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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

partnerships: race for the galaxy

When considering a game that I could modify to approach the partnership design problem, I immediately considered Race for the Galaxy (RftG). Primarily, I chose this game because I am very familiar with it as my game group plays it often. Additionally, it already meets two of the four criteria I laid out in my previous post:

  • closed information - Each player holds cards in their hands that are hidden to other players. Additionally, Action Card selection is hidden until all actions are revealed simultaneously.

  • not a trick-taking game - Unless I drastically change the rules, this is most definitely not a trick-taking game.

Obviously the first point (partnerships) is the easiest to implement. For my design process, I focused on a four-player game, with two teams of two players each.

The only point that remains is to allow the players to communicate through play. Obviously there are a lot of other logistics involving how to players can play as a team, but I felt it was more important to focus on communication and let the details grow from that.

As noted above, there are primarily two aspects of the game that are hidden: cards in hand and the action selected by each player. These are what partners may wish to communicate to each other is some form.

When you consider a trick-taking game, usually the communication is open so that all players have a general idea what is being communicated. Leaving Bridge out of the discussion (as I am not qualified to speak to it), in many trick-taking games, players will play cards that do not affect the current trick to signal something about their hand. In RftG, if you are playing something that is ineffective, you are playing inefficiently and are going to lose. Therefore, another form of communication is necessary that does not require for inefficient actions.

I believe the best way to communicate with another player in RftG (without table talk) is to pass action cards and/or hand cards.

Action cards would be the easiest, as partners could share their planned action first, and then have the option for one or both of them to switch actions before playing them. This would require some verbal communication ("I'll switch mine. You keep yours."), but it would be a simple way for two players to act as a team. However, I think the uncertainty of non-verbal communication leads to more rewarding play. There are also other balance problems that would have to be worked with (Produce-Consume strategies would be especially strong).

Hand cards provide a variety of methods of communicating. Players could exchange cards, show their partners their discards (and perhaps allow them to exchange a discard for a hand card), or players could even openly discard as a way to openly cue their partner.

Unfortunately, the ways to communicate hidden information is not the most problematic portion of creating a partnership game out of RftG. Larger issues of balance with two players working together would need to be worked out. If I were pursuing this more seriously, I would consider setting up the game like a 2-player game with 2 actions per turn, and each partner is selecting an action. A shared tableau between partners is a possibility, but only if a system can be devised to determine who gets cards from trades and consumes (perhaps the one who chooses the phase IV action?).  There are several routes that this could take, but lots of playtesting would be needed to determine if the game ultimately breaks when two players are able to share information.


  1. The key, I think, is to ensure that each player is responsible for their own actions. Maybe this means outlawing table talk about cards-in-hand altogether, I don't know. I'm not sure Race for the Galaxy is a good example of a partnership game either, so it's tough to talk about things and keep them in the realm of RftG.

    Passing an action card to your teammate is the same as Table Talk, only your opponents don't get to hear it. Mechanically different might be to have 1 player from each team be 'on turn' - and the other player can pass them a card 'requesting' a role... so the decision can be made taking their input into account (and then the "on players" switch for the following round).

    I made up a variant for 3 and 4 player RftG whch I'd hoped would make it feel more like 2-player - instead of playing 1 Action card, play 2... but play one to your right and one to your left. You resolve the 4 cards that are in front of you (your 2, and 1 from each of your neighbors).

    Imagine that if you were a team with the player across from you!

  2. What makes designing a team variant for RftG difficult is the "secret and simultaneous" aspect. I did consider your suggestion of have an "on turn", and I agree that it would probably work better. What this does is create a sense of "turns" that doesn't exist in RftG, therefore adding a constraint that forces the players to cooperate.

    Also difficult is the importance of pacing in RftG. If you need the game to slow down but your teammate needs to push the end game, you now have opposing goals. Maybe good teamwork would allow you to avoid this.

    The interesting thing about your variant (assuming that I'm understanding it correctly) is that you can always choose the roles that are optimal for you without regard to how they help your opponents. The trick is, trying to guess which roles your opponent will select so that you can match them in the role you give them, decreasing the number of roles they use that turn. I suppose it could turn into a bit of a "Princess Bride" scenario at that point.