It used to be that card games were about rank and suit. Even in non-traditional card games, like Rook or Milles Bornes ,the cards were simple and served only one function. This, naturally, constrained what it was possible to do in a card game.
Then came Magic: The Gathering. Magic pitched fundamental assumptions about how card games work out the window. Deal out hands from a deck? Not so fast: every player gets his own deck. His own deck with whatever cards he wants to put in it. And the cards! They were crammed with icons and text, because each card broke one of the game's many intricate rules in some way, and its graphic design had to explain how.
So in addition to loosing the plague of collectible game components on the world, Magic also smashed the constraints that limited what a card game could be. And that’s how we have Race for the Galaxy.
In Race, players compete to build the highest-scoring galaxy-spanning civilization. You explore space, settle new worlds, produce and consume goods, and construct developments to advance your civilization. All of this activity is represented by an intricate web of card effects and player actions. To win, you need to know what your cards can really do, and you need to figure out what your opponents' cards mean that they're likely to do.
Learning the card effects is daunting at first. Race features a quite astonishing information design, the most sophisticated one I've yet seen in a game of any kind. For the most part, the cards have very little text on them, and instead use icons to explain themselves. These icons can tell you things like "This development card lets you draw an additional card when you explore, it will let you trade a Genes good for a victory point during the Consume phase, and in the Produce phase you can draw 1 card for every Alien technology good you produced. It costs you 4 cards to play this, and it’s worth 2 points at the end of the game." (That specific card has text on it explaining one icon, just in case.)
To win the game, you need to be able to grasp all of this pretty solidly. Because at bottom, Race is a game about outguessing. Each turn, the players secretly choose from among seven different actions. Actions are then revealed, and every player gets to take the actions chosen. Much of the game thus rests on figuring out what actions your opponents will be selecting -- and what you can do to benefit from them -- while choosing the action that you think will be least useful to them.
This is not a trivial task. It requires familiarity with the mix of cards, with the way the cards' effects combine with each other, and with the flow and pace of the game. As you learn the game, you uncover dozens of strategies that might win. You need to learn how to employ them, and what to do when they're being employed against you. This takes a lot of play.
Fortunately, it's a pretty fast game. Players familiar with Race can knock out a game in twenty minutes. This is why it's not uncommon to find people who have played it over a hundred times. (I’m in the high seventies, myself.) I know people who have played two hundred. They beat the pants off me, by the way.
Race is out of print at the moment. By "at the moment," I mean that the first edition sold out, and the second edition (and the game's first expansion, not that it really needs one) is on its way to stores now.
This is one of the most addictive and enjoyable games I’ve ever played. Get it.