Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Set Course for Ludicrous Speed: A Review of Race for the Galaxy

I've been watching Cosmos lately.  Have you seen this show?  It's hosted by the poster boy for modern day science, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and takes a big-budget look at our world and the universe as a whole.  One specific episode was about black holes and things in the universe well beyond our reach.  Dr. Tyson talked about pulsars, event horizons, "dark stars", and just how far a light year actually is.  This show piques my interest in an amazing ways and I find myself waiting anxiously for the next episode in the series.  

I'll bet you're wondering how I'm going to tie this into a board game review.  Well, the common themes here are space ("The Final Frontier"™) and things I can't wait to see again.  That's right, I love space and I cannot wait to play Race for the Galaxy again.

Overview
Race for the Galaxy (henceforth RFTG) is an action selection, empire building game by Thomas Lehmann and published by Rio Grande Games.  Players take on the role of a galaxy spanning empire, looking to develop new technologies, settle new worlds, and reap the benefits of all this property ownership.  The game takes place over several rounds with each round consisting of some (or all) of five phases.  Players will choose which phase of the game they want to activate by selecting an action card.  All players reveal their cards at the same time and the selected phases take place.  Any phase not selected by a player is skipped that round.  Players have a second hand of cards that are used as both the developments and planets they can put into play, but also the currency to pay for those planets and developments.  The game ends at the end of the round in which the first player places their twelfth planet or development into their tableau or when the victory point pool runs out (players can still acquire victory points, even if the pool is empty). 

The Setup
To setup a game of RFTG, start by shuffling together the starting world cards.  These are denoted by the large red or blue box in the lower right hand corner.  Deal each player one red and one blue card.  Next, each player will get six cards from the center deck.  With eight cards in hand, players select one of the starting worlds and four of the other cards to keep.  The starting world begins face up in their tableau and the other four cards compromise the starting hand.  Each player should discard one starting world and two non-starting world cards.  The discard pile is kept face down.

Race for the Galaxy setup and some gameplay...in space...  Don't ask.


The Cards
There are two types of card in RFTG - planets and developments.  You can tell them apart because developments have a diamond in the top left and planets have a circle.  The small hex next to the diamond or circle is how many victory points that card is worth at the end of the game.  Each card also has a series of roman numerals down the left side of the card as well as a dollar sign.  These represent each phase of the game and are used to denote bonuses conferred by having that card in your tableau during that phase.  I'll discuss these bonuses after I explain the action cards.

Developments - the left has a Consume effect, the right has a develop and produce effect.
Developments are straightforward - the number inside the diamond is the cost to play that card.  The cost is paid by discarding that many cards from your hand.  You can only do this during the Develop phase (see below).  

Planets - on the left, a non-military production world, on the right, a military windfall world.
Planets come in two varieties: non-military (or peaceful, fewer syllables) and military.  If the number inside the circle in the top left corner is black, that is a non-military planet.  These are played identically to developments - discard a number of cards equal to the number and turn that planet face up in your tableau.  Military worlds are recognizable because the cost number is red.  Military planets are played differently in that you do not need to discard anything to play them.  Instead, military power is a threshold that must be met by cards already in your tableau that provide a military bonus (see below).  Planets can only be played during the Settle phase.

All planets, regardless of military status, come in one of three varieties - production, windfall, or neither.  If a world has a color, other than gray, surrounding the cost to play (inside the circle), it is considered a production world.  These worlds will create one of four types of good corresponding to its color - blue for novelty items (space tchotchkes, Intergalactic Ove' Gloves, posters of alien vixens), brown for rare elements, Genes (not the designer kind), and alien technology (their Ove' Glove comes with a HyperSoft lining) during the Production phase.  A planet with a color halo surrounding the cost to play (outside the circle) is considered a windfall world.  These worlds will immediately product a good when played.  If a world is merely gray around the cost number, then it cannot produce goods in any way - but it can still be useful!


The Actions
Each round, players will select an action from a hand of seven action cards and place it face down in front of them.  When all players are ready, actions are revealed simultaneously and are executed in order - Explore, Develop, Settle, Consume, Produce.  Everyone gets to perform each action - whether they played the card or not.  The player who played the action is designated the leader.  This person gets a bonus to their action.  Let's explore each action in turn.


