Play Time: 30-60 Min / Players: 2-4 / Complexity: High / Age: 12+ / Publisher: Rio Grande Games / Designer: Thomas Lehmann
Race for the Galaxy Ratings and Summary
Teen rating from our son (14).
Race for the Galaxy offers incredible depth packed into essentially a deck of cards that can be played in as little as 30 minutes. That is quite an achievement and offers exceptional replay value. The downside is that the game has a very steep learning curve and more experienced players can dominate games against less experienced opponents.
- Diverse range of strategies available
- Plenty of depth in a game that can be played in as little as 30 minutes
- Simple set up means you can start playing in minutes
- Works well at all player counts
- Action selection mechanism adds an interesting layer to decisions and works well.
- Steep learning curve makes this a challenging game for new players
- Games can be very one sided if there is a disparity in experience between players.
What You Will Find in Our Race for the Galaxy Review
- How to Play
- Gameplay Experience
- Final Thoughts
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Strategy Tips
I am a big sci-fi fan. One of my favourite board games Eclipse, is an epic space themed empire builder that lets you expand across the galaxy over the course of a few hours. While I love it, I often don’t have that kind of time to spare. I am constantly on the lookout for games that can pack in an epic experience in a shorter timeframe and that’s the main reason Race for the Galaxy from publisher Rio Grande Games got my attention. Designer Thomas Lehmann has created a game that tries to pack in all that space themed empire building goodness into as little as 30 minutes. Did he succeed? Largely yes, but there is a catch, and it could be a deal breaker for some, there is one heck of a learning curve here.
How to Play Race for the Galaxy
The galaxy is vast and full of opportunity. There are countless planets to settle or overcome with force, there are fortunes to be made through trade and untold secrets to uncover that have been left by the long since vanished Alien Overlords. Your goal is simple, to build the most prosperous and powerful space empire in the galaxy!
‘But wait, where does the race aspect come into it?’ Well, you’re on the clock, the game will end when someone builds their 12th card for their tableau or when all the victory points in the central pool are gone. That can be fairly quick, so you don’t have many turns to assert your dominance over your opponents.
Although the scope of this game seems impressive, the components are pretty streamlined, you are really playing with a deck of cards and some victory point chips so setup is pretty simple. It’s essentially a galaxy worth of planets and developments in a deck of cards with a set of action selection cards per player.
To set up put 12 victory points per player in the centre of the table, give each player a set of 7 action cards, then shuffle and deal one of the starting worlds to each player. These represent your home world and are placed face up in front of you already built. The rest of your empire is going to have to be built off the back of your hard work and savvy action selection.
Finally, you will shuffle the main deck of cards and deal six cards face down to each player. These cards will be a mixture of developments and planets that are not yet part of your empire, but you have access to. Usually, I can set up a game of Race for the Galaxy in a few minutes.
Ok full disclosure this is a hard game to teach, I’ll give you the high level of how it all works but this is only going to give you enough to get a taste of it. If you have seen the movie Shrek, you will be familiar with the onion analogy, there are layers to this game that will take a while to fully understand. The rules are one thing but being competitive and understanding the strategy involved will take time and numerous plays. But oh what a journey it is and when you get it, it is so satisfying.
A good place to start is to understand that your cards serve multiple purposes. Firstly, they represent the developments and planets that you can build or settle respectively, secondly, they are the currency you will use to pay for building or settling and finally they are also used to represent resources for planets during the production phase of the game. In short there is a lot of game squeezed out of these cards, it’s actually quite impressive. They are kind of like the Swiss army knife of gaming components here.
The flow of the game is quite simple, but the hard part is in the detail of what the cards do, more on that later though. Each round players will select an action card secretly and reveal that card simultaneously with other players. Actions selected by players are then performed in order, if you have picked that action then you get a bonus, if you are simply following an action selected by someone else, you can perform the base action but don’t get the benefit of the bonus. When all the actions are performed players then end the round by discarding down to 10 cards if they happen to have more than 10 in their hand. So far pretty simple.
The action selection aspect of the game requires a careful read of your opponent’s situation, not just your own. If you can get a sense of what your opponents are likely to pick you can be more efficient with your actions and avoid double ups. It took me a long time to realise that to be good at this game you need to be just as aware of your opponent’s tableau as you are of your own.
