A long time favorite makes its way to your phone. Will the digital version have the same staying power as the board game?
Android & iOS
# of Players
1 - 4
Rio Grande Games
Race for the Galaxy is a classic hand management card game that has been ranked among the best board games since its release a decade ago. The game pits players against each other in a, wait for it.... Race to build the most impressive galactic empire. The app allows games to be played quickly, usually about 10 minutes depending on player count, and ends when any player has played twelve cards into their empire or if the pool of victory points (VPs) (based on the number of players) is depleted. The player with the most victory points wins.
In Race for the Galaxy players simultaneously choose from the available actions each turn: Explore, Develop, Settle, Consume, and Produce. I’ll oversimplify each below:
Explore: Players draw cards, keeping at least one, discarding others.
Develop: Players develop a technology by playing a development card from their hand.
Settle: Players settle a new world card from their hand.
Consume: Players consume their goods to gain cards or VPs.
Produce: Players produce goods on their worlds.
Each action that is chosen on a given turn is available to every player. The player who chose the action gains an added bonus on that action, such as being able to keep an additional card during Explore or paying less to play a development card during Develop. If multiple players select the same action, the action only occurs once but all players who chose it get the bonus. Much of the risk/reward of Race for the Galaxy is considering which actions your opponents might take so you don’t have to. It is never smart to assume they will take a specific action, if you need one, take it, but if choosing between two needed actions, it is a minor thrill to see that an opponent picked the one you didn’t.
Like many card games, and often board games in general, this one is fairly easy to explain but almost overwhelmingly complex in practice to a new player. Race for the Galaxy is extremely open-ended as to how a player can earn VPs which means it comes with a steep strategic learning curve for new players. The decisions are numerous. There are worlds you can pay for by discarding cards from your hand and military worlds that you pay for only using existing Military power from your empire, but don’t cost any cards. Neither is the “right” answer, both being practical paths to VPs, but it is an example of a decision players are forced to make every game. You get to play twelve cards total, at most, over the course of a game, so choose wisely. Or maybe you want to play them as quick as possible to trigger the game ending before your opponent can get a strong engine going? The possibilities are vast.
Having skimmed over the complexity of the strategic decision making, I should point out that this is clearly a big reason for the game’s popularity. There is a ton of depth when there are so many paths to victory. Add in five quality expansions and there is potential for this Race for the Galaxy app to turn into one of the best out there.
Barrier to Entry
Race for the Galaxy app includes a rules section and a series of tutorials. Advice up front from somebody coming into this game having never played: read the rules section first. It is well laid out with enough text to get the point across, but not be overbearing, and visuals from the game to illustrate the rules. It’s exactly what you’d want, it does a good job of setting up the basics of the game and will only take a few minutes to read.
If you jump straight into the tutorials, as I did, you will likely leave confused. There are three tutorials, each roughly ten minutes in length if you are new and reading everything three times trying to understand like I did. The first tutorial gives you a very basic overview of how to perform some game actions, but doesn’t explain any of the reason you might want to perform them. The second is along the same lines. The third is more general and closer to a real game, but still won’t leave you totally sure of what you’re supposed to do. I finished the tutorials knowing how to do everything, but not why I would want to do anything.
It took a few games vs the AI to start to understand what an actual strategy in this game might look like. A few more after that and I was comfortable enough to think I knew what I was doing. I didn’t, of course, but the illusion was there. Part of the learning curve here is that RFTG is heavily reliant on iconography. The app does a good job of providing text explanations for the iconography which is very necessary for new players.
Overall, I feel like the tutorials could have been a little more in depth, I felt completely lost starting a new game after going through all three tutorials. Reading the rules later helped, but I feel the tutorials should have offered a little more direction.
Multiplayer games in progress & empty lobby
This game is just getting started
Time to add a new world to the empire
Look and Feel
The game looks great. Temple Gate Games did a fantastic job creating a good looking, usable version of this game that can be played on a cell phone. There is a lot going on at any given moment in a game of Race for the Galaxy. The app makes all of this information easy to find. They add minor visual flairs such as glowing cards which are available to choose, a small thing that makes the visuals stand out.
