I’ve often thought that the science fiction genre was underserved in board gaming, and the games that do exist generally take several hours to play. I know we have games like Twilight Imperium, Ad Astra, and others, but I don’t always have an hour or five to try to take over the universe. What can I say, I'm a megalomaniac on a schedule. Well, luckily for sci-fi gamers, Rio Grande Games has put out a fast-playing card game that takes a novel approach to empire building, Race For The Galaxy. This game has body counts on a galactic scale, malevolant aliens, evil empires, noble rebels, and everything else associated with the sci-fi genre, but it only takes 20 minutes to determine the fate of the galaxy.
The game components include about 150 cards which are made up of action cards, world cards, development cards, and some extra cards for a 2-player advanced game. Further, there’s some nicely detailed summary sheets, a well organized and easy-to-read rulebook, and about 30 little chits to keep track of your bonus points. All components are of quite good quality, but the real stars of the game are the cards themselves. The art is breathtakingly well done, and the theme is smashingly adhered to throughout the game. I like the art reasonably well with most of the Rio Grande Games I’ve played, such as Mystery of the Abbey and El Grande, but this game really stands out as the best looking game they’ve ever made. It is simply outstanding. The illustrations are truly above and beyond what I expected, looking at the outer box, and it is so well organized, regarding the icons and information on the cards, that this is just an amazing card game.
The basic concept of the game is that the players are attempting to build up their galactic presence, scoring points for settling planets, overtaking military targets, and enslaving indigenous life forms. Now, while there is no specific verbiage in the rules calling you the Emperor of this spacefaring race, because I am a bit on the devious side I decided that players would be known as “Supreme Leaders of the United Terrestrial Systems”, or SLUTS, for short. It was either that or "Darth", and I've heard that title is getting a little played out.
Anyhow, the game starts with the players receiving two starting planet cards and a hand of six random cards, of which one starting planet and two cards of each starting hand is discarded. Players are also dealt 7 action cards each, and these cards are identical to all other players' action cards, aside from the color which represents their player color. Finally, each player then plays their starting planet in their tableau of cards on which you build an empire, discards the two excess, and the game begins. This tableau is essentially each player's area where they place cards that have been scored and are active in the game.
As SLUTS, players select an action card, simultaneously playing the cards so that everyone’s selection is secret until the reveal occurs. There are seven unique action cards, which allow a game phase to take place that turn, meaning that if no player takes one of the actions, that phase will not be available to anyone that turn. This very clever mechanic forces you to look at your opponents’ tableau and note how many cards they have in hand throughout the game to guess which action they will select, causing them to potentially aid you while retaining your ability to select an action that will not be beneficial to your fellow SLUTS. Further, since all selected phases of play are available to all players, the player who actually chose an action to play receives a bonus for playing it, whereas other players may still use the abilities but are limited in how they can utilize them. Finally, the action cards are persistent in your hand, so once the turn ends you collect the card you played for future use in subsequent turns.
The seven action card abilities really come down to five types , the first being the two Explore abilities, which allow you to draw seven cars from the deck and keep one, or draw three cards and keep two, respectively. This ability is useful early in the game, but as your burgeoning galactic empire grows, you will have a multitude of avenues to grow your hand. It is also wise to remember that you have a hand limit of ten cards, so management of your hand is quite an essential ingredient to being effective SLUTS.
The third is the Develop ability, which allows you to place installations into your tableau by discarding the amount of cards from your hand that is indicated on the installation card that you’re looking to develop. These installations grant you varied powers, such as reducing the cost of developing new installations, providing you with bonus point chits if you meet certain requirements listed on the card, or increasing your military value. Many of these installations also carry a victory point value, so developing them also increases your total score towards being the dominant species in the universe at the end of the game when cards in your tableau are scored.
The fourth ability is the Settle ability, which is similar to the Develop ability in that allows you to play a card to your tableau, but instead of developing installations, you're settling planets and establising colonies. Some of these planets are production worlds that will produce item cards such as Alien technologies and Novelty goods that can be traded for cards and bonus point chits, and some planets are militarily significant planets that require conquering. All of these planets generally have a victory point value printed on them, just as installations do, and thus these planets are another path to the righteous and glorious rise of your empire.
The fifth and sixth abilities are the Consume abilities, which allow you to trade items for new cards or utilize these items to trade for bonus point chits and other special abilities derived through cards within your tableau. The Consume:Trade ability allows the former, and the Consume:2X ability not only allows the latter, but if you were a player that selected that action, your scoring of victory points can be doubled. The Consume:Trade ability is the most often utilized method of taking new cards into your hand, and the Consume:2X ability is one of the only ways to acquire the scoring chits, which increase your overall victory points. This is a key element of the game, as once the starting chit pool, which totals 12 chits per player, is exhausted, the game ends. It bears mentioning that if anyone selects a Consume action, unless you choose the Consume:Trade ability, you are forced to consume all of your items within your tableau using any card powers granted by cards in your tableau, which can stymie your plans to trade the items for cards at a later time with the Consume:Trade ability.
The final ability is the most pedestrian of them all, the Produce ability. This simply allows you to place item cards on each of your planets that produce goods, and this is done by taking a card, face down, from the draw pile and setting it on top of each of the production worlds in your tableau. The type of item produced is static, and based upon the type of world you have banked. As such, some planets produce expensive goods that provide you more cards than the less expensive goods, forcing you to really think about what you want to produce down the road when selecting planets for settlement or invasion.
As noted before, the game ends at the end of the current turn when any player takes the last of the victory point chits, but the alternate climax of the game occurs when any player places their twelfth card into their tableau. Some developments have variable victory points depending on the conditions listed on the card text, and as such you must do a hair of math to make sure to score yourself properly. You simply add your chits in hand to your installation and planet scores, and the player with the highest score truly becomes the “Emperor of the Known Universe“, or "Head SLUTS".
Things I Absolutely Loved Beyond Compare:
*The game’s art is superb and draws you into the battle for supremacy in the universe
*With the varied cards and mechanics going on in the game, replay value is ridiculously high
*The speed with which you can rule as the One True God-Emperor makes this a game you can play two to three times in an hour
*There are currently 2 expansions in existence, "The Gathering Storm" and "Rebel Vs. Imperium" which provide you a boatload of new options and special abilities, as well as "The Brink Of War" expansion which releases soon
*At $23.00, this game is an outstanding value
*The space required to play and the small box size make this the perfect coffee shop/bistro game, playable anywhere, anytime
Things I Found Mildly Annoying:
*The learning curve with the symbology is a little steep, but playing one game through will be enough to make you proficient and hook you like crack…forever
*The game was not packaged with a laser pistol, blaster rifle, or lightsaber
This is an extremely fun game, and completely surpassed my expectations. The card art is incredibly immersive, and the simple, yet effective, mechanics make this a far deeper game than I would expect from a twenty minute takeover of the Milky Way. Two words define how I feel about this game: BUY IT.
To learn more about how to crush the galaxy under your anti-gravity boots, head to Rio Grande Games’ page:
And if you want to play it solo, for free, here’s the fan-made game download for both PC, and surprisingly, OS X: