Designed by Thomas Lehmann
Release Year: 2007 Complexity: Medium-High
👥 2-4 Players ⏰ 20-60 min 💸 ~$30 🔗 Buy
Race for the Galaxy is a strategic card game of space exploration where you will be racing to settle new worlds, develop advanced technologies, and produce and ship goods as you build up your interstellar economy. Each round, all players will simultaneously select one of five phases to activate. The phases are then resolved in order, with each player taking the primary action of the phase they chose, as well as the weaker, secondary action of the phases their opponents chose. These phases include exploring to get more cards in your hand, settling worlds and investing in developments, producing goods on your existing worlds, and consuming those goods for either cards or victory points. The game continues until either the twelfth card has been played in a player’s tableau, or when all the victory point chips have been claimed.
At the heart of Race for the Galaxy is a tight game of hand management, where every card in your hand can be either played into your tableau or used as “money” to play other cards. With a hard hand limit of ten cards, you are forced to make tough decisions about which cards to play and which to sacrifice to keep your strategy moving along.
This is amplified by the fact that you aren’t the only one picking which phases you will have the opportunity to activate. You may have been planning to save a specific card to play, but now your opponent activated the “Settle” phase and you have to decide: do you throw away that card to pay to get a powerful world out sooner, or do you skip the action, choosing to hold the card at the expense of efficiency?
The more you play, the more you realize that you can make educated guesses about which phase your opponents will pick based on their tableau. You may see that one opponent has no cards in their hand and no goods to sell, and it seems very likely that they will trigger “Explore” to draw some new cards. However, are you willing to risk activating a “Develop” action that relies on you getting to explore to have enough cards to pay for it? Trying to predict your opponents’ selection tempts you with even greater efficiency, but often with the risk that an unexpected selection throws off your entire turn.
But keeping an eye on your opponent isn’t just about predicting phase selections. Equally important is understanding the pacing of the game and adjusting your strategy as necessary. The game is truly a “race,” and while the fastest player won’t necessarily win, you don’t want to get caught off guard with the game ending with your strategy half-baked. On the other hand, if you see that your opponent’s strategy is going to take some time to develop, you might want to push the pace. Sometimes playing more quickly and for fewer points is the right decision if your score will still be higher than your opponents’.
Player Counts - Over 95% of our plays of Race for the Galaxy have been with 2 players, which works beautifully, but 3 or 4 players can also be good, especially if all the players are experienced. The Gathering Storm expansion adds a solo mode which is alright, and while the Gathering Storm and Rebel vs. Imperium expansions also add support for a fifth and sixth player, you are definitely pushing the envelope at those higher player counts.
Abstract vs. Thematic - The theme of space technology and exploration is cool and informs a lot of the card abilities, but in practice, players end up just strategizing around the various card effects without any connection to the theme.
Luck vs. Skill - In any card game that has lots of blind draws from the deck, luck is going to play a significant factor. However, the mechanisms provide plenty of opportunity for skillful play, and high-level organized play is evidence of the fact that players can get really good at this game.
Multiplayer Solitaire vs. Highly Interactive - While Race is sometimes cited as an example of “multiplayer solitaire,” given the players working on their own tableaus, we believe there is more interaction than what meets the eye. You literally are affected by your opponents’ phase selections every single turn, and the dynamic of racing to finish means that it is important to be aware of how your opponents are playing.
Short Setup vs. Long Setup - Especially for its strategic weight, Race for the Galaxy has a very quick setup. Just give each player their phase selection cards and a random start world, and then shuffle and deal 6 cards to each player.
Easy to Teach vs. Hard to Teach - The game has gained a reputation of being really hard to teach with difficult iconography, but we actually feel that is blown out of proportion. Most of the iconography is intuitive, and when it isn’t, it is supplemented by text on the card. That said, on the spectrum of all games, Race still skews toward being more difficult to teach and it usually takes new players a few plays to get a feel for the pacing and strategy.
Low Setup Variability vs. High Setup Variability - Each game of Race for the Galaxy is going to present you with a unique combination of a starting world and 6 additional cards, of which you get to keep 4. This, combined with a shuffled deck that is going to constantly feed you a new unique combination of options, makes the variability from game to game quite high.
Things to Like
✅ Constantly Interesting Hand Management - Every hand of cards you encounter in Race is a unique puzzle with many ways that you could approach playing it out. And it is a puzzle that is constantly being morphed by new cards that you acquire from the deck. The result is a decision space that never grows old even after hundreds of plays.
✅ Outstanding Ratio of Decisions to Time to Play - Usually strategic depth correlates strongly to longer playtime, but Race for the Galaxy manages to be an exception. We are hard-pressed to think of other games that set up in minutes, can play in a half hour, and yet leave you feeling like you had a deep strategic experience with an abundance of interesting decisions.
✅ Engine Building with Lots of Variety - While the hand management puzzle is satisfying in and of itself, it is the way that it feeds into an engine-building game with escalating power that gives each game a nice arc and makes the decisions that much richer. With so many different card abilities, you will always be running across combos that you have never used before. And while we won’t go into detail on expansions in this review, it truly is a strength of the game that, if you like it, there is some awesome additional content available for you to mix in, spicing up the game with new abilities and amplifying all of the game’s strengths that stem from card variety.
✅ Quick, Simultaneous Play - A big reason why so much strategy can be packed into such a short playing time is that players select and execute the phases simultaneously. Instead of a 90-minute game where 60 of the minutes are spent on other players’ turns, Race for the Galaxy has all players engaged for almost the entirety of the game length.
Things to Dislike
❌ Pace Can Prevent Exploration of a Strategy - When a game is a race where the end game is triggered by the fastest player, there is always the chance that players feel like they didn’t have enough time to execute their strategy. Particularly when a player has a strong military strategy that enables them to play military worlds at no cost, the game can often speed to a finish that is less satisfying.
❌ Luck Can Be Too Swingy - Similarly, despite there being so many ways to mitigate the luck of the draw, there are times when a player just gets all the perfect cards and leaves their opponents with no chance. It’s the price you pay for all the interesting decisions and fun factor that come from random card draw, but you can expect there will be the occasional game where luck swings far enough to actually detract from the experience.
Ryan (318 Plays) - 9 Daniel (305 Plays) - 8.5
Is It For You?
If you don’t want a game with lots of iconography, don’t like having your strategy rushed because of other players, or don’t enjoy weighing the tradeoffs of a bunch of different interacting card effects, Race for the Galaxy may not fit the bill. 👎
But if you want a lot of meaningful strategy packed into a short playing time, enjoy building up a tableau of abilities that result in escalating efficiency, and you want a game that is going to remain compelling even after hundreds of plays, Race for the Galaxy is fantastic and there is a reason we’ve played it over 300 times. 👍