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Subject: 4 Years and 1000s of plays later... rss

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Brian McCormick
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I'll leave it up to the reader to parse the fact that this is my third review of Race for the Galaxy. I reviewed it once back in 2009 and then again in mid-2011. Maybe I really like Race. Maybe I can't afford to try all the newfangled deck-building/hand-management games that seem to sprout every few months. Maybe I'm just reeeeally trying to milk reviews out of my collection to attain that glorious 100-review milestone.

I'll leave it up to the reader to decide the answer, but for what it is worth, this review comes from 4 years of playing Race for the Galaxy 1000s of times. Unlike a lot of RftG fans, I never really got into playing online or battling against the Keldon AI. No, about 99% of the games I've played have been face-to-face matches. I've played with expansions, without expansions, with certain expansions. I even bought a second copy of the base set to add in some duplicates of certain cards, simply to tweak the balance and see how certain things played out if certain types of cards were more common.

In other words, I've been around the block with Race. It is one of my favorite games of all time and I have played it continuously for 4 years straight with no longer than a two-week break. Ooof. Has it really been 4 years?

Why Bother With a Third Review?

The inspiration for this re-re-review was Kingdom Builder. Though I never bought it, I remember enjoying Kingdom Builder and I remember the excitement surrounding its release ("What? A new game by the Dominion designer?!?") and I remember how quickly it rocketed up the Rankings.

Now? It sits at Rank 259.

I guess the lesson is that sometimes new games don't last very long. They can be really fun at first but after a short while they completely lose their luster. With so many games and so many expansions coming out each year, there's always that dark temptation to forget the games of old and chase after what is new. As someone who routinely indulges in a $100+ order of boardgames (after all, gotta get that free shipping...), there is something to be said about any game that remains in my regular game-session circulation for more than a year, let alone four years and counting.

What Makes It Tick?

The driving force behind RftG is the concept of "every card always has a purpose". Whether a card is the final piece in a carefully-orchestrated combo or simply fodder for purchasing a new Development, you are rarely without options. And on those occasions when your hand is a dud, there are ways to mitigate that, too. Certain cards play off other cards. There are obvious combos. There are not-so-obvious combos. Additionally, when the rules from expansions (Goals, Takeover, and Prestige, to name the three biggest) are brought into the fray, the depth multiplies, all while maintaining a 15-30 minute playtime per game.

Players decide - privately - what Action card they'll play before each turn begins. No, you can't just play that Planet out of your hand or Consume those goods. Someone has to play the appropriate Action. And when you play that card, everyone will be able to take that particular action if they so choose. Unlike a lot of games where each turn's actions are concrete, this mechanic forces players to pay attention to what their opponents are doing in order to benefit from their Action choices. When it comes time to place a card in your tableau, that is where the "cards as currency" idea comes in. That little number in the corner of your card? That is the number of cards you discard from your hand in order to place it into your tableau. Of course, you can acquire cards that reduce or eliminate this number. Or you can build up your Military strength to flat-out conquer a planet and not pay a single dime (or card, rather).

There are other hand-management and tableau-building games out there. I own a lot of them. I like a lot of them. However, every time I play a new one and every year that goes by, my respect for the elegant mechanics of Race increases. This game is just...so well made. The iconography, the careful balance between complexity and playtime, the internal consistency of the rules...it's the gold standard against which I hold all other games in the same genre.

1000s of Plays

My claim of 1000s of plays is no exaggeration. My introduction to Race was in the Fall of 2009. Four years ago. Roughly 1400 days ago. Considering all those nights my wife and I pleaded one another for "just one more game" of Race, her and I - alone - probably passed the 1000 play mark some time early last year. We've played Race with friends and other groups of players. We do have a few fellow Race fanatics who have also played with us over the years. In that frame, I've seen so many complaints come and go about Race. I've seen people complain about how it is "multiplayer solitaire", about how it's nothing more than the luck of the draw, how a bad starting hand makes it too hard to catch up, how the iconography is inscrutable, how such-and-such is the only worthwhile strategy, and everything in between.

