Race for the Galaxy accessibility teardown

Race for the Galaxy (2007) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameRace for the Galaxy (2007)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [2.98]
BGG Rank48 [7.76]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Thomas Lehmann
Artist(s)Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan and Mirko Suzuki
Buy it!Amazon Link

Version Reviewed

English first edition

Introduction

Race for the Galaxy is an excellent game that doesn’t care if you want to play it. Its arcane iconography serves to make it as welcoming as the ‘rooms free’ sign at the Bates Motel. Its expectation that you match and master the tempo of its demanding action system requires players bring a lot of themselves to the experience. While it’s certainly, in our view, a better game than San Juan there’s a strong case to be made that even with its banal theming San Juan is a good deal more approachable. It’s been hard during the review, and indeed this introduction, to not use the word ‘accessible’ to describe how welcoming it is to newcomers – that particular definition has common acceptance but it’s not the kind of accessibility we’re concerned with here. That accessibility discussion begins now. A long, long time ago in a pastiche knockoff universe far, far away…

Colour Blindness

Taking the photos for the colour blindness section here took as much time as I’ve spent taking all the photographs of some other games. It’s not at all a straightforward topic with Race for the Galaxy because colour is used liberally and in subtle ways. The most obvious place it comes into effect is when dealing with planets and their various dispositions, specifically:

  1. The halo that defines whether they are a windfall world
  2. The border around the planet that defines whether they are a combat world – a red border indicates the planet is conquered with military power rather than cards.
  3. The filled circle that indicates the kind of good they produce during production phases.

For all of these there are colour problems for people with colour blindness, but it’s not as simple as saying ‘bad’ because often there is some additional information channel that permits identification.

Colour blindness and military

‘Sorry, I thought they were friendly’

Consider these cards – it’s obvious for the Malevolent Lifeforms planet that the red border used to indicate aggressiveness is a problem for certain categories of colour blindness, but it’s also the case that combat worlds have an hollow number instead of a solid number within the circle. There’s an inverse palette used here which serves to signal in the absence of colour cues. That’s useful, although given the intense complexity of the symbolic language it’s not ideal that there isn’t something more instantly striking.

Production cards

‘No, I’m sure everything produces alien tech’

Production goods on cards on the other hand are more of a problem – there’s an issue of adjacency of colours here in that while you can identify different goods when they are side by side it’s not going to be nearly as easy when you’re looking at them in isolation. Consider the gene goods (green) and the rare earth goods (brown) – the ones on the far left and the far right. Sure, you can tell the difference here for both impacted classifications of colour blindness but the difference isn’t as large as it should be. Similarly with gene goods and novelty goods (first and second) – for those where Tritanopia must be considered this isn’t enough to permit players to reliably tell them apart particularly if lighting setups must be considered.

Colour blind halo

‘Novelty aliens’

This comes into effect too when looking at the production effects in worlds, and particularly when it comes to halo effects where a different hue and emphasis is given to the colour to indicate a kind of lightsaber glowy effect. Consider here how difficult it might be for someone with Tritanopia to distinguish between novelty windfall worlds and alien windfall goods (cards one and two). Similar issues exist for other kinds of iconography.

All different worlds

The usual suspects

It’s not impossible to play, and this comment on BGG from Tom Lehmann (the designer) discusses the print issues that led to the problems in the game. However, relying on colour information by itself is always going to be risky which is why it’s always better to include some other differentiating factor. That said with Race for the Galaxy it’s already a symbol dense game and there are implications that come with introducing more.

We can’t recommend Race for the Galaxy in this category given the problems caused by the different goods colours in a game that is already difficult to get everything to line up properly. Given the popularity of the game though there are numerous support tools out there that you might try if you really want to make the effort.

Visual Accessibility

There is considerable subtlety that comes with the iconography in many cases, some of which are discussed above in the section on colour blindness. Sometimes key information is simply not as clear as it could and should be. Cards too are intensely information dense but the key data for phases is almost always in a reliable place each time.

Trade cards

The hitchhiker’s guide to the marketplace

Textual explanations on cards though might be at the top or bottom, and might occasionally be poorly contrasted against the background. You do at least know where to look for what you need, but you’re still going to be constantly referencing and cross-referencing cards across the entirety of your empire. Even if the information is conveniently available it might not be as clear as you might like. The symbols used for each phase though are highly contrasted against a letterbox, and so those are readable even if they’re often very small.

Tiny text

Can you make out what the explore card says for phase one?

