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Kester J
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The bottom line, at the top

Alien Artifacts is the thinking man’s Race expansion, and pulls it off while still being friendly to new players. If you want a single expansion for Race, it’s the one I’d recommend.


Discounts, and what they mean

Alien Artifacts introduces forty-odd cards to Race, and it only takes a quick look through to see a focus on discounts (particularly for peaceful worlds) and on gaining cards. What’s less clear, until you play a few times, is that the new cards do not generally focus on points as much as those in the base set or previous expansions. So how does that affect the strategy space? It makes you think about how you’re going to score.

There are various skills required to do well in Race: hand management, predicting your opponents, controlling tempo, and so forth. The skill that Alien Artifacts emphasises is that of minimising opportunity cost – every time you have the chance to play a card to tableau, you must make the most of it. The original arc (base set up to Brink of War) was very much about card advantage, with cards being the constricting resource on what you can do – if you can put together strong card advantage in a particular phase, scoring usually comes naturally. In AA, because of the abundance of discounts, it’s often build phases instead of cards that constrict your ability to score, so you have to make the most of each one. It tends to punish a focus on a single phase, because you’re much less likely to naturally find something – say, a 6-cost development – that is going to score you points for whatever you’re already doing.

Instead, AA is about finding ways to score. You need to be able to adapt your plans to whichever potentially high-scoring cards you draw, and so maintaining tableau flexibility is key. Finding those scoring cards is also important: it’s a key insight into good AA play that spending multiple turns calling, for example, Explore +5 can be a perfectly reasonable use of your time. While Explore +5 can be a bit of a “luxury play” in previous iterations of Race – you only do it if you’re in a strong position and have not drawn good cards, but it isn’t going to save you from a bad position – in AA it’s a key option, where high quality options in hand can put you in a good position against an opponent with a stronger board. If you don’t have a card that scores you points in hand, calling a build phase can be dangerous, even if it gives strong card advantage.


Thinking and overthinking

You may well be thinking that Race was not already a simple game, and wondering why I called this “the thinking man’s expansion”? Simple: I do think that it rewards thought – or more specifically analysis – more than previous expansions.

More so with board games, there is an expectation that card games will be played quickly using a set of loose heuristics, and Race is no different. In the base game and the first arc, an example of this might be the set of cards that one will almost always play if they’re available and affordable: the cheap develop helpers (Interstellar Bank, Investment Credits, etc), production worlds that provide cards (Comet Zone, Lost Species Ark World, etc), and so forth. This is an example of a simple heuristic: you learn which cards are generally good, and then play them. An example of a larger strategic one might be “Gain a strong advantage in a particular phase, then hammer it until you win.” In the base game and arc 1, these heuristics are generally quite effective – but in Alien Artifacts, they aren’t.

Because exploiting your available scoring cards is the order of the day, a laser focus on one phase can be detrimental. It is hard to arrive at a position where you can say “I just need to keep doing X, and I’ll win,”: instead, maintaining flexibility is key. Similarly, the value of cards will differ based on how you think you can score, instead of the raw card advantage they provide, and this means cards are rarely must-plays – instead, you need to evaluate each position on its own merits.

Some of you reading will be thinking “Well, that all sounds good; surely that makes it more skilful?” Great: it is good. And if that’s you thinking that, head out and pick up a copy of Alien Artifacts. But there is a downside, and that’s the expectation of speed I mentioned earlier. The more a game requires you to think through all the possibilities rather than fly by on general intuitition, the more it will slow down, and Alien Artifacts can suffer from this with a certain type of player. It can also sometimes feel a bit dry compared to the other iterations of Race, because of the generally lower-scoring nature of the cards, and because of the lack of strong combos – a strong, focused card engine, while fun to put together, does not automatically lead to victory, and the synergistic 6-devs that characterised the latter expansions of the first arc are nowhere to be seen. In short, Alien Artifacts emphasises the eurogame heritage of Race more than it emphasises the card game heritage. Careful and efficient tableaus are rewarded, not flashiness, and this may turn some players off as much as it turns others on.


Um, what about the orb?

Yes, the orb. The truth is, I haven’t played with it extensively and so can’t offer too much comment. I have one friend who enjoys it and we play it together a bit, but most people I’ve introduced to it haven’t taken to it. I can see why – it takes players out of the game to play a subgame, dragging out the game length for something that in the end does not have a huge impact. I think the orb is fine, and it can be fun to play sometimes, but it is not a reason to buy this expansion. The reason to get this expansion is for the excellently designed and well-balanced set of cards.


Well-balanced?

Overall, yes. This is probably the most well-balanced iteration of Race outside of the base game. As I discussed above, cards are more situational and so there are fewer must-play cards that will regularly win the game. Generally, a wider variety of strategies are viable than in the base game – with a trade-heavy strategy perhaps being the strongest and military maybe not weakest, but requiring a lot of skill to navigate.

