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Designer Diary: Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts

Tom Lehmann
United States
Palo Alto
California
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Alien Artifacts "reboots" Race for the Galaxy with two different play experiences: a full expansion set, plus an Alien Orb exploration game.

Expanding the Race Universe

The 55 expansion cards in Alien Artifacts include five start worlds, nine action cards for a fifth player, and 41 play cards. All players need to experience this expansion is the Race for the Galaxy base game.


The expansion cards were specially designed to be easy to learn — there are only a few "tricky" powers, all with text explanations — so that players can just add them to the base game and play.


There is just one rules change from the base set: Players now get to see two start worlds, along with their initial cards, then choose between them.


Since Alien Artifacts is designed as an expansion arc in itself, all keywords hinted at in the base game (Rebel, Imperium, Alien, Uplift, Terraforming, and "chromosome") appear on expansion cards and are used in various ways.


One mechanical "theme" in this set is discounts, including a few cards with both discounts and military powers that pull players in two directions. Tableaus with many costly non-military worlds will appear more frequently. Tableau "rushing" can now potentially be done by non-military, as well as military, empires.


Another mechanism is specialized consumption on fairly expensive cards. While players can attempt to construct quick produce-consume "engines" with them, they will frequently find themselves losing to much larger "engines" built with discounts. These may "consume 2x" only once toward the end of the game, but they frequently do so for 10-16 VPs.


Two worlds now have variable VPs, offering some synergy possibilities that are not easily obtained by "pure" development strategies.

Exploring the Alien Orb

For players wanting a different RFTG play experience, ten survey teams ("space meeples"), five "Explore: Orb" action cards, 49 Orb cards, and 45 artifact tokens are supplied for the orb game (which also uses the expansion cards).


The orb game is a hybrid card/board game in which players must balance their empire's growth against exploring and mapping the orb to find valuable artifacts left behind by the long-vanished Alien Overlords.


The "board" is built during play by placing orb cards. An orb step occurs before normal exploration if any player chose an Explore action.

Player(s) who chose Explore: Orb go first. They move their survey teams to possibly pick up face-down artifacts, map the orb by placing new orb cards, then draw orb cards. Other players can then do just two of these actions or pass to gain priority in future orb steps.


A couple of developments affect the orb game by providing a second survey team or faster survey team movement. (In non-orb games, these powers are ignored.) Having high Military is useful to pass through beam barriers that can block orb movement.


In turn, artifacts are worth VPs and provide "one-use" powers either for future orb exploration or Military, discounts, alien goods, etc., that can affect the normal game. Several 6-cost developments score extra VPs for certain artifact types. Emptying the orb deck (which scales with players) can also trigger the game end.

An issue with any exploration game is determining how players interact. Each player tends to go off separately to avoid having to split his finds with other players. To counter this, we used a number of techniques.


Jumptubes allow movement between far-flung cards. Picking up an artifact (which ends movement) from a "!" breeding tube space forces a player to draw and place an orb card that cannot touch or overlap the orb card which this survey team is on. This creates nearby artifacts "just out of reach" that can become points of contention among players.


An artifact is kept face-down by its drawing player until its power is used. Some provide extra movement or movement through walls, allowing one player to unexpectedly "poach" another player's intended artifact. Players can also try to "wall in" opposing survey teams with orb card placements (though survey teams can always return to the main airlock when passing, so they are never completely trapped).


Another source of interaction is that Uplift artifact tokens score at game end for visible feeding stations in the orb. Players can place or cover feeding stations with orb cards depending on their artifact holdings and suspicions about opponents' remaining face-down artifacts.

Getting an early alien good to trade or some temporary military to conquer a world just beyond your military strength can potentially "kick start" a struggling empire — but is picking up an artifact worth giving up an extra card during an early Explore or the value of calling some other game phase? Would you do better to "leech" off of other players in the orb — getting fewer artifacts (and VPs) for minimal effort — in order to concentrate on building your empire?

As a designer, I had to make sure the orb game wasn't either too powerful or too weak (or else either regular card play or the orb game would become irrelevant). As players get more efficient in play and used to the new card set, they'll become better able to evaluate when to push for advantage in the orb and when to leech.

This subtle interplay between the orb and the regular game means that players must successfully balance two very different arenas of competition to win an orb game. For this reason, we recommend that players play Alien Artifacts without the orb game initially to get used to the new cards and strategies before trying it.

Rebooting the Galaxy

While many players enjoyed the first "arc" of previous RFTG expansions — The Gathering Storm, Rebel vs Imperium, and The Brink of War — some felt its gradually increasing complexity resulted in RFTG no longer being the quick 15-20 minute "super-filler" that first appealed to them.

To address this, Alien Artifacts is a reboot and is not compatible with the first three RFTG expansions. Doing this gave me greater design freedom.


For example, I was able to revisit tableau tempo in new ways in Alien Artifacts, with cards such as "Imperium Supply Convoy" and "Terraforming Project", which I couldn't do if this expansion had to be compatible with "Improved Logistics", a card from The Gathering Storm expansion.


I could now have military start worlds actually be military worlds themselves since I no longer had to worry about early takeovers (introduced in Rebel vs Imperium) completely destroying a player's empire.

The orb game itself substitutes for Goals (introduced in The Gathering Storm) by providing intermediate objectives when a player's initial cards do not suggest a clear strategy. The biggest complaint I've heard about Goals is that, sometimes, they reward a strategy that a player was going to do anyway, becoming "free bonus VPs" for that path. Artifacts avoid this by always requiring some effort to obtain.

The first three RFTG expansions also had some "power creep", resulting in the expansion cards overshadowing certain base game cards. With more RFTG design experience, I was better able to reign this in.


By adding synergies, I could emphasize certain specialized base game cards. By avoiding certain powers, I keep all cards more generally useful. For example, there is little "generic" consumption in Alien Artifacts. Suddenly, base game cards such as "Expanding Colony", "Outlaw World", "Old Earth", and "Gambling World" become relevant again.

Finally, a set of 160 cards (base game plus Alien Artifacts) works nicely to avoid players' draws becoming too "streaky" and frustrating, an issue that sometimes arose with 228 cards (base game plus the entire first arc).

In Alien Artifacts, I moved the extra rules and game length to the optional orb game. Now, new players and those who prefer RFTG as a quick "super-filler" can enjoy all the new cards, while players who want a longer, more immersive experience (and don't mind a bit of added complexity) can play the orb game. Alien Artifacts is "two expansions in one". Enjoy!

Tom Lehmann
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