Like any good space emperor, you will have to make some important decisions about what to prioritise and where to focus your efforts. So, what can you actually do? There are five types of actions in the game although there are two options available for a couple of them making for seven total. Each is resolved simultaneously for all players in order, provided the action has been selected by at least one player. If the action hasn’t been selected by any player, it’s skipped. You can:
- Explore to get more cards from the deck, this has two variations
- Develop to place a development from your hand into your tableau by paying the number of cards indicated on the development
- Settle to place a world in your tableau. If that world card has a red circle around the number, then you need to have the appropriate military strength to subdue it. Non-military worlds require you to pay the number of cards indicated on the world to settle them
- Consume to exchange resources for the benefits indicated on any worlds in your tableau that demand those resources. Resources include novelty goods (blue), rare elements (beige), genes (green), and alien (yellow). If you select the trade variant of this action, you are also able to exchange one of your resources for extra cards. Remember cards serve multiple purposes in this game and the more cards flowing into your hand the more options and resources at your disposal
- Produce to produce resources on any planets in your tableau that have that ability.
The more you build out your empire the more beneficial these actions become, improving your engine and options. Some cards will let you draw more cards if an action is triggered, others will provide resources, some will increase your military might, others will improve the benefits of trade to name just a few.
Most cards will offer multiple benefits which allows you to be quite flexible in how you approach the game. That flexibility is key, you never know what cards will come into your hand, so you are likely to need to change tack to make the most of your options. Running a galactic empire is a tricky business and you have to be ready to adapt to make the most of the opportunities that emerge throughout the game. If you are too rigid your empire is likely to stagnate, and other civilisations will overtake you.
There is one final layer to this game that is worth mentioning. Aside from the regular development cards there are also 6-cost developments that offer another avenue to earn points. These cards are all unique and reward specific strategies, like concentrating on worlds with rare elements, or gene worlds, you can even be rewarded for the number of ‘rebel’ cards in your control or Alien Technology cards. This adds yet another layer to consider when looking at your options. In practice you are likely to pursue multiple avenues as you develop your strategy over the course of the game. The points for these cards are dependent on how well you exploit their benefit and are calculated at the end of the game.
To sum it all up, that humble stack of cards packs a lot of punch. Contained within the deck are countless strategies to explore that will open up to you with every card you pull from the stack, much like the vast potential the galaxy might offer to an ambitious young emperor expanding their influence.
The game ends when one player has placed their 12th card in their tableau, or the pool of victory point chips is exhausted. I guess that represents the point at which you are satisfied with your empire and retire to a life of luxury on a nice tropical planet somewhere. Once the game ends the following sources of points are tallied to determine the winner:
- Points printed on cards
- Victory point chips
- Points from 6-cost development cards.
2 Player Variant
You can use the standard rules for 2 player games or the advanced variant. Personally, I think the advanced variant is a lot more fun. It has a simple tweak that means you are now able to choose two actions instead of one each turn. In addition to that you can select the same action twice for all actions except produce. That means you get 9 action cards instead of 7. It adds a lot more control in my view and allows for some more predictability given you can choose two actions instead of one each turn.
Race for the Galaxy Gameplay Experience
Let me start by saying that I love this game and have played it over 80 times so far (and counting!), but I can see that it won’t appeal to some people, and I get that. Games aren’t necessarily good or bad, often it depends on what appeals to the individual. I think Race for the Galaxy achieves some amazing things with its clever design, but it also makes trade-offs that will be a deal breaker for some. Let me explain the good stuff first.
To start with, I can’t think of many games that pack this much depth into such a simple set of components and such a short play time. I can build an entire civilisation in as little as 30 minutes using a deck of cards. Not only that but every game will present me with different opportunities to consider based on the cards that I receive.
I may be well placed to conquer the galaxy by force, or become a trade superpower, maybe I want to leverage technology left behind by alien races or forget those ambitions and simply rush the end game by spamming low-cost developments and planets. In practice I have found that games tend to require a combination of strategies. That’s all possible because most cards offer flexibility and can contribute to multiple strategies.
To me, starting a game of Race for the Galaxy is an exciting prospect because each game offers me a unique set of possibilities and opportunities I can choose to pursue. It feels like the galaxy is offering up multiple pathways but equally none of them guarantee success. Much like exploring the uncharted depths of space, early strategies may be derailed by what you discover as the game progresses with new opportunities emerging. A player that recognises those opportunities and more importantly knows when to pivot their strategy is often very competitive. There isn’t a single dominant strategy or tactic I have found that will guarantee success. That keeps the game exciting without it becoming predictable.
