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.