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Shelf Wear #4: A Seasoned Look at Race For The Galaxy

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Race For The Galaxy - Boxes

It’s been a while since our last installment of Shelf Wear.  In fact, we started the series back at the beginning of the year and as you can see this is only the fourth installment.  But these are no ordinary reviews, oh no.  They’re intended to provided an experienced perspective on our favorite games (meaning ones we’ve played at least fifty times).  So far we’ve covered 7 Wonders, Ascension, Dominion, and now I’m adding Race For The Galaxy to the list.  Do you see a trend?  Apparently FarmerLenny and I like highly replayable card games.  You can brush up on Race with our review of the base game and for those that already know it reasonably well I’m going to jump right into things.

Some Background

I’ll start off with a quick disclaimer.  Simply put, I absolutely adore Race For The Galaxy.  It is, without a doubt, hands down, my favorite game.  I could defend my choice by saying that it’s a very good game and I intend to explain why I think so in more detail later.  But that’s not the whole picture, I have a special connection to Race that will make it very hard to dethrone as my #1.  Board games provide us with experiences that we can share with others and sometimes those experience become a part of the game for us, part of the reason why we think about them so fondly.  I’ve previously shared about my very first game of Race when I was just getting into board games and how much excitement I experienced at the step up from San Juan.  More importantly it’s a game that I’ve played often with my wife.  We played it on one of our first dates before she knew what she was getting in for and was still willing to patiently sit through a lengthy rules explanation.  I experienced each expansion with her before anyone else and it’s been our game of choice since we first played it together.

I’ll warn you in advance that you should be prepared for a glowing article.  It’s very hard not to show my bias and I have no reason to hide it, this is a game that I’ve played hundreds of times after all.  It’s a game that is very special to me and one that I hope to continue playing for a long time to come.  With that said, I do understand and acknowledge that Race is a polarizing game.  People very legitimately hate it as passionately as I love it (well maybe not as passionately), and for good reasons.  I’m not going to glaze over this fact.  However, I don’t find it to be a flaw in Race’s design so I’ll fervently defend it as a result.  To be fair and thorough I’ll try to point out both the advantages and disadvantages of Race’s various design aspects to represent both groups.

A Unique Niche – The Super Filler

Race For The Galaxy has a very unique quality: it packs a surprising amount of depth into a short playing time.  I’ve heard the term “super filler” used to describe Race and I’m going to borrow it to reinforce the point I’m trying to make.  But while this holds true for me (a seasoned player) it won’t necessarily reflect everyone’s experience because there are some caveats.  If you look at FarmerLenny’s Top Ten Filler Games you’ll notice that Race For The Galaxy isn’t listed despite my claim that it’s a super filler.  It comes very close to passing all the criteria but there’s one in particular that it does not fulfill – a small ruleset.  You cannot explain Race in five minutes to most new players and after you’re done explaining it there is a lot of information to absorb on the huge variety of cards (not to mention icons to learn).  Initially, it will also fail the short playtime criteria that will eventually be realized with experience.  Race is a game that doesn’t start as a super filler but with time it becomes incredibly intuitive (passing the small ruleset restiction) and quick to play (passing the short playtime restriction).  This leaves you with a game that could qualify as a filler but has considerable depth to back it up.

Let me take a moment to draw a comparison that I think will help to illustrate how Race accomplishes this under ideal circumstances.  Chess is undoubtedly a game of skill, it has practically become synonymous with intelligence or deep thought.  Match length can vary greatly but Speed Chess attempts to compress the incredible depth of Chess into a very short period of time.  There are detractors that claim Speed Chess greatly diminishes the merits of Chess but it seems reasonable enough to see that it packs an incredible amount of strategy into a short playing time.  However, the matches are only quick because of the time limitation.  This is no proof that the players are actually displaying a high level of skill during that short playing time, they could simply be making moves frantically and haphazardly.  Playing Chess quickly with any reasonable level of skill requires players to be extremely well studied.  Simply put, there’s a high barrier of entry before Speed Chess becomes a game that displays both depth and a short playing time.  Now I’m not saying Race has the same depth as Chess by any means but it does pack a lot of decisions into a short period of time if the players are able to play quickly.  However, your first game of Race will not be done in half an hour.  Much like Speed Chess there’s a barrier of entry that prevents it from reaching the ideal of depth and quick playing time right out of the box.  But where Speed Chess prevents new players from realizing Chess’ depth by restricting their playing time, Race prevents new players from realizing its quick playing time due to its learning curve.