To each their own, but for me, the more I play Race, the less I can sympathize with these complaints. Multiplayer solitaire? Okay, why aren't you racing to end the game early, or take over planets, or stealing Goal chips out from under your opponent's nose? Nothing more than the luck of the draw? Can't find the card you "need"? I've built a tableau where I drew 11 cards on each Explore +5 action, and if you insist that you "need" certain cards to make a winning tableau, you need to step your game up. Yeah, I'm talking directly to YOU, Mr. I Think The Only Way To Win Is To Get A 6-Cost Development And Build My Entire Tableau Around It. Why aren't you reading your opponent's moves and utilizing the Action they choose to save yourself time? You got a terrible starting hand? Then go with the game's namesake and RACE. Throw out every single Development and Planet you can on every chance you get in order to end the game early before your opponent can get their own tableau rolling. I've won countless games with a "terrible" starting hand, and I've lost countless games when this strategy was used against me and I was wasting too much time trying to purchase the fancy cards in my "great" starting hand.

And the iconography? Don't get me started. I get it. Not everyone likes it. But the iconography is what gives Race such graceful gameplay mechanics. Most everything can be learned by simply looking at the icons, and yeah, I know, there are a lot of icons to soak up on your first few plays, but after that they become second nature. When trying to learn the game for the first time, my advice would be look at cards one at a time prior to your first session and "translate" them using the provided player mat. If anything is confusing in Race, it isn't the iconography but rather the nuances of the Phase order. Consume occurs before or after Produce? How exactly does that card-draw bonus affect what I'm supposed to do? These questions were on my mind, too, when I was first learning Race. Take a breath and take a second look at the rulebook or the player mat or here on BGG for the answer. It'll probably be explained.

The depth is there in RftG if you look for it. The strategy is there if you look for it. Please, I'm not trying to talk down to anyone or pull the good ol' "you just don't get it" card. I'm just speaking anecdotally. The depth has been there for me when I looked for it. The strategy was there for me when I looked for it. Race has failed to fail me. Whenever I am willing to try a new strategy, the game's mechanics reveal a different combo or concept or approach that might even lead to victory. Whenever I feel I've learned all there is to learn about the game, my opponent (typically my clever wife) finds a way to demolish a strategy of mine that worked wonderfully for dozens of prior sessions. But that's just my experience. Your mileage may vary and all that disclaimer stuff.

My continued excitement for this game is also anecdotal, admittedly. Statistically speaking, it means little - if anything - that some guy on BGG has been playing RftG on a regular basis for 4 years. But on the other hand, there must be something to this game if I'm still playing it after seeing so many games come and go, right? My collection has swelled to over 300 games, not including expansions. I make it a point to go out and try/buy any games that are even the slightest bit similar to Race, eager to perhaps find a game that can "beat" Race. I haven't yet found that game. Race remains the most-played game in my collection by a wide margin.

Winding Down My Rant

As someone who loves The Hotness, I've often tried to replace Race with a new game. Some games were similar but lacked a certain something. Other games were just mediocre. Other games were very good, yet they still didn't manage to stop me from playing Race on a regular basis. Like many of the games in the Top 10 that have been there for years, Race for the Galaxy stands the test of time. The mechanics are incredibly well made and the overall gameplay is always a blast.

I'll leave it up to the reader to decide whether this third review was necessary. As for me, I hope to keep playing Race for years to come. Who knows? Maybe you'll have a chance to read my fourth review of Race in 2015...
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Serge Levert
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Aurendrosl wrote:
I make it a point to go out and try/buy any games that are even the slightest bit similar to Race, eager to perhaps find a game that can "beat" Race. I haven't yet found that game.

Ever since discovering RftG, i've been praying for a game to rival it and entrance me like it has. Nothing has ever come close, at all. Very, very sad.

Edit: in fact, that reminds me. The closest thing that gave me the feeling RftG does, was some game a buddy was in the process of creating. A mix of RftG and Magic: the Gathering, with discount-ramping combo goodness. I offered to pay him to get a beta copy, but he had fiddled with it beyond recognition and never even made a complete version AFAIK.
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Quote:
As someone who loves The Hotness, I've often tried to replace Race with a new game. Some games were similar but lacked a certain something. Other games were just mediocre. Other games were very good, yet they still didn't manage to stop me from playing Race on a regular basis. Like many of the games in the Top 10 that have been there for years, Race for the Galaxy stands the test of time. The mechanics are incredibly well made and the overall gameplay is always a blast.

This nails it down. I really concur no other game can replace Race in my rotation (even after I had an overdose playing too much on Boardgamearena...).
And I doubt no game ever will.

