Designer: Tom Lehmann
Artist: Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan, Mirko Suzuki
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Race for the Galaxy is a card game that needs no introduction. The game has been around for more than a decade and a half and still very well-received. The game has a very solid fan base and is undoubtedly Mr. Lehmann’s highest profile game to date (though, I myself also love To Court the King). The adoration for Race for the Galaxy is not universal though. If you look at the comments, there are quite a number of players who did not appreciate Race for the Galaxy. I am not surprised given that Race for the Galaxy is a card game that is littered with icons and symbols that represent the different actions, powers and scoring criteria for the cards. There is no going around this: the game can be confusing and the learning curve is steep. This is most definitely not a game you break out for newbies no matter how many teaching aids you print. It will take at least half a dozen games, if not more, before you are familiar with all the iconography. Even then, in order to play well, one must also be familiar with the types of cards in the deck as well as the possible synergy in scoring.
My relationship with Race for the Galaxy is complicated. I owned the game when it first came out for many years and played sparingly. I played both the physical copy as well as the Keldon AI digitally. Still, I could never get enough plays of the original version to gain some type of mastery of the game. This is either because I never had a stable long-term game group, and also because I also didn’t find the iconography particularly appealing. The intermittent plays of Race for the Galaxy is truly the worst way to approach the game. It is almost guaranteed to turn people off. This is the type of game in which you must commit to play repeatedly, else you should just play something else. It’s OK that the game is not suitable for some folks and indeed, this is not a game for casual gamers and not a good family game with young kids either. However, I was lured to give Race for the Galaxy and The Gathering Storm another go mainly due to the necessity of solitaire gaming. While I am not keen on multi-player solo modules, Race for the Galaxy is an exception simply because the AI in The Gathering Storm expansion is reported to be challenging and also very good- that and Race for the Galaxy is also known for its incredible replayability and different routes to victory. If I am to select a few solitaire games to include in my collection, Race for the Galaxy seems to be a logical candidate.
If one is familiar with Mr. Lehmann’s creations, then many of his card games share a similar mechanism. Race for the Galaxy is most certainly inspired by San Juan, but with a significant uptick in complexity. In all these games, the main concept is to build a unique tableau to churn out points efficiently and quickly in order to beat others to the punch. Importantly, cards played to the table also function as currency, so a large part of the game is deciding which cards to play and which to convert to currency. In Res Arcana, the first to 10 points wins while in Race for the Galaxy, the tableau is capped at 12 cards or until a limited supply of VP chips run out. Overall, each of these sessions are relatively short but packed with decisions. The meat of the game, at least for me, comes from understanding how to play the card combinations to score points rapidly and efficiently relative to what your opponents are planning.
Solo games against the Bot
Since the goal of my reacquisition is play the solo mode, I have focused my write up on this part of the game. Thus far, I have played perhaps a dozen games and lost them all. I have decided to stick with a few of the worlds and not switch them around in hopes of gaining some experience against a particular setup. I started with continue to play with Old Earth as my opponent. I few things stood out: first, the algorithm is challenging. That is actually a good thing. Some games are close and I have gotten within 5 points of the bot while others quickly became a massacre. The bot is obviously not intelligent but follows preprogrammed instructions which immediately reveals how luck really drives the scoring. For example, the game which I lost by 5, the last card played by the bot was a 6-cost development card. But I accept that as part and parcel of a solo experience for what is meant to be a multiplayer experience. There has to be some randomness in the draw for this to be challenging. After all, the bot actions are determined by dice and while It sounds like while the bot is tough, it is not impossible to win. So, I am fine with the struggle. I definitely look forward to my first win.
However, replaying Race for the Galaxy has resurfaced a few concerns. In most of my games, I really have had a tough time drawing the “right” cards. In particular, certain strategies depend on having the right combination of cards. This is particularly true for novelty or specialty card scoring. Some 6-cost development cards are geared toward specific end of game scoring. The game tempts you to specialize by allowing you to draw these cards, but without the complementary build up of scoring opportunities, set collection ultimately feels like a red herring. I have tried this route with little success and it makes a huge difference if you can draw and play the correct combinations. The margins of victory or defeat are so thin that getting these cards will make a difference. The bot is pretty ruthless and will eat you alive even with your best hand.
Its likely that veterans of the game probably have an answer to my concerns: that I haven’t played enough to formulate a strategy or that I don’t know how to navigate luck. Perhaps these card draw issues are problematic in the solo setting and not when playing with real life opponents. I expect that must be somewhat true. Decisions by human players tend to be logical and perhaps easier to predict. It makes a difference what actions you pick and which actions to piggyback on others. The die roll on the other hand, is just a die roll. The game is obviously not all about luck. I expect a newbie to be schooled by a veteran time and again until they become familiar with the deck. Even then, I expect a veteran to anticipate the moves made by the opponents a little better.
The iconography ends up being reasonable after a handful of games. That’s true the first time and also second time around. In fact I found the scoring to be much more confusing than the icons as some of the nomenclature in scoring remains a little fuzzy. That aside, I think any regular player with experience playing Euros should have no issues embracing the iconography so long as they commit to the process.
Playing Race for the Galaxy has made me appreciate the differences between this game and Res Arcana. Unlike Race for the Galaxy with a hefty deck of cards to choose from, you only get a handful of cards in Res Arcana and you already know at the start what those cards are. You end up having to make do with what you have and it eliminates luck of the draw or roll, so to speak. Now, unless certain combination of cards are awful, I think Res Arcana will boil down to execution. Sure, I might complain after a loss that I had a bad hand to start with, but truth is, I enjoyed the challenge to make it work. I never once felt the touch of “luck” like I do in Race for the Galaxy against the bot. Who know. Maybe I just need 50 more plays in Race for the Galaxy to figure that out.