If you can get past this learning curve you have a grail game, the super filler.  There are few games that boast the number of decisions that Race throws at players during such a short game length.  But it’s the struggle to get to that point that can prove difficult for players being introduced to Race, the learning curve can be significant enough to discourage players before they can realize the greatness of this design.  So let’s tackle this learning curve and see how the initial struggles actually works to Race’s benefit in the long run.

First up you have the big one, those icons.  Some people won’t be able to get past this.  They see it as practically learning a new language which isn’t worth it when you have something like San Juan with text in English that you can read and understand without looking at a reference sheet.  I get it, if you don’t like to decipher icons then it’s going to be a pain to learn.  But I found the icons in Race to be clear and intuitive, they clicked for me and once you’ve learned the language it makes absorbing a lot of information significantly quicker.  With a text based system you have to rely on memory to play quickly as there’s no way you can absorb a lot of text if reading is required.  It’s the titles and graphics that will trigger your sense of recall and allow you to remember what a card does without having to reread it every time.  Icons take this concept to their natural conclusion, what if we just translated the text to symbols so you could look at a new card that you’ve never seen before and immediately know what it does?  The same thing applies to scanning the cards you have in play (or those of your opponents) in order to assess what powers you have available.

Next up we have player disparity.  The game feels a little random at first due to card draw but experienced players will quickly construct beautiful tableaus with intricate synergy that absolutely crushes newer players.  There’s the obvious factor of experiential skill level difference but that’s present in most games to varying degrees as an expected learning curve.  What is different here is that a sizable portion of the player disparity comes from knowledge of the deck which is something that new players simply cannot overcome no matter how quickly they pick up on the game.  You can’t build towards synergy if you don’t know what’s in the deck.  It’s true that you can identify synergy within your hand but you won’t always be dealt cards that go together naturally and even if you are it helps to know how future draws can take advantage of the engine you’re building.  In the base game consuming is king and you need to set things in motion early on if you want to get enough cycles of produce/consume in before the game ends.  Yes, Race is a tactical game.  You can only work with the cards you’re dealt.  But you also need to plan ahead and the only way to do that is to know what cards could be coming your way.  To new players that information is totally hidden and unknown.  Even studying the deck won’t give you a good sense of the distribution of powers, there are simply too many cards.  Only experience can provide that kind of knowledge.  The upside here is that once you get over that hump and know the deck intimately, your decisions become more intuitive and meaningful.  You know how likely it is that playing a certain card will synergize with the wide variety of others or only a few.  There’s more information to base your decisions on and that means you’ll have more meaningful decisions to make.

Advantages 🙂
+With experience it has the benefits of a filler but with far more depth

Disadvantages 🙁
-There’s a significant learning curve not present in fillers
-Player disparity can be sizable as a result

Race For The Galaxy - Arc 1
The first arc – The Gathering Storm, Rebel vs Imperium, and The Brink of War

This Is A Race Afterall

I made a big point of emphasizing the fact that Race For The Galaxy plays quickly with experience.  Experience with the icons, with knowledge of the cards, and with the flow of the game.  But the biggest thing that keeps things moving along quickly is the limited choice that the game provides players with.  Each turn you get to pick just one role (or two in a 2-player game).  When you go to build a card your hand limits what’s available to you and most of it is going to end up as currency.  Limited choice prevents players from getting overwhelmed and keeps the game moving along quickly.  The game makes up for its limiting nature by presenting a players with a lot of decisions in a short amount of time.  When exploring you decide which cards to add to your hand.  When building you decide which cards to spend as currency.  Each round has players picking a new role while speculating what their opponents are going to do.  And perhaps the most important choice of all is when and which cards to play to your tableau, directly affecting the tempo of the game.

