Results tagged “race for the galaxy”

Friday links: Race and Dominion online

RFTGScreenSnapz001.pngTurns out that both of the card games I wrote about Monday have officially sanctioned online versions. Dominion’s had an internet-playable implementation on the beloved BrettspielWelt for some time, but I only today got around to trying Race for the Galaxy’s computerized counterpart (pictured here). Both games are perfectly functional and free to play, but have a cost in… well, let us say that a polished user interface is not the top priority of either effort.

The brazenly unstyled HTML of Keldon Jones’ Race for the Galaxy page lets you know from the start that he isn’t out to impress you with a razor-sharp UI. But if it’s Race practice you’re after, I find his solution far more satisfying than the solitaire variant that comes packaged with the card game’s first expansion set. Keldon has been developing this AI in the sunshine for nearly a year, updating it frequently, and it’s very good. It consistently kicks my butt, anyway, whether with the base deck or any of the expansions — every one of which the programmer has implemented, and which you can mix in or out before each game.

In the tradition of one-hacker game-adaptation projects, obsessive focus on the rules and AI leaves the UI a secondary concern. Even with the simplest setup, it’s hard to tell with this Race board when anyone draws cards, for example, or which turn-phase is active. However, it quickly earned my trust that it wasn’t skipping any of the growing pile of interacting rules-exceptions that build up over the course over a single game. The requirement for every player to perform their own bookkeeping represents the weakest part of the physical game’s UI — one that I mess up all the time, to the annoyance of my friends, who grudgingly allow me to draw the bonus card I forgot to draw two phases ago. But this computer game quietly makes a non-issue of it, and I like that.

The Race to Expand your Dominion

expanding colony028.jpgThe only thing worse than a flawed expansion to a good tabletop game is listening to some know-it-all groan about it. Complaints about expansions, after all, suggest their own unbeatable counterargument: So, don’t play with the expansions, then! It’s not like eschewing an expansion makes the basic vanilla game suddenly stop working, right? Perhaps we don’t enjoy Knightmare Chess, but we don’t therefore conclude that the original game is forever spoiled.

So, in an attempt to turn such grumbling into an essay worth reading, let me turn it around: I hereby declare that it is not just desirable but possible to design an expansion set for a good game in such a way that actually improves the game as a whole, rather than simply making it larger. So this fact makes it that much more disappointing when a solid game releases an expansion that adds stuff, but fails to add an equal-or-greater amount of fun. Fair enough?

As it happens, I can find one example of each between two often-compared games of recent vintage. Dominion (Donald X. Vaccarino) and Race for the Galaxy (Tom Lehmann) are both quick-playing card games that have earned tremendous cachet from tabletop gamers in the last two or three years. (The Gameshelf has itself ruminated about both games, via Kevin and Zarf, respectively.) Both proved successful enough to spawn several expansions apiece; Race got its third such set into print earlier this year, and Dominion — despite being a slightly younger game — will see its fourth in stores by the holidays.

Let’s look at Race for the Galaxy’s general expansion philosophy. What comes in each of its little boxes?

Dominion and Race for the Galaxy (but mostly Dominion)

I went to a game night last week at my FLGS, Eureka! Puzzles and More, and I played Dominion. I had such a good time with it that I went and bought it immediately following the game night. I then played it the very next night with the same people I'd played it with at the game night, and then again quite a few times at a party last weekend instead of being social. It's one of my current favorite games.

Everyone starts with an identical small deck of ten cards consisting of money and victory points (worthless until the end of the game). You start out by drawing five cards, and then each turn you use some of them, discard all five, and then draw five more. So after the second turn, you're left without a deck. No problem! Just shuffle your discard pile, and that becomes your new deck.

The fun part comes with what you can do with your money. There is a common supply of cards in the middle of the table, each with a cost. Besides being able to buy victory points and money, there are also 10 types of action cards chosen from a set of 25. The rules list a suggested set of 10 cards to use for your first game, and they also list four other sets that you can use. There are 10 of each of these cards, more of each of three denominations of victory points, and more of each of three denominations of money. The game ends when any three of these piles are empty (i.e., people have bought the cards).

