Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts is an expansion I have waited a long time for, but I realise I have not mentioned it here even though I have already bought it and played four games of it. Alien Artifacts is not meant to be mixed with any of the previous three expansions. It was developed based on a reset approach, exploring how the base game can be expanded in a different direction. Because of this, I bought a second copy of the base game. So now I have two play sets, each containing the two separate expansion arcs.
The main addition in this expansion is, of course, the alien artifact itself, a.k.a the orb. The game starts with a derelict space station (built from cards) at the centre of the table, and during the game players use their explorer teams to explore this space station and to pick up goodies. They play additional cards onto the table to expand the explored space of the station. Naturally, anything to do with this space station exploration is done by playing the Explore action card.
This alien artifact component of the game is optional. The game works with or without it. The designer recommends starting without it and only using it after you get a feel for the new cards. So far I have played two games without it, and two with. Michelle's first reaction when we played was: where are the objectives? We have become so used to having them (since the first expansion) that they felt like a recently lost tooth - the tongue keeps going there to feel the hole. The game felt brisk and clean without the objectives and the prestige points (the latter being introduced by the third expansion). Not that I don't like these additions. I do enjoy them and think they make the game richer. However it is refreshing to play a version of the game without them. I don't remember whether I felt this way when I first played Race for the Galaxy before any of the expansions came out.
I haven't quite grasped the techniques and the strategies in the alien artifact aspect of the game, so I'm not sure yet whether I like it or not. It is quite different from mechanisms introduced by previous expansions, so I think many players can't help feeling resistant to change. It does feel a little cumbersome. It seems to me I am randomly picking up goodies and VP's when I explore the artifact, as opposed to pursuing a coherent strategy and improving my ability to execute this strategy. I guess you can consider increasing your military strength a part of increasing your ability to explore the artifact, but it is unlike other broad strategies. E.g. if you go for a consume strategy, you need to have production worlds, and you need to have cards with consume powers. It's something you can build towards and get better and better at. I don't get this feeling with the artifact exploration yet.
I will need more plays of this alien artifact component to get a better feel. Unfortunately Michelle and I don't play Race for the Galaxy anywhere near how frequently we used to play when we were at the peak, so I'm not sure when I'll be able to get a better appreciation of it.