|Race for the Galaxy (2007)
Back in our review of San Juan I made note that while it is an excellent game I love an awful lot it’s so dry that it’s like drinking a smoothie made from crackers and sawdust. It’s a desperately, frantically unsmiling game and while that doesn’t change the quality of the experience it does deprive me of a lot of the whimsy I like in my game-playing. San Juan is good but it’s difficult to get people to accept that it might be so given the modern explosion of games that are beautifully thematic and also fantastic to play. It’s a good job then that Race for the Galaxy exists because on first inspection this is basically San Juan… IN SPAAAAAAAaaaaace. Initial impressions can be deceiving though, and that’s certainly true here – while they have very significant structural similarities, they play very differently and in a way entirely characterised by their respective settings. Make no mistake though if you like the sound of San Juan you’ll find an awful lot of shared DNA in this offering.
Where San Juan lacks meaningful theme, Race for the Galaxy (RftG) is bubbling over with in-jokes and affection nods to a hundred popular sci-fi franchises. Within the planets and research opportunities presented by the cards in RftG you’ll find coded references to Dune, Star Trek, Star Wars, Starship Troopers, the Culture series, WH40k, Stargate SG-1, The Foundation and more. None of it is egregious, and all of it is sufficiently vague to avoid the risk of litigation whilst being obvious enough to provoke a knowing smirk in anyone that is literate in the referenced tropes. San Juan lets you built ‘an indigo plant’ or ‘a coffee plantation’. Race for the Galaxy lets you build the Empire and populate it with power-armoured space marines fuelled by the Spice melange. I know which of those gets my plums pumping and it’s not the careful construction of a town library in a sleepy Caribbean city. Whereas San Juan presents itself as a staid and serious game for staid and serious people, RftG gestures cheerfully and says ‘come on, let’s have some fun here’.
Fundamentally though the games have a very similar set of mechanics. You have a hand of cards that are both construction opportunities and fungible units of currency. Everyone around the table picks an action they want to perform, and then the table performs the union set of base actions selected. Those that chose the action also select a bonus to go with it, but you’re always going to be enabling someone to do something. It’s a system that is used to excellent effect here adding a whole social deductive element to proceedings that intensifies the round that follows. Sure, you need to get some cards coming in, but maybe someone else will pick an action that you can leech onto. After all, you’ve got other stuff you need to be doing too and time is precious. Oh god, it’s so precious. As such, part of the fun of RftG is reading the intentions of your opponents and trying to see where you can piggyback off their needs.
What you’re trying to do in RftG is put together an empire that converts your precious time and cards into ever more impressive collections of victory points. The game ends when one of two conditions is met by anyone at the table – it ends if someone has a total of twelve cards in their empire, and it ends if the full supply of victory point tokens has been claimed. At that point, everyone totals up their victory points from tokens and cards and a winner is declared. Success in Race comes not just from playing down the best cards in the best way, but in most effectively harnessing your empire to the tempo of the table, and a lot of that is based on the way the game diverts your attention.
Race for the Galaxy separates card types into two categories. Planets are either settled through the spending of cards or through the leveraging of offensive military might, and in addition to the special effects they might provide they often produce goods for trade or consumption. Research developments are always bought with cards, and most often they work to supercharge other parts of your empire or offer incremental scoring opportunities based on the composition of your resources. All of the cards you place down will be worth a number of victory points, even if that number is sometimes ‘none’.
This bifurcation of card role is what creates some of the most genuinely electric pacing I’ve ever seen in a turn based game. In San Juan, you can’t afford to fall behind but at worst you’ll only fall behind one development at a time. A single missed step in Race for the Galaxy might find you suddenly two cards down with the gap between you and your opponents increasing every more significantly with every subsequent turn. A well-honed engine in Race for the Galaxy is a thing of beauty and in the hands of someone that knows how to play the actions it’s an instrument that emits the soulful resonances of a fine violin. Turns here go from bad to worse to fantastic with a rapidity that borders on whip-like. Sometimes at the end you’re left holding a handful of trash and wondering aloud ‘Wait, what just happened?’
Falling out of step with the game here is brutal, because you’re recycling an awful lot of your cards all the time and you’re juggling a half dozen balls – any one of which will bring down the rest if you let it drop. Unfortunately those balls are all heading at right angles from each other and you can’t reach all of them in time. You need planets to produce goods, because you can sell goods for more cards and use those cards to settle or conquer more planets. But you also need those goods to satisfy the consumption desires of other planets, and those planets will give you victory points for each card you can discard in this way. You need to place down cards that subsidise development costs, but you might have to sacrifice your military potential in order to do so. Every decision comes with an opportunity cost that is on occasion eye-watering.