To illustrate this a little more, I had a recent game where my starting hand of cards and home world were well suited to military dominance. It went well for a couple of rounds and my opponent settled into gaining production and consumption cards. By mid-game my military options had dried up, I was left with little opportunity to continue with my plan. I did however notice that in my hand I had the Mining League card that provided bonuses for rare element worlds. Luckily some of the cards in my tableau suited that strategy so I was able to pivot without losing the benefit of all my hard work. In the end the game came down to the wire and I lost by a single point.
The variety of strategies and opportunities contained within that chunky deck of cards is why I think I will be coming back to this game over and over again for quite some time to come. The replay value here is amazing. I am still finding that even after more than 80 plays, I am unravelling layers of strategy and getting a better handle on the card combinations available in the deck. To put it into context I didn’t feel like I was actually good at the game until I got about 50 odd plays under my belt.
The final positive I will mention is that this game works well at all player counts. Most of the time players are performing turns simultaneously so there isn’t any down time. There is also some good motivation in keeping your eyes on your opponents to maximise your action selection. If I had to pick it, I would say I enjoy two player games the most because you get a little more control due to being able to pick two actions instead of one.
If you happen to like what I have described so far but are a bit put out because there isn’t a solo option out of the box, don’t count it out yet. The official solo mode comes with The Gathering Storm expansion, but you may struggle to get it by itself, instead you may need to buy it bundled with the Expansion and Brinkmanship pack. If you don’t want to go to that expense, then there are a lot of fantastic fan-made solo options available online. There are plenty on Boardgame Geek and I have really enjoyed trying them, you can find campaign modes and even AI bots available to print for free. It really is a great option and doesn’t cost anything. I owe my thanks to the dedicated and passionate fans of this game who have created some great solo options.
Ok, so that’s the good stuff. So far you are probably thinking ‘This sounds great, what’s the problem?’ Well, it is great, but there are a couple of wrinkles here. For a start this is a beast to teach, there are a lot of symbols for people to understand and they aren’t often explained on the cards. Sure, there are oversized player aids, but there is just so much to absorb!
When I was teaching this to my 14-year-old son for example I found it hard to know where to start. The high-level game play was ok but the icons! ‘So, you see there are these icons, the circles with the black are planets you can settle, but if the circle is red, you can’t settle you need military, oh wait I haven’t explained military, ok the red numbers are military, but you have to add your military together to get a total, but the planets are also different colours and that means something too…you get it right?’…’Dad, let’s just start playing and learn as we go.’ To his credit he picked up the game pretty quickly in spite of my explanation, but then he is no stranger to heavy games.
The other challenge is that even once you understand the rules, the symbols and how everything works, getting good at the game takes a long time. Experience and understanding how the cards in the deck work together is a big factor in being competitive. Aside from playing this game in person I also play a lot of this game online and in my first 20 odd games I was beaten by a large margin. Experienced players are just far better at optimising their play for the cards they have available, they can also see opportunities more clearly. For some this can be really demotivating, and it can mean new players, even if they get their head around the rules find that getting good at Race for the Galaxy takes a long time.
The main reason why my son really doesn’t care for this game isn’t anything I have mentioned so far though. He didn’t mind the learning curve, but he really dislikes the fact that you can’t necessarily settle on a strategy and build on it throughout a game. He isn’t a fan of having to pivot at the whim of the cards you happen to have. ‘Dad, I started out with all these great military cards, and I haven’t seen any more in three rounds!’. Although adapting to the opportunities available is something I love about the game, it’s something I think could frustrate people that like to plan ahead with more certainty.
If you do end up trying Race for the Galaxy and loving the action selection mechanic, I can thoroughly recommend the excellent Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition that also incorporates a similar action selection mechanic. The bonus is that it is easier to learn in my view and has an excellent solo mode out of the box.
I mentioned that this game packed a lot of punch for a relatively simple set of components. What you get in the box is one large deck of cards, 4 sets of action selection cards, victory point chips and 4 large player aids. It may not seem like much, but it is enough for a masterclass in efficient use of components in what is an incredibly deep game.
The components overall are not going to blow you away, they are relatively simple, but they do the job. The artwork is nice but not exceptional, the victory point chips are nice and chunky but again not flashy, the card quality is fine but not top notch. I noticed after five or so plays the edges of my cards started to get a bit of wear, so I have since sleeved them which isn’t that big a deal.
