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Subject: Nitpicker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Part II – The Game rss

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Warren Cheung
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In the first part, I looked at the physical components, and the impressions I got “cracking the plastic” and looking at the pieces. For this second part, I’ll go over the things that jumped out at me while playing the game. This isn't a short review - I'm wordy - so buckle in...

I’m a familiar another design of Tom Lehmann’s (designer of RftG) – To Court a King – but that one sits as a fairly light-hearted filler that’s a bit short on the strategy side and a bit burdened by too many special abilities for a newcomer. But I love space games, so RftG came onto my radar from pretty far back. Having San Juan in its pedigree is ho-hum – that means Puerto Rico is in the parentage, which I consider a fair strategic game that just fails to excite me. San Juan itself I consider a tactical optimisation game that plays “on rails” (the “strategy” is to hope that you pull a particular 6 point building…). Neither are games I will ask to play, but I’ll play if others are interested from time to time.

Now that the initial dust is settling on RftG (11 games over the last 4 days), I’m going to take a look at the impressions the game has left me so far. I’ll caveat (and sum up) that it’s shot up to the number one spot on my list of games, knocking off the trusty Power Grid. Why? It’s a space empire building game, with strategy, that plays in less than 60 minutes.

Now for the first niggle, that’s not really a niggle: the box says 30-60 minutes. The box is correct. Sadly, all this does is confuse the poor shopper, which reads this and says: “Ah, a 1.5-2 hour game”. I’ve taught the game a couple times now, but even when everyone is stuck with their noses in their hands deciphering what all the cards they just pulled can do, it just ends up being at the 60 minute end. So far, I haven’t gotten to the 30 minute end – as I’ve gotten better, the time spent deciphering the cards in my hand has been transferred to thinking about strategy. Granted, I have to mention that I’m usually the “rules-splainer” for my group (although I usually get a rule wrong). Here, I read the rulebook three or four times before the day, so I didn’t come from scratch. And the quick play time can actually be a minus for some – I’ve heard “just a couple more turns, and my empire would get steamrolling” more than a couple times.

The rulebook is in a style I’m seeing a lot of eurogames – lots of text on the left hand side, short summary sentences on the right. With Puerto Rico and San Juan under my belt, and having read the previews and reviews beforehand, the rules were pretty straightforward. Helping this is the fact that the rules are full colour and littered with icons. The downside here? I’m not sure why there are 8 pages of rules. Most of the long text is superfluous - the short summary sentences are basically all you need to play, and those would have fit on a single double-sided sheet. Actually, I guess they kind of did do that, on the reference sheets.

Ah, the oft-ignored reference sheet. They’re jam-packed with information, and so big. I think the size puts off many players from turning it over – most players would rather ask me than go hunting on the sheet…or even looking at the card! And past the first couple games, you basically ignore it – the information advanced players would want to know about, such as the 6-point buildings, or details about the card powers, are at the back of the manual. Maybe what might have been better would have been to have those four pages printed on a double sided sheet for players to refer to.

Well, now that I’ve complained about how the rules can be crunched into no space at all, I’ll start describing the game. Players sit with a bit of personal space in front of them – enough to lay out 12-13 non-overlapping cards in a “tableau”(yes, that’s the word they use, and everyone who’s heard me say it thinks it’s a little odd) and some elbow room. Each player gets a set of 7 action cards that they’ll keep during the game, and one start world goes in front of them. In the beginner game, everyone starts with a set of 4 cards that match their start world, otherwise everyone gets to draw 6 cards and discard 2. Put 12 VP per player in chips in the centre, and all the rest of the cards forms a draw pile in the centre.

The object of the game is to score the most VPs. Planets and developments in your tableau (including your starting world) are worth VP, and you can collect VP chips from the centre. Each turn, everyone chooses one of their 7 actions, and then they’re simultaneously revealed. Then, the actions that are chosen are performed in numerical order, with the person who chose the action getting a bonus. If multiple people choose the same action, the action only happens once, but everyone who chose the action will get the bonus. Actions that aren’t chosen don’t happen.

The actions include looking at cards and keeping some, building developments (that give you bonus powers), building worlds (which produce goods and give powers), using up the goods to score points and producing goods on worlds. The key thing is that cards do everything in this game (just like in San Juan) – they are the developments and worlds you build, they are the money you use to pay for the developments, and they’re also put on worlds to represent the goods produced. So when you build something, you place the card into your tableau, and then you discard the cost into the a pile at the centre of the table. Once the draw pile is used up, the discard pile will be reshuffled and forms the new draw pile. The game ends when the victory points in the centre are all gone (people can still make change and collect using the spare 10 point VP chips) or when someone’s tableau has 12 cards.

