App review: The Race for the Galaxy app shows why the game is still great, a decade-plus after the physical version first came out

Thanks to Temple Gates Games for providing a review copy of the Race for the Galaxy app and all current expansions.

Tom Lehmann’s Race for the Galaxy has made an incredible impact on the board game world since its 2007 release by Rio Grande Games, spawning five current expansions (with a sixth, Xeno Counter Strike, on the way) and inspiring long-term play in a way few other games of its age have. There’s a fascinating history to the game, especially in its production at the same time as San Juan and in the crossover between them (Shannon Appelcine details that here), and it made some important strides other games have since built off (simultaneous role selection, cards as currency),  but its enduring impact has been because the game is so good.

This has led to the recent iOS/Android/Steam Race for the Galaxy app by Theresa Duringer and Temple Gates Games. The app was launched last year and currently offers the first three expansions (The Gathering Storm, Rebel Vs. Imperium, The Brink of War) as in-app purchases ($3.99 each; the base game is $6.99). It also includes the New Worlds promo pack. The game is not just a faithful interpretation of what makes the physical game great, it’s one that even improves on it on some levels. This is an app that’s jumped right to the top of my current favorites, and it’s one highly recommended both for those who already love Race and for those looking to see what all the fuss is about.

Some personal context here; Race is quite likely the physical game I’ve played the most, hundreds of times at this point, and its previous digital implementation (a computer version by Keldon Jones, who will be mentioned more below) is definitely the digital board game I’ve played the most (probably close to 500 games at this point). I love physical Race for how it produces fascinating decisions in a short time frame, how it shines in a wide variety of multiple player counts, how it plays out so differently each time, and how it rewards both exploration and experience. The computer version kept all of that with some improvements, and now the app version (which I’ve played about 100 times over the last couple of months) has improved things even further. I’m a big fan of board game apps in general (I have about 40 installed across my devices), and this is one of the best I have.

How does this game work? Well, the app includes an excellent tutorial, which is one of its big steps forward and something that’s very important for a game like Race that’s often seen as tough to teach. The tutorial takes you through several training missions, introducing you to the various concepts of the game and to its iconography. And something that’s very useful is that you can always tap to expand particular elements, which will usually help clear things up. Plus, there are in-app rules explanations (accessible both in-game and outside of a particular game), which are particularly helpful for detailing the changes in any specific expansion.

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For those who are new to Race, the base idea is that each round has five possible phases that each player can do if they’re selected. Each player will select one phase per round, or two if playing with the advanced two-player variant (which is an option in the app). The phases are explore (draw some cards, then discard some), develop (play cards with diamond symbols into your tableau, settle (play cards with circle symbols into your tableau), consume (turn in goods for cards or victory points) and produce (put goods on your production world). There’s also a bonus trade action that can happen before consume and involves turning in goods for cards, but only happens for the player or players that select it.

A clever idea in Race is that each card can represent one of three things. Each card in your hand is a possible development or settlement for your tableau, but you’ll have to use other cards to pay its costs. And goods, when you get them (either by settling a windfall world, which comes with a good already on it but doesn’t naturally produce, or by settling a production world and then later producing on it), are also the same cards, but flipped face down, placed on the world in question, and never usable as anything else. Cards as goods doesn’t really matter in the app, but it’s a nice way to avoid adding another component in the physical game.

But the base idea that everything is either what it says on the card (development or settlement) or fuel to place other developments or settlements is a crucial one, and it brings in a lot of the game’s tough decisions. Many of the most powerful cards (especially the six-cost developments, which usually reward you with differing numbers of victory points based on what else you’ve built) aren’t easy to play, so you’ll have to sacrifice lots of other cards to get them out. Choosing what to hang on to and what to discard to build other things is a vital element here, and not an easy decision to make, especially as you don’t know what cards you’ll be getting next and what synergies they’ll have what you’ve already played.

