Game Review: Race for the Galaxy

Recently I’ve been re-introduced to a game called Race for the Galaxy… I haven’t played for quite some time. I do have some good memories of it, but the memory of this game that looms largest is the wrestling match I had with its rulebook. It’s written in a way that’s almost impenetrable if you don’t have someone holding your hand through your first game. It’s a Rosetta Stone that needs deciphering before you can even begin to bring it someone else. You need to have an absolute iron grasp on the rules before you play it with another player because they WILL need to ask for help. It worked out fine for me… the people who wanted to learn it, learned it and the game is fun in a “make numbers go up and/or down” sort of way, it has decent strategy and pretty nice art. Just good luck if you purchase this game and don’t know somebody else who already knows how to play because you’re going to be teaching a class on it.

Image from NCSU.EDU

This image is inaccurate. There will be more than 1 question when explaining Race for the Galaxy.

Now, I’m not going to claim that I’m super competent when it comes to reading comprehension, but I know for a fact that I’m not the only person who had trouble figuring out all of the cryptic symbols packed into the cards. The number one complaint, and the reason a few people I know refuse to play, is purely based on the substitution code that they pass off as their game. Once you memorize what each of the symbols means, it gets easy… but it’s like being a kindergartner learning a whole new alphabet. It’s really difficult to grasp at first, especially if you’re in a room full of (metaphorical) 3rd graders who can read super well and you’re still struggling to tell which letter is Q.

I’m just going to blame it on the booklet. I’ve reread it a few times in the past couple of days to try to figure out exactly why I had such an issue learning the game. Short answer: I don’t know why I had a problem. Long Answer: I can’t divorce myself of knowing what these hieroglyphics mean, so I no longer have a good viewpoint from what a beginner would be seeing when they crack open the box. All I know is it took me 4 hours to teach it to myself the first time I played the game (solo). And the only reason that would happen is if the instructions aren’t clear enough.

Voynich Manuscript image from Wikipedia

A page from the Race for the Galaxy game manuscript

Whining aside, the game is good. I love the basic idea of the game, 1.develop a strategy from your opening hand, 2.figure out what to do when the strategy no longer works. Simple and malleable, just the way I like it. The artwork reminds me of pulp fiction comics with their spindly robots and grand cityscapes… it’s cool stuff. Even the crytogramic symbology starts being more convenient than frustrating after a while. My only problem with the game itself is that I wish the basic game rules asked you to play a little longer, because it only wants you to play to 12 Victory Points, and most of the time when I’m in it, I want to keep going. Most of the games I play with people, we play with house rules on VPs and win conditions. It makes the group happier when their works aren’t displaced nearly immediately and it can be really fun in a group. But one thing stands out to me about the way the game is played… there is almost no interaction between players, but it’s not really a bad thing.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of most fun Solitaire games I’ve ever played. I know it was designed as a racing game for playing to go head to head but there’s just so little interaction between players that it can just be ignored. In fact there is no such thing as negative interaction between players, so with just a little ingenuity you can develop a single player game that mixes the chance of the basic card game with creating a challenge for yourself based on turn limits. The way I play Race for the Galaxy solitaire is by giving myself 10 turns to score as high as possible using the basic rules. Then I add one rule of my own to spice the game up. After I choose my action cards for the turn, I shuffle them up and choose one at random – as a kind of simulated opponent. Then use all of the abilities in conjunction (even if the random card doubles my received bonuses). My high score is 86 (not bad, right?).

I digress though… the game is pretty good in a group, and great on your own. It’s just that it’s learning curve is a doozy.

Post Script! If you’re reading this before February 17th, 2015 then the Name our Platypus contest is still live… check it out!

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