My biggest gripe is the lack of explanatory text on the cards, there is some, but not enough to assist new players when trying to decipher the many icons they have to navigate in the game. Sure, there are player aids but there is so much on there that even they can be hard to absorb. The rule book is fine but for the first 5-10 games I was having to reference it a fair bit. Most of the time I could find what I was looking for but occasionally it was a struggle.
Given the game is largely made up of a deck of cards I didn’t expect it to be deeply thematic and to be fair it doesn’t have the same presence or feel as games that are more ambitious and time consuming like Eclipse. For a start there are no unique races to choose from here, only unique starting worlds that don’t really serve to give your empire much of an identity.
But I find that the cards seem to fit their title quite nicely and their function is nicely aligned. I also get some satisfaction in steering my expanding empire in alignment with my strategy. It does feel very cool when you are looking at your tableau and realise you are building out nicely towards bonus points from a 6-cost development or that your production/consumption engine is humming.
Final Thoughts on Race for the Galaxy
Race for the Galaxy packs an epic experience into a quick playing card game you could set up in minutes. There is incredible depth here and an amazing array of strategies to explore. While I love this game, my son isn’t a fan due to the luck of the card draw and need to pivot strategies. There is also a big learning curve here which is tough on new players.
So, is it right for you? Well, if you enjoy heavier games and don’t mind a steep learning curve Race for the Galaxy is worth looking into. Especially, if you like the idea of a sci fi themed empire builder which you can set up and play quickly. There is plenty of depth here for you to enjoy over many repeated plays.
If you are new to board games or prefer games with more certainty where you don’t need to pivot your strategy, then Race for the Galaxy is unlikely to appeal.
Is Race for the Galaxy easy to learn? No, there is a steep learning curve due to the large number of icons to get your head around and the depth of strategy to understand.
What will Race for the Galaxy teach my teen? There is a lot to learn here around staying flexible and adapting strategy to the situation at hand, a valuable skill.
What age is appropriate for Race for the Galaxy? The box says 12+ and I think that’s ok, but I think it depends a lot on whether your kids play a lot of board games and are starting to get into heavier games. I wouldn’t introduce this game to someone who is new to heavier board games.
Does Race for the Galaxy have good replay value? Incredible replay value for a game that is essentially a large deck of cards.
We hope you enjoyed our Race for the Galaxy review. If you have any more questions or just want to share your thoughts on this game please leave a comment below, or get in touch through our contact page.
About the Authors
We are parents who love board gaming. We have three children and have been enjoying board games as a family ever since we had our first child. We share our real unbiased experiences and opinions on board games so you can decide if they are right for your family. We also write guides and articles to help you get the most out of your family game time.
My advice is before you go anywhere near the expansion content, get comfortable with the base game. There is a lot of replay value right out of the core box. As at the time of writing this article here are the expansions available for Race for the Galaxy:
- Expansion and Brinkmanship (1st Arc): This expansion is actually a bundle containing the first three expansions of the game known as the first arc. As far as I know you can no longer get all of these expansions individually. It contains; The Gathering Storm which includes a solo mode, additional cards and adds an extra player. Rebel vs Imperium which adds takeover rules to increase player interaction and adds an extra player. Finally, The Brink of War which requires both earlier expansions and introduces new cards and the concept of prestige. If you want the official solo mode and AI this is currently the only way to get it that I am aware of.
- Alien Artefacts (2nd Arc): This expansion is not compatible with earlier expansions. It includes new start worlds and cards as well as cards representing the alien orb which players jointly map and explore to gain powers and victory points. There is also support for an extra player.
- Xeno Invasion (3rd Arc): This expansion is not compatible with any other expansion. It is centred around the galaxy being under attack by aliens. The game can end by either repulsing the alien invasion or succumbing to the alien onslaught. The xeno’s are able to conquer or damage worlds.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are some worlds grey?
Grey worlds don’t produce anything and therefore do not correspond to a coloured good in the game.
What does the red x symbol mean on cards?
This means discard a card. For example, the New Military Tactics development has a red x and an arrow with +3 military. This means if you discard this development from your tableau, you can increase your military by 3 for the phase when it was discarded.
To use the consume: trade action do I need a trade power in my tableau?
No, you don’t, but if you do it often provides a bonus. What you do need however, is a good to trade. Each type of good will provide a different number of cards when you use the trade phase.
If you are not using the pre-set starting hands, do they get shuffled into the deck?
Yes, they get shuffled in with all the other cards.
Is there an order in which players should draw cards during the explore or trade phase?