The game is largely an engine-builder, with everything you play helping you in some way by giving you more cards or making it easier to play other things. At the start, you can’t do all that much, but as the game progresses, you’ll be drawing more cards, producing more goods, and playing higher-cost worlds and settlements. There are two main paths to take, military (which requires a bunch of specific developments and worlds to get going, but then lets you settle military worlds without discarding cards) and civilian (which often involves a lot of producing and consuming goods), and you start each game with at least the theoretical option of either; you’re dealt a military starting world and a civilian starting world, plus six other cards, then have to choose one of the worlds and four of the cards to keep. This opening decision provides a useful look at what path might make sense to explore, but it’s possible to shift course later on if you draw other cards, or even to do a little of both paths.

The game then moves through its cycle of rounds. Each round involves phase selections at the beginning and discarding down to 10 cards in hand at the end. This continues until one player hits at least 12 cards in their tableau (there’s one particular card that lets you go to 14 before triggering the end of the game, but only one), or until the victory chip supply is depleted (the pool size is 12 times the number of players). Scores are then tallied based on the victory point value of each card in each player’s tableaus, the number of victory point chips each player has, plus potential bonuses for goals or prestige if playing with expansions.

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Something that’s awesome about the app is the sheer speed of play. The physical game doesn’t take too long (the box lists 30-60 minutes, and games with new players can be on the upper end of that range, but games with experienced players can take place in as little as 15 or 20 minutes, especially with the advanced 2-player variant), but the app improves on that. I just played a match in four minutes (base game only, vs. one AI, 2 player advanced variant), and an average match against the AI  probably takes me between five and 10 minutes. Moreover, any slowdown is probably more about how long it takes you to think rather than any delay from the app; the AI makes its decisions very quickly, and the animation speed is quite fast. And games with other players (online play is available) are also quite fast, and the app even lets you play multiple games at once (online and/or against the AI) and jump quickly to whichever one it’s your turn in.

A big part of that time improvement over the physical game comes from the automation of setup and of dealing out cards in each phase. This game comes with a hefty deck, especially when you incorporate the expansions, and it can take a little time to get it all ready. The app speeds that up significantly, and it makes sure the rules are all followed and everyone gets what they need in each phase. But there are improvements even beyond that; it’s much easier to inspect your opponent’s tableau digitally (and thus figure out what phases they may select, a big part of the game), you can also see what level of points they currently have, and the app presents how many victory points each six-cost variable VP development will earn you based on the present state of your tableau (which is a huge step up from the computer version), eliminating mental math that can slow the game down. This is also key when it comes to final scoring, which can take a little while with the physical version, but is incredibly fast in the app.

Where the app is also very useful is in expansion sorting. Each of the three expansions available as in-app purchases have their own cool features that tweak the game, in addition to a new array of cards, and after you buy them, you can select to play with any or all of them. On the tabletop, that would be an incredibly cumbersome process; yes, the cards are marked based on what expansion they come from, so you could theoretically pull expansions out after you add them in, but that would take quite a while. It generally makes more sense just to play with all the expansions you have (at least, expansions #1-3, which work together and are the ones available in the app; expansions #4 and #5 are supposed to be played with just the base game) than to try and sort them out. But in the app, after you’ve played the most complex version with all the expansion elements, it’s easy as anything to go back to just the base game for a change of pace. And that adds further replayability here; base Race is quite different than the Race at the end of the first expansion cycle, and both are fun experiences.

Also, a huge selling point of this app is the AI. Race has a long history of solo play, with the first expansion in 2008 including official solo rules, and that led to Keldon Jones creating the first version of an AI for it in 2009 as part of a research project into neural networks. He’s improved and refined that AI over the years, and it’s included in this app, now with various difficulty settings (which is good for those who don’t like how brutally challenging the hardest-level AI can be). There’s a good description of just how this AI works and what makes it distinctive in this Venture Beat piece on the app from December:

Race for the Galaxy has been one of the top-selling digital card games this year partly because of the neural network that powers its AI. Race for the Galaxy uses a temporal difference neural network This knowledge-free system does not require human input to generate training data, which makes it extremely efficient for a small team with limited resources.

Instead, it learns by playing randomly, making predictions at the turn level on which player is winning, and updating the weights in its multilayer perceptron architecture such that the change between predictions from one turn to the next is diminished. Through this method, over 30,000 training games, it has learned the black box function that best represents the relationship between input (the state of the game) and output (prediction of who’s winning) for the neural network that drives our AI. This makes the game replayable over time.