Let’s say you’re looking to take advantage of the favourable market conditions you’ve managed to arrange through diligent card play. Unfortunately the actions happen in phase order and the consumption phase occurs before the production phase – as such, what you really need is for Past You to have arranged production in some way that you can leverage this turn. Or, you need someone else to play the phases you need because you can only choose one at a time and oh god there are so many balls to keep in the air. But you can’t really plan on that happening because everyone needs to be exploring to find the cards they really want to play, except they can’t play them if they’re not settling or developing. You can’t rely on anyone’s ambitions to align with yours because you’re not the only one worrying about which balls you’re going to catch and which you’re going to let bounce off into oblivion. In RftG you usually have only one action available to you in a turn but every single thing you can do is worth doing every single time. To do one is to not do others and you need to do them all.
I mentioned above that engine building is important here, and it is – unfortunately it’s also just as difficult to do correctly as anything else. You begin Race for the Galaxy by settling a single planet dealt from a subset of the available cards. You then get a handful of six cards as your budget, and have to discard two. That’s more than just a setup process – what you have here is the crystal ball that determines the path your empire is going to have to take. You might start with New Sparta and some drop pods that ramp up to an exquisitely effective military from the first round – that means you’re going to go hunting for military worlds to subdue. You might get dealt a production world and the merchant guild – that suggests you want to consider maximising your own internal trade networks for the harvesting of ever more lucrative piles of victory points. You might have research labs that you can lay down to reduce settlement costs to zero, or you might want to focus on lucrative alien tech so as to take advantage of the most expensive development cards available. Your initial hand tells you where you’re the nose of your engine is pointing from the start, but that doesn’t mean the road it’s hinted at is one you can most profitably travel. It’s just the one directly in front of you.
Within your empire your job is one of balancing inputs versus outputs – it’s no use to you if you can sell goods for eight or nine cards per turn if you’re always having to discard half of them. There’s no point having five production worlds if you can only consume the goods from two. There’s no point having a military value of ten if the most difficult world to conquer tops out at seven. Some special developments offer scoring opportunities that change the value of these kinds of things but you need to have them come into your hand at the right time, and you need to have the budget to construct them. Many cards in RftG are unique, and you can’t simply hope they flop into your empire during the course of a game. You need to decide on a strategy, but you also need to make sure it doesn’t depend on opportunities that might never arise because remember – you’re on a timer here. The meter’s running, buddy.
You don’t have time to perfectly construct and tune this engine into an immaculate powerhouse – in any given turn you might find your opponents variously putting down a planet and a research development, or hoovering up five or six of the painfully limited victory point tokens. You might find them cheerfully laying down the galactic imperium card that was going to net you ten points and the game were it to come your way. You need a good engine, but you also need to make sure it starts and stops when it should. A turn where you accomplish nothing is deadly. A turn is wasted when all you do is draw cards via exploration in the hope you find the critical cog that will bring your construction to life. The worst kind of empire is the slumbering golem that needs magic words in its head before it lurches into effectiveness. You can’t wait for the right incantation to come along – y our society needs to be earning its keep from day one.
Cards in your hand are less than worthless – you need to get them working for you, nobody is earning galactic interest on your galactic credits. That puts an intense pressure on you to do very well, very quickly, within timing constraints that are only partially within your control. That in turn means that the decision as to when you ramp up your engine and when you begin fully hitting the accelerator is one of the critical ones you make – do it wrong and you lose the game. This is unforgiving in the best possible ways. The word race in the title is absolutely apt – you’re putting together a vehicle, but it doesn’t matter how fast it can theoretically go if you drive it into a wall. Or perhaps it matters more – I suspect a collision with a wall is preferable at a slower pace. When driver and vehicle come together in perfect synchronicity though – that’s when this game becomes something genuinely transcendent.
I have played, no word of a lie, hundreds of games of Race for the Galaxy in both tabletop and digital form. I close my eyes and dream about it sometimes. There are games where everything has lined up and I’ve won by twenty or thirty points. There are games where I just couldn’t get my engine out of first gear and only barely made it across the finish line an hour after the race began. It’s not a game where you can reliably perform well but it is certainly a game where good players can develop, refine and execute upon strategies conceived within the game and outside of it. You can get very, very good at Race for the Galaxy if you invest the effort. I’m not very good but there is a sense of satisfaction in knowing every time I come out of the experience bruised and battered then I won’t make those same mistakes next time. Every game of Race for the Galaxy is a learning opportunity.