This brings me to what eats up 90% of your thinking time in the first couple games – figuring out what all the cards do. All the worlds and developments will have a cost, some amount of VPs they are worth and most will have powers. The art on the cards is nice and big – almost all of the card is art. This does mean that whenever there’s text on the cards to help explain the stranger powers, it’s itty-bitty, and in a box on the bottom right where it’s easily obscured by the other cards in your hand. Most of the iconography is pretty good – diamonds for the developments, circles for planets, and some nice use of pluses and minuses corresponding to bonuses or discounts. There’s an icon for each action, so when a power affects a particular action, the icon goes next to it. Still, it seems as if it only got halfway there. The icons could have easily been a bit bigger. There’s a bit too much overloaded into the colours for the worlds – there’s red or black circle, which determines how you pay to put the world out, and then there’s colour inside or outside the circle to show whether it starts with a good when you put it out or whether it produces goods as part of an action. A couple more icons might have helped out here – oddly enough, the green “Genes” worlds have a cute chromosome icon, but none of the others. Perhaps an icon with the colour would have helped differentiate, and I can’t comment on how this affects the colour-blind. It’s a bit of a pity, since the icons actually get pretty understandable after a short while.

It’s good that a lot of the icons are straightforward, because there are a lot of different cards. Some cards have duplicates, but the vast majority of them are unique. Having 90 different cards isn’t as insane as it might originally sound, because there’s a lot of overlap between cards. Some just do the same thing, but have a bigger discount. Some have two small powers. Some are just big points. Only a small number of them one-of-a kind powers. I’m tempted to wonder if it might have been possible for them to pare down the deck, removing all the really wonky powers, and create a “basic game”. The Gambling World is probably the antithesis of this “unified card powers” idea, with a really specific power. It’s call a number, flip a card, if the card cost matches that number you keep it. But to make it work, there’s this table (in the teensy-weensy font) listing developments and worlds for each cost to let you make an informed judgement. Really, most players might rather have a table with percentages for each of the numbers. The detailed number breakdown probably helps the advanced gamer, who’s aiming for something specific, but if you’re just fishing for a card blind, all the numbers are a little daunting.

But since there isn’t a “family version” of this game, let’s look at how this plays out. The feel of the game is very much like San Juan – a lot of the card powers/bonuses and the “cards as money/goods/buildings” feels like a direct copy. This is as expected, since it seems the origin of this idea is traced to Tom (who receives small royalties from San Juan because of it). However, if San Juan is Puerto Rico stripped down, RftG is rather bizarro-world Puerto Rico. The idea of shipping goods for VP, lost in San Juan, is back with a vengeance. Mechanically speaking, there’s probably the same complexity here as in Puerto Rico, and this might even push past Puerto Rico if you consider all the different things that can be built and their interactions. Definitely not what you usually expect from a card game – usually, you think lighter, faster, fluffier. RftG may be faster, but it’s definitely not light and fluffy. And then into the mix comes the new bit – the simultaneous choice mechanic.

San Juan and Puerto Rico have players pick roles one at a time, with the start player moving each round. In general, a lot of games have a “take a turn, then it’s the next person’s turn” mechanic. RftG does away with this by making almost everything simultaneous. Sure, there’s a tacked on “if you really need to wait and see, resolve clockwise from the lowest number start planet” mechanic, but basically the entire game is geared towards simultaneous actions. More than that, the game takes the emphasis away from a central board and instead emphasises each person’s personal empire. You’ve got your own hand of worlds and developments, different from the other players. You start with different worlds, and you have different powers from the different things you’ve built. The game even encourages this by providing a wide variety of cards and powers. There definitely appears to be many different routes to take – discounts for building developments, discounts for settling worlds, military for conquering military worlds, producing and trading expensive goods, consuming cheap goods…and an empire can have little bits of both. Actually, most tableaus will have a lot of diversity, since the cards are biased towards many little advantages in multiple areas.

This comes at a pretty heavy price though. The number of options are mind-boggling – analysis paralysis types may have to read through a lot of cards, especially in the first couple games as they’re still getting learning all the iconography. It’s probably not possible to catch it all on the first play, and since it goes by so quickly, it might take more than two or three – more than some people would be willing to put in for a complex game. There’s not much to mitigate the learning curve – the starting hands give you some help for the first turn, but once you’re drawing cards, you’re on your own. You have to want to think about it – even though it’s fast, it’s not going to work if you’re not drawn in.