Duringer tapped an artificial intelligence engine developed by AI pioneer Keldon Jones. Jones created the AI for Race for the Galaxy as a research project on neural networks. He released it as open source code, and Duringer used the A.I. as part of her game in a partnership with Jones and Lehmann. Jones’ method was based on one created by Gerald Tesauro, who created TD Gammon, which is based on backgammon.

The AI here really is great, making smart decisions incredibly quickly, and the easy/medium/hard settings for it are excellent. Even the lower levels can provide a challenge, but they’re not insurmountable even for beginners, while the hard level remains quite the opponent even for seasoned veterans. And that speed should be praised again, and it’s a big part of what keeps me coming back to this app, especially for solo play. Online play can be interesting, with options for real time (30 minute max) and longer games (1 or 4 week maxes), and there are usually a fair amount of people there, but the solo game really shines for me; it’s an opponent that’s always around, that’s quite customizable, that you’re never waiting on, and that can finish a game in 10 minutes or less. That’s tough to top. Oh, and you can play against multiple AIs at once, allowing you to experience the differences in a larger-player-count game without actually having to find more players.

So why keep coming back to Race after all these plays? For me, it’s the card combos. Each game has its differences based on what cards you draw when, and there are tons of interesting combinations to explore. And that’s especially true when you add in expansions, which bring in goals (The Gathering Storm), takeovers (Rebel Vs. Imperium) and prestige (The Brink of War) in addition to hordes of new cards. But the base game alone has a ton in it, and even drawing the same cards you’ve held in previous games often doesn’t feel identical, as the order you draw them in matters, the decisions you make with them matter, and what your opponent does matters. The physical game’s held my interest for over a decade now, and the app’s provided me with another great way to experience it, one I intend to keep exploring for years to come. And hey, if anyone’s looking to play…let me know.

The Race for the Galaxy app is available on iOS and Android for $6.99, with expansions available as further in-app purchases for $4.99 each. Screenshots seen here are from the game page on the Apple and Google app stores.

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Review: Power Grid packs a fascinating economic simulator with a surprising amount of theme

Hermann sat at his desk with his head in his hands. The decisions he made next would likely determine the fate of his company; would they continue as one of Germany’s top power providers, or would they be surpassed by their rivals? Should he convert their plants from coal to oil to try to take advantage of market price fluctuations, or would it be better to pay the high-upfront cost to invest in renewable energy? Should he expand their network at once and pay the price, or could he gamble that others would leave compelling cities alone until the next year? None of these calls would be easy ones to make, but together, they would lead the company to staggering success or complete and utter failure…

Power Grid: 

Published: 2004

Publisher: 2F-Spiele, Rio Grande Games, others

2-6 players

120 minutes

Power Grid's USA map, one of two (with Germany) in the base game.
Power Grid’s USA map, one of two (with Germany) in the base game.

Power Grid, Friedemann Friese’s 2004 design (which is a reimplementation of his 2001 design Funkenschlag), remains a classic of the boardgaming world over a decade after its release. It’s currently the 12th-highest-ranked game on BoardGameGeek, which says a lot about its staying power, and, so far, it’s spawned 16 official map expansions (in packs of two), two variants (The Robots, The New Power Plant Cards) and even two spinoff games (Power Grid: Factory Manager and Power Grid: The First Sparks). It’s had a 10-year anniversary deluxe edition, and is about to spark another new variant expansion, The Stock Companies. So, after all this time, what value is there in still talking about it? Well, from this corner, there are a few things. Power Grid‘s well-crafted design manages to marry theme and mechanics in a way not frequently seen, while its balance and elegance make it both approachable for newbies and rewarding for veterans (as well as a go-to case in point for discussions of mechanics), and it also provides an excellent example of one of the best approaches to expansions. After over a decade of playing it, it’s still probably my favourite game ever, and it’s one I hope to play many more times in the future.

The Germany map, one of the two in the base game of Power Grid.
The Germany map, one of the two in the base game of Power Grid.

