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.