Great review, by the way!
Possibly the best third review of the same game by the same user I ever read...
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Jonathan C
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Good review (again). Even after about a thousand plays myself (but probably 2/3 of using Keldon), I am surprised by how well this game continues to engage.

I was pretty sympathetic to your critical review of Dixit, by the way. Although I think it probably still has a place in my collection because my children can get into Dixit a year or so earlier they can get into Combat Commander: Pacific. whistle
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looleypalooley wrote:
Even after about a thousand plays myself (but probably 2/3 of using Keldon), I am surprised by how well this game continues to engage.

Agreed

looleypalooley wrote:

I was pretty sympathetic to your critical review of Dixit, by the way.

My heart has softened a bit toward it, perhaps just because it's a game my wife loves to play. IIRC, that review was what got me my "Tasteless Brute" overtext...
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Even I have to say that after so many years this game still plays superbly.
AND after a refractory period I'm recently getting back to it.

My "stay away" period, of a year or so, I attribute to the last expansion: Brink of war. That I think was made for more people. In two, and it is thus I play it with my fiancee, I dislike it mightily.

As for now the base game and the first expansion make this game perfect. The second expansion is nice since it adds this Star Wars feel to it, I'd add it only for that.

The third and last expansion really isn't in my bones, it just adds too much complication for its own good, and the deck is so large that the choice of exploration loses value IMHO.

That said, this review you wrote, sums up my own thoughts. Race for the Galaxy is a fantastic game that has endured the test of time, and which will continue to hit the table over and over. A game I may think to buy a second copy of, when the first one has worn down to dust.
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Horrid Beast wrote:
Brian, have you played Brink of War?

Yes I have, although it wasn't until mid-2012 that I FINALLY got that particular expansion.
 
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Honestly man, a third review and it was great to read. You should do this annually from now on as there are very few games that are perfect and I would say that this is one of them. I hoisted my rating to a ten after finally getting some multiplayer games to the table after 100's of 2p exclusive games a year or so back.

It really is a special game - it would have been more glossy if LucasArts (or whoever had the power to give it the license) allowed the cards to be dipped in the Star Wars Universe.

This is up there with my other tens of TtA, the Gric, Mage Wars & Knight & Twilight Struggle. Polis, Brass, Netrunner & Terra Mystica may well join.

In a hobby where there are so many new games, expansions and reimplements etc. Race is still one of the kings. Love it.

The only downside to Race that I can think of is that my mate cannot play it as he is colour blind - poor sod!

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Aurendrosl wrote:
The inspiration for this re-re-review was Kingdom Builder. Though I never bought it, I remember enjoying Kingdom Builder and I remember the excitement surrounding its release ("What? A new game by the Dominion designer?!?") and I remember how quickly it rocketed up the Rankings.

Now? It sits at Rank 259.



Being ranked 259th is still in the top 1% of games in the BGG database, so it's not like KB is a dud, though.
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rarevos wrote:
Being ranked 259th is still in the top 1% of games in the BGG database, so it's not like KB is a dud, though.

Fair enough, though it would be interesting to see (not that we'd ever be able to truly prove it one way or another) if it keeps that high-ish rank due to those initial high rating scores. I think it happens with a lot of games that ascend through The Hotness, release to rave reviews, and then swiftly drop into the sub-200 rankings. Without that initial marketing hype, what rank would those games sit at now? 500? 1500? Just a thought, I guess.
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entranced wrote:
Aurendrosl wrote:
I make it a point to go out and try/buy any games that are even the slightest bit similar to Race, eager to perhaps find a game that can "beat" Race. I haven't yet found that game.

Ever since discovering RftG, i've been praying for a game to rival it and entrance me like it has. Nothing has ever come close, at all. Very, very sad.

Edit: in fact, that reminds me. The closest thing that gave me the feeling RftG does, was some game a buddy was in the process of creating. A mix of RftG and Magic: the Gathering, with discount-ramping combo goodness. I offered to pay him to get a beta copy, but he had fiddled with it beyond recognition and never even made a complete version AFAIK.