Which brings me to theme. It’s a space-themed game, which is great for me. Unfortunately, it’s likely a good -100 points for the usual eurogamer – the golden age of Europe is far behind. Too bad it wasn’t about building a farm, neh?

The lack of a centralised component (other than the draw/discard piles and VP pile) will throw off those looking for a visual cue of interaction with players. It’s definitely a race – it doesn’t matter how great your empire looks right now if someone else has a better one – but you can spend the entire game looking at your own cards without noticing what’s going on elsewhere – even though everything except cards in hand is open information. Perhaps it would have been better to have a central score board tracking building and consumed VPs, so that you could feel the pressure of being behind. Right now, it takes far too long to look at someone’s tableau and guess how many points are there. And maybe some other tracks so you could at least get a quick overview of how the other empires are progressing. Maybe one track for each phase, where you would mark the number of powers you had for that phase. Really, you want to be able to see at a glance the powers a player has available, although you maybe seasoned veterans can take it all in by looking at the icons, as long as your opponents aren’t too far away. The sense of “multiple alternate dimension San Juan’s” from Puerto Rico (where everyone was developing San Juan) isn’t quite as bad here, due to all the variety, but the empires are unusually tolerant of one another – there is no stealing of worlds or destruction of developments once things are on the table. Maybe a giant board with the pictures of the planets (and their powers), and then you’d see players snatch worlds by marking them when they were discovered might give more of a feel of “hey, you took the planet I was looking for!”. And then a similar one for the developments. Of course, this would turn this into a game requiring an immense amount of space, for what is basically a couple of giant reference sheets/visual aids.

I mentioned already the diversity of a player’s tableau, due to it being made up of lots of powers from the various cards. In addition to making the strategies diverse, it also makes the strategies fluid – as the game progresses, you have your empire change focus, depending on not only what you build, but what others build. If someone else is getting a lot of advantages from an action, there’s a lot of incentive to build powers that give you advantages for that action too – not only does it give you bonuses when they choose the action and you’re “tagging along for the ride”, but it denies them the card as well. Sometimes, you might hang onto a card just to deny your opponents - there are some 6 cost developments that can score huge for certain combinations of cards (like extra points if you have certain colour production worlds, or for each development, etc.) And the simultaneous action choice creates some deliciously difficult decisions. You might have an advantage in a particular phase so far, but things can often change. The first action (Explore), if it happens, will give players cards, which can allow a player to build developments or settle worlds in the second and third actions. The fourth action and fifth action let you consume goods for points (and possibly trade for more cards) and produce goods – but if someone settles the right planet or develops properly, they might be able to get a new advantage. You want to do things – but will you be inadvertently helping someone else more? Nail-biting strategic decisions.

So to sum up – Negatives:
* the rules could be simpler
* the cards border on information explosion with tiny type and icons
* a huge variety of cards, with lots of special cases, and far too many things to think about
* there’s no “easy mode” for learning
* it can feel like there’s no interaction with other players if you’re ignoring them
* feels like it stops “just when things get interesting”

Positives:
* The icons aren’t so bad once you get used to them
* The diversity ends up being refreshing, with lots of options and strategies
* Rapid play due to the simultaneous action choice
* Lots of strategy in the subtle Player Interaction

So in short, we have a civilization game - in space! – that’s got tons of variety, lots of strategy that plays in under an hour. It takes its roots from San Juan and Puerto Rico, and makes a much richer and exciting game. More of the good stuff in less time – what’s not to like?
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Warren Cheung
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Oops - someone noticed a mistake - it's 12 VP per player, not just 12 VP in the centre. Must have been getting sloppy last night.

Actually, I was complaining about the number of VP chips in Part I, but actually, it works out that there's exactly 48 VPs in 1 and 5 chips, so the 4 player game can be started by just removing the 10 pointers. 3 and 2 player, you remove an extra 12 or 24...I didn't catch that until I was rereading the rules last night. I still wouldn't mind spares - maybe in a different colour - and bigger is always better for me
 
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Enon Sci
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warrenac wrote:
San Juan itself I consider a tactical optimisation game that plays “on rails” (the “strategy” is to hope that you pull a particular 6 point building…).


