Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Race for the Galaxy: Robot Wars

I rolled the dice. I studied them. Another develop action for the robot. Looking upon its towering draw deck, I despaired. Victory was all but lost to me.

Race for the Galaxy is fun, quick-thinking, quick playing. I've played many times on-line at For me, the computerized game fails in a couple of ways, making it still necessary at times to turn to a amazing design included in the Gathering Storm expasion: The Race for the Galaxy solo Robot!

I can hear your voice now:

Why would you ever want to fiddle with a stupid robot, rolling dice and sliding chits around, when you could just go online and play against REAL human beings?

The Voyage Home

Board Gaming is the method by which we escape the computer screen. Just about my entire life is spent in front of a computer or a television. Typing up stuff at work. Watching the latest Game of Thrones episode with my wife. Achieving total victory in my son's Mario Kart challenge. While offers an essential link to other gamers 24 hours a day, it is through a medium I already interact with way too terribly much.

But perhaps even more importantly, the computer version of Race for the Galaxy makes me sloppy, sloppy, sloppy! I might as well slide on a pair of clown shoes and a rubber nose.

You see, the computer (and in this case I mean an ACTUAL computer, not this bizarre cardboard playing mat on my dining room table) keeps track of stuff for you.

It knows how many cards you need to draw. It knows the amount of cards to pay to put developments and settlements out (even with discounts!). It keeps track of victory point chits for you.

The end result: the more I play, the more I forget exactly how to do any of these things. uses a timer to keep its players moving along at a good clip. Keeping the experience moving is a necessary part of a real-time game over the Internet. But it combines with my own forgetfulness to create a slobbering animal where once sat a man, playing cards "fast and loose," by instinct alone, and occasionally totally screwing up.

I might decide to settle one turn. My opponent decides to develop. I get excited and develop a card during his/her turn. BUT THEN I cry out in horror as I realize I don't have enough cards left to do the actual settle action I wanted! The burning, grinding pain of passing your turn during the settle action YOU CHOSE. The cold, dark shame you feel afterward. Both things I wanted to avoid.

The final nail came when I decided to take the Race for the Galaxy Robot for its first spin. And…I had to look in the rulebook to see how many cards I needed to draw to start the game. Was it 5, 6, or 7? Sad things done by a sad man.

How does the Robot work?

The Robot works nothing like a human player. You aren't going to get any strategy tips from this thing.

The crazy playing mat is the center of the action. Not only does it keep track of the robot moves (you roll dice) but it also keeps track of your actions (no need for action cards!) by sliding a couple of chits around.

So first you figure out what you and the robot are doing. For your actions (and responses to the robot's actions) you play the game normally.

For the robot, there's no hand, tableau, resources or anything else. It's a little bit of an Undiscovered Country.

For instance: in the above image, the robot explore action is to draw 3 cards (these are placed in a seperate pile called the "robot draw stack") and move the credit chit over 1 space. You see, the robot doesn't build an economic machine like a human opponent does. Instead, 2 attributes called credit and economy go up and down to simulate the synergy and development a human player is going to use.

The icons are pretty crazy. And each starting world has its own set of unique action modifiers, so the robot plays differently depending on which start world you give it.

I thought it was super weird. I might have been a little unhappy at first, too. But the more I played, the more I realized the robot was copying a human player in all the right places. Without a lot of the annoying record keeping and hand-shuffling I would have to do for a traditional "dummy" player.

This robot manages to punish you in all the same ways a human would. It draws extra cards when you try to explore. It plops down huge developments when you least expect it. It racks up insane victory points ever time you try to consume.

And I think I might actually be turning into a better player.

As I said, you don't really learn anything watching the robot play. But you do learn a few things watching yourself.

When you explore, you are always helping the other player. During a settle or develop action, they might not be able to afford to play a card. But they can always draw. So explores are pretty bad, and should be avoided at all costs. Another thing I had gotten lazy doing on the computer!

All the other actions have consequences as well. Develop and Settle actions both advance the robot. As do Consume and Produce actions. And you see all this because you are physically moving pieces all over this mat.

Playing the computer game, I often slip into a state of mind where I'm only thinking about myself. The logical antidote to this problem is forcing myself to carry out my opponent's actions as well.

The result…sometimes victory, but always satisfaction. It's a relaxing, mentally stimulating pursuit I can take at my own pace. I can only hope your next gaming experience is the same.

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