Race for the Galaxy has been around long enough to be eligible for the term Modern Classic, and not in the self-hyping kickstarter promotional way, either. 10 years is almost an eternity (yes, it released in 2007) and it’s still one of the most highly strategic, replayable card games out there. Now it’s heading to the land of 0’s and 1’s as an app for android, iOS, and Steam.
RftG is a natural fit for the digital realm. The real-life card game is incredibly well designed, with a clever role-selection system and a huge number of cards that opens the door to tons of strategy and unique approaches to victory.
The core of the game works like this: there are 5 possible actions; Explore, Develop, Settle, Consume, and Produce, with a few variants on those actions in the mix. Explore lets you draw more cards; you can choose to draw fewer but keep more, or draw a ton of extra cards and only keep on. Develop lets you play a development card, providing you can pay for it (by discarding cards from your hand). Settle is the same thing, except for planets. Consume lets you sell off the goods you’ve produced, either for cards or points, and Produce lets you add goods to your production worlds.
Each round everyone gets to choose one of those actions to focus on (or two actions in the “experienced” 2p game). While everyone gets to resolve your chosen action, you get a little bonus – like extra cards for exploring, a discount for developing, or multiplying your points when consuming. In addition, if no one selects an action, that action is not resolved by anyone that round.
This creates an incredible balance of tension in your hand and on the table. You want to do three things at once, but can only choose one – but you go for the ideal bonus, or do you play a different action hoping other players will help fill in the gaps for you?
You’ve also got to manage your hand. Every card you Settle or Develop gives you points or additional abilities to enhance your actions, but you have to pay for those cards by spending cards from your hand. That means if you have 3 cards in hand and you want to build all 3 of them, it’s either going to take a lot of Exploring or you’re going to have to sacrifice something good.
The huge variety of powers can open up doors in unexpected ways. Maybe you can build up a system with all different types of goods in production; maybe you focus on one type that gives you big discounts for future planets of that type. Maybe you go for the expensive Rebel outposts with your military, or try and conquer or settle Alien worlds that produce the most valuable goods, not to mention being worth a boatload of points on their own. Maybe you’ll focus on development cards that help you get the cards you want faster, or maybe you’ll generalize so that every action that occurs gives you a little something extra. Or maybe you’ll just build a few production worlds and start selling goods like crazy, alternating between that and production.
Phew! There are a lot of decisions packed into this little game. And I say little because it’s basically entirely consisting of a large deck of cards and some point tokens. The largest component is the (entirely necessary) player aids. That and, despite all the heavy and meaningful decision-making, the game lasts about 20 minutes.
There are perhaps two flaws, which some would argue are not really flaws at all, that prevent this game from wider adoption for a general audience. One: the design relies heavily on icons with very little card text to rely on. This makes for a huge learning curve; in a hand of as many as 12 cards, new players will struggle to identify icons on a card, try to find the icon on their player card, and thusly identify what they have. Then they’ve got to compare to their other cards – hopefully not forgetting the first icon while looking up the others. It’s a heavy player burden.
Once you get used to the icons, it is actually quite easy to identify a card and what it does in a snap, but it does take work to get there.
The other flaw is that there’s a bit of math that can slow things down. Many powers add bonuses to certain actions, or give you rewards when you do something. So each time you play an action, you’ve got to consult your planets and developments, find the appropriate actions, add up how many cards you draw or how much you have to spend, choose which cards to discard, add up the points you’ve earned, and hope you haven’t missed anything. Again, this is something you get used to, and when you know the icons at a glance it doesn’t take too long to scan your cards, but it is there.
So now we get to the digital app. Firstly, the design is excellent. While playing the game, all your information is laid out neatly. You can see the cards in your hand – and the icons, costs, affected actions, points, and so on. All the actions are arrayed on the left side of the screen. You can see the other players play areas with a limited summary of information that is clearly laid out, and you can tap just about anything you would need to in order to get more information. Want to see exactly what the other player has in play? Tap their little box. Want to clarify what those icons mean because you aren’t so sure? Double-tap the card to get a close-up view with a complete textual description.
The app helps speed up every tedious aspect of play. It moves players along from action to action, highlighting the cards that have relevant abilities in any given moment. You can discard or spend cards just by dragging them out of your hand, and if you make a mistake (and realize it soon enough) an undo button lets you take a step back. You can always see how much military you have (and if you have bonuses for specific planets), you can always see how many points are left, you can always see how many cards the other players have active. When it’s time to consume, you get to clearly see how many cards you will draw based on the goods you can choose to sell.
Everything is fluid and snappy, and allows you to focus on playing the game. With all these helps, you can play a round in 5-10 minutes.
AI play is available against up to 4 players, and you can set the difficulty for each one. AI makes quick choices, and so far seems adequately challenging to keep the game interesting.
If you’re ready to head online, you can link up with friends by exchange friend codes (ugh) or join random open games. You can customize games by number of players, time limit (30min or 1 week for the whole game), and expansions, which you can purchase as DLC. From there, you just jump right in.
I reviewed the Steam version of the game, which I played both on my Desktop PC and my Surface Pro laptop. The biggest frustration is that touch support isn’t fully implemented at the time of this writing. I can drag cards around with my finger, but the action selection buttons have a weird offset, and the button that moves things forward, along with the “undo” button, don’t respond to touch at all. Double-tapping to see the full card is iffy.
The other issue I have is that most often I would choose to play this game on the train or on a break, something where it would be much easier to whip out a phone and play than pull out my laptop. Online play is a problem there, too, as it’s not as easy to get my laptop online outside of a Wi-Fi network. At home, at least I can chill on the couch and play.
In conclusion? I can’t recommend this app enough. It is a great way to learn this wonderfully challenging and interesting card game, and a great opportunity to play this game as often as it deserves. I would probably recommend getting the android or iphone app, but if you don’t have a capable smartphone Steam is a great option.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Temple Gates for providing a review copy of Race for the Galaxy on Steam.