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Designer Diary: Race for the Galaxy

Tom Lehmann
United States
Palo Alto
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Microbadge: Phoenicia fanMicrobadge: Civilization fan
Board Game: Race for the Galaxy
(Editor's note: This game preview originally ran as three parts on Boardgame News. I had planned to reprint the material on BGG News in a similar manner, but due to reader requests I'm changing gears and publishing all three parts in one post. Reprinted diaries for RftG expansions will follow in subsequent weeks. —WEM)

Race for the Galaxy is a card game of economic expansion set in space. It has two primary sources: the unpublished CCG Duel for the Stars that I designed in the mid-1990s (with assistance from Rob Watkins) and a Puerto Rico card game prototype. I designed this prototype, at alea's request, based on an idea that Richard Borg and I came up with, namely that cards could serve multiple purposes in an economic game: what you build, the money you pay, and the goods you produce.

This idea was merged by alea with Andreas Seyfarth's own Puerto Rico card game prototype to form San Juan. Players familiar with San Juan should find Race fairly easy to learn.

Race is built on the notion of simultaneous play. Unlike San Juan (and Puerto Rico), players secretly select their actions from a personal set of seven action cards. After revealing them, only the game phases chosen by one or more players occur; the rest are skipped. Thus, a round might consist of nothing but Develop, if that's what everyone selected, or – in a four player game – any four of the five phases (Explore, Develop, Settle, Consume, and Produce) could occur (in this order).

The players choosing a phase receive a bonus while everyone performs the phase's action. Two phases – Explore and Consume – have two different bonuses available (thus the seven action cards for only five phases). For example, the base Explore action is that everyone draws two cards and selects one of them to keep. The two possible Explore bonuses are: Draw five more cards to select from (still keeping just one card), or draw one more card and keep one more card (i.e., draw three cards and keep two of them). Phases are performed simultaneously. For example, during Settle, each player selects a world to place and then, once everyone is ready, they all flip these cards over and pay for – or militarily conquer – them. (The Settle bonus is to draw a card after settling a world.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Everybody in the pool!
From gallery of W Eric Martin
An icon for everything,
and every icon in its place
This phase structure not only reduces downtime but changes the game's feel. If there's an action you need to do, you can always play its action card to force that phase to occur. Alternatively, you can guess, based on your opponents' positions, that one of them will call that phase and then choose another phase that also helps you, with the risk that the phase you really need doesn't occur if your estimate is incorrect. Thus, instead of tactical denial (as in Puerto Rico or San Juan), you are faced with the "piggy-back" problem – how to most effectively take advantage of your opponents' actions while pursuing your own strategy.

Players begin play with four cards in hand and a start world – each with a different special power – in their tableau. All cards are one of two kinds: developments, placed during Develop, or worlds, placed during Settle. Some worlds have military defense and can only be placed by being conquered. (If one has the development Contact Specialist, most military worlds can be placed by paying for them instead.) Some worlds receive a good when they are first settled; others don't start with a good but do receive one every time Produce is called. Victory chips are earned by consuming goods. Empires have no inherent consumption abilities (though some start worlds have consume powers). One route to victory is to construct an economy by settling worlds that produce goods (not all worlds do) and building developments or worlds with consume powers, then turning this produce/consume "crank" over several rounds to earn lots of victory chips.

The game can end in two different ways, either when the last victory point chip is handed out or when a player has twelve or more cards in his or her tableau. Since two cards can potentially be placed each round (if both Develop and Settle are called and a player can afford both), a game can end in as few as six rounds. (Nine or ten rounds is typical.) Managing this variable tempo is one play challenge.

Developments and worlds are also worth victory points themselves. Worlds can be settled either by payment or, if they are military worlds, by conquering them (for no cost). Building a large military, by buying developments such as Space Marines or Drop Ships, then conquering valuable Rebel or Alien worlds is another victory route.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Zentastic –
but who gathers the food?
From gallery of W Eric Martin
Nice highlights on the scales
Alternatively, by settling windfall worlds (those with a good placed on them upon first being settled), then selling these goods for cards, players can afford the more expensive worlds and developments that are worth more victory points. The 6-cost developments are the third source of victory points. Each one is unique and provides bonus victory points for having cards of a specific kind (such as Genes worlds for the Pan-Galactic League) or with certain powers (such as Explore powers for the Galactic Survey). Each 6-cost development also has a useful power which encourages players to build them before the end of the game. Building several "interlocking" 6s, so that your other tableau cards earn victory point bonuses multiple times, is another path to victory.

