Radio Review #7 – Race for the Galaxy

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(Rio Grande – 2007)

 

“Two scientists were racing for the good of all mankind….both of them side by side, so determined…”

 

Designed by Tom Lehmann, and released in 2007, Race for the Galaxy has become one of the most recognized card games, winning multiple awards from The Dice Tower’s Game of the Year in 2008 to the Golden Geek Award for Best Card Game the same year. To a new player, Race for the Galaxy can seem like an intimidating beast, with the heavy amount of iconography mixed with the odd way the different phases and bonuses work in the game. I link it similar to seeing a math formula for the first time. You can look at it and try to evaluate what everything might mean, never getting anywhere. Without context you’re lost. But once you start to understand the context of the different variables, what they represent, and how they interact, it all comes together nicely. From then on out, every time you see that formula, you know exactly what to do with it. Race for the Galaxy is similar in this regard and I’ll try to break everything down piece by piece so that those new to the game can easily understand it. To start off, let’s look at the components.

 

Components

rftg_start_worlds

– 5 Starting World cards (each player will start the game with one of these cards,
unused starting worlds are shuffled back into the Draw Pile before play begins)

 

 

rftg_draw_deck
– Player Hand cards (made up of Worlds and Developments that
will make up the Draw Pile and cards in a player‘s hand/tableau)

 

 

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– A set of Phase Action decks for each player

 

 

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– Player summary sheets

 

 

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– Victory Point counters

 

 

 

Overview

 

Essentially, Race for the Galaxy is not hard to understand. It’s just better understood in sections. Learning Section A will lead to a better understanding of Section B and so forth. Trying to take on everything at once can cause confusion, frustration and it’s a major reason why it can be a chore for new players to learn. A major bridge being the iconography on the cards in the game. That’s why I’ll cover the iconography in the latter part of this review. First lets look at the basic mechanics and get a context for what the iconography will be used for.
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(A player’s Phase Action deck on the left and Player’s hand of cards on the right)

 

You will essentially be playing with two decks of cards. Your Phase Action cards, which represent the various Phases each round, and your Player hand (drawn from the Draw Pile). These two decks are not to be mixed together. First, let’s go over the various cards that can make up your Player hand. Note that each card in a player’s hand can be used for many different things. During the course of the game you will be playing cards from your hand into you player area (tableau) in front of you.

 

 

Cards can be played in three different ways:

– As themselves (as to what is printed on the card itself)

– As money (in order to play cards into your tableau)

– As goods (in order to produce goods on owned worlds)

 

We’ll get into how to play them as money and goods in just a minute, but first lets go over the different types of cards if we play them as themselves. All cards played as themselves in a player’s hand can be categorized into two different types: Worlds & Developments

 

 

Worlds
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(Production World)

 

 

Worlds can easily be identified by a circle icon in the top left corner of the card. There are two different types of worlds. Production worlds are thriving planets and are represented by the circle icon being colored in. Windfall worlds on the other hand are dilapidated planets and are represented by a colored halo on the outside of the circle as opposed to being colored in. The number inside of the circle is the amount of money it will cost to settle each planet. The hexagonal icon to the direct right of the circle represents the amount of victory points that world is worth at the end of the game if it has been placed in your tableau.

 

rftg_development
(Windfall World)

 

 

Worlds are colored (whether fully colored for production or halo colored for windfall) according to the goods they produce. A world can be colored blue (Novelty goods), brown (Rare elements), green (Genetic goods), yellow (Alien technology), or grey (non-production). We will touch on the differences between these later.

 

rftg_military
(To settle the Rebel Underground, a player must have a Military strength of at least 3 or more)

 

 

Instead of money, some worlds need to be conquered by brute force (they just can’t take a bribe!). These can be either production or windfall worlds and are represented by a red numbered cost instead of a black one. In order to conquer these worlds, instead of paying the numbered cost, you must have a higher military strength in your tableau to settle such a world.

 

 

 

Developments
rftg_interstellar_bank
Developments can be thought of as technological advancements to your galactic civilization and are represented by a diamond-shaped icon in the upper left corner (as opposed to the world’s circle icon). As with worlds, developments have a printed cost within the icon as well as the Victory Point icon directly to its right. There are a few 6-cost development cards that have a “?” mark as the Victory Point number. The amount of Victory Points obtained by these cards are contingent on a particular end-game objective on the card.

