Race for the Galaxy and the fun factor

(image by Surya @ BGG)
I don’t envy game designers. Find that perfect balance between depth and complexity must be extremely challenging. You want a game that holds up to many repeat plays but still has a relatively low barrier to entry. Too difficult to learn and few will want to play it, too simplistic and it may not have much staying power. Somewhere in there is the sweet spot that most designer games aim for.

As the person who generally teaches new games in our gaming groups, I am very interested in the barrier to entry for a game. The key to successfully teaching a game is breaking it down to its basics and describing everything in context to the players’ goals. There are games I can explain in a matter of minutes and start playing, others that have easily taken the better part of an hour. Length of explanation isn’t important, it is how everything clicks and how quickly the big picture comes together for players. To me a great game is often defined by how accessible the “fun” is.

Take something like Twilight Imperium 3. Yes, it can take quite awhile to explain everything but players will often be making comments like, “This is cool!” even during that first turn. You might not understand every aspect of the game but you can see where the fun is to be had. If you can’t see where the fun is, odds are you will not want to play the game again – especially if it takes several hours to play.

(image by kilroy_locke @ BGG)

At first glance, Race for the Galaxy looks quite unassuming. There’s a large deck of cards and a few cardboard chits representing victory points. That’s it. Even the rules are fairly straightforward. It can take awhile to wrap your head around the idea that cards represent three things: stuff you can build by placing in front of you, currency you spend to build said stuff and resources that may be turned into more cards or points when they are sitting on cards in front of you. It sounds a little tricky but it’s much easier to visualize and a few quick examples easily clears it up.

Race for the Galaxy really stumbles with all its symbols. There are five possible phases each round with players secretly deciding which phase they want to see happen that round. With four players you could see only a single phase happen if everyone chooses the same thing or four phases if everyone selects different ones. Every card in the deck has printed slots for these phases (numbered one to five with an extra symbol for a sub-phase) and possibly a variety of icons next to each phase illustrating some special power that cards gives you during that phase. For example, an icon showing a hand gripping a card with the number one inside means you get to draw a single card when that phase happens. On top of all those symbols, each card can be one of two different types (planet or development) – each with their own symbol – plus there are multiple types of planets distinguished by different fill and border colors.

Learning to read the cards is extremely challenging for even the most experienced gamers. While there is a standard base set of symbols, nearly every card is unique and may have extra text or special symbols not seen anywhere else. No matter how well you explain the game, nothing can prepare players to fully grasp the symbols until they start playing and see the game in action. Add in the somewhat confusing concept of cards representing multiple things and you have a system that is highly unintuitive and very difficult to wrap your head around.

(image by TabbySunLion @ BGG)
Your first game is almost guaranteed to be very rough. You’ll struggle through the symbols, forget how to use your cards and have no idea what to do to earn points. There’s a good chance you will have no idea where the fun is hiding and you will never want to play the game again. It’s possible, though, that by the end of that first learning game you’ll possibly catch a glimpse of how all your cards could work together and will at least be interested enough to try again.

Race for the Galaxy succeeds where other games with this steep of a learning curve fail. Your first few matches of Race for the Galaxy will probably take around an hour; future games will go faster. The short play time means you can get several games in and with each game you’ll see how cards interact, how you build your internal point engine and will see the method behind the madness of all those icons. At that point the system becomes clear and the fun exposes itself.

(image by kilroy_locke @ BGG)

I’ve played many other games that suffer from a similar problem: somewhere inside the system there is fun to be had but you need to play several times before you might find it. My game groups love to play a wide variety of games and never fully dedicate ourselves to any single one. Games with steep learning curves will often fall to the wayside for other games where we know we’ll have fun every time it hits the table. If it weren’t for Race for the Galaxy’s short play time I’m not sure I would have ever discovered how fun it really is. It’s also a testament to the game’s design and depth that I felt compelled to return to it even after a few disappointing first games.

Race for the Galaxy is a great game. There’s a ton of depth stuffed inside a deck of cards. Resource management really drives the action; you have lots of interesting decisions to make on which cards to play and which to discard. Do you take the easy points in your hand or try and set yourself up for something bigger? While there is no direct player interaction, a good player will try to anticipate their opponents’ actions and try to piggyback off them.

My advice is this: don’t expect to fully enjoy your first play but do keep an open mind. In fact, don’t expect to enjoy your first couple of plays. If possible I would highly recommend getting three or four quick games under your belt before you pass judgment. Learning all of the icons is tough but once it clicks you will find a highly rewarding game. Race for the Galaxy is challenging to learn and even more challenging to play well. For something similar that is much easier to learn I’d recommend checking out San Juan or Dominion. If you want a deep, fast-playing card game that will challenge you every step of the way, give Race for the Galaxy a few quick tries.


