There is a story behind the development of every game. Race for the Galaxy by Thomas Lehmann may be about exploring the unknowns of deep space, but has taken a rather interesting journey of its own. It is something of the step-grandchild of Cosmic Encounter, by way of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Cosmic Encounter, in which players have one or more alien powers that change the rules to their advantage, introduced the concept of variable roles when it was first published in 1977. Twenty-five years later, Puerto Rico used a variation of the mechanic, only now with players choosing to produce, ship goods or build. The other players also get to do the action and the player who selected the action goes first and gets an extra benefit (to produce or ship one extra good, for example).
Because of the popularity of Puerto Rico, work began on a card-game version. Thomas Lehmann worked independently and in cooperation with Puerto Rico designer Andreas Seyfarth. Ultimately, however, Lehmann's version was not used when the game was published as San Juan in 2004. Undaunted, Lehmann continued to refine the game and combined it with a space-themed customizable card game he had previously designed. After literally thousands of play tests, the results are now available as Race for the Galaxy, published by Rio Grande Games.
Race for the Galaxy does a nice job of bringing Eurogame sensibilities to a theme that is more in line with the sort of adventure games popular with American gamers. Eurogames are great, but themes like settling and exploring space are a lot more compelling than trying to rise through an ancient European aristocracy. If you haven't played this sort of game before, you are in for a treat. This is a very nice use of what's known as an "engine-building" game, with the bonus of variable rolls. In an engine-building game, you acquire resources and factories that allow you to produce more. In this case, players are discovering planets and exploiting their resources.
Players simultaneously choose what they want to do in that game phase. Choices include to develop, explore, settle, produce or consume. The goods that players produce can be consumed for victory points or sold for more cards. All players are able to execute all actions, with the player who selected the action going first and receiving a bonus. Since these choices are made simultaneously, the ability to second-guess what your opponents will want to do is a nice advantage.
The cards have many uses and the amount of information on the cards can be a bit daunting. But by the end of the first game, everything should make sense in terms of what each card can do. There are combinations of cards that will work better than others, and discovering these is the essence to winning and much of the fun of the game.
For those familiar with San Juan, Race for the Galaxy adds some new twists and complications. For fans of adventure games, this is a compelling theme attached to the chassis of a rock-solid development game that will provide a challenge and plenty of fun.