Card powers can provide discounts, trade bonuses, extra production, bonus card draws, etc. Selecting which cards to build, which ones to spend as money, and when to explore to find the cards that will work best with the ones you have are some of the skills you will need in your quest to build the most powerful and prosperous space empire. Enjoy!

Race for the Galaxy is for 2-4 players, and each of the two projected expansions allow one more player to play. Typical game length is 20-40 minutes. (Expect the game to run a bit longer for your first few games until players are comfortable with the more than 90 different cards in the base set.)

Editor's note: This preview first appeared on on May 14, 2007.


Like many games, Race for the Galaxy has several sources. First was my unpublished CCG, Duel for the Stars, conceived and designed in the mid-1990s (with development assistance from Rob Watkins). In it, cards represented various things: worlds, which could be settled and developed; fleets, armies, and leaders, which could jump and fight among these worlds; and technologies (such as terraforming or cloaking) or government policies (such as free trade or deficit spending) which could be played on empires as a whole. Some worlds were unoccupied; others had alien races on them. Some races were friendly and could be economically absorbed; others were hostile and had to be conquered, unless one employed an empathic Contact Specialist to sway them to your side.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Hope that uniform
is machine washable
Each empire expanded from one world and, depending on which worlds it attacked or absorbed, could join various factions: the Imperium, Rebels, Uplift Worlds, Ancient Races, or Pan-Galactic League. Each empire could also advance its technology level, enabling the empire to decipher and play artifacts (cards that conferred advantages) left by the vanished Alien Overlords. Behind these concepts can be seen other inspirations, not only space opera, but Fred Pohl's "Heechee" books and David Brin's "Uplift" saga.

Duel for the Stars was an ambitious game, with many different sub-systems, but it was far too complex and long for the CCG market – experienced players still took 90 minutes to play it – so we never published it.

The second source was a prototype Puerto Rico card game that I developed. Over breakfast at Essen, Richard Borg and I came up with our concept for a Puerto Rico card game – that cards could be used for everything: what you build, what you pay, and the goods you sell or ship. A quick inquiry to alea publisher Stefan Brück (sitting two tables away) revealed that Andreas Seyfarth, Puerto Rico's designer, was already working on a Puerto Rico card game, so we abandoned it.

Several months later, Stefan requested that Richard and I begin work on a prototype in parallel to Andreas' work. (Stefan was concerned about a shrinking market window for publication.) After further email discussions with Richard, I began implementing, playtesting, and revising several prototypes. My first attempt was too close to Puerto Rico and unsatisfactory as a card game, but in successive versions I removed the Mayor, eliminated plantations (except Corn), turned the Settler into a card-selection mechanism, rescaled all costs to a 1-6 range, and instituted face-down discards (so that some cards could cycle through the deck unseen by players).

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Aim toothpaste –
now preventing cavities
on a global scale
I don't know how many of these features were also invented by Andreas – simultaneous inventions do occur – or were "obvious" given Richard's and my original idea, but I do know that I sweated over them, spending more than 400 hours over three months revising and testing a series of prototypes (in addition to my day job).

We presented the game to Stefan and, after further revision and testing, with Stefan arguing for market slips with varying prices, we agreed for him to present it to Andreas. A month later, Stefan informed us that Andreas liked our central idea but wanted to proceed by merging it with his own card set and ideas and developing the game separately. I was disappointed, but recognized that this was Andreas' prerogative. The result was San Juan, from which both Richard and I receive a small royalty in recognition of our original concept and hard work.

For the next nine months, I concentrated on other designs. Then, I began to wonder whether some of the mechanisms I had developed could be combined with the economic expansion portion of Duel for the Stars (the part players had enjoyed the most). After seeing San Juan, I thought the two games would be sufficiently dissimilar, so I approached Stefan, described my general idea, and got his consent to proceed.

Freed from Puerto Rico's shadow, I began to make changes. First was the action/bonus system. One of my favorite games is Rommel in the Desert. I really admire the way it compresses time when both players pass to build up supplies and troops for future offensives. Rather than force a number of different actions in a round, I would allow players, if they wished, to pick the same one. This allowed me to dispense with rewards for unpopular actions and to avoid player frustration, by always having all actions available to every player.