(image courtesy monteslu @ BGG)
BoardGameGeek – while a great site – isn’t always a good thing for me. Whenever a new release really catches on there I have a tendency to fight against that game; I’m always skeptical that it can be remotely as good as the masses claim. Early reviews are always in that honeymoon period (which I get caught up in as well) so it can take a little while for the game to “settle” to its proper place on the site. Dominion caught like a wildfire when it released which is surprising since it’s just a card game and the BoardGameGeek community tends to favor more in-depth strategy games. Race for the Galaxy had a similar fever around it when it released and while I think it is a good game the complexity and learning curve means it rarely hits the table. With comparisons being drawn between the two on BoardGameGeek I found myself having a hard time getting excited about Dominion.

Then I played the game and realized what the fuss was all about.

Dominion is a deck building card game for two to four players. There are 25 different kingdom decks that come with the game, 10 of which will be in use for a single match. You’ll also find copper, silver and gold cards – the currency in the game – and estate, duchy and province cards – worth 1, 2 and 3 victory points respectively. Player start with seven copper and three estates, shuffle them up and draw five into their hand. Over the c0urse of the game players will be playing cards from their hand to acquire new kingdom cards which will in turn allow them to earn yet more cards. The ultimate goal is to pick up victory points. Once either the provinces or three of the 10 kingdom card stacks runs out, the game is over and whomever has the most victory points wins.

(image courtesy garyjames @ BGG)

What makes Dominion so brilliant is that the rules are incredibly simple. On your turn you have an action and a buy that can be done in any order. Your action allows you to play a card marked as an action from your hand. Many action cards give you more actions (listed as +1 action) or more buys (+1 buy). More actions allow you to play further action cards from your hand, possibly chaining them together. Each buy allows you to purchase one kingdom card using the money cards in your hand. Everything purchased, spent and unused from your hand is put in your discard pile and you draw five new cards, reshuffling your discard pile as needed.

That’s really it! Dominion is a deck building game and everyone starts on equal footing with the same 10-card deck. On your turn you’ll be able to purchase new cards which go directly into your discard pile and will get shuffled in when you need to reshuffle. It is a great mechanic because you are trying to seed your deck with the proper types and amounts of cards that you feel will get to you victory the fastest. The fate of your game is mostly in your hands based on how you build your deck with a little bit of lucked tossed in based on what cards you draw.

The rest of the rules are printed on the cards themselves. For example, play the Cellar and you get +1 Action plus you can discard any number of cards from your hand and redraw new ones. The Woodcutter gives you +1 buy and two more copper to spend on your turn. As you look at the available cards you’ll be able to visualize combos building up that allow you to burn through your deck more quickly and get to the cards you need.

(image courtesy Filippos @ BGG)
While all these actions are nice, money and victory points are extremely important. Provinces – worth three victory points – have a cost of 8. If you can’t get 8 worth of money into your hand you’ll never have a chance of winning the game. Copper is worth 1, silver worth 2 and gold worth 3. You don’t want to flood your deck with copper because you need eight of them to get a province, whereas three gold gets you there too. Since your initial hand is only five cards, you need to find a balance between more actions to draw through your deck and more efficient money to get you more with less.

What’s really brilliant is that victory points are also cards that get shuffled into your deck. They have no inherit value and are of no use to you while you play the game, they are just your points at the end. Any victory points you draw into your hand are dead weight so you need to start the game early by building up your infrastructure of actions and money and at some point switch over to grabbing victory points. Finding the proper balance for your deck and deciding when to make that transition is your key to success. Once one player picks up the first province it is often an arms race to grab the rest.

Not only is Dominion incredibly simple it is also just a lot of fun to play. With 25 different kingdom cards the game is going to play different every time. Even with the same set of 10 kingdom cards in play there will probably be at least two or three viable ways to build your deck, maybe even more. Everyone will find a slightly different balance and it’s hard to describe the satisfaction I find in selecting the right cards, building up my deck and seeing it execute properly. It’s also interesting how your card draws influence what cards you plan on buying. I may have bought a few Cellars but based on their distribution in my reshuffle I might feel like they just aren’t coming up often enough and will try to play accordingly. There’s an interesting balance in building your deck mathematically to play the odds and playing by gut reaction as you go.

(image courtesy EndersGame @ BGG)

I honestly have no complaints about the game. The artwork is a little bland but it works and doesn’t distract you at all. It is a little pricey for a box of cards but the game is very well designed and a ton of fun; you’ll get your money’s worth. My main fear is the upcoming expansions. There is another full 25 set of kingdom cards being released soon. It’ll function as a standalone game but can also be mixed in with the base set. I think there are more expansions planned. My fear is that it’ll just get too bloated with all of these expansions and the fun will get lost along the way. Thankfully the base game is enough fun and has so much replay value that I’m not sure a person would never need to get these expansions. I just don’t want them to dilute the value of the game by pumping out too many expansions too quickly.

Nobody is forcing me to buy expansions, though, so I’m going to continue to enjoy Dominion for a long time to come. It is incredibly easy to teach, has a lot of replay value and is highly satisfying to play. A couple of guys in our group have had a somewhat lukewarm reception to it, but overall it has been received with great enthusiasm. I think it will be a staple for our gaming group going forward.