Why does Power Grid work so well? Well, let’s begin with the theme. This may not be something that first springs to mind for many, given this game’s focus on mechanics and lack of flavour text, and it’s possible that these mechanisms could still have produced a game with another theme or without a theme at all. As with some other great Eurogames, though, there’s an argument to be made that Power Grid is very strongly thematic. The mechanics really make you feel like you’re running a power company, through the tense decisions on what form of power to pursue, the challenges of when and where to expand your network, and the competition with other companies. The expansions also play into this perfectly, as the different maps come with different resource supply tables and often some different rules as well, all of which reflect the particular circumstances around generating power in those countries.

Those mechanics deserve further discussion. I won’t go into a full analysis of how to play (the full rules can be found in a PDF download here), but the game involves an elegant five-phase turn structure that manages to stay relatively simple while still providing a ton of depth. The first phase is just determining player order for the turn, but that’s so crucial in this game that it’s even re-evaluated after the second phase of the first round. Going last is a huge advantage in Power Grid, as that allows you to potentially buy the most-advanced plant available in the auction and certainly get the best prices on resources and the first opportunity to expand your network. The game uses this as a crucial catch-up and balancing mechanism, making the player who’s in the most cities (or, in the case of a tie, has a higher-numbered and at least theoretically more advanced plant) suffer the penalties of going first.

A vertical look at Power Grid's Northern Europe map.
A vertical look at Power Grid’s Northern Europe map.

The second phase is the vital auction of power plants, which allows players to buy one plant each (or none at all) from a selection of coal, oil, garbage, nuclear and wind (or ecological) plants. The third phase, buying resources, and the fourth phase, expanding your network, both proceed in reverse player order, again reinforcing the importance of being last; resources can be much cheaper if you buy first (especially if you’re targeting one of the same resources others are also using), and many cities are closely contested (especially as the game only uses a limited number of regions at lower player counts, creating plenty of tension). The fifth phase is just a bureaucracy phase, which sees players paid for how many cities they’re able to power and the resource and power plant markets restocked. One note with this phase is it can be greatly sped up if there’s an experienced player at the table; the gap to entry isn’t that high in general, as Power Grid can be mostly figured out by new players who have read the rules, but if someone who knows the game can handle the various adjustments in the first and fifth steps, that can really reduce the learning curve for newbies.

The end game is worth discussion, too. Unlike many economic games, money isn’t the be-all and end-all in Power Grid, and it actually only serves as a tiebreaker. The game ends at the end of the round when someone builds to 17 cities (21 in a two-player game), but the triggering player isn’t always victorious; the winner is the player who powers the most cities at the end of that round, so if you don’t have sufficient power plants or resources for your network, or if someone’s able to build to and power 18 or more cities after you go, you’re out of luck. This end game works on several levels; it (aided by the turn-order mechanism) helps prevent runaway leaders, as leaders need to accomplish a lot of different things to actually win, and it often leads to exciting finishes, with several players coming close to the goal. Victories by just one city are common, as are ties broken by money.

Power Grid's Quebec map.
Power Grid’s Quebec map, where the cities of Montreal and Quebec City play a critical role.

So, how does this actually play out? Well, one key component of the game is tension. Almost every decision in Power Grid is tense, from how much you can afford to bid in auctions to when to grab a different type of power to when it’s worth expanding your network. A brilliant source of tension is that turn mechanism; expanding your network to more cities gets you more money, but the rewards diminish over time, and you have to carefully weigh if it’s worth it compared to the extra resource cost you’ll receive for going first and the diminished city selection you’ll receive in the next round of network expansion. The auctions are always interesting, too, as you have to balance not just a plant’s intrinsic value, but how it fits with your other sources of power (diversifying can be crucial) and how it compares with what everyone else has (if you all have coal plants, the price of coal is going to shoot way up, making those much less desirable in the future).

Beyond that, you also have to try to get into your opponents’ heads. What type of power are they going for? Do they actually want what they’re bidding on, or are they trying to drive the price up? Will they expand to that city you’re targeting this round if you don’t, or are they likely to go another way, giving you some breathing room? Thus, there’s a ton of player interaction and potential conflict here, making this anything but the oft-derided multiplayer solitare.

