Rambling About Race for the Galaxy and The Gathering Storm – A Review of Sorts

The boxes for Race for the Galaxy and the expansion The Gathering Storm.

Sometimes there is debate about whether you can review a game after playing it just a few times, say five or so. In my opinion you absolutely can, as long as you don’t pretend to know all the nuances. The fact that somebody decides to stop playing a game after a few plays is in itself important information for a prospective buyer.

The problems with reviewing a game after having lost count on how many times you’ve played it, though, are seldom addressed. How am I supposed to convey anything meaningful, nuanced and useful about Race for the Galaxy, a game that I’ve been playing semi-regularly for ten years or so? The game has become an everyday object. Of course I sleep in a bed, brush my teeth and have Race for the Galaxy on my shelf!

I guess the easiest way of approaching this is by ending this preamble with these words: Race for the Galaxy is a fantastic game, both competitively and solo. It’s a classic of modern game design that has definitely NOT been dethroned by it’s descendant Roll for the Galaxy. And by the way, the use of symbols on the cards is not as big a problem as many reviewers make it out to be.

The "robot" opponent for Race for the Galaxy, plus the deck.
This is the stuff you need for playing Race for the Galaxy solo. The “robot” on the left, the deck of cards and some victory point tokens on the right.

Race for the Galaxy was designed by Tom Lehmann and released in 2007. It’s remained a staple since then, with editions in over ten different languages. It’s a deceptively small card game in a too-big box, often mentioned when people are looking for a heavier, more challenging game that’s compact and plays quickly. It’s a gamers game, a deep game, an intense game. With the first expansion, The Gathering Storm (2008), came an amazing automated opponent for solitaire play and since then it’s been a solo gaming mainstay.

I have nothing to prove here, really. Race for the Galaxy is a very successful and highly respected game. Reviewing this game feels like writing to the editor of Hot Rod Magazine to explain how important the Model T Ford was. But I simply can’t overlook this solitaire classic! So here I go…

How it Started for Me

When I was introduced to Race for the Galaxy I had been playing Magic: The Gathering and table-top role-playing games for well over ten years. A few times I had been exposed to other games, but unfortunately these were either too expensive and too much work to get into (Warhammer), or they were just theme and no meaningful gameplay and dragged on forever (Talisman), or they were that kind of “hilarious” game that I’ve since grown to despise and learned to avoid (Munchkin, Ninja Burger).

I was so deeply entrenched in the world of Magic, and so involved in this complex lifestyle game, that most other games seemed trivial, and the few other games I tried actually proved to be trivial. My narrow-minded approach combined with a few unlucky experiences with the wrong kinds of games meant that I was pretty happy with Magic. I had tunnel-vision when gaming was concerned and I was fine with that. Then one day a bunch of friends felt that they needed a respite from the play-testing and deck-building, and I was more or less forced to try Race for the Galaxy.

I’ll try to revisit my mind at that moment. “I get to do nothing!” I thought. “I have to sacrifice all my resources just to play a card… I can’t do anything about your cards? I can’t stop you? If I play cards I don’t get to draw any? It’s like playing solitaire, damn it! I can’t do that action if I do this one? Why can’t I… HOW DID YOU GET THAT MANY POINTS??!”

The guy with all the points was known for always winning, and his name was – fittingly – Max. By getting such an insane amount of points compared to everyone else he proved that there was something to learn here, something behind the confining, limiting and nerve-wrecking experience of playing in apparent isolation from your opponents. After that I played Race for the Galaxy once in a while. I enjoyed it. Eventually I bought it and kept playing. I never got tired of it. How could I? The game proved to me that there was more to life than Magic and table-top role-playing! The expansion The Gathering Storm made Race for the Galaxy my first solitaire game. But that was years later.

What’s in the Boxes?

Race for the Galaxy consists of just over a hundred flexible, good quality linen finish cards, some victory point tokens, a rule book and four player aids. The game comes in a box way too big for its contents.

One of the player aids. These are very useful.

The Gathering Storm expansion comes in a box half the size of the base game. This box easily fits all the contents of the base game plus the expansion if you’re OK with folding the rule book and the player aids.

What Kind of Game is This?

