Race for the galaxy solo review: A modern classic. 15 years after its release, still a very solid game

I joined the party very late on Race for the Galaxy, but with the upcoming “Expansion and Brinkmanship” expansion reprint, I had to give it a try. As someone who’s not that big on euro design, I can say this is a brilliant game that is easy to learn but hard to master, and very fun to play solo. Even 15 years after its original release.

Disclaimer: Please note that this review will focus exclusively on solo play. I haven’t had the opportunity to play the game with other players more than once, while I now have 50+ solo sessions under my belt.

Race for the Galaxy – Solo Gameplay

Race for the Galaxy is a card game in which each player tries to score points for expanding their space colony, by settling on planets, developing technology, trading goods, discovering alien artifacts, or expanding their military power. Each player has a tableau of cards representing their planets and technology. These cards can produce goods that can then be traded for more cards or for victory points. The game ends when one player has 12 cards in their tableau, or when all available victory points have been consumed. This can go very, very fast.

Each round, players choose two actions they want to play from the following list: explore (Draw cards), Develop (play a technology card), Settle (play a Planet card), Consume (sell goods for cards or victory points) or Produce (generate goods from your tableau).

Note: his is the solo rule, in which both the player and the AI play two actions. In a “regular” game with 3 human players or more, each player actually chooses only one action per turn.

Once a player has chosen an action, all players get to do the action this turn, although the player(s) who did choose the action get an additional bonus. This is a pretty standard practice in euro games, where every time you do something, your opponents get a little something as well.

For example if you choose to draw cards this turn, everyone gets to draw two cards and keep one, but as the person who chose the action, you will draw three cards and keep two instead.

The AI also gets to choose which actions it picks, through a simple but clever dice-rolling mechanism. The randomness of the dice rolls is heavily mitigated by the clever automa mechanism, which interprets the roll result differently depending on its starting planet and what you picked this turn. It’s simple but brilliant, and the AI is brutal.

Race for The Galaxy AI ready to rumble

Once all players’ actions have been played for the round, you discard down to 10 cards if needed, then start a new turn.

Putting cards in play has a cost, which consists in discarding other cards. In other words, your hand of cards is the currency in Race for the Galaxy, so you constantly have to find ways to replenish your hand of cards, whether through trading, exploring, or other bonuses that some cards can give you.

Scoring points too fast is also not necessarily the best idea, as there is a limited pool of points from the beginning, and the game ends once they’ve all been consumed. As you play more games against the AI, the strategies that seemed obvious in the beginning (play as many cards as possible, as fast as possible to reach 12 cards in your tableau, or make the plays that give you the most victory points each turn) turn out to give sub-par results. This makes the game a nice challenge as a solo player.

Race for the Galaxy – Which Expansions for solo

Race for The Galaxy has had several expansions released through the years. The Gathering Storm is required for solo play, as it’s the expansion that ships with the AI components and rules. That Expansion was followed by Rebel vs Imperium, and The Brink of War, two expansions that add cards and are compatible with solo play.

The Gathering Storm is required for solo play. It adds a few new cards and starting lands, but as a solo gamer, 99% of its value is the great solo AI and components that ship with it. You’ll need it for solo, so as far as I’m concerned I consider it part of the base game.

Note: The Gathering Storm has been out of print for a while. If you only have the base game for Race for the Galaxy, but want to try solo, it’s technically possible to find the rules for AI play online, and replicate what the AI bot does with two regular dice. A less “copyright grey area” alternative is to try one of the many solo variants that can be found on BoardGameGeek. I personally had lots of fun with this one before I got my hands on The Gathering Storm. But it’s worth emphasizing that the solo mode in Gathering Storm is really better than any variants I tried.

Rebel vs Imperium and The Brink of War are both compatible with the solo mode, and I heard great things about them. Combined, they significantly increase the number of cards in the game. I cannot vouch for them, as they’ve been out of print for a while but I cannot wait for the reprint to add them to my collection.

Gathering Storm, Rebel vs Imperium, and Brink of War are what is called the First Arc of Race for the Galaxy expansions. They are the only expansions compatible with the solo version, which means the upcoming Expansion and Brinkmanship reprint, along with the base game, will constitute the “definitive” version of Race for the Galaxy, for solo gamers.

Additionally, Alien Artifacts (Arc 2) and Xeno invasion (Arc 3) are two other expansions for the game, that are not compatible with each other and/or with the first Arc. You basically play the base game with either Arc 1, Arc 2, or Arc 3, but not all together. To restate, for a solo gamer, only Arc 1 matters. I have not tried Arc 2 and Arc 3, so I have no opinion on those.

Race for the Galaxy – Opinion of the Solo game

I’m not a big fan of Euro games in general, let alone playing them on my own, but somehow Race for the Galaxy‘s solo AI works really well for me.