There are a couple of potential frustrations, especially for less experienced players. There are some very strong and efficient new produce/consume engine cards, which you must have an answer to – while the tools to beat them are available, if they get running early before you’ve had a chance to filter out a good hand of cards, it’s very hard to fight against them. Similarly, the new homeworlds that start with a settle discount can also win with an overwhelming settle rush at the start of the game that others just cannot keep up with. While both of these are rare, they can be frustrating to face.

What are not going to frustrate new players are the card powers – there are no complex abilities here, and I’d happily recommend this as an expansion you can introduce new players to, on the same level as the Gathering Storm.


In summary

Alien Artifacts is the most balanced and most skill-testing iteration of Race so far, and has a variety of available strategies. However, it does reward time spent thinking, and this can be at odds with the fundamental nature of a card game – I’d avoid playing it with people too prone to analysis paralysis. If the aspect of Race that most appeals to you is combo-building, this maybe isn’t the first expansion you want: to anyone else, I’d recommend it without hesitation.
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David B
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
Nicely written review. I have actually warmed to the orb game. It is a nice addition for 2 or 3 players, but I will not play it with 4 or 5 players as too much time will be spent on the orb game.
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ackmondual
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
Kester wrote:
Um, what about the orb?

Yes, the orb. The truth is, I haven’t played with it extensively and so can’t offer too much comment. I have one friend who enjoys it and we play it together a bit, but most people I’ve introduced to it haven’t taken to it. I can see why – it takes players out of the game to play a subgame, dragging out the game length for something that in the end does not have a huge impact. I think the orb is fine, and it can be fun to play sometimes, but it is not a reason to buy this expansion. The reason to get this expansion is for the excellently designed and well-balanced set of cards.


While I can understand why folks would rather leave out the OS (Orb Scenario... doubles game length, takes too long, too much for newbies), that to me was the main reason for this expansion. If it's going to be just the cards, I'd rather play the first full arc, where not only do I find the cards to be better overall (though more expensive since it's 3 expansions' worth), we now have Goals to work with.
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Ben Kyo
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
Excellent review, and I agree with all points of your analysis. My only caveat is that I haven't yet played with the Xeno Invasion expansion, so I have yet to find out whether or not it's even better.

Still, if it comes to a contest between the first arc and Alien Artifacts, Alien Artifacts wins convincingly. I even like the orb for games against fast opponents.
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John
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
Good to see someone reviewing AA after a large number of plays, all the existing English reviews are from shortly after it was released.

I agree with your recommendations that it's a good expansion for a new player or someone who wants a single expansion.

It's funny, I'd have said that the part of Race that appeals to me most is combo-building but I still like AA best (vs TGS and RvI).
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Kester J
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
Benkyo wrote:
Excellent review, and I agree with all points of your analysis. My only caveat is that I haven't yet played with the Xeno Invasion expansion, so I have yet to find out whether or not it's even better.

Still, if it comes to a contest between the first arc and Alien Artifacts, Alien Artifacts wins convincingly. I even like the orb for games against fast opponents.


Thanks!

I do mean to write a review of Xeno Invasion too. Hopefully it'll be soon, but given that this review sat unfinished in my documents folder for six months before I got around to finishing and posting it, we'll see when I actually manage it. I can say that I highly recommend XI too, and the Invasion module is excellent. It focuses the game on tempo control in a very interesting way. I wouldn't play XI with new players though, both because the card abilities will be a bit overwhelming for them, and because the xenos can put you into a vicious circle of misery if you don't already have the basics of building a good tableau down.
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Martin G
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
You wrote a review 'after a lot of plays' while the Voice of Experience contest is running and you didn't submit it? Quick, there's still time!
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Alex Brown
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
For those unaware, Kester(er) was the highest-rated player on Keldon's server in several formats, so his opinions have gravitas .

They are also thoughtful and informed. Martin is right - this surely would compete in the contest for its insight and development.

As someone who has also played many games of this format and many, many games of the formats of the First Arc, you've crystallised something I couldn't articulate about AA.

I'm still annoyed by Galactic News Hub, and the Settle/Settle default engines some Start Worlds promote, but you've noted that and those types of issues were always around in 2PA before.

I don't know if I agree that it's the most accessible or skill-testing format (I like RvI and I like Goals, in various measures), but from an English teacher, this is about as good as a review gets .
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W M
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
I've not played a lot of Alien Artifacts (sub 200 games) - (and the Orb is still in the box).. I do like it though it feels like there is less control than Base, GS, RVI. I also get irrationally annoyed by the orb explore powers that are over-costed when the orb isn't being played. Yet to play Xeno invasion. Looking forward to it.