As the headline indicates, I will not teach the rules here. My ambition is to give a sense of what gameplay is like. Race for the Galaxy is a card game about the economic, political and military expansion of interstellar civilizations. Each player starts with a measly home planet called a starting world, and tries to expand from there by developing technology, trading, exploring, and settling on other worlds. There’s one common deck of cards, and one common discard pile. There are two kinds of cards, worlds and developments, but cards are used in more ways (more on that later).

There seems to be three things about this game that people either love or hate. Firstly, the game is low on direct player interaction, but it is so tight and the rules are so confining that the indirect player interaction, something that initially feels almost negligible, is very important to squeezing out those few extra points in the end. Secondly, the aforementioned confining rules feel extremely limiting at first. To play cards you have to discard other cards. For every action you chose to do you chose not to do several others. This might be the case in many other games too, but the third thing about Race for the Galaxy is that it’s over too soon. Every. Single. Time. This makes it painfully hard to make choices in this game.

Examples of different cards in Race for the Galaxy.
The two kinds of cards, worlds on top, developments below.

Race for the Galaxy is half an hour of very important, very tough decisions. At the start of the game each player is randomly dealt a starting world and a hand of cards. The starting worlds are unique and they offer some kind of ability to each player. The starting field is asymmetrical. A turn has five phases: Explore, Develop, Settle, Consume, Produce. At the beginning of the turn all players secretly and simultaneously choose which of these phases they want to occur that turn. The players reveal their choices and simultaneously go through the chosen phases in order, skipping any that haven’t been chosen. This is the first tough choice of the turn, since it always feels like you want to do at least four of these things.

Exploring means drawing cards. Developing means playing development cards into your tableau. These cards represent scientific and cultural developments and give you different abilities, like altering the costs of settling on new worlds or playing further developments, or bonuses when certain phases occur.

Settling means playing worlds by either paying the settlement cost by discarding cards from your hand, or for free if the worlds are military worlds and you have sufficient military power to conquer them. Just like developments, worlds often give you different abilities and bonuses.

Consuming means to get rid of goods on worlds and instead get victory points or draw more cards. Producing, finally, means to put new goods on worlds that can produce them.

Juni is explaining how the different phases work. Yes, I know! She has cool thumbs and beautiful, green eyes!

Each player gets to take the action associated with each selected phase. On top of this each player gets a bonus during the phase they’ve selected themselves. For example, if you choose develop but your opponent Max didn’t, you get to play a development card at lower cost. Max also gets to play a development, but he has to pay the full cost.

One clever thing about Race for the Galaxy, and one of the things that contribute to making the game so tight and strategically deep, is the way cards are used as currency. Cards are an economic resource, since you have to pay for playing one card by discarding others. Choosing to play one card often means that you have to discard several cards that would have been useful to you. Quite often you know which card in your hand you’d rather get into play, but you still don’t know what to do – the price you’d have to pay to play the card that you need the most is so steep that you have to consider all other alternatives.

Another clever thing about the use of cards in this game is how they are used as tokens and counters. When goods are produced on a world, you simply take the top card of the deck and put it face down on the world.

By exploring, developing, settling, consuming and producing you build your stellar empire. When a player has twelve cards in their tableau or when the victory point markers run out, that is the final round and scores are tallied up after you’ve gone through all selected phases.

In a multiplayer game of Race for the Galaxy it’s important to read your opponents, to look at their tableau of cards and how they play, to try to determine what their goals are. Since you always want to do more things than you’re able to, figuring out what phases your opponents will select is essential. You also don’t want to enable your opponents to do too much by always selecting phases that are beneficial for them.

Another very important reason to keep an eye on your opponents is that you always have to be aware of whether anybody would be able to trigger the end of the game on a given turn. Knowing this is essential for your planning. Making long-term plans in the mid-game can be risky, since one of your opponents might rush ahead and trigger the end of the game before you have a chance to finish what you’ve started. Conversely, if you manage to rush ahead and trigger the game-end a turn earlier than expected, it will feel very satisfying.

The decisions that are grounded in your reading of your opponents are tough since you’re dealing with imperfect information. There could even be some bluffing going on at times. There’s another level of decision-making in the game, though; what cards to play and what cards to get rid of. These decisions are just as hard, sometimes even harder.