I. Explore - the explore action allows each player to draw two cards from the main deck and then discard one.  This is the most consistent way to get more cards into your hand.  There's also a small amount of selection since you get two look at two and pick one to keep.  Even if both cards stink, you can still use one as currency to play another card in your hand in later phases.  There are two different kinds of Explore cards, but each one only changes the leader bonus.  "Explore + 5" (as we call it) allows the leader to look at seven cards (two for the normal explore plus five) and then keep one.  This is a way to dig deep and, hopefully, get a very powerful card you've been looking for.  "Explore + 1 + 1" allows the leader to look at three and keep two - the Explore of choice for players looking for currency to play a card already in hand.

II. Develop - during the develop phase, each player may choose to place a development card face down in front of them.  All players will reveal their chosen development and pay the cost indicated.  The leader bonus for developing is to reduce the cost by one.  This means, as the leader, you may develop a four cost card at a cost of three cards. 


 III. Settle - in the settle phase, players will choose a planet to settle and place it face down in front of them.  Once all payers have either placed a planet to settle or passed, they will reveal simultaneously and pay the cost (if necessary).  Remember - military power is a threshold to be met, no cards need to be discarded.  The leader gets to draw a card for settling. 
Now, I'm going to do what I do when I teach this game to others - I'm going to skip Consume and go right to Production.  Just remember, these phases happen in a different order, it's just easier to understand consume when you've heard about production.


V. Produce - in the produce phase, each production world in play (see the discussion about planet types above) will produce one good.  To simulate this, players will take face down cards from the top of the deck and place one under each production world that doesn't already have a card under it.  This facedown card is now a good.  The other side is effectively blank.  The good's type is designated by the planet it sits under.  If a world already has an good, it will not produce an additional good.  The bonus for playing produce is that the leader gets to also produce on a windfall world of their choice.  This, and some card bonuses, are the only way to produce goods on windfall worlds once their initial good has been spent.  Just like production worlds, a windfall world cannot have more than one good.  


IV. Consume - and now that you know how goods work, we backtrack to consume so we can learn how to use them.  In the consume phase, each player must apply their consume effects found on cards in their tableau.  A consume effect is found in the phase IV section of the card (if present) and is indicated by a gray arrow originating at a card icon and pointing to one of several other icons.  The gray arrow is the consume icon itself, the other icons merely instruct players on what to consume and what they receive for doing so.  The vast majority of consume effects require you to remove a good from a planet and discard it to receive victory points and/or cards from the deck.  Some consume effects require a specific type of good while others aren't picky.  Some give just cards or just points.  Consume effects are mandatory, however you choose the order they happen in, this way you can make sure that you get the most bang for your buck when you're done.  

Like Explore, there are two types of consume actions and both only affect the leader's bonus.  "Consume x2" simply doubles the total victory points you receive that phase.  "Consume: Trade" is different.  Trade allows the leader to sell one of his goods for a number of cards based on the type of good: two for novelty, three for rare minerals, four for genes and five for alien technology.  Considering it only requires a single card to execute, Trade is the most efficient means to acquire a large influx of cards.  After trading, the consume phase resumes like normal.

Card Bonuses
Most cards come with one or more bonuses indicated next to a phase on the left side of each card.  These bonuses only occur during the phase they are connected to.  In the Explore phase, most bonuses involve either looking at more cards are being permitted to keep more cards.  In the Develop phase, bonuses can include cheaper development costs or simply drawing a card because you developed.  

Bonuses in the settle phase are varied and powerful.  Some of the more basic ones allow for cheaper settling cost or card draw.  Some even allow you to settle twice in one phase!  The settle bonus is also where military appears.  A card that contributes to your military power will have a red number inside a red circle on a white field.  This number is how much the world or development contributes to your military power.  All cards add their military power together when determining whether or not you can settle a military planet.  With a "+2" on one planet and a "+4" on a development, you can conquer military worlds with a cost up to six.  There are even more complex and powerful bonuses that you'll have to wait to see when you play the game.

Planets with assorted bonuses, Settle bonus on the left, Exploration and Production bonuses on the right.
The dollar sign just after the Settle bonus indicates bonuses conferred during the Trade sub-phase and only apply when you play the "Consume: Trade" action.  If someone else plays "Consume: Trade", only they get their bonuses - you do not get any bonuses because you do not get to Trade.  The bonuses for the Trade sub-phase usually pertain to drawing more cards when you trade.  Some require that you be trading a specific type of good.  