So what do you do when you buy a card? You put it in your discard pile. So you're adding it to your deck, but you don't get to use it right away. What you're doing, then, is slowly building your deck up so that it becomes able to do more and more, eventually letting you get victory points so that you can win the game.

I would almost describe this game as a multiplayer solitaire. Yes, there is indirect interaction with the other players in competition for the action cards (if you buy up most of one type, that leaves fewer for the other players), as well as some bits of more direct interaction through several of the action cards (there are action cards that attack other players, doing things like messing with the top of their deck, making them discard cards, and giving them curse cards worth negative victory points). However, mostly you're just playing your own game, trying to keep your deck balanced between action cards and money—you can only play one action card per turn (although there are action cards that give you more actions) and can only buy one card per turn (although there are action cards that allow you to buy additional cards)—while trying to decide when to add some space-wasting victory point cards (remember, you only draw five cards each turn, and every victory point you draw is a slot in your hand that's not something useful).

Most of the games I've played have ended up being races to get your deck working well enough for you to buy victory point cards worth six points. Six points for one space-wasting card is the most efficient way to do things, but it can take a while to get your deck to a place where you're able to buy those cards, the most expensive in the game. There is a second way to end the game, emptying the pile of six-point victory point cards, and this is how most of the games have ended.

Of course, one way (and the most fun way, in my opinion) to decide on the 10 action cards out of 25 to use is to do it randomly. It's almost like you're playing a different game with each combination. There are over three million ways to choose 10 cards from the set of 25 (and of course there are going to be expansions to add even more action cards), and some of those ways can be very different from each other. For example, some games you can have lots of money. The "Big Money" suggested set of cards in the rules is certainly not misnamed, as you can sometimes buy two six-point victory point cards in one turn. In other games, however, it can be a struggle to do anything. A recent game I played included three attack cards and no defense cards (the set of 25 only has one defense card). One of the attack cards gave every other player a curse card, which is bad enough that it gives you negative victory points at the end of the game, but it also takes up space in your deck. Another of the attack cards allows the player the chance to steal money from other players. With those two cards in each player's deck, there was only one six-point victory point card bought the whole game (there are a total of 12), decks didn't grow very large at all, and the total number of victory points in the game at the end was the same as at the beginning (i.e., the total number of curse cards given out exactly balanced the extra victory point cards players bought).

Having played close to 20 games of this so far, I think I can safely say that there's high replay value, and I will certainly be buying the expansions when they come out.

I've read a number of reviews for Dominion, and many of them mention another game, Race for the Galaxy. Most of the mentions are along the lines of, "Dominion is not like Race for the Galaxy." I suppose this is because some people have compared the two, and it's easy to see why. They're both card games, they both have you building up your own little world (in Race for the Galaxy, it's a tableau of planets and developments rather than a deck), and they both severely limit interaction between players.

However, Race for the Galaxy feels much more like a multiplayer game than Dominion does, even though the player interaction seems less important. Whereas in Dominion you can do some limited messing with other players' decks, in Race, you can't effect other players' tableaux at all. For those unfamiliar with the game (and I assume people are more familiar with Race for the Galaxy, since Dominion is much newer), in Race for the Galaxy, there are five phases (explore, develop, settle, consume, produce), and at the beginning of each round, each player secretly picks a phase. Then everyone plays each phase, but any players who picked that phase get a bonus associated with that phase (drawing more cards, spending less on developments, etc.). There can be times you want to do things in two or three different phases during your turn. Being able to only pick one phase yourself, however, gets you to playing the guessing game, trying to figure out which phases your opponents will pick so that you can pick another phase and get the bonus. It's possible, for example, that you want to play the develop phase, but you don't need the bonus associated with it. If you are reasonably certain someone else will be picking the develop phase, then you can safely pick, say, the explore phase, thus getting the bonus where you get more cards. However, if everyone thinks the same way, you could all end up picking the explore phase, and then you will have to hang onto your development card until the next round (when, of course, everyone else picks the develop phase . . . or will they?).