Our interpretation of the rules is that there isn’t an order specified. This may seem odd but there isn’t really any advantage to drawing cards first as they are all face down and no-one knows what order they are in. So, players can draw in any order, the only thing specified in the rule book is that cards cannot be discarded until everyone has drawn their cards for the phase.
Is your start world included as part of the 12 cards in your tableau that would end the game?
Yes, starting worlds are considered in the count of cards to end the game.
Does the discount provided by the contact specialist development apply to non-military worlds?
No, just military worlds.
Why are there 11 start worlds in the deck when the rules say you should only use 5 of them?
This is something I missed for a long time until stumbling across an advanced rule variant near the back of the rule book. The standard game does use just 5 of the start worlds.
The advanced rules require you to split the start worlds into blue and red numbered worlds. The two start world decks are then shuffled, and each player receives one from each deck to start. Now players will decide to keep one start world and discard the other. This gives a little more choice before the game starts.
Can you use the produce phase even if you don’t have any cards that produce goods and just have windfall worlds?
Yes, provided you selected the produce phase then the bonus ability allows you to produce on windfall worlds.
Can the consume action happen twice if two players have selected it?
No, the only phases that could happen twice are develop and settle if two players have selected them.
If I choose the develop or settle action, do I have to follow through with it or can I choose not to?
No, you don’t. For example, in a two-player game you may choose to explore and settle. If the explore action grants you a good development card and your opponent chooses to develop, you may decide you would rather spend your cards to develop. In this case you could choose not to place a world during the settle phase. The phase still occurs as your opponent may choose to settle but you don’t have to.
In a two-player game if both players select settle or develop twice do you get to do the action four times?
No, the maximum is twice.
The strategy in Race for the Galaxy is dependent on the opportunities you have with your cards available. Rather than go through each of the varied synergies and strategies here, I will give you a few tips which will help you if you are just getting started:
- Stay flexible – The cards you receive during the game are random, this means you are not guaranteed to get the cards that would fit your initial intended strategy. The first thing to learn is not to stick rigidly to a strategy that is no longer supported by your cards. Luckily most cards support an ability to pivot to other strategies, so be prepared to do so during the game. Often you will need to pursue a number of different goals to stitch together your plan.
- Remember it’s a race – Early on I was so focused on building the cards I wanted for the best engine that I didn’t realise I was being inefficient. The game is a race either to deplete the victory point pool or to build 12 cards in your tableau. The cards you build for your engine aren’t going to help if you run out of time to take advantage of them. So, the key is to remember your goal is to quickly accumulate points, the cards are just a means to get there.
- Get to know the deck – There are plenty of different strategies you can pursue in this game and the synergies between cards are not immediately obvious. The better you know the deck and which cards work well together the better you will be at recognising the potential in your current hand of cards.
- Keep an eye on your opponent – Your opponent’s action selection will enable you to follow. If you can pick up on what they are trying to achieve, then you can select actions that are not as helpful for them while benefiting from the actions they are likely to choose. The other thing to watch out for is the end game. When I first started playing Race for the Galaxy I would often be surprised when the game ended as I wasn’t paying close attention to my opponent’s tableau or the victory point pool. It can be really frustrating selecting the produce action on a round when your opponent ends the game, effectively wasting your action. So keep an eye on both your opponent’s tableau and the victory point pool.
- Play solo to practice – It’s hard to be competitive in this game without having played it a lot. Playing online is challenging for a new player as there is often a time limit for your turn and it’s a hard way to learn when you are being beaten by a large margin. Although the base game doesn’t have a solo mode, there are plenty of great fan-made solo options on Boardgame Geek that will help you practice and improve your game. The more you practice the more you will begin to recognise the opportunities in the cards you have and be more competitive.
- Cheap worlds can give you a nice early boost – The cheap worlds, even windfall worlds, can give you a nice boost to kick start your plans. A windfall world has the advantage of producing the moment you place it, and the immediate production can be traded for more cards than you probably spent to place the world.
- Try to make sure you can benefit from each action your opponent is using – You don’t want to give your opponent a free ride on actions, so make sure you can get at least some benefit from each action your opponent is picking.
- Don’t forget the trade action – When you are new to Race for the Galaxy the trade/consume action is sometimes a bit intimidating. But it is an action that can benefit almost any strategy. Why? Because getting a steady stream of cards in your hand gives you the ability to progress just about any strategy. The trade/consume action lets you trade one of your production goods to draw a certain number of cards. The number of cards you get depends on the production type. This can often be more effective than explore as you can generally get to keep more cards this way and you also get to consume for other benefits.