Power Grid's Spain and Portugal map. No nuclear plants are allowed if you're only in Portugal.
Power Grid’s Spain and Portugal map. No nuclear plants are allowed if you’re only in Portugal.

An advantage of Power Grid is that despite its high interaction, it’s rare to see complete screwage. Yes, someone may take the plant you want or the connection you were targeting, but you can always pick another plant or build through a city to go somewhere else. Yes, players may buy the cheap resources you wanted, but you can usually still do something, and you can change plans to focus on a different form of energy. Moreover, the turn order mechanism slows down the leaders and benefits those who are falling behind, keeping them invested in the game. (That may seem artificial, but it can be thematic as well; expanding a real power network without consideration for the greater resources needed would likely seem to be expensive as well.) This is a game that keeps most of its participants in it throughout, and that’s a good thing in a game that estimates two hours of playing time (this can vary substantially though, as less players makes it go faster, experienced players make it go faster and some gaming groups can play through this quickly, while others may take longer to make decisions); there aren’t too many games of Power Grid where someone’s completely out of it.

One of my favourite parts of Power Grid is how it’s been expanded cleverly over the years. The different maps add a lot of replayability to the game, as they all feel very different given the different geographies, resource refilling tables and location-specific rules. Some maps, such as France and Italy, are mostly just twists in geography and resource supply, while others, including Australia (uranium mines), China (state control of the plant market), Japan (starting two separate networks), and Korea (different markets for North and South) offer bigger changes to the game’s rules. These expansions have been done well; each feels like you’re really playing with the constraints in that country, and the different maps are unique enough to provide a new experience and flavour, but not so game-altering that they change the difficulty curve or add significant hurdles for new players. The new power plant cards also provide variety without dramatically altering the game. Power Grid is a great game out of the box, and would have tons of replayability even if the base set is all you bought, but the expansions add significant value and give you new ways to enjoy the game without overcomplicating it.

Power Grid Northern Europe
Power Grid’s Northern Europe board, with money, resources and power plant deck set up. Each of the countries on the Northern Europe board focuses on different types of power, and hydro power is a key part of the game.

Something else that should be discussed is how well Power Grid scales. The two-player game can be a lot of fun, as can the six-player game, and the time added with more players isn’t always that substantial (especially if one experienced player can organize the bureaucracy and turn order phases and keep the game moving along). A big part of this is the rule that you play in fewer regions with less players, which keeps the competitive network-building interactions at a frenzy regardless of player count. Six players is probably my favourite for this, as the auctions get particularly interesting with that high of a count, but I’ve played lots of two-player Power Grid (both with and without the dummy player variant The Robots adds) and always enjoyed it. BoardGameGeek user GameRulesForOne’s unofficial solo variant is also a lot of fun.

This game isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, of course. There is math involved in playing well, calculating how much money you’ll need for a particular network expansion or a new set of resources, so if you hate numbers on sight, Power Grid probably isn’t the game for you. The economic/network-building/power-generating theme isn’t something that appeals to everyone, either, and the way it’s implemented (largely through mechanisms rather than text) may not draw everyone in. Also, collecting large numbers of expansions is probably only for those who love it; I’d recommend trying the base game (which has plenty of replayability itself!) first, and then perhaps researching and seeking out the specific expansions that appeal to you. With all that said, though, this is still a fantastic game, and one I’d recommend most gamers at least try.

Would Power Grid still do well if it was published for the first time in 2015? From this corner, absolutely. Yes, there have been plenty of valuable developments in game design in the decade since, but nothing really stands out as something missing from Power Grid. Its elegance, approachability, mechanical balance and theme make it a game that still stands up well today. It’s still one I always enjoy, and one I hope to play for decades to come. Power may corrupt, but Power Grid mostly just causes addiction.

Thoughts on Power Grid? Thoughts on what you liked and didn’t like about this review? What you’d like to see more of in the future? Leave them in the comments, or discuss them with us on Twitter or Facebook.