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Background (feel free to skip):

My mom and I often play RFTG together (I am a very fortunate child to have a game-playing parent :), and we've noticed that there usually isn't as much luck in the game as we initially thought; there are few situations where you cannot find some favorable way to play out your cards and tableau. While the luck factor is definite present, as it will be in any game that involves powerful combinations of randomly drawn cards, but smart play can mitigate the effect. In fact, one of my favorite situations in the game is when I have a bunch of cards with no obvious strong combos and have to work with what I have to find some sort of strategy.

However, I've noticed that there is substantially more luck in the early parts of the game. If you get an initial draw that contains mostly high-drop cards, cards that aren't good in the early game, or no good combinations (tons of goods, but no way to actually do anything with them except trade ONE of them for 2-4 cards). Some luck later on can easily fix this if you get a nice card, but sometimes I feel like the game is decided after turn 4 when one of us has a killer initial combo and the other has had a bad start.

I understand that the luck factor is relatively small and will be minimal in a series of 5 or more games, but I would still like to reduce it since we purely play for fun and rarely get to play 2 games in a row. I don't consider myself anywhere near an expert player, and I'm sure we're not always playing our cards optimally. However, I am sure that there are some opening hands that are sufficiently worse than others to drastically effect the outcome of the game, and I'd like to adjust this in our friendly games.

Question:

Here's some ways I've thought to prevent players from getting screwed over by bad initial draws in RFTG:

  1. Start with 7 or 8 cards instead of 6. Still discard down to 4.

  2. Implement a mulligan system for initial hands. You can discard your 6 initial cards, reshuffle the deck, and draw 5 (still discard down to 4). I suppose this could probably be extended to allow players to discard those 5 to draw 4 and keep all of them, even though I don't think many people would go for the second mulligan.

Would these methods potentially be effective in reducing some of the initial luck in the game? How might I improve them? What other methods might be effective towards reaching this goal of a slightly more 'skill-based' RFTG by mitigating the effect of terrible initial draws?

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I really like mulligans. Just, like, generally, for pretty much any game. –  Alex P May 27 '12 at 4:29
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2 Answers

In my experience, the most effective way to reduce luck at the beginning is to give players a choice of two start worlds. A world you know will be on the table the whole game is a much bigger deal than four cards, of which you'll likely only play one or two, and sometimes none. The implementation of Race for the Galaxy at keldon.net does this. (Side note: some of my friends think Rebel Freedom Fighters is overpowered. You can always just disallow a start world if you're in that camp.)

This said, I think you might be overstating the importance of the starting hand. It's not meaningless, but I can't reliably predict how well my game will go based on it. I've had scores over 100 when I started out with no clear path based on my start world and hand. You have to be willing to explore (+5) on the first turn sometimes. It really doesn't put you that far behind - at most one turn, and there's a good chance you'll get to piggy-back on someone else's develop/settle anyway. (Half the time you don't, it's because they explored too.) However it happens, each time you draw cards, it may completely change your game. Luck isn't just on the first turn, and I think that with a choice of two start worlds, the luck in the rest of the game will be more significant than the initial luck.

Finally, if you're not playing with the third expansion, maybe you should be. It adds the ability to do a one-time search for a chosen category of card; you can choose to search for a 1- or 2-cost windfall world (or 1- or 2-defense if you're going military). If you're really desperate to get going, it is more reliable than the +5 card explore on the first turn.

(Of your suggestions, I think mulligans are better - larger initial draws can improve average and good hands too. I think you'll probably be pretty satisfied with two start worlds, but if you do still want to allow mulligans, you might want to restrict it to "bad" hands by some definition, to keep from focusing too much on the mulligan decision, and possibly improving some okay hands.)

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Yes, both suggestions would lessen the amount of luck in an initial hand. +2 cards reduces initial bad hands by an additional 33%-100%, depending upon whether you are counting total draws or total discards. Your second suggestion makes players make an interesting decisions, but might lean too heavily on trying to find the perfect draw (I would need to do some math to figure that out).

Either suggestion will still be subject to some unluckly starting hands, but both will lessen the degree to which those hands will occur.

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