 

 

rftg_6_cost

So for instance, if you if have the Galactic Federation (6-point development card) in your tableau, at the end of the game, you will score 2 additional Victory Points for every 6-point development card in your tableau (including the Galactic Federation) and 1 additional Victory Point for every other development card in your tableau.

 

Cards in general can also be used as money:
As discussed, cards can be played as themselves (as worlds and developments) by placing that particular card into your tableau. In order to play worlds and developments in front of you, you must pay the cost on the card. To do so, you will discard that particular amount of cards (each card discarded is only worth 1 no matter what card it is) from your hand into the discard pile, to pay for its cost. So for instance (as shown below), if you which to play the Tourist World from your hand into your tableau, you must discard 4 other cards to do so, since it’s printed cost is 4.

rftg_money

 

 

Finally as mentioned, cards can be used as goods:
At times during the game, you will be allowed to produce the goods (represented by the colors on those worlds) on the different worlds in your tableau. To do this, you will take one card from the Draw pile, and while keeping it face down, set it underneath the world to represent that the world has produced one good of that color. You can only have one good on each world at any given time. Again, we’ll discuss how to produce and use goods a little bit later.

 

rftg_goods
(This production world has currently produced 1 Alien Technology good)

 

So again, those are the three basic functions of the cards used out of the Draw Pile and player’s hand. They can be played as themselves, used as money, or used to represent goods on a world.

We’ve now touched on how cards in general can be used different ways, as well as the two different types of cards (circle icons are worlds, diamond icons are developments), and also where to find how many Victory points they are worth. The next set of icons, you will find running along the left hand side of each card and they too can be broken up into two different categories: The phase actions (numbered with the icons I, II, III, $, IV, and V), and the card bonus powers (represented by numerous icons set directly next to the phase action icons. First let’s go from the player’s hand back to the Phase Action deck to explain the different phases of the game, so we have some context for these icons.

rftg_card_power_bonus
(Phase Action icons are shown along the left side of the card. With Mining Robots,
additional bonuses are given during Phase III and Phase V)

 

 

 

Phase Actions
In most games there are a set number of phases used in each round of the game. One thing that is unique (and a bit confusing) about Race for the Galaxy is that while there are 5 different set phases in the game, which phases take place each round are chosen by the players.
rftg_phase_action_deck
(Phase Action decks are separate from the cards in a player’s hand and Draw pile.
Phase Action decks are made up of 7 cards with 5 main Phase Actions)

 

 

This is what the Phase Action deck is for and each card in the deck represents a different phase that can be taken in a round. Though there is an order in which the phases are resolved, only the phases which are chosen that round will be resolved (meaning that not all phases will take place every round of the game). Any individual phase chosen by a player will be resolved by ALL players in the game, but the player that chose that phase will get a bonus when it comes time for that particular phase to be resolved. Each player can choose to play 1 Phase Action card each round (unless it is a two-player game in which 2 Phase Action cards can be played).

 

rftg_phase_action_ex

 

For instance, Player A chooses the Explore phase, Player B choose the Settle phase, and Player C chooses the Explore phase. Both the Explore and Settle phases will take place this round (and only these two phases). The Explore phase will be resolved first since it is the 1st phase in the sequence, and the Settle phase will take place next since it is the 3rd phase in the overall sequence. Player A and C will get a bonus action during the Explore phase while Player B will get a bonus action during the Settle phase. Taking these Phase actions will be how you determine what cards you play from your hand and how you play them.

Let’s take a look at the main action and bonus action for each phase (remember all players will take the main action during a particular phase if played by at least one player that round, with only the player that played the phase card taking the bonus action):

 

Phase I – Explore Phase

 

Main Action: Players will draw 2 cards from the draw deck and choose to keep 1 of those cards (discard the other.)

Bonus Action: There are two different phase cards that can be played for the Explore action. While the main action is the same for both, the bonus actions differ. The player playing the Explore card must decide which one to play, as they can only take the bonus printed on the card, not both.

rftg_explore1
Bonus 1 – While taking the Main action the player can draw 1 extra card and keep 1 extra card

 

 

rftg_explore2
Bonus 2 – While taking the Main action the player can draw 5 extra cards (but can still only keep 1 total).

 

 

Phase II – Develop Phase

 

Main Action: Players can place one development into their tableau, in front of them. (Note that players can never have more than 1 of the same exact development or worlds in their tableau)

 

rftg_develop
Bonus Action: While taking the Main action, placing a development will cost this player -1. So if the cost of placing the Terraforming Robots development is 3, it will now only cost 2.

