Roll Roll Roll Your Galaxy

The friendlier Borg.

Race for the Galaxy is a classic. Or so I hear. I only played it once, maybe six years ago, at my brother-in-law’s apartment. We ate popcorn. Both were enjoyable, and the game possessed a clever and clean design that felt a little bit less clean thanks to its wealth of hieroglyphics, leaving little for a newcomer to do other than etch a mental Rosetta Stone of hexagons, multicolored and soft-cornered rectangles, and eyeballs.

If nothing else, it’s a relief that Roll for the Galaxy, the dice game remix of Race’s original recipe, is kind enough to set plain old English script alongside the pictographs. I really do appreciate that.

Note the "shy" die. He represents my inner child. ART.

Beginning the game.

I bring up my inexperience with Race for the Galaxy because our boardgaming corner of the internet is currently awash with opinions comparing Race and Roll. Which is entirely natural, considering how Roll for the Galaxy’s logical audience is the same body of fans that made Race for the Galaxy such a success.

However, while I remember enough about my one experience with Race for the Galaxy to recognize a few differences (the same phase-selection mechanic, though no bonuses for those who choose a particular phase; inverted Consume and Produce actions, making same-turn combos relatively easy; hand-management versus chance management), I really don’t know enough to talk about how similar or different, how warranted or unnecessary, Roll for the Galaxy is. Should you stick with Race, or dump it and go with Roll? I dunno, seems hasty to me. Maybe try it first. Is Roll better, or worse than Race? No idea. I pick… No?

So instead of pretending I know what I’m talking about, let’s just talk about Roll for the Galaxy like Race for the Galaxy doesn’t even exist. Sound good? Good.

Star-bureaucracy is nothing if not colorful.

Assign your dice.

Since this is a dice game, we might as well talk about the dice.

Frankly, they’re not the most interesting dice in the world, especially since there are only six possible results, the five phases (explore, develop, settle, produce, and ship) plus the occasional wild that can be used for anything. But being uncomplicated also makes them easy to parse, and the odds of any given combination of colors fairly straightforward to guesstimate. Military dice, for example, are more likely to result in options for development or settling, while novelty dice produce goods and consumption dice turn those goods into money or victory points. The game-opening home dice are best at exploring, thereby letting you draw tiles or earn a bit of cash, setting you up for long-term success. And since each round ends with you choosing which dice to purchase into your cup, you’re constantly presented with a clever series of decisions that never becomes particularly taxing.

If the beating heart of Roll for the Galaxy is its huge quantity of tiny and colorful dice, then its phase-selection mechanic is the left ventricle.

Simply put, you roll your shockingly noisy cup of dice (truly, this is the loudest dice-cup I’ve ever heard — it even woke up the baby one night) and assign the results in secret behind a screen, using a single die to select which phase you’d like to guarantee. Since each player is allowed to choose only one phase, and since you get to use assigned dice-workers for any phase that occurs, there’s an advantage to be had in attempting to work out which ones your opponents will select.

For example, you might have lots of settler dice, but you’ve noticed that your buddy is halfway finished settling a planet. So if the settle phase is likely to happen anyway, why not explore or produce goods instead? That way, you might be able to use more of your dice in a single round. Of course, there’s no guarantee that your opponent will even have the option to settle this round, or that he won’t be distracted by a juicier possibility — but like most dice games, it’s all about gauging your chances.

It’s a simple concept well-executed, and it elevates Roll for the Galaxy from the solo-multiplayer game it could have been by giving you that slightest nudge towards paying real attention to what your opposition is doing with their tableaus.

And shadowed, indicating that this was the tableau of an Evil Person.

A messy tableau.

And what tableaus they are! Exploring gives you tiles, drawn from a hefty bag, each with a development on one side and a world on the other. In general, worlds provide specialized dice, ranging from lowly novelties and rare elements for trade and construction to wildcard-abundant genes and alien technology dice. Developments, on the other hand, offer an wide range of special abilities. Quite a few allow you to reassign workers, thus ignoring the whims of chance altogether, and others beef up particular phases with discounts, bonus income, or even new ways to pick up victory points.

It takes a few rounds to really get humming, but the cyclical economy is a fine thing to behold once it does. Exploration gets you new tiles, development and settling adds them to your empire, production places “goods” (dice, of course) on certain planets, and the ship phase lets you sell those goods for large amounts of cash or a couple victory points tokens. In a deft act of design maneuvering, it’s significantly easier to take the money than the points, as matching the correct colors of dice is a must for earning any significant amount of the latter.

Nicely, there’s a lot of synergy to be had. Taking a crummy world that lets you ship your goods more often, and developing something to give you a bonus point whenever you sell something, can set you up for the entire game. Likewise, building a big military and settling a full tableau to end the game before anyone can challenge your score is a guaranteed way to laugh as your friends groan at you.

By me. Because I'm also carefully organized and beautiful. Or OCD. One of the two.

A carefully organized, beautiful tableau.

Overall, I’m rather impressed with Roll for the Galaxy. It’s one of the best dice games I’ve played — majorly, because it respects its players rather than merely being a dumbed-down and more-random version of its original incarnation. For example, it’s entirely possible to become “stuck” for a few rounds, usually by not earning sufficient funds to hire back a useful volume of workers into your cup each turn. Alternatively, it’s possible to mismanage your tiles and end up with nothing to use those developer and settler dice on, or to struggle to get your production and trade engine off the ground because you made some poor planetary colonization decisions early on.

And to be clear, I think those are good things. Excellent things. Unlike many of the dice games out there, Roll for the Galaxy offers quite a bit of player agency, minimizing the effects of bad luck without ever completely stripping out what makes dice games so fun, that ever-present possibility of rolling big or completely bombing a turn. And while you can’t reroll your dice, only getting one shake of the cup each round, there’s an abundance of ways to reassign workers, including a starting ability to ensure you aren’t hobbled from turn one.

So all in all, Roll for the Galaxy is a fantastic dice game, full of cyclical economies to consider, tableaus to build, dice to roll, and opponents to watch like a star-hawk. If I had any major concerns, I suppose rolling behind a screen makes it extremely easy to cheat. This has a simple solution though: stop playing Roll for the Galaxy with assholes. Problem solved.

Posted on January 31, 2015, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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