Race for the Galaxy is a strategic card game first released in 2007 about building a galactic civilization by developing technologies and settling worlds that are represented by cards. Players will simultaneously select actions for everyone to perform, and work to play cards that enhance their engine and score the most victory points. Once a player has played twelve cards, or all the victory point tokens have been claimed, the player with the most victory points will be the winner!
At the beginning of the game, each player is randomly dealt a home world, which will be placed as the first card in their tableau. Each player’s tableau is simply the face-up cards that are played in front of them. Then a hand of six cards is dealt to each player, and they select four to keep, and two to discard. Unlike most games, Race for the Galaxy does not follow a normal turn structure. Rather, all players simultaneously select one of the five action cards to play during that round (every player has an identical set of action cards). Once all players have selected their card, they are revealed and determine what actions players will take that round. For example, if players reveal phases “I. Explore”, “II. Develop”, and “IV: Consume”, then only those phases will take place this round, with “III. Settle” and “V. Produce” phases being skipped. Once the phases have been determined, players can simultaneously resolve them in order. Additionally, players will gain an extra bonus for the phase that they selected themselves.
There are five different possible phases, with two of the phases having two different versions that can be played (“I. Explore” and “IV. Consume”):
- I. Explore – Each player draws two cards from the top of the deck, and selects one to keep in their hand, discarding the other. Any player who chose “Explore: +5” as their action will get to draw five additional cards, and any player who chose “Explore: +1, +1” is able to draw one additional card, and then keep two cards instead of one.
- II. Develop – Each player can play a development card from their hand (cards with a diamond around the cost), discarding a number of cards from their hand equal to the development’s cost. This is a central concept in the game; cards in your hand represent developments and worlds that you can play, but are also the currency that you use to pay for cards. Any player who chose Develop as their action can play a development with the cost discounted by one.
- III. Settle – Similar to develop, each player can either play a non-military world card (black circle around the cost), discarding cards equal to its cost, or a military world (red circle around the cost), provided that they have a military strength equal to or higher than its cost (various cards provide military bonuses). Players that chose the Settle action do not get a discounted cost, but rather get to draw a card after they play their world.
- IV. Consume – Throughout the game, some worlds will have goods placed on them, simply represented by a facedown card. Such worlds are either a windfall world, which comes into play with a good, or a production world, which produces a good whenever the Produce phase is executed (each world can only have one good at a time). The Consume phase allows players to spend goods to gain different benefits. All players can use any consume powers shown on the cards in their tableau (e.g. spend a good to gain one victory point). Any player that chose the Consume: Trade action can first trade a good for cards, according to what type of good it is. Any player that chose the Consume: 2x VPs action can double all victory points that they gain from consuming goods during that phase.
- V. Produce – Each player can produce a good on all of their production worlds that don’t currently have goods. Any player that chose the Produce action can also produce a good on one windfall world.
Once all players have completed the subset of phases that was selected for that round, they must each discard down to ten cards, and then simultaneously make their selection for the next round. As the game progresses, cards in the players’ tableau’s will provide various benefits that are typically tied to one of the five phases in the game. For example, you might have a card that gives you a discount on all developments you play for the rest of the game. Or you might have a Consume: Trade ability that gives you an additional 3 cards whenever you trade a blue good. Or perhaps you have an Explore power that lets you keep more cards than normal in every Explore phase. All of these abilities are the heart of Race for the Galaxy. The game is all about building up an engine of cards that can ultimately generate enough victory points for you to win the game.
Rounds continue in this fashion until, at the end of a round, either a player has 12 or more face up cards in their tableau, or the last victory point chip is given out. Points are then totaled with players scoring for the VP value of each card in their tableau (shown in the hex next to the cost), all of the VP chips that they collected during the game (primarily from consuming goods), and any “6-cost developments” that typically have variable scoring conditions, such as gaining points for every production world in your tableau.
The player with the most points in the winner!
What Is It Like to Play?
The most common decision in Race for the Galaxy is, “which cards out of your hand do you actually play?” Due to the fact that the cards double as the currency for playing other cards, you have to mentally split your hand into cards that you plan on playing, and cards that you plan to use to pay for those cards. This is complicated by your hand being limited to ten cards. This means that if you are saving five cards to play, you can at most have five other cards that can help pay the costs (you are able to go over the ten card limit within a round, but it would need to be before the Develop or Settle phase if you really want to take advantage of it). Often you have to make the tough decision to discard a card that you would love to play, simply because it is not realistic that you are going to be able to make it happen.