Next, I revisited the large developments. In both Puerto Rico and San Juan, they provide only victory points, whereas I wanted them to be strategic options, as in Duel for the Stars. I made each of them unique (unlike in San Juan) and gave them useful powers. This creates an incentive to build them early, balanced by their cost and the uncertainty of whether the player will actually find the cards that mesh with a given large development.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Rabin, Clinton and Arafat
broker a peace deal
in the Mideast Galaxy
I next removed the trading house and ships. Doing this avoids a central issue in Puerto Rico, namely that calling Craftsman often benefits downstream players more than the player calling it. By placing Produce at the end of the round sequence, the player that calls Produce can always leverage the resulting goods in the following round. By making Trade a Consume bonus – and not a base action – it no longer benefits other players. The other Consume bonus doubles VPs, so a player who sets up a large economy and calls Produce can score lots of VPs on the next turn.

Finally, by adding a military expansion route (and a way around it, the Contact Specialist from Duel for the Stars), combined with the variable tempo of Develop and Settle and the two different ending conditions (tableau size or VP chip exhaustion), the game is no longer about just constructing economic engines, which tends to mitigate some of the usual rich-gets-richer concerns.

These changes move Race for the Galaxy away from Puerto Rico's essentially tactical nature (with strategic underpinnings) towards a more strategic game, closer to Duel for the Stars. The larger card set (with over 90 different cards in the base game) also gives Race for the Galaxy a more CCG-like "feel".

Make no mistake, I consider Puerto Rico an absolutely brilliant game, but with Race for the Galaxy, unlike my Puerto Rico card game prototype, I was looking to do something quite different. Despite its strategic elements, Race for the Galaxy is a card game and players are dependent on the cards they draw. In Race you have lots of selection (since most cards will be just spent as money), and Exploration – to try to find the cards you need – is always an option, but the players who make the best use of the cards they get – as opposed to having a rigid plan – tend to win. Enjoy!

Editor's note: This preview first appeared on on June 18, 2007.


From gallery of W Eric Martin
"I would gladly pay
you Tuesday for a
hamburger today."
In this final preview before Race for the Galaxy is released (expected release at Spiel 2007), I'll touch on some issues that arose during its development.

Race for the Galaxy's initial development was extremely smooth, mainly because I reused so many card ideas from my old Duel for the Stars prototype. In one week, I constructed the first deck, tested and revised it, and had a working game which was quite popular with playtesters. One choice I made was to have a very large card set (over 90 different cards, some with multiple powers), but not to overwhelm new players with lots of "specialized" powers. Most powers are "parameterized" – that is, variations on a theme. For example, drawing one extra card when you sell a good and drawing two extra cards when you sell a good are two separate powers, but once you've learned one of them, learning the other power is trivial. Depending on how you count variations like this, there are about 37 different powers in the Race for the Galaxy base set. For comparison, San Juan has about 20 different powers for its roughly 30 distinct cards.

Within a few weeks, the base card set was fairly stable. Most revisions to base set cards have been to balance them with respect to expansion cards. Two-thirds of the cards in the base set have not changed since that first month. My initial prototype used simple graphics, with chits and screens to select actions. Enter Wei-Hwa Huang. He really liked the game and developed alternative graphics for it, including giving each player a set of action cards to select their actions and bonuses. Eventually, we merged our graphics together.

After alea decided not to publish Race for the Galaxy, Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games expressed interest. He challenged us to develop an icon only version, for ease of translation. Wei-Hwa and I spent a lot of time devising consistent icons and reference sheets, only to find that while experienced players could still play the game, most players – many of whom had been playing the game ten times a week for over a year – now didn't want to play any more and new players found the game too hard to learn.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
"Is that you, Ripley?"
Jay, however, really wanted lots of space on the cards for artwork, so we ended up dividing the powers into two groups: standard powers with card icons and no text which are briefly described on the reference sheet; and special powers, which have brief "hint text" on the bottom of their cards overlaid on the artwork (with all powers having a full explanation in the rules). This resulted in roughly half of the cards in the base set having no text at all (other than their titles). We tested this version with both new and experienced players and found it worked quite well, increasing the learning curve for new players by just a bit in exchange for more room for artwork.