It was readily apparent that RftG would have more paths to victory, but are you serious that San Juan only has one? That's depressing if true, but makes sense for a Puerto Rico divorced from its shipping strategy. I've only played a few games of San Juan ages ago, before getting a chance to learn Puerto Rico.

I disliked it for the reason it never felt like any amazingly cool infrastructure would get much use as it would normally just start coming together at games end.

I assume RftG has a bit of this feel as well, but until Galactic Emperor gets released this is the best a Sci-Fi euro fan can hope for (and even when it does get released who knows how it'll play in comparison).
warrenac wrote:
Maybe one track for each phase, where you would mark the number of powers you had for that phase. Really, you want to be able to see at a glance the powers a player has available, although you maybe seasoned veterans can take it all in by looking at the icons, as long as your opponents aren’t too far away. The sense of “multiple alternate dimension San Juan’s” from Puerto Rico (where everyone was developing San Juan) isn’t quite as bad here, due to all the variety, but the empires are unusually tolerant of one another – there is no stealing of worlds or destruction of developments once things are on the table. Maybe a giant board with the pictures of the planets (and their powers), and then you’d see players snatch worlds by marking them when they were discovered might give more of a feel of “hey, you took the planet I was looking for!”. And then a similar one for the developments. Of course, this would turn this into a game requiring an immense amount of space, for what is basically a couple of giant reference sheets/visual aids.


Though, as you admit, your ideas aren't the most practical I like the direction they're moving in. This game would definitely be serviced by a centralized board. Your opening idea in the passage above is one I'll investigate once my copy arrives.

warrenac wrote:

* feels like it stops “just when things get interesting”


This ties to my central dislike of San Juan, but I imagine - since developmental powers are more plentiful and the play times are short - this can also be a plus. Like any consummate showman knows, you want to leave your audience wanting more.

 
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Warren Cheung
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Anarchosyn wrote:
warrenac wrote:
San Juan itself I consider a tactical optimisation game that plays “on rails” (the “strategy” is to hope that you pull a particular 6 point building…).


It was readily apparent that RftG would have more paths to victory, but are you serious that San Juan only has one? That's depressing if true, but makes sense for a Puerto Rico divorced from its shipping strategy. I've only played a few games of San Juan ages ago, before getting a chance to learn Puerto Rico.

I'm exaggerating a little bit...but only a little. It's not impossible to beat, but it's pretty difficult... It makes building some fairly common cards (which are already a good amount of points) a good chunk more valuable.

Anarchosyn wrote:

I disliked it for the reason it never felt like any amazingly cool infrastructure would get much use as it would normally just start coming together at games end.

I assume RftG has a bit of this feel as well, but until Galactic Emperor gets released this is the best a Sci-Fi euro fan can hope for (and even when it does get released who knows how it'll play in comparison).
warrenac wrote:
Maybe one track for each phase, where you would mark the number of powers you had for that phase. Really, you want to be able to see at a glance the powers a player has available, although you maybe seasoned veterans can take it all in by looking at the icons, as long as your opponents aren’t too far away. The sense of “multiple alternate dimension San Juan’s” from Puerto Rico (where everyone was developing San Juan) isn’t quite as bad here, due to all the variety, but the empires are unusually tolerant of one another – there is no stealing of worlds or destruction of developments once things are on the table. Maybe a giant board with the pictures of the planets (and their powers), and then you’d see players snatch worlds by marking them when they were discovered might give more of a feel of “hey, you took the planet I was looking for!”. And then a similar one for the developments. Of course, this would turn this into a game requiring an immense amount of space, for what is basically a couple of giant reference sheets/visual aids.


Though, as you admit, your ideas aren't the most practical I like the direction they're moving in. This game would definitely be serviced by a centralized board. Your opening idea in the passage above is one I'll investigate once my copy arrives.


I'll point out that the basic idea behind the more "central visual aid" is blatantly stolen from Mike Doyle's reimagination of Puerto Rico, with the similar kind of idea.

http://mdoyle2.blogspot.com/2006/07/puerto-rico-ii.html

Anarchosyn wrote:

warrenac wrote:

* feels like it stops “just when things get interesting”


This ties to my central dislike of San Juan, but I imagine - since developmental powers are more plentiful and the play times are short - this can also be a plus. Like any consummate showman knows, you want to leave your audience wanting more.


And as an empire building game, those with the best toys will probably get better, and those behind...will probably want to start over Part of the gnashing of teeth and the "if only I had one more turn, I'd really get going..." is, of course, you didn't get going in time. There's definitely a bit of a Race component - you can cut off an opponent if you go quicker than they expect...
 
