Race for the Galaxy Steam edition review

A board game classic comes to PC's biggest platform, but is it necessarily the best way to play?

The groundbreaking 2007 card game Race for the Galaxy has made its way to Steam. In it, 2-4 players place cards in front of them and discard cards in their hand to settle planets (peacefully or by force), develop new infrastructure, build a trade engine, and pursue one of many paths to victory. Race for the Galaxy is part of the board game canon, and it’s one of the most popular board games in the world.

The first and most notable difference in the new Steam version, which is ported from mobile, is that solo play is now an option. Fast games against AI opponents are great fun, and this version is the only way to get them. The AI is extremely well-tuned: the easy AI doesn’t play completely at random, as is too often the case, but mimics the sort of play that new players might discover; the medium AI is considerably better; and the hard AI beat me eight times out of our first ten games. Eventually I learned how to beat it consistently, but getting to that point was a rich and fun experience. You can pause single-player games, or abandon them when it’s clear that you’re losing, or try out new strategies without fear of getting smashed by your friends. I enjoyed the excuse to find a dozen strategy articles online and discover the beautiful complexity of high level RftG play.

The game’s superb AI has been in development since 2009 by a fan named Keldon Jones – it was purchased by the publisher for this version of the game. Jones’s original simulator is still available at his website, but the interface is a very big hurdle. The interface in the Steam version is clean and easy to understand, and the new tutorial does a good job of teaching the rules to new players. Unfortunately, online play is miserable, thanks to a series of perplexing design decisions and, probably as a result, a very small player-base.

In Race for the Galaxy, a turn begins with each player choosing one of six phases in secret (two in the 2-player variant). These choices are then all revealed, and only the selected phases will occur in the following round. The player who chooses a phase gets an advantage during it, but everyone gets to participate. Players can Explore to look at new cards, Develop to place supporting cards, Settle to place new planets, Trade to turn in resources for cards, Consume to exchange resources for victory points, or Produce to create new resources on their worlds. Each card serves multiple purposes. The Industrial Robots card, for instance, allows the player to draw one card after placing a development and also allows them to draw a card during every Produce phase.

Part of RftG’s appeal is that it is strategically and tactically rich and filled with interesting decisions, but it only takes 15-30 minutes to play. When you’re new to the game, it feels a little bit like solitaire, and it seems like whoever can finish their plan the fastest will win. But after a while you learn to pay attention to what your opponents are doing and tailor your card choices to gain benefits from their actions better than they’re leeching from yours. There are layers of strategy, and each one is an epiphany when you discover it. Even after hundreds of games, decisions require careful consideration. Race for the Galaxy is beautifully designed and balanced.

RftG has long been one of my go-to games when I travel, because it fits easily into a suitcase and everyone who’s had the patience to really learn the rules has loved it. On one family trip, I taught a cousin and his girlfriend how to play, and they were up until 3am playing it over and over again after I went to sleep. Another two friends surprised me a week after I taught them how to play; they had purchased all the expansions, read online strategy articles, logged dozens of hours, and they utterly demolished me.

Teaching the game, however, is pretty damn difficult. Cards don’t use words to describe what they do – instead they’re covered with a lexicon of symbols, which are initially daunting to decipher. Once you can read the hieroglyphics, cards become legible at a glance in a way that, say, Magic the Gathering cards are often not. But some of my friends have given up after their first two-hour play session, unable to figure out what the hell was going on.

This is a pain point that Race for the Galaxy’s PC port ameliorates. In this version, you can right click on a card for a written explanation of what it does. An arrow with a dollar sign pointing to the blue rectangle with a smaller white rectangle that says “+1” next to it would be unintelligible to a new player, but the explainer text reveals that it’s simpler than it seems: trading a blue good will give you an extra card.

The tutorial walks the player through the mechanics of phase selection, the cost of card placement, and the benefits that a card can provide, and it does all of this much faster than I’ve been able to do with the physical game. It does not, however, provide new players with even an ounce of strategic advice. On the one hand, this leaves 100% of the game’s depth open for discovery, but on the other hand it leaves new players completely adrift – I always give hints about a few general strategies.

RftG has five expansions, but the Steam version only offers two for purchase. Of these, The Gathering Storm is an excellent, game-changing expansion. It adds new strategies and rebalances old ones, and introduces goals, such as the Budget Surplus goal that gives three victory points to the first player who discards cards by exceeding their hand limit. The goals add a pleasant wrinkle to decisions throughout the game. Rebel vs Imperium is not as good – the new cards are nice, but the new takeover mechanic is so frustrating that most people just play without it. At least there’s an option to turn it off in the Steam version.

Online play is entirely asynchronous; players either have a week to make each move, or they have thirty minutes. These are both terrible time limits. I once played an exhausting one-week move limit game of correspondence chess that took eight months, and decisions in RftG are nowhere near as complicated and interesting as those in chess. I can’t imagine the person who is willing to spend that long on a game of Race for the Galaxy. The thirty-minute move timer is also miserable. In my games, the other player would occasionally disappear for fifteen minutes at a time, so I was stuck waiting around at my computer, unable to leave and do something else that would take thirty minutes or more without possibly losing on time. More reasonable time limits would have been 24 hours and 2 minutes.

What Board Game Arena's version lacks in pretty visuals, it makes up for with a more robust player community. What Board Game Arena's version lacks in pretty visuals, it makes up for with a more robust player community.

Hot tip, though: you can play a much better version of multiplayer RftG for free at Board Game Arena. The interface isn’t as slick, but there are always players online and many of them are highly skilled. It has all five expansions, turn timers, and ELO ratings. It also puts the multiplayer in the Steam version to shame. Note that BGA’s version of the game is legally licensed, but it’s possible that the publisher could take it down. It’s still in active development on BGA, though, so this seems unlikely.

Wherever you play it, you should absolutely give Race for the Galaxy a shot. It’s a masterpiece. If you don’t have friends who will play it with you, the Steam version’s solo play is well-tailored and worth your time and money. It will prepare you for playing against real people -- just don’t expect to do that part on Steam.

Verdict: Yes