But here’s the thing: it’s a great game! If you’re new to Race for the Galaxy or are thinking of picking it up, here’s a How to Play video that’ll get you up to speed:
Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Race for the Galaxy, a tableau-building role-taking sci fi game with a neat twist. Let me show you how to play!
Race for the Galaxy is notoriously difficult to learn. You’ve got all these cards with all these confusing symbols, and an instruction booklet that’s written like a dishwasher manual.
I’m going to teach you how to play the game the way i wish somebody had taught me.
In Race for the Galaxy, you’re trying to build the most powerful space empire. There’s a tidy draw pile on the table, and a messy discard pile. You have a hand full of cards, and you pay to build these cards out in front of you, in a tableau. The only rule is that you can’t build two of the same building. Many of the cards you build are worth victory points. Some cards produce resources for you, which you can sell for more cards, or for victory points. A few cards are meta-cards, that earn you points for having certain cards in your tableau. When a player builds a 12th card, or takes the last Victory point chip, that triggers the end of the game and you count up all the points and see who’s won.
Now here’s the fun twist that the game throws at you: there’s no money in the game. You buy the cards in you tableau… with… your other cards.
That means you have to make some tough decisions. Which cards are you going to hang on to because you want to build them, and which cards are you going to use as money? This hook presents a really fun and unique challenge.
Now down to the nitty gritty of what the most basic symbols on the cards mean:
There are only two things you can build: worlds, and developments.
Worlds are like planets. They’re represented by a circle.
Developments give you a competitive edge. They’re represented by a diamond.
And victory points are what you need to win the game. They’re represented by hexagons.
The cost of a world or a development card is the big number inside the circle or diamond.
You’ll have to pay three cards to settle this world.
You’ll have to pay one card to build this development.
The number of points these cards are worth once you build them is inside the little hexagon. Three points! One point! You know – you get it.
Many of the worlds you settle will produce goods. When a world produces a good (and we’ll see how it does that shortly), you draw a card and place it face-down on the world. You never look at the other side of that good card. It just represents a generic, valuable thing that your world has produced.
So the cards in the game stand in for so many things: they are worlds you settle, and developments you build, they’re money you spend, AND they stand in for the gross domestic product of your planets!
You can consume these goods later in the game. Consuming goods can net you victory points, and/or more cards – cards which you can either try to build, or use as money. And on it goes until you conquer the galaxy!
Well that’s one big chunk of the game explained. The other big chunk is how you actually settle worlds and build developments.
There are five phases in the game, each one marked by a Roman Numeral.
Phase 1: Explore. That’s the easiest way to get new cards.
Phase 2: Build a development.
Phase 3: Settle a world.
Phase 4: Consume the goods on your worlds for cash and prizes.
Phase 5: Produce new goods on your worlds.
Each player gets an identical deck of phase cards. These are separate from the cards you’re trying to build out in front of you in your tableau. Your phase deck contains one card for each of the five phases, plus a couple of extras that i’ll cover off a little bit later. At the beginning of a round, everybody secretly chooses one of these five phases, and when you’re all ready, everyone slaps their chosen phase down at the same time.
So if one or more players choose Phase 1: Explore, all players get to explore. But the players who CHOSE the Explore phase get a bonus perk for picking it.
Likewise for any other phase that was chosen: everyone gets to perform the action, but the picker gets a perk! Multiple players can choose the same phase. They all get the perk for picking it.
In Race for the Galaxy, it usually doesn’t matter who takes their cards or goes about their space business first… everything just kind of happens simultaneously, but the instruction manual has a note about timing in the rare cases where it does matter.
Here’s what the phases do in more detail.
Phase 1: Explore. You draw 2 cards, keep one, and discard the other.
Now if you’re the picker, you had two different Explore cards to choose from. Your perk is that you either get to draw five extra cards, or draw one extra card and keep one extra card.
So the perk for picking this card means you draw 2 cards as usual, plus another five, then keep one card and discard the rest.
The perk for picking this card is that you draw 2 cards as usual, plus an extra one, then keep TWO cards and discard the rest.
You might pick this option if you just want more cards in your hand, while you might pick this option if you’re fishing through the deck, looking for a certain TYPE of card.
Phase 2: Develop
In this phase, every player can build one development – those are the diamond cards.
The perk for picking gives you a one-card discount. So as the picker, this development will cost you 2 cards instead of 3 cards.
Phase 3: Settle
In this phase, every player can settle one world – those are the circle symbol cards.
The perk for picking is that if you DO settle a world, you get to draw a card.
So you’d pay 2 cards to settle this world, and then draw a card as your perk.
Now watch closely. Here’s where it gets a tiny bit tricky:
Some worlds are grey. This means they are boring, and they won’t produce any goods for you later on.
Some worlds are colourful on the inside of the circle. This means they have the potential to produce goods for you later in the Produce phase.
Some worlds have a halo of colour outside the circle. These are called Windfall Worlds. The moment you pay to settle them, you place a good on them from the draw pile. It’s like a little advance bonus. But there’s a drawback to settling Windfall Worlds, as we’ll see in the Produce phase.
Some worlds have a red outline around them. You can’t settle these worlds by paying cards – you have to conquer them with your military strength.
Everyone starts the game with an implied zero military strength. Certain cards give you more points of military strength in the Settle phase, and some cards take your military strength away. It’s a number you sort of have to keep in your head. You can buy an expansion later on that helps you keep track of it using cubes and cardboard, but for the base game, you just have to know that if your military score is as much or more than the number inside a conquerable world, you can conquer it. You don’t even have to pay for it – you just put it out in front of you.