When players first learn Race For The Galaxy they often take their time developing their tableau.  It’s natural to want to build an efficient engine rather than choosing to give up really good synergy in order to get your cards into play sooner.  I’ve seen players hold on to cards time and time again because they want to get them all in play together.  But Race For The Galaxy is a race and tempo is far more important than slowly developing the perfect combo of cards.  You need to give up that ideal perfect board for a realistic winning one.  This is the major tension in Race and a lesson that takes time to learn, you have to know when to hold on to something for later or spend it for something that will benefit you more now.  This system works because players are consistently drawing new cards to replace the ones they’ve spent once they have a card engine in place.  You’ll give up on one dream and then get an entirely new hand that could lead you in a new direction or match up perfectly with what you’ve got in play.  And where it will initially seem like the card draw is totally random and will force the players into certain strategies you’ll soon learn that Race allows players to be extremely flexible through the cards-as-currency system.  If you draw cards that you don’t want it’s no problem, just think of them as money.  If you draw too many good cards then you have the tough decisions of which ones you’ll realistically be able to get into play since something will have to end up as currency.  As far as card games go Race is quite forgiving because you always have options as long as you aren’t taking big risks.  As your cards (options) are depleted you will get new ones, the card flow in the game naturally gives players both income and new options on a regular basis without forcing players to re-evaluate if they already have the cards they want in hand.

I’ll touch on one last thing that is unique about the quick playing nature of Race.  Almost everything is done simultaneous which means that the game can scale from 2 players all the way up to 6 with relatively little time difference (ideally).  Not only is Race a game that presents a lot of choices to players in a short period of time but it can present choices to any number of players at the same time without slowing down.  It is one of the few games that can actually scale up to 6 players in a reasonable time with an abundance of meaningful choices.  Looking at the illusive 2-player format you’ll find that Race also excels without succumbing to the “2-player variant just to prove that the game can scale down to two but it’s really best with more” problem.  In fact, the 2-player game is my wife’s favorite way to play and it offers significantly different choices and tempo control than playing with three or more.  I love that Race is a game I can play with just my wife or with my family when a larger group game is needed and I don’t feel like either format suffers for it.

Advantages 🙂
+Limiting player choice keeps the game moving quickly
+Control over game tempo forces players to make tough decisions
+Phenomenal scaling from 2-player format up to 6 players

Disadvantages 🙁
-You’re going to have to give up on your dreams to win and it’s going to hurt (but the winning will feel good, unless you lose)

Race For The Galaxy - Arc 2
The second arc – Alien Artifacts

Exploring The Galaxy With Expansions

Let’s say you made it past the learning curve and truly appreciate Race for the masterpiece that it is.  Way to go!  Luckily there’s more, much much more in store for you.  Yes I’m talking about expansions and as with most expansions there’s a wide range of opinions on how essential, balanced, and fun the Race For The Galaxy ones are.  With new players I like to stick with the base game for a couple different reasons.  First there is a smaller card mix so you’ll see the same cards more often from game to game.  There are also less things to explain in a game that already has a pretty big learning curve and the expansion definitely add complexity.  The other big reason is that the base set is skewed slightly towards consume engines so it can be helpful for teaching players how to effectively execute that strategy.  I’ve found most players want to either do a build or military strategy at first because it’s easier to grasp and implement, it’s helpful to show how powerful consuming can be.

