Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Game Night Recap: Sprint for the Galaxy

Race for the Galaxy is quite possibly my favorite game. Unfortunately, all too few of my Euro-gaming friends are as big fans of Race as I am, so the opportunities to play don't present themselves too often. When they do, I jump at the chance to play.

My most recent Race happened a few weeks ago, where I had the ignominious distinction of drawing Epsilon Eridani, a "jack of all trades, master of none" of a starting world. If pressed for a number, I would have guessed that my win probability plummeted from 25% to about 15% based on this clunker, but I pressed on with my opening hand to see if I could make anything work. I discovered a surprisingly tough decision.

I could either go with Galactic Federation, and set myself up with a Develop strategy...

...or I could pick Alien Tech Institute, and pursue lots of Alien planets.

Playing a 6-cost Development as your first play is a risky, aggressive decision. Either of these cards is a significant investment; since the starting hand is 4 cards, it requires a "wasted" turn of Explore to get one of these in play, and even then you're dumping your entire hand to make it happen. On the other hand, most of the 6-cost cards provide powerful benefits, so the earlier they come into play, the better.

In a vacuum, Galactic Federation is almost always the better play. -2 cost to play any Development, plus a bonus point for every Development, is a huge advantage. The only factor that made this a decision at all was that I already had two high-cost Alien planets in my hand. If I could get a near-monopoly on Alien planets, I could pursue my strategy in a niche that nobody else would want to enter.

I decided to go with Galactic Federation anyway, so I Explored enough to get some fodder and plopped down the Federation on turn 3. By this point, whoever had New Sparta had already Settled two worlds, and someone else was already in business at the Interstellar Bank. I wasn't feeling so good about my decision to pitch my entire hand for the one 6-cost card. My engine stalled for a bit, and I got out some low-cost military worlds and a few generally useful support Developments.

My fortunes changed when I picked up my second 6-cost, New Economy. Another 6-cost that encourages placing Developments, New Economy told me exactly which cards to play for the rest of the game, Developments that had Consume powers.

At that point, I sprinted toward the end, trying only to end the game. I never selected a role other than Develop for the rest of the game, and a few lucky draws later, I amassed the most points I've ever seen in a game of Race. Here's my final tableau:

For the sake of refining my game rating process, here's a quick review of Race for the Galaxy:

Aesthetics: 1.5. The space-opera theme is fun and fits the game's mechanics reasonably well, but it's hardly unique by this point. Card art is as good as you could reasonably expect.
Adaptability: 1.5. Huge variety of cards means it's virtually impossible to play the exact game twice, but unfortunately only supports 2-4 players.
Fun per time: 2.0. Turns are taken simultaneously, so there's little downtime. The hand limit and small number of actions per turn mean you're constantly engaged, and analysis paralysis doesn't strike easily. (A player who prefers a more interactive game might knock Race down a fraction of a point here.)
Strategic depth: 2.0. Plenty of strategies for generating points, and most of them are sufficiently viable to win the game. Cards are drawn randomly from a stack, but the card turnover is high enough to mitigate variance.
Mechanics: 2.0. Along with San Juan, a pioneer of the brilliant "pay for cards by discarding other cards" mechanic. The iconography, once you get used to it, becomes intuitive to recognize by sight.

Total: 9 / 10. "9 - Excellent. Always want to play." Exactly correct--the only real way to improve Race would be to expand its player range or do something truly revolutionary with the design.