Have you tried New Era? Like the OP, my wife and I can't get enough RftG. In an attempt to find something else like RftG that we could obsess over, I stumbled across this one. It's rules are quite tricky and the icons are worse than Race's (I was forced to make a custom player aid to keep things straight), but once you put in the investment of time, it is awesome. I wouldn't play with more than 2, though.
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mbialeck wrote:
entranced wrote:
Aurendrosl wrote:
I make it a point to go out and try/buy any games that are even the slightest bit similar to Race, eager to perhaps find a game that can "beat" Race. I haven't yet found that game.

Ever since discovering RftG, i've been praying for a game to rival it and entrance me like it has. Nothing has ever come close, at all. Very, very sad.

Edit: in fact, that reminds me. The closest thing that gave me the feeling RftG does, was some game a buddy was in the process of creating. A mix of RftG and Magic: the Gathering, with discount-ramping combo goodness. I offered to pay him to get a beta copy, but he had fiddled with it beyond recognition and never even made a complete version AFAIK.


Have you tried New Era? Like the OP, my wife and I can't get enough RftG. In an attempt to find something else like RftG that we could obsess over, I stumbled across this one. It's rules are quite tricky and the icons are worse than Race's (I was forced to make a custom player aid to keep things straight), but once you put in the investment of time, it is awesome. I wouldn't play with more than 2, though.


RFTG -WITH expansions though- is definitely good, but having played (much) more than 1000 games just like you (both IRL with my wife who really likes it, and on BGA) I'd say, just like Mike Bialecki, try New Era and, if possible, try New Era + the "Winter" expansion.
To me it's a superior tableau game. Actually I think it's the very best tableau game I've played and one of the three very best games I've ever played. The number of different strategies is astonishing, the level of interaction is amazing for a tableau game and it mitigates luck very elegantly.
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New Era

Never heard of this one, but will definitely check it out.
 
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entranced wrote:
New Era

Never heard of this one, but will definitely check it out.


DO! It really is a great game.
I discovered it thanks to it's first "version": 51st state.
New Era is much better, with more choices and even more interaction. And treat yourself with "Winter" if you can get it, you won't regret it!
(note: it's much longer than RFTG though, not a filler at all, more 30 to 45 minutes or more with some -much needed- downtime to think but well worth it!!)
 
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Aurendrosl wrote:
You got a terrible starting hand? Then go with the game's namesake and RACE. Throw out every single Development and Planet you can on every chance you get in order to end the game early before your opponent can get their own tableau rolling. I've won countless games with a "terrible" starting hand, and I've lost countless games when this strategy was used against me and I was wasting too much time trying to purchase the fancy cards in my "great" starting hand.


The problem, in my experience, is that the guy with the bad starting hand will often have no chance to RACE at all! In RFTG, the bad starting hand actually is the one that doesn't let you race: no small devs to create momentum, no product to sell, nothing...
Add to that a bad +6+1 draw to mitigate the bad luck of a wrong hand/starting world combination (and don't you ever tell me that it never happened to you XD) and your only chance of winning is that your opponent has had the same lack of luck as you had.

Still, this is greatly mitigated by expansions (secondary goals and Prestige actions), but in the core set alone there ARE absolute win situations and absolute lose situations that don't depend on skills.
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Gorgoneion wrote:
As for now the base game and the first expansion make this game perfect. The second expansion is nice since it adds this Star Wars feel to it, I'd add it only for that.

The third and last expansion really isn't in my bones, it just adds too much complication for its own good, and the deck is so large that the choice of exploration loses value IMHO.


This echoes my own thoughts exactly. The 3rd expansion jumped the shark. In our group I was the Race fanatic, so I tolerated it. But other people, who merely loved and liked Race, never got into the last expansion. Looking forward to the re-setting next expansion if it ever sees the light of day! Such a fantastic game overall.
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There are so many other card games I'd reach for before this - the symbols are too hard to see to get players to want another game. Good game - sure. But does not compare to 7 Wonders or even a heavy weight like London for introducing to new players.
 
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Wow, I'm really impressed with the fun you've had with this game. I enjoyed it on and off for a while, but was disappointed with some of the expansions. I traded it a short while ago as I think there are simply better card games out there now, that are more thematic and fun. The New Era comes to mind. Although I haven't played it in a long time, it is a fabulous game that I rate higher than RftG.
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Snowman wrote:
Wow, I'm really impressed with the fun you've had with this game. I enjoyed it on and off for a while, but was disappointed with some of the expansions. I traded it a short while ago as I think there are simply better card games out there now, that are more thematic and fun. The New Era comes to mind. Although I haven't played it in a long time, it is a fabulous game that I rate higher than RftG.


