Race for the Galaxy is a relatively new Rio Grande Games product. In this game players "discover" planets. Through the course of the game they then "colonize" and "develop" the planets. The winner is the player who has the most extensive and successful space empire. Race for the Galaxy has been a huge success for Rio Grande, let's see why that's been the case.
In the beginning of the game players are dealt a hand of cards. The cards are illustrated either with a picture of a planet or a picture of some improvement, concept or organization that one could find on a planet. Examples of the latter include "Genetics Lab," "Rebel Base," or "Colony Ship." Players begin play with a single planet in their empire and the hand of cards.
Over the course of the game players choose how they want to improve their empire. One player may wish to "explore" and draw new cards for their hand. A different player may wish to "develop" a planet, or "settle" and place a new world down in their empire. Over time certain planets may receive improvements (like a genetics lab) and be more productive. Having a hand with many cards increases the chances that one will be the sort of improvement that helps the most. Players can then exchange goods produced on planets for victory points.
The game is ultimately scored on victory points. You can get points for having a productive planet, for accomplishing certain goals (such as having many mining worlds), and even for having planets which consume goods. This leads us to the game's strength, and potentially its weakness as well.
I think there's a lot to like in Race for the Galaxy. The rules are fundamentally simple. The concept of exploring the galaxy and managing planets is exciting (to me at least). The components are good quality and well designed. Further, there aren't many similar science fiction games available at such a reasonable price. Finally, the game is subtle and complex enough to satisfy serious gamers.
This leads to a few caveats. There are many different strategies for winning Race for the Galaxy. The variety of planets and possible improvements is terrific, and also potentially intimidating. There are worlds that must be conquered and multiple ways to accomplish the conquering. While the specific rules are short and simple the cards all provide exceptions and special rules. The result is a manageable game with a multitude of variations. For this reason I can see Race for the Galaxy appealing to two groups of people. Serious gamers love the game- it's a big bestseller. In addition players of collectible card games (like Magic or Pokemon) will find the rule structure familiar. That being said, casual gamers or people who want to learn and master a game in one setting will find Race for the Galaxy to be way too complex.
I personally like the game and would recommend it to older players with motivation. There are expansion sets available and the game looks to have huge replay value. The box says ages 12 and up, I might add a few years to that unless your 12 year old was really interested and good at managing rules. Again, card gamers may have a head start.
Race for the Galaxy is available at Pandemonium Books in Central Square and at Your Move Games in Davis Square.
Pros: Exciting and challenging, you're building a space empire!
Cons: Not a game to be picked up and played in an hour, expect to Learn the rules
Beyond the Basics: Huge replay value and many expansions