At most you’ll be dealing with ten cards in your hand and eleven in your tableau (the twelfth ends the game) but there’s a lot of tightly conditional intersections of powers and the like you’ll need to consider. Often you’ll be making decisions based on an affordability defined in part by the empire you’ve constructed. That latter part doesn’t tend to change too quickly but there is a huge amount of churn in cards especially with certain kinds of strategy. You can buy developments that increase the value of goods for trade as an example. Ending up with a hand of fifteen or so cards that you to prune down to ten is uncommon but not impossible. In that case you have to consider what you need keep, what you can safely abandon, and at higher levels of play what particularly desirable cards you are now circulating back into the deck.

Race for the Galaxy is a relatively solitaire game but it doesn’t mean you can ignore your opponents – you might not be able to do much to impact on their plans but it’s useful – mandatory even – to have an idea of what actions they will select in the coming phases. You don’t want to trigger an action that someone else will select if you are not interested in the bonus. You’ll only know their likely prefeences by understanding the moving parts of their empire. The presence of goods on worlds is particularly important there because the victory point economy is both limited and highly contentious – you need to know their production capacity, and their current reserves are indicated only with a card underneath the world. Much as with San Juan, it’s possible to benefit an opponent immensely with a careless selection of action and awareness of the composition of an opponent’s tableau is key here. You can inquire before you decide your action, but that’s likely to distort the decisions other people make. Everyone plays their action selection down in secret and they’re simultaneously revealed. You can ask beforehand ‘So, how many production worlds do you have?’ but you’re likely to change the outcome as a result.

Goods under cards

Hard to see against the tablecloth but trust me, they’re there.

The iconography though is something of a boon here with the significant caveat that interpreting these symbols becomes easy only after considerable practise. The icons are small but information dense and so with an assistive aid, if they can be interpreted, they convey a lot of useful data with a minimal amount of investigation. For some that will be an actual accessibility benefit. For others, it’s perhaps the most inaccessibile thing about the game.

The only other component in Race for the Galaxy aside from the cards are the victory point tokens, and while these are in different denominations they’re also of an obviously different size that makes them easy to tell apart by touch. However, this is the only game element that can be identified in this way and the cards themselves, which are the core game component, are completely inaccessible to those with total blindness.

We don’t recommend Race for the Galaxy in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

As you can imagine this isn’t a strong point of the game. Simply being able to ride the waves of action selection is a task mired in cognitive complexities that range from meaningfully assessing the likely actions of opponents to determining what bonuses you need versus what actions you can safely piggyback upon. The construction of an empire requires each card to be placed in a way that contributes to the overall strategy – or at least, doesn’t actively hinder it. There is a significant degree of numeracy that must take into account discounts, modifiers, and the special effects that might be triggered from a dozen different worlds. There’s literacy that goes into understanding the special powers that are attached to some of the cards you’ll play down. There is an intense complexity of the game state that is full of synergies, interrelationships, and development cards that influence the power and desirability of planets on an evolving basis. Certain game concepts are malleable – ‘windfall’ worlds for example produce a good when they are placed and then never again… unless you have the cards that bypass that restriction. There is a need to plan short-term tactical moves based on card availability and long-term strategy based on how each of your tactical decisions contributes to scoring.

None of this lends itself well to cognitive accessibility.

However, even if all of this were within scope of a recommendation it’s still necessary to contend with the intensely obscure symbolic language used to describe card effects. While some of these get explanatory texts on the cards, others are left entirely unexplained and up to interpretation with the assistance of the reference chart. It takes a long time before the iconography becomes second nature, and until it does it adds a cognitive cost that can’t be avoided to everything. The different meanings of planetary icons by themselves not only change the value of the world but what happens when it’s placed and how it’s claimed. That in turn is modified by cards in your empire. A ‘five military’ world might actually be a ‘four settled world’ if you have the contact specialist in laid out in front of you – that’s unless you’re dealing with an alien world. Some cards change the flow of events too, or add new things to consider when actions are performed. ‘Draw a card after X’ is a common example, and that might be as simple as ‘at the start of this phase’ or as complex as ‘for each good of a specific type produced’ or ‘after you place a world or development’.

The simultaneous reveal of action cards too creates a malleability in game flow. That can be hard to navigate because some phases will trigger and some won’t. What happens to individual players in each will be different depending on the bonuses for which they quality and their special benefits spread across the cards in their tableau.

Symbols on cards

An alien recipe for some fine lentil soup

For those with memory considerations, this is a game they’ll find difficult to fully master because knowing the composition of the deck is important and it churns with intense regularity. Goods, for example, are cards that get taken out of rotation secretly and eventually get folded back in when the discard deck is reshuffled. Only a portion of the cards will be available at any one time due to the way some of them will be nestled underneath worlds. A number of the most important six point developments need you to engage in forward planning to get the most out of them. The alien tech institute for example gives bonuses for every alien world you add to your tableau. The galactic imperium needs you to have conquered military worlds, but particularly those with the rebel keyword. Knowing it’s there in the deck and how to take advantage of its scoring should it become available is an important part of playing well,.

