this recently after reading all the positive reviews on BGG (and I’m happy to say that beat ups on the messageboards there about it having an incredibly steep learning curve don’t hold up). I have to say, I love it – I really dig the elegant design, especially the way cards are used for everything – something I also like about Hellrail, though that uses a very different approach.

    Neither my beloved nor best friend were especially impressed, though, and I can see why. Their biggest beef was that interaction between players is nonexistent. Compared to something like Chrononauts, which similarly requires players to play cards face-up in front them, there’s no stealing from other players or undoing their actions to prevent them from winning. Indeed it seems more or less unimportant what the other players do, except for the actions they choose each round (you want them to choose the things you want to do but didn’t pick yourself).

    They also weren’t fans of the rules being so abstracted from the theme. I enjoyed the galactic conquest theme, but the rules don’t seem to attached to that theme to overcome the feeling that it’s primarily a game of placing and discarding cards. Surely it would be simple to reskin RftG to be about a mining boom, the industrial revolution or any context in which production is possible.

    All that said, I really like it and would like to see these problems fixed; I’ll be picking up the first expansion, The Gathering Storm, very soon, as I’ve heard it not only adds cards for an extra player, but adds some more elements of player interaction. (It also has a solo play variant, so at least if it doesn’t make my friends like the game more, I’ll be able to play it by myself!)

  3. guybrush: We’ve run into this problem with a few games lately (lack of interaction, I mean). Empire Builder, for example, is a great game, but you can feel like you’re playing in a fishbowl at times. Often, a simple mod or house rule can make a big difference. We started tinkering with Empire Builder tonight, and I think we’re on the right track (so to speak).

    Maybe there’s something that can be done with RftG to fix things. The first thing that springs to mind is something involving military points. Make a use for them other than “a different way to pay for colonization.” Could be tough to find a good balance and avoid too much added complexity, but I think it can be done.

  4. I love this game! I’ve owned it for about a year now. One of my favorite things about the game is how many different strategies there are to win. Its always interesting to figure out what the best course is given what with you start with. A few things:

    1)I’m fairly certain the game ends when anyone has 12 cards in front of them, not 12 planets. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won either. Its all based on the victory points.

    guybrush: definitely pick up The Gathering Storm. It adds some tokens that are akin to the Longest Road in Catan. Half of them are ‘person with the most x’ and the other half are ‘the first person to acheive x’. I think it helps add some tension and indirect interaction. The only other really new thing in this expansion is they provide some cards that make the Alien planets (yellow) a little more easy to obtain.

    Also it looks like the second expansion (which I didn’t know was out, thanks!) adds the military combat aspect you were talking about. I’ll have to go pick it up!

  5. There is a bit of player interaction, the more you play, the more your aware of how much your choice, and the choice of your fellow players cards will be/might be and what kind of advantage you gain.

    The 3rd expansion also adds increased interaction with the possibility of hostile take overs of other planets.

    One of my favourite games.

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