 

 

rftg_terraforming

 

 

 

Phase III – Settle Phase
Main Action: Players can choose to settle one world by paying its cost and placing it into their tableau. Remember, that a non-military world can be purchased by paying its cost, but a military world has to be purchased by having a higher overall military rank in your tableau than the military world being played from your hand.

 

rftg_settle
Bonus Action: After taking the Main action and placing a world, this player can draw 1 card from the draw deck.

 

 

 

Phase $ and IV – Trade & Consume Phase (these phases are tied together)

 

Main Action: Players can use the consume powers printed on cards in their tableau to discard goods (cards that have been placed underneath worlds during the Produce phase, which we’ll get to next) and earn Victory Points or additional cards, depending on the actions of the particular consumer powers.

Bonus Action: As with the Explore phase, there are two different Consume phase cards that can be played for the Consume Action. One includes a trade bonus, and the other a victory point bonus. Again, while the main action is the same for both, the bonus actions differ. The player playing the Consume card must decide which one to play, as they can only take the bonus printed on the card, not both.

rftg_consume1
Bonus 1 – This bonus action is always taken before the Main action (represented by the “$“ icon). During the trade bonus action, the player can choose to sell one good (discard that card) and draw cards equal to the value of that good:

 

 

– Blue (novelty goods) = 2 cards
– Brown (rare goods) = 3 cards
– Green (gene goods) = 4 cards
– Yellow (alien goods) = 5 cards

 

After selling that good, the player will then continue with the Consumer Main action.

 

rftg_consume2
Bonus 2 – After taking the Main action, the player will receive twice as many Victory Points than he normally would.

 

 

 

Phase V – Produce Phase  (Goods that we discussed above in the Consume phase are acquired first in the Produce phase)

 

Main Action: Players can place a good on each of their production worlds (worlds represented by a solid colored circle) . To place a good, players will draw a card from the top of the draw pile and without looking at it, play it face down underneath the world. The type of good produced is determined by the color of the world. Only one good can be on any world at one time.
rftg_produce
Bonus Action: After taking the Main action, the player may also produce goods on any of their “Windfall” worlds (or worlds that are designated with colored ring on the outside of the circle; not colored in).

 

 

It’s important to try and guess what Phases your opposing players are going to play, and strategize around it. If you are pretty sure someone is going to play the Consume Phase action next turn, because they have a lot of goods on their planets, it may be a good idea to go ahead and play the Produce Phase action yourself this turn, to load up on goods. Hopefully, next turn they will play the Consume Phase action (so that you may reap the rewards from its Main action), while you are free to play two other Phase actions yourself. Being able to take part in as many phases on your turn is important to winning the game. Remember, it’s a race.

 

 

 

Card Powers

 

Probably the most intimidating aspect to Race for the Galaxy is understanding the different Card Powers on each individual card and how they resolve. Now that I’ve explained the various phases, how to pay for worlds and developments, and how goods are produced and consumed, we can now look at these various icons and understand them a little bit better.

Let’s move from the Phase Action deck and head back to the player’s hand. On these cards (worlds and developments) you will find icons on the left hand side of the card. There are icons that represent each of the various phases (I, II, III, $-IV, and V), and then you will see some Card Power bonus icons beside the different phases. When a card is placed into your tableau, the Card Power icon(s) on the card represent extra bonuses that will be provided when you take the actions for the particular phase that the Card Power icon is adjacent to. Let me explain.

Let’s take a look at two different cards and how their Card Power bonuses would take effect if they are in a player’s tableau:

rftg_expedition_force

 

Expedition Force is a development card with a cost of 1 and provides 1 Victory Point at the end of the game. As you can see, once this card is in a player’s tableau, any time an Explore Phase (Phase I) is taken, this player can now draw 1 extra card from the draw deck. So if the player takes the main Explore action, they can draw 3 cards instead of 2, and keep 1 of them. IF they had played the Explore Phase Action card, they’d able to take the Phase bonus, in which they could either draw 4 cards (2 Main action + 1 Phase Action bonus + 1 Expedition Force card power bonus) and keep 2, OR they could draw 8 cards (2 Main action + 5 Phase Action bonus + 1 Expedition Force card power bonus) and keep 1.