Another interesting dynamic is the action card selection. In any given round, you can only be certain that the phase you select is going to be executed. However, experienced players start to learn how to anticipate what phase their opponent might pick, and use it to their advantage. For example, maybe a player just played a windfall world that has an Alien good (which is the most valuable type of good). If their hand size is relatively small, there is a fairly good chance that the player may be planning on using Consume: Trade to trade the Alien good for a hefty five cards. Armed with that knowledge, you can now pick your phase knowing that there is a good chance you will have the opportunity to execute the Consume phase as well. This won’t always affect your decision, but good players will consistently use this kind of anticipation to their advantage, instead of just blindly waiting to see what other players pick.
The last aspect that I want to mention is right there in the name of the game: Race. The duration of the game is ultimately determined by the fastest player, and while intentionally rushing to the end isn’t necessarily a winning strategy, you can easily be caught with a severely underdeveloped tableau if you haven’t paid attention to how quickly other players are playing cards. If you see that your opponent’s strategy has a faster pace then yours, then you need to adapt and perhaps move from “engine building” to “victory point scoring” sooner than you had intended. On the other side, if you see that your opponent’s strategy is going to take time to develop, it may be in your best interests to push the pace. You may end up with a lower score than normal, but that doesn’t matter if that low score is still higher than your opponent’s.
As a card game, Race for the Galaxy naturally has a lot of luck of the draw. However, the game provides many ways to mitigate this luck by allowing you to access a huge number of cards over the course of the game. The “Explore: +5” action is the best example of allowing you to increase your chances of finding cards that might work with your strategy, as there is a pretty high chance that at least one of the seven cards (more if you have any explore powers in your tableau) is something that you can work with. This introduces a balance of trying to work with what you have been dealt in the name of efficiency, as well as spending time searching for cards that may be strong enough to make the effort worth it. I have seen games lost at both extremes: there are times that you really should have searched for more cards to identify some stronger options, but you can also lose a game by endlessly exploring for the perfect cards while your opponent settles for cards that are “good enough.”
With many games, I answer this question by speculating how I anticipate the game will hold up to many repeated plays, based on my experience. With Race for the Galaxy, no speculation is needed. At the time of this review, I have played it over 300 times, and it still remains one of my favorite games (especially when considering games with a similar playing time). That is about as objective and accurate of a recommendation of replay value that I can give to a game.
Despite having played the game so many times, nearly all of my plays have been with two players. My few plays with three players seemed to work well, but I found the pace of a two player game to be a lot more satisfying. I can’t speak to the experience with more than three, but I certainly can give a glowing recommendation to the two player game.
The most obvious similar game is San Juan, which is the card version of Puerto Rico, and was actually the design from which Tom Lehmann split to create Race for the Galaxy. Other quick-playing card games that carry some strategic weight might include Innovation or Eminent Domain. There are also some other solid spin-off games from Mr. Lehmann such as Roll for the Galaxy and Jump Drive, and an example of a heavier board game that includes a lot of similar cardplay would be Terraforming Mars.
As with many card games, the setup for Race for the Galaxy is pretty minimal. You just need to deal each player a random start world and a hand of six cards, each grab a set of action cards, and set out 12 VP tokens per player; then you are ready to go.
Race for the Galaxy gets a lot of complaints about it being difficult to teach, and that the iconography is too complicated. I honestly think this is blown out of proportion. I think all of the iconography used is very intuitive, and whenever the icons get more complicated, the cards typically provide text that explains them. Yes, this does mean that there is a slight up-front investment in learning the vocabulary of icons that are used, but I think if it is explained well, new players can pick up on it quickly.
As far as new players understanding strategy, I think you really need to get a few plays under your belt to get a feel for what you should be trying to accomplish. Fortunately, the game is relatively short, so it is not asking a lot for players to commit to a few games before giving up on it. All in all, I think Race for the Galaxy is slightly difficult to teach well (and when not taught well, it could have disastrous results with new players), but it definitely can be taught in a way that really eases new players in, without much of a problem.
