I first encountered the board game Race for the Galaxy three drinks in and on a cheap IKEA table. I was initially intrigued by its sci-fi art and economic strategy angle, but quickly became frustrated because of its confusing rhythm and, frankly, my fourth drink. But I did fall in love after several more sober attempts, and am thrilled to see a high-quality digital board game adaptation arrive for Android, iPhone, and PC. While it lacks a local multiplayer mode, it crams the full Race for the Galaxy experience (the good and the bad) and three expansions into your pocket. It’s as fun and challenging as ever—but infinitely more portable.
High in Orbit
Race for the galaxy is an exemplary app and a brilliant adaptation of the original game. No one is more skeptical than I am, I assure you. The sheer number of possible actions and unusual turn format make it challenging enough when you have full-sized cards in front of you. The thought of shrinking it down for the small, handheld screen to me seemed nothing short of impossible.
And yet, here we are.
I tested the Android app, which is $6.99 on the Google Play store, and includes the entire core game along with a few additional cards unique to the app. That compares very favorably to the $30 price tag the box demands. The iOS and PC versions are functionally identical to the Android one I write about here. Most of my experience was on a Google Pixel, but it was the most fun on the larger screen of my Pixel C tablet.
Unlike Magic: the Gathering or Hearthstone, which are collectible card games, Race for the Galaxy is a limited card game. That means you won’t have to trade or buy blind boxes looking for good cards or have to deal with a secondary market full of collectors. You buy one box, which contains the whole game.
That said, you can spend more money on it, if you want. You get the core game in the app, and you can purchase expansions sets via in-app purchase. These are ported versions of the physical expansions titled The Gathering Storm, Rebel vs. Imperium, and The Brink of War. They cost $3.99 each, which is much cheaper than the $16 to $20 you can expect to pay for the physical box version. Note that some of these in-app purchases require previous expansions to work. Expansions include extra cards, additional game features, and even new ways to play. The Alien Artifacts and Xeno Invasion expansions, both of which change the game dramatically and are incompatible with some other expansions, are not available for purchase at the time of this writing.
The game includes Hard, Medium, and Easy AI opponents. I have played many, many games against many combinations of opponents and have been surprised with how well the bots hold their own against my years of human experience.
You can also play against friends online, either in near real-time or asymmetrically at your leisure. The game requires you to exchange codes with friends in order to play against them, which I really dislike, but you can also get into pickup games with the large community of players. I particularly like that PC, iPhone, and Android players all square off against one another regardless of platform. The game also include a cloud feature that lets you pick up games and sync friends between devices, though it’s a bit tedious to use.
What you can’t do is play against someone using your phone in what’s usually called pass-and-play. I’m a big fan of huddling around the phone (or tablet!) with people I love and playing board games, particularly while traveling. With Race for the Galaxy, you’ll need multiple phones, multiple copies of the app, and a Wi-Fi or cellular connection. That’s too bad, and it’s my biggest issue with the app.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
When I try to convince my friends to play Race for the Galaxy with me, the pitch goes something like: “It’s a sci-fi card game where you compete to build the best space economy.” I usually deliver this at break-neck speed, clutching my collection of expansion packs to my chest while my friends back away carefully, eyes wide, never to be heard from again.
I understand their reluctance, because even board game fans can find the Race for the Galaxy learning curve rather daunting. The premise is simple enough: earn the most points before the end of the game, which happens when any player places at least 12 cards in front of them, or if a supply of Victory Points is exhausted. Each card has a cost to put it into play that must be paid by discarding cards from your hand. These are more or less the same mechanics used in dozens of board games, from Magic: The Gathering to Dominion. Like those games, Race for the Galaxy uses only cards, each with unique and occasionally quirky sci-fi artwork.
Part of the confusion comes from the sheer number of exceptions the game has to its own rules. Some cards, for example, are placed not by discarding cards but by accumulating military points. Other cards represent planets that produce goods that in turn can be sold for extra cards or Victory Points, but only sometimes and in particular circumstances. It’s very frustrating to feel like you’re getting the hang of the game, only to be tripped up by yet another subsection of the rules.
