m a r k a n d e y a

Board Game Review: Ra

Posted by Brian on February 11, 2007

For one of my most recent reviews, I wrote about what I consider to be the penultimate area-control game: El Grande. This time, I thought I’d write about a different genre of games – auction games – and what I consider to be the best example of that genre. I’m sure I’m not alone in viewing Reiner Knizia’s Ra as the best such example.

Auction games are all about the players bidding some sort of resource to accumulate commodities of value, with some auction games having a stronger, more sensible, theme than others. For example, High Society has players using dollars to bid for high class items to add to their collection. On the other end of the spectrum are games like Ra, where the theme is simply laid on top of a mechanism for accumulating and bidding for tiles or cards with differing values. With Ra, the theme is ancient Egypt, and while it is totally superfluous, the color palette, board, and bits used to reinforce this theme are all done so well that one can overlook the arbitrariness of it all.

To start the game, each player gets a number of Sun tiles that will be used for bidding during the course of the game. These tiles are numbered from 1 to 16, but the 1 tile is placed on the board and is part of the first auction. The number of players dictates who gets what Sun tiles – it is not random. Each player also starts with 10 points.

The game board has a couple of elements. First, there is the Auction track. As tiles are revealed for auction they are placed on this track. Above that, is the Ra track. This track is for the special Ra tiles that pop up from time to time that determine the end of each of the three scoring stages, or Epochs, of the game. The length of the Ra track can change depending on the number of players. The board also contains a quick scoring summary for all the players to look at.

All of the tiles used in the game are placed in a small sack and are drawn randomly. The different tiles, and their scoring values, are:

• Pharoahs: At the end of each Epoch, the player with the most gets 5 points and the player with the least loses 2 points.
• Flood and Nile: Score one point each if the player has a Flood tile; Flood tiles are discarded at the end of each Epoch after scoring.
• Gods: this tile is special as it can be traded for any tile on the auction track at a later point in the game; if it isn’t traded, it is good for 2 points during scoring and then discarded.
• Gold: Worth 3 points during scoring then discarded.
• Civilization: There are 5 different Civilization tiles; if a player has none at the end of the Epoch he loses 5 points. Bonuses are provided for having 3 or more different Civilization tiles. They are discarded after each Epoch.
• Monuments: Monument tiles are unique in that they are not scored until the very end of the game. They provide a bonus for having a greater variety as well as having multiples of the same one.

There are also a number of black-bordered Disaster tiles that cause players to lose tiles. They are:

• Funerals: Causes player to lose two Pharaoh tiles.
• Drought: Causes player to lose two Flood or Nile tiles, and he is obligated to discard Flood tiles first.
• Unrest: Causes player to lose two Civilization tiles.
• Earthquake: Causes player to lose two Monument tiles.

And as mentioned above, there are also Ra tiles that can be drawn as well.

Those are the elements of the game, now on to actually playing the game.

On a player’s turn, he or she has one of the following options. She can:

• Draw a tile from the bag and place it on the game board; if it is a Ra tile, an Auction round begins
• Invoke Ra, which also starts an Auction.
• Trade a previously won God tile for any tile on the Auction track.

The Auctions are the meat of the game and make for some difficult decision making. Starting with the player to the left of the player who either drew the Ra tile or invoked Ra, each player has a chance to bid for all of the tiles on the Auction track. Bids are made with the Sun tiles, and the bidding goes around the table once, with the player who bid the highest Sun tile winning all of the Auction tiles as well as the Sun tile sitting in the middle of the board (which is then placed faced down for use again in the following Epoch). The Sun tile used to win the Auction is then placed face up on the board in the middle and is available as part of the next Auction. One thing to note is that when a player begins an Auction by Invoking Ra, that player is obligated to bid should everyone else pass. In the other case, should all the players pass, the Auction track is left as is and game continues normally. And should a player use up all his Sun tiles in previous Auctions, he can no longer participate in any Auctions until the next Epoch begins.

Each Epoch is over when the Ra track is full. When an Epoch is complete, scoring is done and all tiles that are tossed after each Epoch are removed from the game. All players can then turn their new set of Sun tiles face up and a new Epoch can commence.

Following the third and final Epoch, there is one more special scoring category that is based on the sum of the Sun tiles each player has at game’s end. The player with the highest sum gets a 5 point bump while the person with the lowest suffers a 5 point penalty. After all scoring is done following the last Epoch, the player with the most points is the winner.

It probably goes without saying that success or failure in Ra depends on one’s ability to do well during the Auctions. But the challenge in the game comes from the various factors that must be taken into account when trying to evaluate what’s up for bid. One must consider the value of the tiles up for auction, both for one’s self and for the other players; the options other players have with their own Sun tiles; and the estimated time remaining for each Epoch. If a player shoots his wad early in the Epoch, he misses out on several Auctions the other players have less competition. But if you wait too long, you might find the Epoch end before you can use all of your Sun tiles (in which case, any remaining Sun tiles are saved for the next Epoch). And with the numerous Disaster tiles, the value of each Auction can vary greatly for each player. For example, bidding for a set of tiles with an Earthquake among them is easy to do when one has no Monuments. The challenge, and the fun, in Ra comes from trying to juggle all of these factors in one’s mind when trying to decide how much an Auction is worth.

The one complaint I’ve heard about Ra that I think is valid is that it’s difficult to keep track of tiles won and their worth. This is easily fixed by downloading one of the many players’ mats that are available at the Boardgame Geek. These mats have scoring summaries, important notes, and pictures of all the tiles available so you can easily organize all the tiles you’ve won. I learned to play Ra with these mats and can’t imagine playing without them. I have a set of 5, all laminated and sitting snuggly in my game box.

Ra is just a blast to play and truly is a classic. The gaming community is fortunate that Uberplay picked up the game and re-released it last year, as it was out of print and hard to get a hold of for awhile (I paid inflated prices for a used Dutch version back in 2004). Ra deserves a prominent place in every game collection.

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2 Responses to “Board Game Review: Ra”

  1. Anthony said

    Sounds really interesting. Have you ever played the noble game of bridge, Brian? I’ve learnt since moving to Scotland and have been playing regularly for 3 years.

  2. Brian said

    Anthony,

    My grandfather plays bridge a lot and tried to get me to learn but I never got around to it. I was, however, able to teach my grandfather how to play euchre.

    Brian

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