Things to Like
In most games, currency is only valuable in what it allows you to purchase, without any inherent value by itself. Race for the Galaxy changes this dynamic by making the cards double as currency. What this means is that whenever you pay for a card, you are not just losing the resources that could be used to pay for other cards, but also the opportunity to use any of the cards that were discarded. Expensive cards are often powerful, but require you to be more willing to give up a lot of other options. This leads to every hand of cards having a large number of plausible approaches, and introduces new interesting decisions every time new cards are added to your hand.
The process of gaining abilities and discounts that allow you to accomplish more as the game progresses is a very satisfying feature of engine-building games. What makes these types of games even more interesting, is when there are a huge number of possible options, making every game play out differently. This is a strength of Race for the Galaxy (especially when you start adding in expansions). As a card game, your options are always dealt from a much larger pool of cards, and it is unlikely you will ever see the exact same hand more than once. This means that not only are you fed a steady flow of interesting decisions in a short amount of time, but those decisions are always feeling fresh as you look for new ways to utilize cards together as part of your strategy.
It is one thing to get a large number of meaningful decisions and a feeling of snowballing progression, and it is another to get that experience in under a half hour. Especially when playing with experienced players, Race for the Galaxy approaches “filler” territory; my brother and I are at the point where our games typically take under 20 minutes. When I think of other games that play in that amount of time, Race for the Galaxy blows away the competition as far as strategy and depth of gameplay. We would often play three games in a row in under an hour, and it is amazing how it feels like we had accomplished so much, especially compared to other games that fit within an hour of playing time.
Selection of the phases is simultaneous, and then all players can resolve the activated phases independently. There is nearly no time spent waiting for someone to “finish their turn,” which is a big reason why you are able to feel like you accomplished so much in so little time. Technically, the rules specify that players go through the phases together, and this could matter in cases where players are simultaneously playing cards and are not supposed to know their opponents’ moves when making their choice. However, this rarely is an issue, and players can simply wait if they feel it may have importance. But man can this game fly when everyone is just quickly handling their actions and then moving to selecting their phase for the next round.
Things to Dislike
As mentioned before, the player who decides to play the fastest will ultimately determine how long the game will last. I think this is a good dynamic and forces players to pay attention to each other and adapt their strategy to fit the current pacing. However, there are some times where it can be an annoyance to lose the opportunity to explore a strategy, simply because the other player is going quickly. For example, I might have a cool combo that could set up a really good strategy around producing and consuming, but I might notice that my opponent has built up a strong military. I know that military strength allows military worlds to be played easily without discarding any additional cards, and that my opponent is going to be able to play a lot more quickly as a result. If I continue on the path of trying my produce/consume combo, the game will likely end before my engine hits its stride. And while it is an interesting decision to switch gears due to noticing the trajectory of my opponent, it still leaves a taste of disappointment as I never get to execute what I really felt like doing.
Several expansions have been released for Race for the Galaxy over the years, and I wanted to touch briefly on my opinions of some of them. I have played extensively with the first three expansions: The Gathering Storm, Rebel vs. Imperium, and The Brink of War. There are two newer expansions, Alien Artifacts and Xeno Invasion, that are designed to form new “arcs” from the base game, and I have not played with them.
The Gathering Storm
The first expansion has several additions:
- Fifth Player – Means nothing to me as I have played two player almost exclusively, but I can’t really imagine a five player game being as fun unless you happen to have four friends that all really love the game.
- Goals – These new tiles are randomly selected during setup, and provide new conditions for scoring victory points such as “player with the most military power” or “first player to gain five victory point chips.” I love this addition, and have played with it for the large majority of my games. It adds a little something to make the setup for each game different, and gives you another tradeoff to chew on when you are considering how to approach your strategy. Not to mention, it causes you to keep a closer eye on what your opponents are doing, which I think is a good thing.
- Solitaire Mode – I don’t do much solo gaming, but I did try this a few times years ago. From what I could tell, it seemed like a sufficient solution to providing a satisfying way to play a game of Race for the Galaxy alone, and could be a huge bonus for fans of solo board gaming.
- More Cards and Start Worlds – New cards are always great; love it.