The nice thing about the expansions for Race is that they greatly expand the variety and balanced paths to victory.  Consuming is powerful in the base game but there is still a great sense of balance.  This balance is tweaked in the expansions and leads to different play experiences based on which expansions are being included.  Once you get more experienced players and are looking for more variety I’d advise adding the expansions from the first arc one at a time in order (Gathering Storm, Rebel vs Imperium, Brink of War).  Starting off you have The Gathering Storm which is a great expansion, and arguably the best from the first arc.  Goals are somewhat controversial, some players love them (like me) and some refuse to play with them because they think it adds too much luck.  I like them because it gives you more things to consider when deciding which cards to build and allows for less efficient tableaus to remain competitive by picking up points from goals.  You’ll find that they can be extremely distracting and I like the tension between a tight engine that ignores goals and a sloppy one that’s goes after goals aggressively.  Usually you’ll land somewhere in the middle but both extremes are still viable.  Goals along with the new cards add more paths to victory, you no longer have consume engines generally dominating every game.  The new cards have less of an impact on the game compared to the following expansions but it’s still noticeable.  The new cards are relatively tame but there are two somewhat controversial cards in this set (Alien Toy Shop and Improved Logistics) that can bug some people.  Once you get more experienced you’ll learn how to react to them so I don’t view either one as a problem.  There’s also the first absolute bomb of a 6-dev (Terraforming Guild), a trend which continues in the other expansion.  You also have new start worlds for even more variety, cards for a fifth player which is nice, and a drafting variant which is AWESOME but requires extremely experienced players.  All around a great expansion!

Next up we have Rebel vs Imperium, I think this one is absolutely worth getting if you have Gathering Storm but some people think it pushes things too far as I’ll explain.  You have cards for a sixth player which is quite a lot, I don’t mind playing with that many players on occasion but I generally stick to 5 or less (ideally 2 or 4).  There’s the introduction of takeover powers which some players simply refuse to play with much like goals from Gathering Storm.  Unlike goals they are explicitly optional in the rules and I’ve found that it generally isn’t worth it to play with them even if you want to add more interaction since they don’t even come into play most of the time.  It’s easy to “turn takeovers off”, you simply ignore all takeover powers on any cards that have them.  You don’t have to remove any cards because those that have takeover related powers still have other abilities and remain useful albeit more conditional.  I tried playing with takeovers a couple of times but have since decided to play with them permanently off.  Now, on to the part that’s going to be the real deal breakers for some.  First, there are significantly more cards than Gathering Storm (3 start worlds and 41 cards compared to 4 starts worlds and 18 cards) which leads to “streakier” (or less consistent) card draws.  You have the introduction of “mix and match” explore powers (lets you add explored cards to your hand and then discard out of your hand) to combat this.  I don’t find the game to be too luck dependent at this point due to deck size but it bugs some people enough to avoid this expansion.  The second controversial aspect is the addition of more extremely powerful cards which continues the trend of “power creep” from the first expansion but is much more significant here.  One of the results is that there is a big boost to both Military and Development based strategies to the point where consume engines are no longer the dominant strategy.  It’s generally better to play hybrid strategies or go all in on military or development.  I like this balance as hybrid and development strategies are my favorite to play but it also makes military highly competitive which I think is needed.  If you want highers scores, more powerful combos, and the ability to play more flexible hybrid tableaus then this expansion is great.  If you like Race being really tight and draws/strategies being more consistent then it’s probably not going to be for you.  One last note on RvI, one of my favorite aspect of this expansion is the added start worlds with the new rule to give every player two worlds to pick from (1 blue, 1 red) along with their start hand.  This greatly reduces bad/mismatching start hands and gives you more options right from the start of the game.  I would suggest playing with this rule in Gathering Storm (assuming you aren’t playing with 5 players where there won’t be enough start worlds to go around).

