Saturday, April 5, 2008

Race for the Galaxy

Last night's edition of the Hobart Games of Society games night saw only one addition to the New Games Quest list. And that game, was Race for the Galaxy.

Let me get this off my chest first. To me, Race for the Galaxy is like four people simultaneously playing solitaire and racing to go out.

Yes, it's a little more complex than that, but when you get down to it there is very very little player interaction. Everyone does their own thing, and no one can affect what cards anyone else plays. Yes, you can see what sort of cards someone else is playing, and base what cards you play on that, but there are so many different cards with so many different bonuses (there are literally no bad cards in the entire game) that you never know what cards you're going to get.

So, a negative start to this review. You're probably thinking I didn't like the game. That's not true. I did like it. But, I would have liked it more had there been some tangible way to influence what your opponents do other than choose what phase to play. So really, I'm ambivalent.

Let's take a look at how the game works.

Most people compare the game to Puerto Rico (a game that is now on the top of my "games I have never played but really, really want to" list). That's because at the start of each round, every player chooses the phase (or action) they want to take that round, and then everyone plays that phase.

Each player secretly chooses a phase they would like, and then they are all revealed simultaneously. For that round, the actions all players take will be those that have been revealed by the phase cards. So with 4 players, there will be 4 phases in that round. As players choose their preferred phase in secret, it is quite possible, and indeed probable with the maximum 4 players, that more than one person will choose the same phase. If that happens, then that phase is played multiple times that round.

There are 5 possible phases you can choose from: I: Explore, II: Develop, III: Settle, IV: Consume, and V: Produce. There is also an optional phase - $: Trade - that can be taken as part of the Consume phase. Phases are always played in the same order during a round. That is, if the Explore phase is chosen, it will always be played first, while any Produce phases always come last.

If someone chooses Explore, all players simply draw a set number of cards from the top of the (shuffled) stack and place them in their hand. There is no limit to the number of cards in your hand during a round, but you must discard down to 10 at the end of the round (ie. after all phases have been completed).

While everyone gets to draw cards in an Explore phase, the player who chose that phase gets a bonus. There are two different bonuses the player can choose. While everyone else draws 2 cards and gets to keep 1, the person who chose Explore can either draw 3 cards and keep 2 (discarding the third) or draw 5 cards and keep 1 (if they are looking for a particular card).

In the Develop phase, all players may choose to place 1 Development card on their tableau. These cards give bonuses during particular phases. For example, one card might reduce the cost of playing further developments while another might give trade bonuses.

Speaking of costs, here's where one of the interesting and cunning mechanics comes into the game. All costs in the game are paid by discarding cards. So if you want to play a development card with a cost of 2, then you must discard 2 other cards from your hand to pay for it.

This is a very intriguing way of going about things, as it forces players to choose which cards to keep and which to discard.

The benefit of being the player who chooses the Development phase is that the cost of playing a development card is reduced by 1.

Phase III is Settle. If this phase is played, each player may play 1 World card to their tableau. There are two main types of worlds: regular worlds and military worlds. Each of these also have sub types that may allow them to produce goods and affect how other cards interact with them.

Costs to play world cards are also paid by discarding other cards. Costs can be reduced if you have other cards that give bonuses. For example, some development and world cards give military bonuses. If the combined military bonuses on the cards in your tableau are equal to or greater than the cost of a military world card you want to play, then you can play it for free.

In addition to a cost, both world cards and development cards also have a Victory Point number. Generally the more expensive or powerful a card is, the more victory points it is worth. These VPs don't come in to play until the end of the game when you add them all up to see who has won.

I'll skip the Consume phase for now, and go to the final phase: Produce. This is because Consume relies on goods already having been produced, and it's easier to explain them this way around.

In the Produce phase, all world cards you have that can produce resources do so. There are four different resources: Novelty (blue), Rare Elements (brown), Genes (green), and Alien Technology (yellow).

No world can produce more than one good at a time so if it already has a good on that world, it won't produce another one.

Goods are also represented by cards. When a good is produced on one of your worlds, you draw a card from the deck and, leaving it face down, place it partially over the applicable world card to signify it is a resource.

It is during the Consume phase that resources are used. Using the bonuses listed on individual development and world cards, players can discard their resource cards in return for victory point chips. Some bonuses also allow you to draw more cards when the resources are consumed.

There are two extra bonuses you can choose from if you chose the Consume phase this round. The first extra is trading. If you chose this bonus, you get your own personal Trade phase before the Consume phase that no other player gets (unless they also chose this phase themselves). This allows you to trade in resources for cards.

Each resource has a different trade value, so for example, while you can trade 1 blue (novelty) resource in order to draw 2 cards from the deck, you can trade 1 yellow (alien tech) resource for 5 cards. If you have other development or world cards that give you trade bonuses, you can draw even more cards to your hand.

The other option when choosing the Consume phase is to double the VPs that you receive during that phase. This comes in handy towards the end of the game when you're trying to amass as many VPs as possible before the game finishes.

The game continues in this fashion, with each player choosing a phase each round, and everyone going through those particular phases. This is where an element of strategy comes in. For example, you may want to do both the Settle phase and the Produce phase this round. Unfortunately, you can only choose one of those phases as your selection for the round.

However, you check out what the other players are doing and notice that one player has lots of cards in their hand and they are a little light on with world cards in their tableau. You guess that there is a good chance that they are going to want to play a world card this round, so will probably choose the Settle phase. As you can leech off their choice to play your world card, you're free to choose the Produce phase so you can do that as well. Of course, if they are strategising as well.....

The game ends when either one or more players has 12 cards in play (the round is still completed) or you run out of VP chips (less likely). You then add up all the VPs on your world and development cards, your VP chips, and any special bonus VPs that some cards have. The player with the most VPs wins.

For the record I finished a close second in the game behind the more experienced Jon who owned the game.

As I said earlier, I enjoyed it. There are a hell of a lot of different strategies you can use due to the enormous number of different cards, but I still think it could do with more player interaction. For example, perhaps you could have a development card that allows you to use another player's world to consume one of your resources. Or perhaps if your military power is greater than other players you get a bonus.

It doesn't need to be a nasty power that lets you force a player to discard, or allows you to steal their world, because the developers have so obviously avoided that. I just want there to be more strategy involving interaction with the players.

I don't think it's really that much to ask and would add to the game's appeal for me. Hopefully the expansion coming out soon will do something that effect. If it does, I may well consider buying this game.

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