As a quick overview, I love the game’s learning curve with its “simple to grasp, hard to master” feeling, I love the AI’s clever-but-simple mechanism and its variations based on starting land, I like that the game plays under 30 minutes once you’ve got a few sessions under your belt. I kind of like the art and the theme, while realizing that they could be anything else and the game would probably play the same.

Art, Theme, components

A quick word on the game’s components: they are ok. The cards are of good quality, and the “point” chips are your typical cardboard tokens. the victory points artwork is simple “neon” but effective and works with the theme. No particular complaint here, the components do the job well.

The icons in the game are…surprisingly effective. My first reaction was that they were ugly and impossible to understand, with so many of them…it’s impressive how effective they actually are, after only a few games. On the surface, it appears like there are dozens of icons to remember if you want to play the game, but it turns out many of them are clever variations of other icons, that make perfect sense after a few games. I won’t say that the icons look “pretty”. But they are extremely effective, and I would urge people to look past the appearance of difficulty in their first few playthroughs. Once things start clicking, the iconography is not something that prevents you from enjoying the game, but on the contrary, helps you tremendously. It’s actually brilliant how much information they manage to convey, once you’re used to them.

The space-theme and the art on the cards is… ok, and I’ve grown to appreciate it. Other reviewers have mentioned that lore is lacking in Race for the galaxy, and that fans would appreciate some novels to get something meatier. The base game alone, in particular, is very dry on these details. There’s military, scientific discoveries, planets being colonized, Alien technology… it’s all a bit generic on the surface (apparently some of the expansions bring additional details for the lore).

And since it’s a euro game, the theme does feel like it could be anything. I won’t lie, there are a few times when I play where I’ve felt it difficult to “immerse” myself in the theme. But in practice, the Race for the Galaxy franchise has more and more games added to it, so one could say it did build its own lore with time. I’ll say though that the space exploration theme is what keeps me coming for more of this game, even if I know it’s just veneer.

Opinion of Race for the Galaxy Solo gameplay

Race for the Galaxy has become one of my favorite solo games.

I love that I can do “ok” at the game while still being beaten by the AI. After 50 games, I can see strategies shaping under the surface of my gameplay, while still not grasping them fully, which makes me excited for that learning curve. I’ve certainly improved but I’m still a noob at the game, and I can see that multiple strategies are viable. And I love that.

I love the game’s “easy to learn, difficult to master” earning curve. As a non Euro gamer, the rules initially appeared very difficult to me, and the icons very convoluted, only to realize that they are actually great. After a handful of games, I didn’t need to refer to the rulebook anymore because everything is actually clear with the icons. I think learning the game initially can feel a bit steep, but it’s not one of those games you’d ever have to re-read the rules for if you stopped it for a few weeks. Learning Race for the Galaxy feels like learning to ride a bike. The training wheels are only needed for the first 2 games. It’s incredible how much information is packed in the icons, and how easy it is to understand. It definitely did not feel this way the first time I looked at the cards.

On the solo automa: I love that the AI has different personalities and strategies depending on its starting planet, while still being intuitive to play. The AI design is simple but clever. This is particularly true after playing a bunch of other games with a solo Automa, such as Scythe. The AI options in Race for the Galaxy are much more simpler to operate than in other games, but still feel “real” and effective. More complexity is not always better, as perfectly demonstrated with its simple design. I think this works well in particular because Race for the Galaxy has often been categorized as a “multiplayer solo”: interactions between the players are somewhat limited, although you do want to see what your opponents will play to avoid giving them bonus actions if you can avoid it. The AI’s “copy what the human is doing” action feels particularly effective in that context.

Last but not least, I like that the game plays fast, around the 30 minute mark. Even though it’s short, after playing for 30 minutes, I have a satisfying feeling of having played a “full” game which was full of decisions and consequences. Race for the Galaxy solo doesn’t overstay its welcome for me.

Race for the Galaxy Solo – Conclusion

Despite its age, Race for the Galaxy remains an unparalleled game for solo gamers. It offers a brilliant solo automa, which is simple to use yet feels varied enough and tough to beat. The game in itself has a nice learning curve, which in my case ensures I’ll play it a lot before feeling I’m “done” with it. It also has a few solo-compatible expansions I’m really eager to try once they are back in print.

What I liked about Race for the Galaxy (Solo)

  • The AI has different strategies depending on its starting planet. It feels varied while being simple to operate
  • The game is simple to learn, difficult to master. The learning curve feels great, even against the AI
  • Short but satisfying sessions (about 30 minutes)
  • Multiple strategies (military, trade, development…), makes me want to “play once more”
  • I heard somewhere you can also play it with others

What I didn’t like about Race for the Galaxy

  • The theme can sometimes feel “plastered on” which doesn’t help with immersion

Games mentioned in this article

Race for the Galaxy
Check on Amazon (affiliate link)
Scythe
Check on Amazon (affiliate link)
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