For my first review of a board game, I’d like to feature a true classic: Ra, by prolific game designer Reiner Knizia. Knizia has designed hundreds of board and card games, but among gamers, Ra is widely considered to be one of his finest creations.
Ra is a Eurogame with a pasted-on Egyptian theme. What I mean by this is that, in the end, it’s really an auction game that could just as easily have been about space ships, dinosaurs, or fine art. It could have been about anything else, and it would play exactly the same way. The gameplay has little to do with Egypt, and the theme has little to do with what makes Ra a great game. The credit for that goes to the game’s core mechanics, and that is what places Ra squarely in the Eurogame camp: Its main focus is on the gameplay itself, rather than the theme.
I’m reviewing the Überplay edition of Ra, which I own. I understand that Überplay is now defunct, but Rio Grande Games has picked up the rights to publish the next edition Ra, and that printing will probably hit shelves in 2009.
What’s in the box?
In addition to the nicely printed (and short) rules booklet, there is a board, a canvas bag, “sun” auction markers, scoring counters, a Ra figurine, and a bunch of cardboard tiles (and by a bunch of tiles, I mean a whole lot of tiles).
The board is little more than a pair of “tracks” for auction tiles to sit on. Fortunately, it’s not entirely pointless, as it also contains a simple reference that reminds how the different types of tiles are scored. I suppose the only other justification for the board is its Egyptian-themed artwork, which can help reinforce an otherwise weak theme. As I’ve already pointed out, though, the theme is of no real importance to this game.
When you score points in Ra, you receive little “tablets” with quasi-Egyptian numerals on them. They come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, and 10. A cool way to keep track of how many points you have throughout the game.
The auction markers are wooden “sun” pieces, numbered 1-16. In an auction, players bid with these suns, and ties don’t happen because there are no duplicate numbers. The heart of the game, however, is the enormous complement of auction tiles, and there are quite a few of them. The different types of auction tiles you’ll come across are:
How to play (in a nutshell)
Ra is all about auctions. Every auction gives players a chance to win a set of tiles. The basic gist is that you can choose to do one of three possible things on your turn:
- Draw a tile from the bag and place it on the board.
- Call for an auction to begin.
- Discard one of your god tiles and claim a single tile of your choice on the board.
Ra is played in three rounds, or Epochs. An Epoch comes to an end when the Ra tile track fills up, or when everyone has played all their suns. At the end of each Epoch, players score points for the tiles they own. The goal is to have the most points at the end of the game.
In the interest of (relative) brevity, I won’t get into the details of the rules any further here, but BoardGameGeek has a downloadable PDF of the rules for those that are interested in learning more about how the game works. The BGG forums for Ra are also a great resource to check out if you have rules questions, or just want to read what other people have to say about the game. BGG also has a wonderful image gallery of people playing Ra, some of the playing pieces, etc.
Ra is such a simple, smart, easy-to-teach game. It’s just plain fun, and I’d recommend it to almost anybody, even many non-gamers. It plays pretty quickly, and the press-your-luck element is fantastic. Everyone I’ve introduced to Ra has loved it, too. Despite the loose-fitting theme, the game is still visually rich. Yelling “RA!” when you want to start an auction is a blast as well. I very highly recommend Ra.
I would say that the biggest hurdle for newcomers to Ra would be picking up on how some of the scoring works, but even that isn’t too cumbersome. There’s a cheat sheet on the game board that summarizes the scoring very nicely, and it’s not too hard to get used to. Like most games, the best way to learn how to play it is to play it.
The bidding is streamlined, and the other players’ suns are easy to read across the table, so you will always have an idea of how likely you are to win those tiles you want. There are often plenty of opportunities to bluff or force someone else to play their high sun too early, setting you up to win a bigger auction later. That is, if the Epoch doesn’t end first!
There is wonderful tension in Ra. Players are constantly balancing the desire to wait and get the best value for their suns with the knowledge that they need to get what tiles they can before the end of the round arrives. The game is a ticking clock, and everyone feels it.
In conclusion, Ra is one of my favorite games. It’s not a terribly heavy or complex strategy game, and there is a bit of luck/chaos due to the draw bag, but it still rewards smart play most of the time. Most importantly, it’s ridiculously fun, and doesn’t take all night to play. In the end, those two things are what makes it so much more likely to hit the table than some other really good games. Even if the Egyptian thing was just tacked on at the last minute.