It really is a shame then that in almost every scenario bar one I would still recommend people pick up San Juan instead of Race for the Galaxy. The one scenario I think it’s preferable is ‘when everyone already knows how to play’. San Juan punishes inefficiencies but it does it in a transparent way – fundamentally the parts of the engine in San Juan are very simple in and of themselves and they all interact cleanly and observably. That’s not true in Race for the Galaxy because all of the systems are multi-layered. Production worlds create resources for trade and for consumption. Planets might offer one-off ‘windfalls’ or consistent production, except some developments permit for windfall worlds to yield repeated harvests. Some cards synergise well with certain action bonuses, some work well in multiple strategies, some are tightly bound to a single one. While it’s possible to learn how to do better, these are not systems that yield themselves to easy understanding. Knowing the composition and opportunities of the deck is critical because many developments depend on it. Effective, reliable and flexible strategies for success in RftG are highly personalised and individually crafted works of engineering That makes the game brutally punishing for newcomers and even those with a few games under their belts. It’s entirely possible to emerge from the seventh or eighth round of play to find you somehow lost to someone that had managed to get an effective system together after a few rounds. Having to keep track of two separate end conditions – victory points and empire size – complicates the process of knowing where you are in relation to everyone else. You need to comprehend a lot before you can understand enough to play more effectively.
But the biggest reason by far it’s difficult to recommend is that it is willfully, obstinately committed to making itself as unapproachable as possible. Learning the systems of Race for the Galaxy is made intensely more difficult because every card is covered in what look to be alien hieroglyphics as translated by a malfunctioning spambot. You don’t just have to build literacy in the game systems, you have to build literacy in a bespoke symbolic language that looks like it might be part of an abandoned Stargate. This symbolic language permits a reasonable amount of additional fluency of play for those that have mastered it, but adds an intense burden of learning to everyone else – and this is already a difficult game to play properly. All of the cards with complex effects come with explanatory text as to how they work, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is likely to be an intimidating game unless you come to it refusing to be cowed. It’s a game full of evocative theme and exciting energy, but you’d never know it to look at the cards. It’s like the corrupted crash screen you’d get when your Excel spreadsheet craps out when mistakenly opening a bootleg movie riddled with aggressive malware.
It’s not actually a game where it’s that hard to learn the symbols but there absolutely is a learning curve before you can be comfortable with it. Many of the edge case symbols are bafflingly inscrutable and often difficult to discern because of how they overlap in stylistic design. Planet designations for example are dense, incorporating whether they’re production worlds, combat worlds, whether they have windfalls, and so on. Different combinations of colours combine to precisely locate a world in its proper context but small shifts in visual information (such as the colour of a border) may be critically important. I mean, check out this easy to read reference chart:
I have the Gathering Storm expansion sitting on my shelf right now, and despite playing hundreds of games of RftG I found the reference sheet (edit: Apparently it’s the logic for the robot player mode according to an email I just received) below in it and I honestly have no idea how to even make sense of it. I haven’t played that expansion yet because every time I do I just find myself mentally recoiling like the box contains an angry cobra someone shook up like a bottle of soda in a toddler’s prank. I’ll get to it, but I need to psyche myself up for that and there are many games that don’t force me to make that effort.
When it comes down to the wire, San Juan and Race for the Galaxy are very similar games but notably different in both the atmosphere and rhythm of play. San Juan is relatively languid and sedate. Race for the Galaxy is frantic and cutthroat. San Juan presents itself without artifice or theatre, but in the process also makes itself generally approachable even if it doesn’t entice you in. Race for the Galaxy clearly butchered an iphone loaded up with cosmic productivity apps and merrily scattered the launch icons across yours cards. Race for the Galaxy is I think a meaningfully better game, but even with the almost parodic dryness of San Juan I’m sure I could get more people to play it. Someone, I forget who, once said that ‘Race for the Galaxy is the best game you can’t ever get anyone to play’ and I think that pretty much nails it. If you are willing to invest the time, effort and energy into overcoming its pathological fear of intimacy, you will be sucked into its depths like it’s a black hole. I can’t judge anyone though for not being willing to make that effort.