The Consume phase probably has the most bonuses overall because this is where players will find their actual consume effects.  Since these were discussed earlier, I'll skip over it.  In the Produce phase, worlds that produce will simply have a small icon of a card to remind you to produce on that world.  Some cards also have bonuses that allow you to draw cards into your hand or even produce on a windfall world - something you don't normally get to do!

When at least one player has placed their twelfth world or development, or when the victory point pool is empty, it signals the final round of the game.  Players will complete the round through Production and then tally up their points.  Count any victory point tokens you acquired and the numbers inside the hexes on each world and development in your tableau.  Some cards will have a question mark instead of a number where the victory points should go.  These cards will be worth a variable amount and the card will indicate how to total their value.  They often require certain types of other cards to be present in your tableau to be worth their cost.  The player with the most victory points wins!

Thoughts
As I spoiled before the break, I love Race for the Galaxy.  It's one of my favorite games.  The main reason - replayability.  There are a great number of strategies in this game, so many that you need several plays to find them all, much less learn how to execute them.  Do you want to just race to fill your tableau?  Maybe you want to focus on four to six planets that synergize extremely well, getting you all the cards and victory points you need.  Full military?  Full non-military?  Maybe you want to try and hit the holy grail of games and get all the best alien technology gear and worlds.  Every game is different!  

One of the great aspects of this game are the sheer number of choices you have to make.  Each turn, you're internally debating on the value of every single card in your hand.  What if, after three rounds, you have ten cards and you really want to play all of them!?  You have to decide what to cut and what to play.  And then hope your next draw doesn't make you regret your decision.  On top of choosing what to discard and what to play, you have to choose an action each round.  This adds a layer of deduction to the game that many new players miss entirely.  Usually, you want to do more than one thing in a round, but you're only limited to one choice.  It boils down to trying to suss out what the other players are going to do and what risks you can take.  You know you want to settle planet X but you need an extra card to do it, however you really want to make sure that your worlds are fully stocked with goods so that you can play "Consume x2" next turn and clear out the victory point pool.  This means you get to pick one thing to do - Explore, Settle, or Produce and you're hoping that the other two you want get picked by someone else.  It makes for some nerve wracking decisions!  

One of my favorite ways to play RFTG is two player.  While it doesn't fit my normal two player preferences (lots and lots and lots of conflict) it's feels like a very different game with two.  In a two player RFTG, each player gets to select two actions instead of just one.  Players also get an additional Settle and Develop card meaning one person can double Settle or double Develop on their turn.  This creates a very different dynamic and allows for some pretty cool combos if you can get the correct assortment of planets in your tableau.  

Expansions
RFTG has several expansions already released.  These expansions appear in one of two arcs.  The first arc is the first three expansions - The Gathering Storm, The Brink of War, and Alien vs. Imperium.  I only own TGS and it adds a solo variant that can be quite fun if brutally punishing.  You play against a "robot" that rolls dice to determine its actions and has a great deal of variance in how it plays, depending on the world it starts with.  TBW and AvI both add player interaction - a mechanic missing from the base game itself.  All three expansions can be shuffled together with the base game to make for an interesting and varied experience.  The second arc is exclusively the expansion Alien Artifacts.  This expansion should not be played with anything from the first Arc - they were designed independtly.  I have this expansion as well and it's the one I play with my base game.  AA adds a mini game that you can play as well, but I haven't tried it yet.

Final Thoughts Race for the Galaxy is a fantastic experience and a game that I will play time and time again.  Though it released in 2007, it continues to see content produced (Alien Artifacts just released in 2013) and it continues to get play at game tables everywhere.  I highly recommend you check out RFTG at you next boardgame meetup or just buy it now!  You won't regret it.  Build your empire.  Explore the stars.  Research technology.  Sell your Intergalactic Ove' Glove and race for the galaxy!

Check out this top rated review (475 thumbs!) on BoardGameGeek.com!

See Tom Vasel give his thoughts on Race for the Galaxy.

Want to learn how to play?  Check out Peter Krause of the ModernTablegamer.com and his tutorial.

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Donny is a music educator in the suburbs of Dallas.  He has an obsession with all things Star Wars and, when asked what he wants to do, will always respond with "board games".  You can find him at Nerd Night events in the Dallas area, Dallas Games Marathon, or at his second home, Madness Games & Comics.  He spends far too much time on social media, be it Facebook or Twitter, and comments or suggestions can be directed to his email.