100% agree with New Era being superior in every aspect. Doesn't mean RFTG doesn't deserve some appreciation though. But it's true that Nex Era made me seriously consider selling RFTG though.
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brunogaia wrote:
100% agree with New Era being superior in every aspect.


Guys, c'mon. When someone has played a game one thousand times and takes the time to write a review, you don't waltz in with a "oh but this game is better". It just doesn't contribute anything to the discussion. Come back when you have one thousand plays of New Era under your belt.
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DeePee wrote:
brunogaia wrote:
100% agree with New Era being superior in every aspect.


Guys, c'mon. When someone has played a game one thousand times and takes the time to write a review, you don't waltz in with a "oh but this game is better". It just doesn't contribute anything to the discussion. Come back when you have one thousand plays of New Era under your belt.


I agree. Race is good because it holds up after that many plays.
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brunogaia wrote:
100% agree with New Era being superior in every aspect. Doesn't mean RFTG doesn't deserve some appreciation though. But it's true that Nex Era made me seriously consider selling RFTG though.


Maybe this is true. I bought New Era on this premise. I got tired of picking up the extremely awkward and difficult to read rulebook. And I enjoy reading rules (e.g. even the long rulebooks, like for wargames like Virgin Queen, Fighting Formations: Grossdeutschland Motorized Infantry Division, etc.). Something that is a testament to Race's longevity, I believe, is the wonderful elegance of the ruleset. Very well written by Tom Lehmann: clear, concise, and accessible.
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DeePee wrote:
brunogaia wrote:
100% agree with New Era being superior in every aspect.


Guys, c'mon. When someone has played a game one thousand times and takes the time to write a review, you don't waltz in with a "oh but this game is better". It just doesn't contribute anything to the discussion. Come back when you have one thousand plays of New Era under your belt.


So someone starts a thread basically saying, "Race is the best game, everyone who complains about it is wrong, I know better," and the only response allowed is "you're right, you're the best, here's all the thumbs and all the tips!"?

It's a similar game, and it's a fair point. I haven't played either one "thousands" of times, but I agree, New Era is just more fun and more interesting. Race is a game I'll play if there's really no better option to kill a few minutes between bigger games.
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sybrwookie wrote:
So someone starts a thread basically saying, "Race is the best game, everyone who complains about it is wrong, I know better," and the only response allowed is "you're right, you're the best, here's all the thumbs and all the tips!"?


I didn't read the OP like that at all. I agree he said he din't have much sympathy for a lot of the common complaints about RFTG, but a good review should deal with common complaints about a game. I didn't think the OP was saying that everyone should see depth in the game, just that they shouldn't dismiss it because of these common criticisms. He did say that the positives were somewhat subjective:
Aurendrosl wrote:
The depth has been there for me when I looked for it. The strategy was there for me when I looked for it. Race has failed to fail me.


In answer to your question, I don't think thumbs up is the only allowed response. Since the OP said they had tried to find other games that might replace RFTG then suggesting New Era is perfectly reasonable. I think the objection was the implication that New Era was vastly superior to RFTG, though I suspect that was exaggeration. Arguing about whether New Era or RFTG is the better game is a bit pointless as obviously everyone isn't going to agree on that. 4 people on this thread really like New Era, one person thinks the rule book is terrible, and one of the people who like New Era would only play it two player. So I don't think the conclusion is that New Era is superior, but that some people think it's a good of better than RFTG, and that it's worth checking it out if you like RFTG which is cool (and doesn't mean RFTG isn't also awesome).

From a quick look at the The New Era forums it looks like it has more confrontation than RftG so would appeal more to players who dislike RftG for it's lack of confrontation. Is this correct? A lot of the New Era stuff forums seems to be written by people who are familiar with 51st State, whereas I've only vaguely heard of either.
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sybrwookie wrote:
So someone starts a thread basically saying, "Race is the best game, everyone who complains about it is wrong, I know better," and the only response allowed is "you're right, you're the best, here's all the thumbs and all the tips!"?


No. But if you're going to question someone's experience after a thousand plays, you better bring some good arguments instead of just "x is superior, why have you wasted time playing an inferior game".
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