Last up in the first arc is the craziest, most polarizing expansion: Brink of War.  I absolutely would not even consider this one until you’ve played with Rebel vs Imperium.  Brink of War doubles down on what RvI does rather than trying to bring back the tight balance from the base game.  There are even more cards and the power creep is at the absolute highest here so if you don’t enjoy that in RvI then you certainly won’t like it here either.  I wouldn’t go as far as to say that cards from the base set are obsoleted but with all the expansions included you’d often rather draw newer cards as they tend to be more powerful.  A big reason for this is one of the new mechanics in this expansion, Prestige.  Prestige is a sort of alternate VP source (much like VP chips) but in addition to being worth points they also provide a reward each turn to the player that has the most Prestige.  You’ll earn Prestige mostly from the new cards in Brink of War so that’s a big reason why you’re often happy to see the new cards.  There seemed to be a pretty negative reaction initially to Prestige, claiming that it was overpowered and whoever gained the lead in Prestige would win most of the time.  I would argue that this isn’t the case and have seen players win with lots of Prestige or by ignoring it entirely.  I would compare Prestige to Goals from Gathering Storm in that it can be a big distraction and cause you to create a really messy tableau by pursuing it.  Because of that I’ve found it to be a pretty balanced mechanic once you become experienced enough to properly evaluate it.  The other new mechanic is an additional role card that can either be used to search through the deck for a specific type of card (to combat increased streakiness) or spend a Prestige to augment another role.  I love this mechanic and it further reinforces the ability to pull off very powerful combos and extremely high scoring games which are really fun.  After playing so many games of Race I tend to prefer the more exciting experience that Brink of War provides even if it does have a huge deck, increased setup time, and added streakiness.  Once you get to this point each game will feel significantly different due to the shear number of cards and possible combinations, I really like this aspect.  There will be more blowouts, especially with players of varying skill and experience, and games will take longer.  However, I think both of those aspects are directly related to the added complexity and variety in possible tableau builds/strategies.  Brink of War is absolutely for Race veterans as you really need to know the card mix well and be able to set up useful combos in order to pull off really high scores.

This moves us into the second arc and newest expansion, Alien Artifacts.  With the introduction of arc structure, Race now provides significantly different experiences based on which expansion arc you’re using.  The orb scenario in particular, although designed for Race veterans, adds an entirely new phase to the game for anyone that wants to take on the challenge.  Playing with just the cards is pretty comparable to Gathering Storm + Rebel vs Imperium but does a much better job of preventing power creep, keeping the base set cards extremely relevant.  There aren’t goals or anything else new so games remain very quick and tight.  It also introduces an amazingly balanced variety of strategies considering that it only adds cards.  I’d say that it creates the most balanced and least luck dependent Race experience.  If I had to recommend one expansion to start with I would pick Alien Artifacts over The Gathering Storm.  I am happy to say that the two arcs provide totally different experiences, even if you don’t take the orb into account.  So far I still prefer the full first arc but I’m more likely to say that Alien Artifacts has the better overall card mix and will lead to tighter and more competitive games.

Advantages 🙂
+Expansions greatly increase variety and balanced paths to victory
+Multiple arcs provide completely different experiences

Disadvantages 🙁
-Even more learning
-Power Creep makes its way into the end of the first arc (but leads to exhilarating games)

The Best Game (For The Right Crowd)

Race For The Galaxy accomplishes something extremely unique and fits the role of “super filler” better than any other game that I own.  All it takes is getting past the learning curve and appreciating the design.  It’s a great game, a really great game, but unfortunately it’s not one that I can recommend to everyone.  The reality is that some people are going to strongly dislike it.  Despite this, I would still encourage everyone to give it a try with an open mind because those that enjoy Race will absolutely love it.

I love optimization and engine games with tableau builders and card driven ones being my favorite. This usually means medium-heavy euros and medium-light card games.

Discussion2 Comments

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  2. It’s nice to see another veteran’s perspective on this terrific game. Race for the Galaxy and Dominion are about tied for my favorite game, and I’ve played each at least 500 times (and maybe up to 1000 – I haven’t kept close count). I love the fact that not only does Race for the Galaxy afford players with many critical choices, but it also permits tremendous variety: out of the hundreds of cards in the game, a single player adds only about 12 to her tableau in any given game.

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