One year into the project, the game was still so popular with playtesters that I devised an expansion, looking to provide enough cards for a fifth player, to introduce additional variety with new start worlds, and to flesh out some strategies which could be achieved in the base set only if a player got exactly the right cards. This expansion was well-received. Several months later, I presented it to Jay and he gave me some feedback from his own testing. To accommodate this, and to further flesh out the game, a second expansion came into being.

Why not combine these expansions into the base game? For several reasons, even ignoring commercial and art considerations – and getting all the artwork finished was already delaying the base game's publication!

First, each expansion adds a few cards that dramatically alter the "landscape" of the game, forcing players to rethink and adapt their play styles. I fully expect to hear that one card in the first expansion "breaks" the game, as I heard it from my testers until they adapted, developing a more flexible play style, at which point their complaints ceased. Combining these cards into the base game, and thereby forcing players to develop a very flexible play style right from the start, would be, in my opinion, a mistake.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Why would a game set
in space include a card
for French soup?
Oh, wait, never mind...
Second, some powers work best for experienced players who already know the card set. For example, the base Explore action is draw two cards, keep one of them. Now, consider this power: Mix the cards drawn during Explore with your hand before discarding. With this, you don't have to discard any useful cards drawn during Explore; instead, you can discard a card from your hand that doesn't fit with your plan. We observed that while new players can pick among just two alternatives (the regular Explore action) without much difficulty, picking which one card to discard from their entire hand – when they don't know the card mix – was both time consuming and a bit frustrating. By putting this power in the second expansion, however, experienced players can make use of it without slowing down the game.

Third, while variety, potential synergies, and possible strategies go up as new cards are added, the streakiness in which cards each player sees also increases. Consider the game Nuclear War. The base game, either alone or with just one expansion, works quite well. But if you combine all the Nuclear War expansions together, the streakiness in the cards that a given player draws really rises. Often, a player will have a hand of all warheads, with no missiles to launch them (or the reverse). This pitfall results from increasing the deck size, even while maintaining relative proportions, in games that draw from a central deck.

Many of the Race expansion cards are designed to work for several different strategies, to offset this increased streakiness. Despite this, the overall streakiness does increase when playing with both expansions. This both puts a cap on how many more expansions could be published without breaking the game and forces players to do more "chaos management" by being more flexible and adaptable depending on which cards they draw. Acquiring this play skill is easier for experienced players.

Despite all these reasons, based on playtesting, I believe most players will prefer to play with both expansions. That's not to say that the base game is incomplete – after all, it existed and was quite popular with several playtest groups that played it regularly for over a year before any expansion existed!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Exprès universel –
ne pas partir le système
solaire sans lui.
However, for the above reasons, I think that publishing Race for the Galaxy as a base game, followed by two expansions, is best for overall learning and enjoyment. Each expansion includes more than just new play and action cards. In the first expansion are some blank cards, so players can invent their own cards, plus a contest entry card for players to send their best card idea to Rio Grande Games. We've left two slots open in the second expansion, hoping to get a really neat card idea or two from our players.

One advantage of having the expansions already finished is that we could highlight terms (such as Imperium or Uplift) in the base set that have play effects in the expansion sets. Another is that we've been able to commission all the artwork as one long project, gaining artistic continuity. A third is that I could revisit the base game and rebalance it in light of the expansions, tweaking a few cards up in power relative to those that are more synergistic with the expansion cards. This is a luxury that few designers get!

Along the way, in the almost five years since Richard Borg and I had our initial Puerto Rico card game idea over breakfast, I've come to appreciate that the mechanism of paying for some cards by discarding others offers some of the variety and deck design possibilities of collectable card games in a non-collectible package. Players are effectively designing their "decks" as they play, by what they discard in payments and during exploration.

It's been exciting to see the very positive feedback that Race for the Galaxy has received from playtesters, and I hope that the final product is as well received. I do worry a bit about the game getting over-hyped. Some descriptions I've seen from non-playtesters on the web seem to be turning the game into something other than it is! I'd like to thank Rob Watkins, Richard Borg, Andreas Seyfarth, Stefan Brück, Mirko Mazuki, Martin Hoffman, Claus Stephan, and, especially, both Wei-Hwa Huang and Jay Tummelson for helping making Race for the Galaxy a reality. Enjoy!

Editor's note: This preview first appeared on on October 8, 2007.
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