We really don’t recommend Race for the Galaxy in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility.

Emotional Accessibility

Finally a category where we can have something positive to say – I was starting to worry there wouldn’t be one. Race for the Galaxy is a solitaire game but it’s not a solitary one – players can and will interfere with your plans but only through the secondary effects of grabbing victory tokens and keeping developments out of your hands. You don’t have many opportunities to interfere with your opponents otherwise.

However this is a game where if you don’t get the parts of your engine aligned in an optimal way you are going to find yourself often at the mercy of intensely unproductive turns. If you count on someone triggering an action you need, you might be left hoping without success. Players are incentivised to avoid giving you too much benefit, and so you’ll often find people choosing to produce when it gives you nothing or consuming when you have no cards left. You’re not entirely at the whim of the table here but you can certainly be buffeted by a player that has managed to dominate the rhythm of play. It can be frustrating to be out of step with the rest of the table knowing that each turn you wasted takes you ever farther away from victory.

There’s a lot of luck in the draw, and part of your job is mitigating that in a way that is flexible – the problem there though is if someone gets very lucky early on they can easily lock victory in without any serious risk. Someone who gets New Sparta, Drop Pods, Space Marines and the New Galactic Order can keep conquering military worlds for high points and often the additional military power that provides key scoring for the Order.

New Galactic Order

Let the hate flow through you

That can be difficult to beat when it’s all set up, but there are certain other six point developments that can deeply intensify the benefits for a player who is doubling down on this approach. Each conquered alien world or rebel world can be even more points if the right cards came into someone’s hands. You might watch someone freely put down five, six and seven point worlds without cost while you struggle to place anything at all.

If that happens at the same time that you found yourself bereft of coherent options you can find very serious score disparities emerge. Even in less significantly slanted scenarios someone that gets the machinery working will often manage to arrange things in a way that kills the game before you get to even hit the start button. High production and consumption strategies here can eat through victory points (which are available in intensely limited quantities) very rapidly. When two or more players are focused on that, you may find that your slower ramp up never pays off and you’re left looking at an embarrassing dribble of points at the end.

All of this said though, you can always learn from these mistakes and experience with Race for the Galaxy ensures that you learn how to roll with bad draws and choose actions defensively. It’s often challenging, but very rarely genuinely unfair. The key element here is how people deal with being thrown in at the deep end – if they’re okay with that then they’ll find that each loss is a learning experience. You need to approach the first dozen of so games in that spirit.

If that’s possible then we can recommend Race for the Galaxy in this category.

Physical Accessibility

There is an awful lot of card cycling that comes through play here, and each player will be working with a very significant hand which needs regularly curated. Some of the cards are building opportunities for the future, others are disposable currency. As such, players will need to constantly arrange and rearrange these within the ten card hand limit. That’s true of a lot of card games but the sheer volume of churn here is significant. Card holders will help but bear in mind again the sheer regularity of the task – manoeuvring cards in and out of card holders is going to be a not inconsiderable issue.

Other interactions involve slipping cards under other cards, discarding specific cards from your hand, and drawing often large number of cards before discarding down to the hand limit. You’ll be picking up victory point tokens too, often in multiples defined by specific individual card interactions. Depending on the capabilities of your empire you might find yourself drawing seven or eight cards in an exploration phase, discarding all but two, and then selling a good underneath a planet for seven more. To a certain extent that’s opt-in because you get to decide in what direction your empire evolves. However, you can only do so much with the cards you are dealt and sometimes the decision realistically isn’t yours to make if you want to be in with a chance of winning.

It’s often the case that the hand you have at the end of a turn bears almost no similarity with the hand you started, and you may have gone through a dozen or more cards to arrive at that. This is all possible to handle with verbalisation, but there’s going to be an unusually heavy amount of communication that goes into this and often a fair degree of numerical precision. It’s unlikely to be as simple as saying ‘get rid of my cards and deal out five more’. It’s going to be ‘Keep cards three, six, eight, nine and twelve and get rid of the rest’. Placing cards likewise will be similarly complex, since some cards are safe to use for construction and others will be jealously guarded within a hand until you have a chance to act upon them.

The other issue with verbalisation is that since actions are interleaved it’s not a simple as someone performing the physical manipulation for someone else and then handling their own. Here it’s constantly swapping between what you want to do and what someone else wants to do and that’s going to have an impact on game flow and enjoyment.