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Wei-Hwa Huang
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Anarchosyn wrote:

warrenac wrote:
Maybe a giant board with the pictures of the planets (and their powers), and then you’d see players snatch worlds by marking them when they were discovered might give more of a feel of “hey, you took the planet I was looking for!”. And then a similar one for the developments. Of course, this would turn this into a game requiring an immense amount of space, for what is basically a couple of giant reference sheets/visual aids.


Though, as you admit, your ideas aren't the most practical I like the direction they're moving in. This game would definitely be serviced by a centralized board. Your opening idea in the passage above is one I'll investigate once my copy arrives.


If you really want to try this out, I just uploaded a chart of all the worlds and developments in the game that I used during playtesting and development: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/273919

Let us know how it goes!
 
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Warren Cheung
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Wow, I'll definitely print that out! I probably won't go to the effort of marking down who owns what, but having that as a sheet to pass around or in the centre of the table would definitely help those worried about "learning the cards".
 
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Wei-Hwa, Thanks for the upload.

Definitely will come in handy.
 
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Stephen Stewart
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warrenac wrote:

So to sum up – Negatives:
* the rules could be simpler
* the cards border on information explosion with tiny type and icons
* a huge variety of cards, with lots of special cases, and far too many things to think about
* there’s no “easy mode” for learning
* it can feel like there’s no interaction with other players if you’re ignoring them
* feels like it stops “just when things get interesting”

Positives:
* The icons aren’t so bad once you get used to them
* The diversity ends up being refreshing, with lots of options and strategies
* Rapid play due to the simultaneous action choice
* Lots of strategy in the subtle Player Interaction

So in short, we have a civilization game - in space! – that’s got tons of variety, lots of strategy that plays in under an hour. It takes its roots from San Juan and Puerto Rico, and makes a much richer and exciting game. More of the good stuff in less time – what’s not to like?


Completely Agree with your conclusion!!!

VARIETY, RICHNESS, and EXCITEMENT

Each player's "home" world has a different play modifier ala Cosmic Encounter.

Civ construction can easily differ from your opponent's due to this. Mod's for Brown planets make you want to explore more brown planets vs. your militaristic opponent who is using his military bonus accordingly. Your bonus's occur for different Card Phases changing both players strategies. A nice twist over the "Let's see who wins by building SUPERSTRUCTURE X first"

Just a couple of commmets on your NEGS:
1) LOL agreed. It explains easier than the rule length might dictate.
2) Cards have a decent amount of info. but, after a play or 2 they are easily understood. (here is the Variety of the game)
3) Another variety section. I wouldn't think too much about the different cards. Your playing hand essentially dictates which cards will be beneficial to you during play or cards that will just net you VP instead... THINK Puerto Rico. Buy that Sugar mill during mid-game to get the easy VP not because it will help you much.
4) Interaction is not high, but pay attention to what they are doing and you can see how well they use their cards to their advantage and you will learn to do the same.
5) LOL Yep, game can end quickly. Increase VP if you want a more "interesting" game.

Race for the Galaxy livens up the old San Juan game just like more Trade goods makes TI:3 a more livelier and fun game.
Thanks for the Review!!
 
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Paul Schwartz
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Re the negative conclusion that there is no easy way to learn the game or teach it:

I am puzzled that with a set of pre-determined cards set out with corresponding numbering there is no sample game provided.

What is the purpose of the pre-determined set of cards?

Cheers!
 
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Marcel wrote:
Re the negative conclusion that there is no easy way to learn the game or teach it:

I am puzzled that with a set of pre-determined cards set out with corresponding numbering there is no sample game provided.

What is the purpose of the pre-determined set of cards?

Cheers!


It's so people can be assured to have a starting hand that works in concert with their starting world.
 
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Warren Cheung
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Anarchosyn wrote:
Marcel wrote:
Re the negative conclusion that there is no easy way to learn the game or teach it:

I am puzzled that with a set of pre-determined cards set out with corresponding numbering there is no sample game provided.

What is the purpose of the pre-determined set of cards?

Cheers!


It's so people can be assured to have a starting hand that works in concert with their starting world.


As well, for beginners, they have a tough time figuring out what cards do, let alone valuing them. This lets them get started without doing that - all the cards in the preset hands are useful - and they can get right to choosing their first action. They'll have plenty of time to see new cards as the game progresses...
 
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