This form of player interaction, being able to do something based on which phase other players pick and giving other players the opportunity to do something in the phase that you pick, makes for a game with a lot more significant player interaction. Now, maybe I'm wrong about this. I've only played three or four games of Race (if you don't count the dozen or so games I've played of the solitaire game, which comes with the first Race expansion—I'd go into that, but this post is already long enough, and this is mostly a post about Dominion), but they've definitely felt much more interactive than any of my games of Dominion.

However, I'd be hard pressed to say which of these games I like better (and their BoardGameGeek rankings are currently 8 (Race) and 9 (Dominion)). The higher level of interaction makes Race for the Galaxy more mentally stimulating, but the constantly changing selection of action cards keeps Dominion very fresh, forcing you to reevaluate the strategy for each set of 10 action cards. Dominion is also quite a bit more friendly to people who aren't into games that are more complex, which means I'm a bit more likely to find people to play Dominion. I haven't bought Race for the Galaxy yet, but if I don't get it as a gift in the next month or so (I've dropped several hints), I will definitely pick it (and its expansion) up. Even if I don't get as much chance to play it with other people, the solitaire game is enough to make it worth the purchase.

I wonder what a solitaire version of Dominion would be like . . . (OK, after typing that, I went and checked BoardGameGeek. There is indeed a thread about solitaire variants, but none of them seem compelling enough for me to want to try, especially when compared to the quality of the Race for the Galaxy solitaire play.)

Race for the Piggy

Blog regulars will be familiar with my attitude towards the New Hotness in games (of any sort). I hear about something cool, wonder vaguely if I should try it, hear about it some more, get told in strenuous voice that I must play it, avoid spoilers, hear spoilers anyway, procrastinate, and eventually -- after several months, perhaps -- I try it.

It's a secret blogging strategy. By the time I post about something, all the obvious things have been said by everyone else, so I am forced to come up with clever and original observations. (Witness my post about Portal. Hint: I am lying about the secret blogging strategy.)

There are of course exceptions; I have my fanboy obsessions. You will hear Myst news here still sizzling off the griddle. Text adventure technology, I'm pretty good about. (Text adventure games, I'm years behind on.)

Nonetheless, I sat around for weeks while all my friends learned Race for the Galaxy, a card game designed by Thomas Lehmann. By the time I went looking for it, it was out of print. Then it reappeared, and all my friends bought it (except the ones who fanboy-obsessively had bought it on day one). But I still didn't play it with my friends. Why? Because I was on vacation at Worldcon, where, as it happens, my other friends all showed up with Race for the Galaxy, and so I played it a bunch.

Clever and original observation: it's good!

Okay, skip that. How about this: Race for the Galaxy is better than any other game I know at being Interstellar Pig.

Interstellar Pig is, of course, the imaginary game in William Sleator's eponymous science fiction novel. If you spent your teenage years having the crap scared out of you by Sleator novels, you know it. If not, go read it. (Although House of Stairs is more brutal and The Green Futures of Tycho is better.)

The game is described pretty well in the book. Each player is a member of a different alien race, travelling around the galaxy. Each player has the advantages and weaknesses of his species, plus an array of tools, technologies, and weapons -- some in hand, most hidden on various planets. One player owns (or has hidden) the goal object: the Piggy. Whoever holds the Piggy when the timer goes off is the winner. The hunt is on; duke it out.

As given, Interstellar Pig is a lousy game. (No criticism; it serves its role in the story, and Sleator is a writer, not a game designer.) One player starts out ahead, knowing where the Piggy is hidden. Or one player starts with the Piggy, which should be a good strategy -- all you have to do is run away from everyone else. Several card combinations, and at least one single card, are described as unbeatable: if you have the deadly virus and its antidote, you can sit on the Piggy and watch everyone else die.