It’s playable though, if everyone is happy with that level of intersecting and interleaving responsibility. With that in mind we’ll tentatively recommend Race for the Galaxy in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

It’s difficult to be too definitive here since the art is very small and it’s hard to really interpret gender, or otherwise, of alien creatures. However as best I can tell there are no women in the future. That’s not entirely true – I think there’s the back of a woman’s head in a crowd somewhere, but where human characters are represented they are always, as best I can see, men. If this isn’t 100% true, it’s close enough as to make no difference. Unsurprisingly, the manual also default to using ‘he’ as a pronoun. Most of the art in the game to be fair is a kind of retro sci-fi aesthetic of chrome and rubbery aliens, but when human are concerned it’s disappointing.

Action cards

Oh, tell a lie – the foremost character on the yellow card is a woman. So – one woman.

At an RRP of around £27, this is a game that in my view justifies every penny if you can just find people to actually play it with. As remarked in the review, this is ‘the best game that nobody wants to play’ and part of that is because it is so unabashedly hostile to new players. It takes quite some time before the smooth meshing of the systems becomes apparent, and your first few games – maybe even your first half dozen – are going to be staring in bewilderment at a game state that is half card game and half Klingon telephone book. However, if you can get people over that hurdle there are many, many, many hours of play in just this box. This is a game that you will find endless variety within. It supports only four players but given the challenge of finding people of equivalent skill to play against that’s not in itself a huge disadvantage.

That makes it a tricky proposition in this category – it is absolutely worth the money if you think you can find people to play it with you often enough to prove it. Also, if you can find it for the RRP – there’s a new edition coming soon that will impact on availability but for the moment it seems a little tricky to find at reasonable prices.

We’ll tentatively recommend Race for the Galaxy in this category.

Communication

A degree of literacy is required when dealing with some of the more complex cards although this is always complemented by the symbolic language. On the other hand, learning that language is a communication issue all of its own – it’s like having an argument with a chatbot that only speaks in abstract emoji.

Aside from this there are no communication issues associated with play – play in silence if you like.

We recommend Race for the Galaxy in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

The bad thing about an accessibility profile like this is that it means – well, lots of people won’t be able to play it. The good thing is that it tends to mean these intersectional sections are short. When we recommend people stay away because of an individual condition that suggestion only intensifies when compounds must be considered.

The prime issue here is going to be in the intersection of physical and communication impairments – while the game is playable through verbalisation it does require an unusual amount of tightly coupled explanations between players to make it happen. The frequency, tenor and difficulty of expressing sometimes cumbersome card play is likely to push the game out of accessibility for both groups of players.

Your first exposure to Race for the Galaxy begins quite slow and with ponderous momentum – least for your first few sessions – as you navigate the complex information topology. An hour for the first few games seems reasonable but as time goes by this comes down considerably. It’s the kind of game that you can get a few rounds in during a lunch break if everyone is comfortable with it. The tightly interleaved turns though mean that it’s quite intense for the duration – you don’t get to tune out at all during play for a breather. You might be needed to act at any point and careless mistakes will be punished.

There’s no option for players to drop out during a game, and indeed to do so would potentially dramatically undermine the progress of other players. A disappearing player might have key cards in their hand that would never be seen, or would be redistributed to the deck and change the state of play. Players may have modified their strategy as they realised someone was competing for the same cards, and the sudden absence of that competition can make a difference. It’s not impossible to house rule something here but I suspect it’s easier to just stop and reset for a game with a lower player count.

Conclusion

To be honest this isn’t a surprise – many of the issues we see here with Race for the Galaxy were already discussed in the San Juan teardown. That the symbolic language used has a serious additional accessibility impact isn’t going to be a shock to anyone.

Race for the Galaxy, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
Colour BlindnessD
Visual AccessibilityD
Fluid IntelligenceE
MemoryE
Physical AccessibilityC
Emotional AccessibilityB
Socioeconomic AccessibilityC-
CommunicationB

There are still things that could be done better here – proper colour blind accessible icons (apparently this is addressed in the second edition to come), better representation in the art and more reliable contrast would help considerably. Some aids are also available from external sources to offer stop-gap solutions for dedicated players. Given the issues we’ve discussed though this isn’t a game that is a strong candidate for major accessibility fixes without a very serious redesign that I suspect isn’t on the cards. If it were, given the esteem in which this game is held, I’d predict a riot (I predict a riot).

I love Race for the Galaxy – I’ve played it a lot and I’m still enjoying it each and every time it hits the table. However, the learning curve means that I’m almost always going to recommend new people play San Juan instead unless they are really prepared to make a commitment. Accessibility-wise San Juan isn’t a great option either, but it’s the better pick there too. That’s a shame – Race for the Galaxy deserves lots of people playing it all the time, but there are large numbers of potential players that just won’t be able to do that easily.

 


A word about teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.