On a thematic level you’re building a vast, interstellar empire with great economy and trade, strong military and/or highly developed technology. On a mechanical level you build an engine that can be utilized to produce victory points, either in the form of markers or in the form of worlds or developments that are worth victory points in themselves.

As a multiplayer game Race for the Galaxy is phenomenal. I especially like it with two players. It’s over in twenty to thirty minutes, but those minutes are intense! There is no direct conflict (as in war) between players, but the game feels extremely tight and the race is a tense one.

What Good is a Robot? – The Solitaire Variant

Included in the expansion The Gathering Storm is an automated opponent for solitaire play called an “adaptable robot”. When this game is played solo it’s definitely not about beating you previous high score. The robot is an opponent that behaves differently depending on what starting world it’s been dealt. If the starting world has strong military power, the robot will focus on conquering military worlds, for example. This is done by the clever use of custom dice with one side representing a unique result depending on what starting world the robot has been dealt. I believe this needs further explanation.

All of the robot opponent components for solitaire play.
The robot consists of two dice, some markers and a play mat where you track the robots economy, what phases are selected when rolling the dice and what actions these result in, and what actions the robot takes as a response when you’ve chosen a phase it hasn’t. Depending on the starting world it’s dealt, different overlays are placed on the play mat to adapt the function of the robot.

When a starting world has been randomly selected for the robot the corresponding overlays are placed on the robot play mat to adapt its behavior. As long as you know the rules of the game, the robot requires little upkeep. Its actions are simplified in many ways, but the end result is an opponent that feels surprisingly dynamic and mean.

The robot has been dealt the starting world Alpha Centauri and the corresponding overlays have been placed on the play mat.
The robot has been dealt the starting world Alpha Centauri and the corresponding overlays have been placed on the play mat.

The robot is made to play with the advanced two-player rules, which means that each player chooses two phases each rather than just one. After you’ve made your choices of explore, develop, settle, consume and produce and marked them on the solitaire play mat using cardboard markers, you roll the robot’s two dice. The dice have sides representing the different phases, of course, but they also have sides representing a prioritized phase that depends on the starting world, and sides representing that the robot has chosen the same phase as you.

A game of Race for the Galaxy against the robot opponent is set up.
I’m ready to have a go at the robot.

Playing against the robot feels surprisingly varied and dynamical. The difficulty can easily be increased or decreased, but It puts some pressure on you even on the easiest setting. The most impressive thing is that you can make decisions based on the robot’s “priorities”. Since each starting world has a marker for the robot that determines what one side of the dice does, you will know that a robot with the Alpha Centauri starting world will be more likely to roll settle than produce, for example.

Of course playing against the robot isn’t exactly like playing against a human opponent. There’s no bluffing and no mind tricks. I’ve noticed, however, that my skills against other players have improved from playing solo a lot. As automatons for solo play go, I’ve yet to see anything that comes close to the robot. The Wingspan Automa, for example, provides a great opponent and something more exciting than playing against your previous high score, but the robot maintains the feeling of variable player powers in the solo game in a way that’s very impressive, a true feat of game design. And on top of that the robot feels surprisingly purposeful.

Crushed by the robot…

Just like when you’re playing against a human opponent, the solitaire Race experience is tense, tight, tough, and if the robot doesn’t force the game to end sooner than you’d like it too, you probably have to make the decision to do that yourself, before the robot gets another huge development card into play.

It’s a somewhat dry experience, as you’d expect from a game where resource management and engine optimization is at the core, but at the same time it feels thematic. The cards have evocative names and great illustrations, and what they do mechanically usually makes thematic sense as well. If you’re a science fiction fanatic like I am, you’ll see the influences from David Brin and other sf writers on many cards.

The robot definitely is the most exciting part of The Gathering Storm, but there’s more in the expansion. Besides new developments and worlds, four of which are starting worlds, there are also some scoring tiles with goals that award victory points if achieved.

Some Words of Caution

I was taught this game by a friend over ten years ago and have since used the rule book only for reference. For this reason I feel unable to judge the rules-writing fairly. I approached the solo variant already knowing the rules of the game, so it’s hard to approach those rules critically as well. However, I feel I should point out a few facts about the nature of the rules and about the layout of the game.