Race for the Galaxy’s inherent complexity is only compounded by the innumerable color-coded and arcane symbols crammed onto every card. The game relies heavily on a unique iconography that may save space on the cards, but doesn’t provide much obvious guidance. Instead of having fixed options each turn, each player chooses one of six possible phases in secret, and then reveals which will be played out that round. This opens up avenues for strategy by trying to guess which phases your opponents will choose, but it can be bewildering for new players.
There are also a lot of cards to worry about. It’s not nearly as many as, say, a deck-building game like Dominion, but more than enough to slow down a new player, and even confuse experienced ones. In board games, it’s said that a game like Race for the Galaxy requires a lot of card literacy. Basically, the better you know the cards the better you play the game. That’s a challenge on a small screen where you have to tap to read the explanation for each card.
But if you play the game enough, you achieve a kind of escape velocity out of frustration’s gravity well. From a higher orbit, you can appreciate that while there are broad strategies, the sheer number of cards and available actions means that games play out differently each time. You can’t rely on card combos like those found in Hearthstone or Magic, which are fun to use but make games repetitive. It’s the very complexity that can make the game frustrating in early play-throughs that makes it increasingly compelling as your mastery grows.
In Race for the Galaxy, fortune can change quickly, so it’s smart not to be too devoted to any particular strategy too strongly. And despite all the apparent randomness the massive deck of cards provides, Race for the Galaxy has a satisfying rhythm that builds as each game progresses.
The Great Beyond
Like Star Realms, Race for the Galaxy reproduces the cards exactly as they appear in the physical game (although some appear to have shed explanatory text that instead, appears as a tooltip). Your hand appears at the bottom of the screen, with the phases of each round on the left, and a control panel of options that includes the number of cards remaining in the deck to the right.
Your tableau (that is, the cards you play) fills the center of the screen while your opponents’ runs along the top in miniature. The app does a good job of showing just enough information to keep you aware of what your opponents are up to, without cluttering the screen. Tap your opponent to expand their tableau, and tap any card on the screen to enlarge it, which also reveals additional explanatory text in case you’re ever confused.
I particularly like the pace of play, which goes especially fast you are when facing off against digital opponents. They dither far less than humans do. In the real world, a game is at least a 40-minute investment, but even against a human player you can finish up an app-based game in about 20.
Part of this is because the app is doing a lot of mathematical and logistical heavy lifting. Some late game cards, for example, have a point value determined by other cards in your tableau. Rather than having to count in your head, the app just shows the point value (although new players may not realize it) based on cards currently in play.
The app also helpfully reminds you take advantage of every new ability you gain. In some cases it does so automatically, such as increasing the number of cards you draw during the Explore phase. In a recent game, the app helpfully pointed out that the card I had just played allowed me to play another one, earning me extra points. I had completely overlooked that option, and wouldn’t have benefited from it otherwise.
All in all, it’s an elegant experience, and I had no trouble picking the game up and getting started. A new player, however, might struggle with the crowded app and brisk pace of play against AI-powered opponents. I got a taste of this when I tried adding all the expansions—some of which I am not at all familiar with. Doing so added many new chips and game mechanics so seamlessly as to leave me bewildered. The app does include a three-mission tutorial that covers the basics of the game, but the changes made by the expansions aren’t included. I’d like to see this expanded so the app can be a better entry point for new players—and experienced players dealing with new expansions.
Fully Automated Space Capitalism
If you’re a fan of Race for the Galaxy, it’s not so much a question of whether you should buy the app and its expansions, but why you haven’t done so already. The app is slick and expertly produced, and does the heavy lifting of scoring while providing reminders to help you play your best game. The AI players are worthy, and an online community of players means you’ll have no shortage of opponents. Finally, it’s just fun to play.
The game has some shortcomings that mostly affect new players: comparatively high price for an app, perfunctory tutorial, and no local multiplayer. Still, Race for the Galaxy is already an excellent game, and this app is an example of how to change a game’s form without losing its soul.