Engage; An interview with Race for the Galaxy's Thomas Lehmann

For over a decade, Thomas Lehmann has been telling a sprawling galactic tale with his card and dice games and expansions set in the Race for the Galaxy universe. With the invention of jumpdrive allowing for travel at faster than the speed-of-light, civilizations clash with one another in a hectic race of conquest. Some forge relationships through trade, others through culture, and some by sheer show of force.
Released last year, Jump Drive offers an abridged version of previous Race for the Galaxy games, allowing for faster games (as its name implies). So shuffle those planets and developments, there’s an empire to build!
Ghettoblaster: Do you remember what first inspired you with the setting for Race for the Galaxy?
Thomas Lehmann: It came from an unpublished CCG [collectible card game]. I wanted to portray a sprawling galactic civilization in which jumpdrive — faster than speed-of-light travel — had just been invented, so that each player was exploring the galaxy. There are lots of different worlds and races, as cultural and genetic differences are at their height when — just prior to jumpdrive — the speed of innovation was much higher than the speeds of communication and travel.
Two ideas came from science fiction authors, whom I credit as inspirations: David Brin, for the concept of uplift, and Fred Pohl, for the idea of a long vanished powerful alien race, which has left behind only mysterious artifacts for empires to discover.
GB: Had you always planned Race for the Galaxy to be a series of games and expansions or did the universe sort of unfold with success and as the ideas for games came to you?
TL: There’s no guarantee that a game will become a hit, but you can get an inkling of it from players’ reactions during testing. In Race’s case, it took a long time to find a publisher and my testers had been so enthusiastic that I had already designed and tested two expansions, each one year after the original game and first expansion.
GB: What keeps you coming back to this setting?
TL: I’m very grateful that Race has sold well enough to support more expansions, allowing me to create arcs telling different stories, such as a gradual descent into war among the empires, the first arc or an invasion by a violent, xenophobic race, the latest arc.
GB: Do you ever see your output for the Race for the Galaxy universe extending beyond games? Maybe as a novel or another medium?
TL: I am super excited to finally have Race available as an app on iOS, Android, and PCs. I think Template Gates Games has done a terrific job. Beyond apps, I have no plans to extend Race but, maybe, someone else will be inspired. After all, Black Lotus wrote a Race based song, “Manifest Destiny,” and performed it at PAX-East a few years ago!

GB: Roll for the Galaxy introduced a dice mechanic to the Race for the Galaxy universe, what do you see as Jump Drive adding to the series of games?
TL: We want each spin-off to be its own “thing”. Jump Drive is a “filler” game, a quick, casual game to introduce players to this galaxy.
GB: Do you think you’ll offer up expansions for Jump Drive?
TL: Yes and no. To some extent, Race is the expansion for Jump Drive, for those players who want to step up to more complexity and a deeper, more strategic card game.
For more casual players, we’ll probably – depending on sales – do a couple of mini-expansions, sets of 10 cards available through the BGG store that you can add to Jump Drive for variety and new strategies.
GB: Do you have another new stand alone game planned for the Race for the Galaxy series?
TL: Yes; a game called New Frontiers. It differs from the others in not featuring simultaneous play. I’ll be talking about it more as we get closer to publication.
GB: Do you see an end for the Race for the Galaxy setting? Being a futuristic universal setting, it seems like the possibilities for exploration through games is endless.
TL: We have three approved products at various stages in the pipeline: expansions for Roll, Race (a sequel to Xeno Invasion), and New Frontiers, a new stand alone.
Beyond that, I have ideas for a half-dozen more RFTG products that the publisher, based on sales, will need to approve.
GB: How would you compare working on Pandemic with Matt Leacock to working on Race for the Galaxy on your own?
TL: Race is pretty collaborative. Besides me, there’s Wei-Hwa Huang, the lead designer behind Roll for the Galaxy, who’s also helped develop Race, plus the art team of Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan, and Mirko Suzuki.  With Jay Tummelson, the publisher and head of Rio Grande Games, we’ve been working together for a dozen years now.
The Pandemic expansions and second edition took a lot of my time, as Matt wasn’t a full time designer yet. Now, Matt is full time and he’s collaborating with lots of people, including Rob Daviau for the Pandemic Legacy games, so I’m no longer trying to support two major game lines. I took a break from Pandemic for a while, but hope to work again with Matt on some future Pandemic spin-off.
GB: Is there another designer you’d like to work with for a new Race for the Galaxy game or expansion? What would you hope for in getting their outside perspective?
TL: I’ve done eight co-designs with four designers so far. Every collaboration is different and each designer brings something else to the table. For Race, since I have plenty of ideas, I’m not actively looking for collaborations, but can be persuaded if someone else has a new take on things that I like.

GB: How did you start working with Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan, and Mirko Suzuki on the art for Race for the Galaxy?
TL: That was Jay Tummelson, head of Rio Grande Games. He pitched the idea to them and they responded with a detailed proposal that we both liked.
GB: Ten years going now, what has kept you with this team for doing the art for all of the Race for the Galaxy games?
TL: Twelve years, if you count the pre-publication time. They enjoy doing the work, particularly new challenges, like coming up with the alien invaders for Xeno Invasion, the latest Race expansion. That was surprisingly hard, given how many alien invader movies, video games, etc. have been previously done. I was very happy with the results.
GB: Outside of Race for the Galaxy, what are you working on now?
TL: Given the long lead times between design and publication, this is always a bit weird to answer.  I’m working on some projects for 2019 right now, while my 2017 and 2018 games work their way through the production pipeline at various publishers. I’d like to do a co-op of my own, a campaign game, and another dice game.
GB: Do you see any other series of games developing in a similar way?
TL: That depends entirely on sales and publisher support. Rio Grande Games has been great in allowing us to expand the Race universe in new directions. Now that I’m not involved with Pandemic, I think I could support a second line of games if some new game became a hit.
I have lots of new games that I want to do. My design file typically sits around 50 games, with about a dozen or so on my “hot list” at any given time. Of these, I generally do 3-5 each year, but it can take years for a game to find a publisher. Which games I work on depends a lot on publisher interest, as well as what I’m currently excited about.