As mentioned earlier, this game is steeped in iconography. This app does as good as could be hoped in making such a large number of small icons easily seen to the user. Once you understand the layout you can easily check all of the pertinent information you could want. Depending on your screen size you may find yourself zooming in much more often than others, but that it’s even an option to not need to zoom in is an impressive feat.
Multiplayer can be played two separate modes: Custom and Quick Play. A complete aside that isn’t the fault of Race for the Galaxy or Temple Gate Games, but I wish developers would standardize on what “Quick Play” means. In this case, it means opening up a game to be joined by anybody who chooses to. Custom means a game where you invite specific friends (via a “Friend Code”) to play your game, you can invite cross platform friends. Other than the people playing, the options are the same. You can choose which expansions to use and which features of those expansions to use. All games are asynchronous and I’ve had games sit idle for days without timing out, so I’m not sure there is a timeout at all.
On the negative side, there isn’t much there aside from basic options. If I had to pick one, I’d always chose an asynchronous implementation over synchronous, but it is odd not being able to chose a real-time game. I can’t find any record of my online stats, no win loss record, let alone a leaderboard which would be ideal.
Overall, the online play works just fine. It lacks bells and whistles at this point, but it delivers a good asynchronous experience. Buying the game at release, the player base is still rather small. It never took too long for people to join my games, but the lobby of joinable games was often empty or only have one or two games. The ease of finding people to join your games tells me the player base is dedicated, which is great, let’s just hope it grows going forward.
The single player mode consists only of basic games versus AI. The AI comes in three levels: Easy, Medium, and Hard. The Easy AI is extremely easy. I was winning games when I had very little clue what I was doing. Medium requires a strategy to win, and often, especially when playing against more than one AI, I will still lose to a Medium Bot. The Hard AI was trained on a neural network, which is promising for it maintaining its difficulty even against advanced players. For more details on that, check out this site which started as a pet project and turned into a great experiment in board game AI. I’m not a good barometer for this as a relatively inexperienced player, but I can vouch for the difficulty of Hard Bot for a newbie. I actually managed to snare my first win versus Hard Bot right before I finished this review (see the screenshot for proof!). It came down to a tiebreaker, but I’ll take it. I’m still learning the strategies, but it is great to know there is a challenging AI option waiting as my game knowledge improves.
You can play versus the AI using any of your expansions. I have no better place to mention this, so the two player game (vs AI and online) have the option to use “2 player experienced” mode. This allows both players to select two options at the beginning of the turn instead of one.
Single player is functional, especially if the Hard AI actually remains hard against experienced players, but is also bare bones. It feels like there as room for a campaign mode of some sorts although that certainly falls under “nice to have” and not a necessity. There is not an option for local pass and play which feels like another missed opportunity to add a little something extra to the app.
Nearing the end of a game
A respectable second place finish
Down to tiebreaker, but first win vs Hard AI!
Race for the Galaxy ships with the first two board game expansions available as in-app purchases, and there are plans to bring the remaining three into the app as well. The Gathering Storm adds more of the same Race goodness and introduces a goal system which rewards players for either being the first to achieve a goal or getting the most of something to win the goal. Players who earn goals are rewarded with VPs.
Rebel vs. Imperium also adds more options for basic cards and introduces its own new gameplay mechanics: takeover. This was introduced to increase interaction between opponents by allowing players to use their military power to attack each other to take over worlds. Both the goals and takeover mechanics can be toggled on and off independent of choosing to use the other cards included in the expansions. That is a bit of a confusing sentence, but it means if you want to use the extra cards from The Gathering Storm but not use the goals system, you can do that.
The Wrap Up
Race for the Galaxy went through an extended beta testing phase and that really shows. The app is incredibly polished for what it does. There aren’t threads full of rule or implementation bugs floating around. The beta testing paid off, the game delivers a very smooth experience, all of the visuals work well and do an amazing job of showing the player everything they need to know at all times.
The downside here is that the app is quite bare bones. Lack of multiplayer options or leaderboards and lack of a campaign mode are the biggest omissions. These don’t detract from what is in the game, which is a fantastic port of a deep game, but at this point it keeps Race for the Galaxy from entering the upper echelon of board game apps.