The Expedition Force development card also contains a second Card Power bonus. As you can see, during the Settle Phase (Phase III), the player with Expedition Force in their tableau will be rewarded with +1 Military strength when needed to conquer worlds with a military. A player can only settle a Military world if their combined Card Powers give them enough Military strength to do so.

 

rftg_distant_world

 

Let’s also look at the Distant World card. This is a production world (colored-in icon) that can produce Genetic goods (green world). It cost 4 cards to purchase and will give 2 Victory points at the end of the game if it is in a player’s tableau. It also provides 2 Card Power bonuses, one during the Trade bonus of the Consume Phase and one during the Produce phase. Let ’s look at the Trade bonus. When taking the Trade bonus action of the Consume Phase (Phase $-IV), a player with the Distant World in their tableau can gain 3 additional cards from the draw pile if the good they are selling is a Novelty good (blue). So whereas a player would normally gain 2 cards from selling a Novelty good, this player will receive 5.

The second Card Power is activated during the Produce Phase (Phase V). If a player takes the Produce action and has the Distant World card in their tableau, they can place 1 green (Genetics) good underneath this card.

Of course there are many different types of Card Power icons and while I can’t go over every single one of them, most of them are learned quickly. The player aids that come with the game for each player also have a listing of what each of the main Card Power bonus icons do. There are some cards that have unique icons, only used for that card, and for these there is actually a written description on the right hand side of the card as to what the icon means. So you never feel lost in that regard.

 

 

Gameplay

Okay, finally we have the context I was talking about. Hopefully that math formula is starting to come together a bit more clearly. So, let’s look at how the game plays.

1.) At the beginning of the game, each player randomly chooses from one of the five different start worlds. This world will go face up in the player’s tableau.

2.) Each player then draws 6 cards from the Draw Pile and will discard 2 of them, giving each player a starting hand of 4 cards.

3.) 12 Victory Points per player are placed in a side pool to be collected as player’s earn in-game Victory Points.

4.) To begin a round, player’s will secretly choose 1 Phase Action card with its bonus and all simultaneously play the cards chosen.

5.) Actions are then taken in Phase order (I – II – III – $ – IV – V) . Only the Phases that are chosen by the player’s will take place this round.

6.) At the end of the round, once all Phases have been resolved each player has to discard down to 10 cards if they have more than 10.

7.) Before beginning the next round, players will check to see if the game has ended. The game will end when 1 player has 12 or more face-up cards in their tableau, or all the Victory Point counters are gone from the pool. If either of these happen during the middle of a round, all Phases will still be played out for that round before the game ends.

The first player to play 12 face-up cards in their tableau does not necessarily win, however. To determine the total number of Victory Points, player’s will add:

 

– In-game victory points collected

 

– Victory Points printed on each face-up card in their tableau

 

– Bonus Victory Points scored from 6-cost developments

 

The player with the highest number of Victory Points, wins.

 

rftg_tableau

 

 

Thoughts

For such an in-depth game, Race for the Galaxy plays pretty quickly. The name of the game leads well to the sense of racing against your opponents to get as many worlds and developments into your tableau as quickly as you can. It’s important not to get too far behind your opponents, as the more cards you have in your tableau at the end of the game, the better opportunity for overall points. But, it’s just as important to stay aware of the quality of cards you are placing and the overall synergy that they bring to your ultimate strategy.

The iconography in the game has notoriously been a turn-off for a lot of players. Some will complain that there’s too many different types of icons and while I can understand this, the amount of icons are used more as a mechanic for gameplay depth than they are as a random placement of multiple bonuses. Because of the mass amounts of iconography, and how these bonuses interact with one another, there’s a numerous amount of combinations that can be found well after the initial large amount of plays. Among those that enjoy it, this is one of the major reasons it stands so high.

rftg_session

Being able to choose which Phases are resolved each turn emits a strong sense of control from each player’s perspective. Deciding which cards you will use as money versus worlds/developments you’ll want to use in your tableau is something strategically-minded player’s will find engaging. Player interaction is uniquely available in a game with no direct combat. Player’s will have to pay attention to other’s tableau, as well as trying to guess the phases that those player’s will choose. Correctly guessing another player’s chosen phase and pre-planning your selection around that, is quite rewarding.

Race for the Galaxy can be intimidating. It can take some effort to learn, to teach to others, and some time for the enormous amount of strategies to being to click for everyone. And that in of itself can put off potential gamers. But it can also be beautiful for those willing to learn it.

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