Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Game Review: Race for the Galaxy

I got a chance to play Race for the Galaxy last week too. It was a lot of fun. It has a pretty steep learning curve, but I was getting it figured out after two games. One of the problems is that it uses a system of icons to describe various aspects of the planets and technologies you run into, and these can get pretty complex. A lot of the world these days seems to be expressed in incomprehensible hieroglyphics, so I guess it's par for the course, but it took me a while just to figure out what all the stuff meant. When you've got several kinds of worlds, four kinds of trade goods, a bunch of descriptors, arrows, hexagons, numbers, plusses and minuses, five turn phases - it gets pretty complex.

The good part is, under all the complexity (after you've developed your decoding skills), there's a pretty fun game, using a winning theme.  I'm a total sucker for developing space empires - I love doing that, from Master of Orion to Starweb to Spaceward Ho to Starship Catan to Lacuna Expanse.

The game is primarily a set of cards, with some accompanying tokens for bonuses and scoring. The cards have worlds to conquer or technology to acquire, and each costs different amounts to implement and gives different bonuses and score. The catch is that the cards are also the currency for paying for the new acquisitions, so you have to give up some opportunities to acquire others. These tradeoffs are very interesting, and given that each game gives you different starting worlds and different goals, you'll end up having a different experience (and needing a different strategy) each time through.

There's also an economy built into the game, with a bunch of different trade goods that you can acquire from different worlds, and then trade for other things (more cards, more points). The neat thing about the game is that you actually can't sustan all the different strategies at once. You'll need to focus on one or two - military power, trade, adding planets, achieving bonuses - and which ones you can focus on depends on the cards you get and the choices you make.

A key mechanic (and one I gather this game borrowed from others such as San Juan and Puerto Rico) is the phase selection. Each turn has five possible phases, but they won't always happen - you get to pick one phase that you guarantee will happen (and you usually get a bonus in that phase for picking it), but the other players pick their own phases, so you're not likely to get all of the possible phases happening. This ends up being an interesting part of the strategy - sometimes you really want two or three of the phases to happen, but you can only force one, and you have to guess what the other players will pick.

The player-vs-player aspect is pretty minimal - it's very difficult to mess with other players in any effective way, although you do have some impact on them when you chose what phase you want to have this turn (because they will also then have that phase).

I got pretty badly beaten both times I played, and I think it would take probably 6-10 more plays before I felt comfortable with all the different parts and strategies. Like I said, a pretty steep learning curve. But even getting thrashed, it was fun. Even though the cards you get and the actions of the other players bring in a fair amount of luck, you have a lot of decisions to make, and they have very strong effects, so it doesn't feel very luck-determined while you're playing. I like this one a lot - lots of meat to it, good balance and variety, and a fun theme.

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