First of all, this game is actually rather strange. If you haven’t played San Juan or Puerto Rico before (those games share some mechanisms with Race), Race for the Galaxy feels very unique. I’m sure it has influenced many games since it was published, but my first play of the game could be summarized as “WHAT THE..?” It’s short but heavy, you can build a great military power but there’s no fighting, you’re playing solitaire to some extent even when playing multiplayer yet paying attention to your opponents is key, the turn has five phases but there’s no guarantee that they’ll occur on a given turn… In the same way that the Fender Stratocaster has an odd and very beautiful shape, but nobody notices since it has influenced the design of electric guitars since the fifties, Race for the Galaxy is pretty unique and very strange.

The cat Mysan resting on top of a bunch of Race for the Galaxy Cards.
The decisions you have to make in this game often require deep thought.

I also have to mention the symbology. Many reviewers put a lot of emphasis on the fact that symbols are used to denote what game mechanisms are triggered by the cards. This is true, but it’s also true that on almost all cards that have more than one of the most basic symbols there is also text to explain what the card does. On top of this you get four excellent player aids to help you. In my experience most gamers pick up the symbols pretty fast, and nobody has a problem with looking at a crib sheet once in a while.

I suspect that some people use the symbology as an excuse, when the real problem is that this game is heavier than they expected and full of agonizing decisions. That’s the main reason that this game is a challenge at first. Not the symbols.

I’ve taught a few gamer friends this game and it’s been a blast. They’ve had no chance whatsoever during the first few plays (I’m not bragging, you simply don’t get to know this game through intuition and there’s little luck). The symbology has been a minor problem at worst, and once the new players start discovering things the frequent and intense aha moments have them asking for more. If you have the chance to learn this game from a friend who already knows how to play it I’d recommend that.

And one more thing, something that can’t be overstated: this is a game with low player interaction and no conflict, what people tend to refer to as multiplayer solitaire. It’s also a game of skill more than a game of chance, despite the fact that you draw randomized cards. It’s what people often call a eurogame. The cool thing about the solo mode is that it feels more like multiplayer solitaire, than it feels like solitaire.

Race or Roll? RACE!

In 2014 Roll for the Galaxy was released. It’s a re-implementation of Race with dice and tiles instead of cards. The games are very similar, but Roll uses more text and fewer symbols. The choice between the two is a no-brainer for me. They both tickle roughly the same nerd-center of my brain, but Race is tighter and more challenging. Two things make Race superior to Roll, in my opinion. Firstly, Race has a fantastic solo mode. Secondly, playing Race is so smooth! Compared to Race, Roll is clunky and fiddly. You roll dice, move them back and forth, re-roll, lift the screen you rolled the dice behind, move some stuff, move some stuff… In race you draw cards, play cards, discard cards. Race is more of a gamers game, there’s more of that sweet agony of tough decisions, it feels more confining, yet the experience is that of a way more elegant game. And it costs about half as much as Roll.

See how much fun it is?

On the other hand, not everybody prioritizes solitaire playability, and many people prefer a slightly more open-ended experience than the unforgiving confinement of Race. Also, rolling dice is a lot of fun! I can’t deny that. You should definitely try both games if you have the chance. And just to make one thing clear: Roll is a very good game. Race just happens to be a great one.

My Verdict

Have I made myself clear? Just to make sure, I’ll make a brief summary of my opinions on this game. Race for the Galaxy with the expansion The Gathering Storm is one of the best solo gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I keep coming back to it. On top of that, this is a fantastic game with two or more players. It has so much depth that it would be a good game to bring if you could only bring one game to a desert island. It gives you great value for money, it’s a true feat of game design, and the thing most commonly held against it, the “symbology problem”, is greatly overemphasized.

But! If you like super thematic games with lots of conflict, or if you prefer less agonizing decisions, this game might not be for you.

Want to Know More?

There’s a ton of reviews of this game out there. There’s over 150 written reviews of this game on BoardGameGeek. Dig in! Or just buy the game and start playing.

If you want to know more about the history of Race for the Galaxy and how it’s related to the games Puerto Rico and San Juan, check out Tom Lehmanns Designer Diary on BoardGameGeek.

If you want to learn how to play the solitaire game, have a look at this instructional video series by Box of Delights.

Thank you so much for reading! I hope this review of sorts convinced you to check this game out, if you hadn’t already…

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