Race for the Galaxy is a card game for two to four people, with expansions that allow for more players and many different ways of playing.
As the name suggests, the theme is space – and we’re talking space on a grand operatic scale. Players are building entire galactic civilisations, by playing cards of two types into a tableau in front of them; worlds, and technical or social developments. As the cards are played, they confer new powers on the player, making subsequent actions more powerful. Once a player has managed to build 12 cards, or exhaust the pool of available points chips, the game is over and scores are tallied.
Each round starts with all players simultaneously deciding which of the five actions to perform: explore (take more cards), develop (play a development card), settle (play a world), consume (exploit goods-generating worlds for points or more cards), or produce (produce goods on said worlds for consuming later). This is the heart of the interaction, since you want to plan your action based on what you hope your opponents plan to do. You really want to settle – but if you’re sure Katy’s going to settle, you can pick explore, and you’ll get to do both.
Just as with San Juan, with which Race shares a provenance, cards are used for multiple purposes: they are playable, but also represent the money used to play them, goods from production worlds etc. So you have to decide which cards in hand you want to build into your tableau, and which you will use to pay for the building.
Unlike San Juan, text on the cards is kept to an absolute minimum, replaced with an at first bewildering range of icons. It will certainly take a few games to get a grip on what the iconography means, but the base game comes with handy player aids to explain it all, and in fact the icons fit very well with the ‘serious sci-fi’ theme.
The key to Race for the Galaxy is the ‘race’ part – you want to be the first to close out the game while you’re ahead, so your objective is to build worlds and developments that let you build future ones more quickly and efficiently, or concentrate on draining the points pool as quickly as possible by building an efficient produce/consume engine. If that sounds dry and boring, it’s not – working out how to use the cards in hand to achieve victory is a fun and immensely satisfying way to spend half an hour. Fans may also want to check out the game it spawned: Roll for the Galaxy!
I’m quite old-fashioned and I like a game with a big theme to come with a board. That completely personal, totally irrational objection to one side, this is a well-constructed game that is quite rightly highly regarded. As Joe says below, you need to invest a bit of time to get your rewards – it’s not as instantly accessible as many games – but they are most definitely there for the right gamer.
There is undeniably a steep learning curve to Race, as the play of each turn is initially unintuitive, and the iconography can be off-putting.
But find a friend who’s willing to dig into it and a huge amount of fun awaits – each game is tense, and there are many creative ways to win. If you get tired of the base game there are expansions which add more cards – I’d recommend the Alien Artifacts expansion as it retains the (relative) simplicity of the core mechanics but adds some interesting new cards.
I adore Race for the Galaxy as a two-player game, with the advanced rules where each player chooses two actions.
Within the base game there is no direct conflict; it's a game of out-thinking your opponent, but as long as you don't rub the losers face in it it shouldn't cause tears.
Very little downtime once the actions are chosen, as players can take actions simultaneously.
The first few rounds will be very confusing - but it's one of those games that, when you 'get' it, seems like simplicity itself. Although you're building cards with powers that play off each other, it's not a game in which you have to chew over convoluted possibilities for turns ahead.
If you're going to invest (financially and cognitively) in Race for the Galaxy, try not to judge it after a single game. Persuade your opponent to play two, maybe three times, and it's very likely to click. Then there will be no stopping you - you can decant the cards and chips into a smaller box and play anywhere!