All in all, I think this expansion is great for players who have enjoyed the base game, and totally worth it for the goals and new cards alone.
Rebel vs. Imperium
The second expansion builds off of the first one:
- Sixth Player – Much like the fifth player, didn’t mean anything to me.
- More Goals – Seeing as I enjoyed using the goals from the first expansion, this was a very welcome addition.
- More Cards and Start Worlds – Always love new cards!
- New Takeover Mechanic – Certain cards have a new symbol that allows you to take over an opponent’s military world if you meet a series of conditions. In the reviews I looked at, it seemed that most people are not a fan of this addition of direct conflict, and choose not to play with it. I was quite sure I wouldn’t enjoy it either, and have never played with the Takeover rules. However, I still shuffle in all of the cards (as most have other abilities or are still worth points), and we just ignore the Takeover symbol.
- New Two Player Scenario and Solitaire Additions – Can’t speak to either as I have never tried them. But may be of interest to a niche subset of players.
From my perspective, this expansion is all about more cards and more goals. If you are loving how the game plays with The Gathering Storm and want to inject some new life, Rebel vs. Imperium is a great way to do it.
The Brink of War
The final expansion of the first “arc” of additions to Race for the Galaxy adds more of the same, as well as a new Prestige mechanic:
- More Goals – The more goals the merrier, it gives more options in the variable setup.
- More Cards and Start Worlds – Let’s face it, I would have bought the expansion just for the new cards.
- Prestige Mechanic – Prestige is a new resource added in The Brink of War. Many cards have a little Prestige symbol next to their cost and victory point hex, which indicates that you receive one prestige when you play it. If nothing else, each prestige is worth a victory point at the end of the game. However, it is also a resource that can be spent for various card effects or to use a special action card that allows you to execute a “super” version of one of the five actions. When I first played with this expansion, this seemed like an unnecessary addition of complexity just for the sake of complexity, but as I played more and more, I grew to really like it. I would certainly only recommend it for diehard fans of the game and its previous expansions, but for players in that category, it adds a lot of new options and interesting decisions.
The Prestige tokens are really the main focus of the expansion, as many of the added cards (and goals) utilize them. So if you can’t get enough Race for the Galaxy and have played it to death with a consistent group of other people, I think this is a great expansion. For many others, they may have everything they need without needing to pick this one up.
Game Design Perspective
A card game like Race for the Galaxy is an interesting design challenge for several different reasons. One is that it is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem at the beginning of the design process: in order to validate the basic mechanics, you need enough cards with interesting effects to test with, but to make cards with interesting effects, you need to actually know how the basic mechanics work. I think the key when approaching this kind of design is to not worry about balance from the outset, and just create enough cards to validate your current iteration of the game system. It may seem easier to make all of the initial cards very generic, simply covering a matrix of very basic effects, but you run the risk of it being “boring” and attributing it to the core gameplay, when really it would be fine with more creative card abilities. So there is definitely a fine balance between designing the types of cards and abilities that will give you a view that is accurate enough to validate aspects of the design, while not spending too much time on card design before you have a chance to playtest.
From my perspective, the design decision in Race for the Galaxy that is responsible for the majority of the interesting decisions the game has to offer, is the way the cards double as currency. “Multi-use” cards have become very common in modern board games since Race for the Galaxy’s release in 2007, and for good reason. If a resource simply has one purpose, there isn’t any decision to be made about how you are going to use it. But once you introduce multiple purposes, the player is constantly faced with tough choices about which usage is more advantageous. The term “multi-use” is a little nebulous as even something as simple as “money” can be considered multi-use, as you can buy different things using it. I think what makes the implementation in Race for the Galaxy more interesting is that the different uses are drastically different (playing a card for its effect versus just discarding it to pay for another card), and discarding a card is a permanent opportunity loss, as you will likely never have the chance to play that exact card again. Couple those elements with the limitation of only being able to store a maximum of ten cards from round to round, and you have a fascinating hand management system that really is the core engine of this engine-building game.
For a game that plays in a half hour, you will have trouble finding one that offers a higher concentration of interesting strategic decisions than Race for the Galaxy. Its iconography and design rewards players who keep coming back, and after playing it over 300 times, I have yet to tire of its quick and addictive gameplay.
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