It would be interesting to hear what you consider 'a lot' is .
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Kester J
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
archivists wrote:
I've not played a lot of Alien Artifacts (sub 200 games) - (and the Orb is still in the box).. I do like it though it feels like there is less control than Base, GS, RVI. I also get irrationally annoyed by the orb explore powers that are over-costed when the orb isn't being played. Yet to play Xeno invasion. Looking forward to it.

It would be interesting to hear what you consider 'a lot' is .


In not really sure, which is why I used "a lot" instead of being more specific. It's probably on the order of 400-500 though.

I'm interested as to why you feel Alien Artifacts has less control. Are you able to articulate the reasons, or is it just a general feeling?

I did feel that way for a while, until I realised I was trying to play it the same way as arc 1. Once I started putting more thought into my moves in AA - and stopped relying on the various rules of thumb I'd internalised - my results improved a lot and it felt a lot less arbitrary. That's why I talk about it rewarding analysis in the review.
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Serge Levert
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
Kester wrote:
until I realised I was trying to play it the same way as arc 1. Once I started putting more thought into my moves in AA - and stopped relying on the various rules of thumb I'd internalised

Heh, reminiscent of XI, which has been severely punishing me for such habits. Forget everything you thought you knew!
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John
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
I wonder if play AA the same way as the base game works better than playing arc 1 the same way as the base game? I'm wondering if that's what I've been doing to some extent and that's partly why I like AA more than arc 1 at the moment.

archivists wrote:
I've not played a lot of Alien Artifacts (sub 200 games)

It says a lot about RftG that playing over 100 games of an expansion isn't a lot (though only 8 people have logged 100+ plays of AA as of today).
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Ben Kyo
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
zabdiel wrote:
It says a lot about RftG that playing over 100 games of an expansion isn't a lot (though only 8 people have logged 100+ plays of AA as of today).

I never log expansion plays, only game plays (and only irregularly those, at that).
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Alex Brown
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
When I wrote this, the most insightful comment came from Tom, theorising my wavering on Brink being linked to the set pushing more combo-oriented play than before.

The opposite is true with AA, as Kester argues above.

My dim thesis would be that the density of cards with high-scoring potential is much higher in the full First Arc than in the Second Arc, primarily in the form of 6-devs. The less scoring potential exists in single-cards, the more important winning the game via tempo becomes. On top of this, the increase in Settle phase discounts in the Second Arc opens up a fourth angle alongside the existing Military, Development and Consume phase dominance many players use to win, particularly in 2PA. So long as these strategies are balanced enough, being able to control when the game ends is probably worth more points than being able to Settle or Develop single-cards worth a lot of points, in the First Arc. So between the Arcs, the emphasis shifts from needing the right cards in the full First Arc to needing to manage the need to have enough cards to stay in the 'race'.

I like both .
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John
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Re: Alien Artifacts after...a lot of plays: the thinker's Race expansion
Benkyo wrote:
I never log expansion plays, only game plays (and only irregularly those, at that).

Yes, I'd guess there were far more people who have played 100+ times than who have logged 100+ plays.
 
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Tom Lehmann
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archivists wrote:
I also get irrationally annoyed by the orb explore powers that are over-costed when the orb isn't being played.

Try to think of them as "more specialized" rather than "over-costed" when the orb isn't in play.

Alien Survey Tech's ability to place military Alien worlds by paying for them is unique to that card, for cost 1. Placing the Alien Sentinels using it has won me many games. It has also gotten me going when I'm playing the Artifact Hunters and draw Alien military worlds but no Alien non-military worlds.

Alien Research Ship is harder to use in non-orb games, but it increases the number of devs in base+AA that produce Alien windfall goods from 0 to 2 (plus 2 "gray" worlds) and, occasionally, that's exactly what you need.

I wonder how many opportunities are lost due to players "auto-discarding" these cards in non-orb games.
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John
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How often do you think these two cards are useful? I think I've only made use of each in 2-3% of games but that's an estimate based on a relatively low number of games (~140)
 
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Tom Lehmann
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zabdiel wrote:
How often do you think these two cards are useful?

They're pretty specialized (as I indicated above). I make use of Alien Survey Team roughly 3-5% of the time and Alien Research Ship roughly 1-2% of the time.

About 1/3 of my AST uses are to put Alien Sentinels (particularly when I have settle discounts), 1/3 to fuel the Artifact Hunters, and 1/3 to get the 5 or 6 Military Alien out when I'm going military and am stuck at 3-4 military and need to get the 5-8 Rebels out. It's expensive but can get you past that "hump" where the Rebel 5 or the Rare 5 or the other Alien 5-6 or NGO (if you later draw it) can then finish building your military.
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