Thursday, 10 January 2013

Classic WGR Review - Race for the Galaxy

For my next classic Windsor Gaming Resource Forum review revival I thought I would go with Race for the Galaxy by Thomas Lehmann released here by Rio Grande Games. My reason for choosing Race is due to the number of times I see it recommended on the Google+ board game community owned by +Ben Gerber.

My initial review of Race for the Galaxy was done back shortly after the game was released. I received my copy for my birthday in 2009 and reviewed it shortly there after on January 15th. At the time of this review the game was flying up the Boardgamegeek.com charts and had just hit number 10 in the world.  After the classic review I will take a moment to let you know if my opinion of the game has changed at all.

Classic WGR review from Jan 15, 2009

Quickly: an interesting role based card game, definitely similar to Puerto Rico, Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition (and probably San Juan).

Summary:
This is an abstract non-collectible resource management card game with a Sci-Fi cover. There are two types of cards in the game. The role/phase cards and draw cards. Players are each given an identical set of role cards to choose from each turn. Unlike other role games, players choose simultaneously and players can end up choosing the same role. Another unique feature to this game is the fact the draw cards are used for 3 different things. They can be played in a players area to represent planets or developments or they can be placed face down on a production world to represent goods or lastly, they can be discarded from the hand representing the spending of resources needed to play development and planet cards.

The roles chosen determine which phases of the game actually take place. If no one chooses a specific role/phase then that is skipped this time around. The player choosing the role gets to do the action for that phase and in addition gains some type of bonus. All other players also get to do the action on the card but without the bonus (unless they chose the same card). 

The various roles/phases are:

Explore - everyone draws cards, generally you draw two and keep one. There are two different explore actions, one lets you look at more cards but still only choose 1 and the other lets you look at an additional card and keep two.

Develop - everyone can play development cards from their hand by discarding a number of cards from their hand equal to the cost of the development. A player choosing Develop pays 1 less.

Settle: everyone can play a planet from their hand. This could require having a certain military rating or could required the discarding of cards. A player choosing Settle gets to draw a card.

Consume: use consume powers on cards (which generally results in victory points being gained). There are two consume powers, one that lets you trade a produced good for extra cards and another that nets you double victory points.

Produce: place goods on worlds. The player playing produce also gets to put a good on a windfall world (special worlds that start with a good on them, but don't regularly replenish).

These phases happen in the order listed above so, for example, you can't produce and then consume they always happen in this order. To make things interesting most of the cards you play on the table (developments and worlds) modify one or more of the phases. These do a wide variety of things like letting you draw or keep extra cards when exploring, making it cheaper to buy developments or worlds, giving victory points during consume, letting you draw cards during specific phases etc. In addition to this each played card is worth victory points, with generally, the more expensive cards giving higher victory points.

What all this means is that players will start small building cheaper developments and settling minor worlds that will give them resources and discounts on playing later cards. By the end of the game players are spending large amounts of resources and building/settling bigger things.

The game ends when a pool of victory points are exhausted (12 per player) or when a player places his 12th card on the table. At this point players total their victory points (from cards played and from tokens gained during the consume phase). The player with the most points wins.

The Good:
Really nice looking cards that include some good humor as well as nice art. I really like the way role selection works in this game. The fact that a phase doesn't happen if no one chooses it really separates this game from other's of it's kind. It really ups the strategy level when trying to choose a role. The way explore works by having you look at multiple cards but only select a small few is interesting as well, as you really go through the deck quickly, and can actually spend rounds 'hunting' for that perfect card (and hoping someone else doesn't already have it). For a role selection game this one is nice and quick and pretty simple to play and learn. You don't need a couple hours like Puerto Rico or an enter night like Twilight Imperium. I was also very impressed by the wide variety of strategies that can be used to win at this game. In one game I tried using military might, in another I specialized in cards that improved my card drawing and holding during the Explore phase. There are variable victory point cards that also give a lot of points for a wide variety of play styles and strategies.

The Bad:
The one problem with the way the explore phase works is that it gives the experienced player a significant advantage over a new comer. This is due to the fact that an experienced player will know the cards, and will know when it's worth searching for just the right world or development and will realize when certain cards are 'used up' and no longer in the deck. Now of course this isn't a problem if everyone playing is equally experienced, it can actually be a benefit in that case as the play gets much more strategic. Due to the fact victory points are tracked three ways (set on cards, variable on cards and with tokens) it makes it very hard to see how many points each player has (which is part of the rules, that everything is open), which makes it hard to tell who is in the lead, which is very important near the end game when you are making decisions based on whether or not to play a 12th card. I have seen some good suggestions online to use a Victory point track, this may be worth looking into as it would alleviate this problem.

The Ugly:
Instead of having a ton of text on the cards this game uses a symbol system to represent most things in the game. This is especially true for the powers each development and world gives you. There have got to be at least 30 different symbols used in the game. The first place this became an issue was reading the instructions. It was very confusing and hard to follow. The second place is during the game. There is a reference sheet as well as a list of all of the powers in the book, and we found we had to look these up constantly for our first two games. One of the worst parts is that some of the symbols are very similar and small (especially the difference between a Production World and a Windfall World. I would have definitely preferred something like most CCGs where pretty much all of the rules are there in text on the cards.

Overall:
This game is currently rated number 10 in the world on boardgamegeek.com, and I don't think it's over rated. This is an excellent card game and a new and great use of the role choice system. The only real problem with the game is learning what all the symbols on the cards mean.
Everything you get with the core game

My current thoughts, about four years later:

Re-reading this review today I have to say that my opinion on this one really hasn't chanced much. Since writing this I have picked up a copy of San Juan and sure enough the games are extremely similar. For whatever reason the theme of Race for the Galaxy appeals to me more. Plus Race has a variety of expansions now that move it further from it's San Juan roots. I still really enjoy this game and still break it out fairly regularly. It's become a favorite two player game for my wife and I. Now I do admit that all games I play now include the first expansion: The Gathering Storm which I also recommend fans of the game pick up. 

To address specific points in the old review. I'm still finding new strategies and ways to play this game. I've seen quite a few people claim that this is a multi-player solitaire game and I can't say I agree. You just need to play one game with someone who recognizes your strategy and does things like hold onto key cards so that you cannot build them to realize that this game can be quite cutthroat. The player experience disparity is still an issue, especially when teaching the game to new players. That's something that I actually think is a strength of the game as system mastery and knowing the cards does give an advantage and in the long term this is a great thing. Lastly: I still hate the symbols. Every time I go a few months between plays of Race for the Galaxy I have to re-teach myself what all the funky pictures are on the cards. I still, to this day wish the rules were just printed on the cards.

So even today, almost four years after my initial review I still strongly recommend Race for the Galaxy. It's one of the best card games in my collection and actually one of the better games I own overall.

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