The use of a timer is all wrong for a strategy board game. Even if you convert it to a more reasonable mechanism -- a fixed number of turns, or some sequence of game events -- the games described are too short. The most a player can do is run to one or two planets to retrieve tools, and then try to get to where another player is heading (if you can guess who knows where the Piggy is). You may not get there in time -- unless you hit a wormhole, which is pure luck, or unless you have the (rare, overpowered) teleport card. If you do get there, you may find the environment unsurvivable with the tools you've got. If the factors do not align, all your play and planning are irrelevant. You just lose.

On the other hand, it's a great fictional game. And it has elements which are undeniably awesome. You get to be an alien, with powers and vulnerabilities which influence your strategy, and make each game a distinct experience. The game has lots of Stuff -- poisons, antidotes, weapons, protective gear, teleporters. The Stuff and the alien powers interact in interesting ways. Also, of course, it's set in outer space.

So if Interstellar Pig, itself, is not the ideal real Interstellar Pig game, what is?

Cosmic Encounter is an excellent choice. You are an alien race with an alien power! You're trying to conquer the universe! There's -- well, there isn't any Stuff per se, unless you count Flares. But I remember wandering through game stores when I was ten or twelve, staring with enormous eyes at the wonderful expansion sets full of alien powers and planets and moons. Now that was Stuff, in real life.

It's a wargame with rule quirks, but the rule quirks -- the alien powers -- are so pervasive that you are constantly thinking in their terms. Your game identity determines how you see every move and skirmish. That's the heart of Cosmic; that's why I played it every weekend during college.

This doesn't mean that other games can't be Interstellar Pig too. The Awful Green Things from Outer Space (as seen on The Gameshelf) is set in outer space; it has alien races; it has Stuff. (Pool cues and fire extinguishers!) It's a wargame clobberfest, rather than a hunt-the-prize game; but then Cosmic is clobbertastic as well.

The Awful Green Things from Outer Space is, most importantly, awesome. Particularly when you're twelve. It's not a particularly awesome game -- lots of room-by-room fighting; I could reasonably describe it as Risk with Stuff. But the theme is so delightfully done, with little cartoon aliens and critters and a three-eyed blue chicken. It glows with personality. It's impossible to pick it up without imagining you're there, pelting aliens in the Ward Room with canisters of zgwortz. It has a comic-book prologue and a CYOA epilogue! Nothing about this is less than awesome, and that's why it is Interstellar Pig.

And that brings me around to Race for the Galaxy. (Which I keep mispronouncing as "Rails Across the Galaxy", because Analog magazine was awesome too when I was twelve. But never mind.)

It's quick. It's in space. There are alien planets; there are technologies to develop, which are Stuff, close enough. It's neither an egg-hunt nor a wargame, but a civ-building resource race, the favoritest genre of discerning modern strategy gamers. And Race is a discerning modern game, designed with a careful eye to balance and strategy. Which makes it entirely unlike Cosmic or Green Things, those gleeful triumphs of the "heave your every idea at the wall and insist they stuck evenly" school of game design.

Why is it Interstellar Pig?

For all the care and finickiness of Race's rules, they all support the theme. Take an bonus card for your brown planets. Reduce the cost of yellow planets by two. Keep an extra card when you draw. Each of these, as you combine them with other powers, evolves into a game strategy. And as you play, each game strategy evokes a story: you are the mining combine, you are the interstellar explorer fleet, you are the technological hothouse, you are the fearless archaeologists amid the Forerunner ruins.

These roles aren't just labels for various suits of cards. Each has a different set of mechanics, and takes advantage of different rules. Theme emerging from gameplay, rather than painted on as "color", do you see? Nor are the roles assigned to you -- you figure them out. Select one, or part of one, or a mix of several; whichever fits your hand and your luck. That has always been the real root of interactive fiction: complicity. You care most about what you do.

Which is why, as someone who hasn't been twelve for a few years now, I think Race for the Galaxy is awesome. Just like Interstellar Pig.

(Although, I admit, not quite. To really be Interstellar Pig, you'd have to imagine that if you don't wind up with the most victory points, then all your planets explode at the end of the game. Now that's awesome.)



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