Phase 4: Consume
Phase 4 lets you turn these goods on your worlds into cards and/or points. Just like the Explore phase, you have two different card options for Phase 4. One is better for getting you cards, and one is better for getting you points.
If any player chooses the Consume phase, then every player has to look at all of the phase 4 sections of their cards for “consume powers.” These are the abilities that turn your goods into cards and points. If you have any consume powers, and you have goods that can be consumed, you HAVE to use your powers to juice those goods. You can’t just leave goods lying around on your worlds until it’s more profitable for you later.
So you might have a card with a good on it, and another card with a consume power on it. Consume powers can and do affect goods on other cards. So if this was your empire, the consume power on this card would force you to burn the good on this card.
Generally speaking, consume powers only affect one good at a time. If you have more consume powers than you have goods in your tableau, you can choose which consume power affects which good. And if you don’t have enough consume powers, you CAN leave the goods on your tableau at the end of the phase. And you can choose to use your consume powers in any order that you like.
The perk for choosing the Consume: Double VPs phase card is that any victory point chips you earn for consuming your goods in this phase are doubled.
The perk for choosing the Consume: Trade phase card is that before using all of your consume powers, you have to cash in one of your goods for cards instead of points. This is where the colours of your worlds come into play.
Goods that come from your blue Novelty worlds earn you 2 cards. You get 3 cards for a Rare Elements good from a brown world, 4 cards for a good from a green world, or FIVE cards for an Alien technology good from a yellow world. After you trade in one of your goods in for cards, you have to use any and all of your consume powers where possible to burn the rest of your goods, just like all the other players.
The fifth and final phase is Produce.
Every solidly-coloured production world that doesn’t already have a good on it gets a good on it. A world can have a maximum of one good on it at a time.
If you picked the Produce phase, your perk is that you get to produce a good on one of your Windfall Worlds – remember, those are the worlds with coloured halos around them. Ordinarily, you can’t produce goods on these worlds during the Produce phase, but the perk enables you to.
The phases are called in order, but not all phases may happen in a single round. You could have a phase where every player chooses Phase I:Explore, and no other phase happens. Now that’s part of the tactical fun of Race for the Galaxy: secretly choosing the phase you really want, and then betting on the phases that each of the other players are going to choose, because you really wanna do that stuff too.
When all of the chosen phases are finished, the round is over. Every player has to discard down to 10 cards, and then you all take your phase cards back. Everyone secretly choses a new phase, puts it out in front, and the next round begins. But let’s rewind back to the beginning.
Setting up the game is simple: you shuffle these five special start worlds, and deal one to face-up each player. The rest go back into the draw deck. These start worlds might give you an idea of what sort of strategy to pursue. For example, this start world gives you a head start on military, while this one gives you a few bonuses in the Consume phase.
Everyone’s tableau starts with a start world. Then, you deal 6 cards to each player. Everyone discards 2 of those cards into the messy discard pile, for a starting hand of 4 cards.
The first time you play, it’s difficult to know which cards to hang onto and which ones to discard, so the manual has a few suggested starting hands for your the first couple of times you play. In later expansions, the manual even suggests some drafting rules for the start worlds and starting hands, so if you’re picky about luck, you may want to adapt those drafting rules into the base game.
Here are my three best pieces of advice for playing Race for the Galaxy and not getting overwhelmed:
Tip #1: When you build your tableau, keep your circle cards – your worlds – in one row, and your diamond cards – your developments – in another. That’ll help to keep things straight in your mind. i spoke to one player who likes everybody to keep the tableaux in rows of 6, so that it’s very clear at a glance who’s about to reach that 12th card and trigger the end of the game.
Tip #2: On each phase that’s called, look at that phase across all of the cards in your tableau to see if your cards let you do anything special. They may give you special discounts, or provide other phase-related perks that you might easily forget about.
Tip #3: The face-down goods kind of cover up your cards. Remember to look underneath your goods on every phase, or offset them so that you’re not missing out on any cool space stuff you get to do. i have one friend who says he’s never played a game of Race for the Galaxy without the goods being placed underneath the cards, which – despite what the rules suggest – makes a whole lot of sense!
The game ends when a player builds the twelfth card in his or her tableau, or when all of the victory point chips in the middle of the table get used up. Finish the rest of the phases in the round, if there are any. There should be 10 spare victory point chips off to the side, in case anyone earns any extra points before the round is over. Then, count up all the points in physical victory point chips, the points your worlds and developments are worth, and any of the points that these expensive 6-point meta development cards get you. The player with the most points wins the game, and spaaaaaaace!
Race for the Galaxy is a confusing game to learn, but it’s a game worth learning. It’s got that gut-churning twist where your cards are also your money, and so your strategy is constantly changing depending on which new cards come into your hand throughout the game. It’s a great game for players who like to build their own little house, and they don’t want other players to come in and wreck it – you know, player interaction is pretty low. It’s all about figuring out which phase the other players are going to choose so that you can make the most out of every round. Race for the Galaxy is one of the greats. Give it a shot!
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Get Your Own Copy of Race for the Galaxy
i own a lot of space-themed games, and i would consider Race for the Galaxy to be an essentially addition to your collection, particularly if you don’t own any other role-taking games like Puerto Rico, San Juan, or Citadels. Click the link below to shop for your own copy, and we’ll earn a small commission:
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