|From:Rio Grande Games Cost: $35 Players: 3-5 Playing Time: 45 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Skill level: 7 Complexity: 5 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 6.1 (21), Summer 1999|
Reiner Knizia is easily the most prolific game designer in the field today. One of the secrets to his prodigious output is his tendency to rework a game mechanic from numerous angles, developing each incarnation into a separate game of its own. Weíve seen this with Mercator from New Games in Old Rome, which he developed into Medici and which itself borrowed the once-around auction mechanic from Modern Art. Now that mechanic resurfaces again in Ra, a game in which Reiner answers the question, ďHow would Itís Mine work as a turn-based game?Ē
As it turns out, it works quite well. Itís Mine is a fast real-time family game which crosses chicken with slapjack. Ra is a strategic game of bidding and set collection. Yet the two games are fraternal twins. Both are games of brinksmanship and maximizing limited opportunities, and both are linked by their similar structures and scoring systems. If youíve played one, the other will feel very familiar. Yet the two games have undeniably distinct characters and appeal. Knizia knows his craft.
On each turn in Ra, players can choose between two options. The most common choice is to flip up a random tile and add it to the auction block. Behind door number two is the ability to declare ďRa!Ē and start an auction.
Auctions are once-around affairs ending with the player who called Ra. Everyone starts the game with three sun markers from a communal set numbered 1-16. The sun marked with a 1 always starts the game on the auction block. When itís a playerís turn to bid, she can pass or push one of her sun markers forward. The player offering the highest marker wins all the tiles up for bid. She also wins the sun marker on the auction block, which she sets aside for the next round. In its place on the auction block goes the sun used to win the auction. So youíre not only bidding for tiles, but for the sun markers youíll be bidding with in the following round. Brilliant bit of game design, this. The presence of a low sun makes an otherwise tasty set of tiles far less attractive, while a high sun usually makes even the tiniest lot hotly contested. Players holding low suns usually donít expect to get much with them anyway, so they might as well use them to upgrade to better suns for the next round.
A sixth of the tiles in the game depict the Egyptian sun god, Ra. When one of these is flipped it goes onto a special track on the game board. If it fills the track, the round ends immediately and all tiles on the auction block are discarded out of the game; otherwise, an auction begins immediately as if the player who flipped the tile had called Ra instead. The big difference is that if you call Ra, you must bid if nobody else does whereas when a Ra tile is flipped nobody is obligated to bid. Subtle yet crucial. Often youíll call Ra because you suspect a player with higher suns is already very interested in the tiles on offer- no sense in sweetening the pot for him. But if that player (and all others) pass, youíre left holding the bag.
The timing track mechanism isnít a new one, but it works beautifully here. The flip of a Ra tile is like the loud chime of a grandfather clock signaling the approach of the witching hour. It makes people antsy, especially those still holding multiple suns. Players tend to bide their time early in the round holding out for large sets, but as the Ra track fills players suddenly find smaller sets more attractive.
When the track does fill, or when all suns have been used and each player has purchased three sets of tiles, scoring occurs. The tiles players bid on come in many varieties, each of which scores differently. Each gold and god tile scores a fixed value and is discarded. A player can also choose to discard a god in lieu of his normal turn, stealing a tile from the auction block instead. Civilization tiles, of which there are five different kinds, score only for sets of three or more different types. Anyone caught without a civilization tile, however, loses points. All civilization tiles are discarded between rounds. Pharoahs are held throughout the game and award a bonus and penalty each scoring round to the player with the most and least of them, respectively. Niles are also persistent across rounds, earning their owners a point apiece but only if that player also snagged a flood tile that round. Floods are also worth a point, and of course theyíre discarded once used.
Monuments only score at the end of the game. They come in eight types, each type worth a point with a bonus going to anyone amassing seven or all eight varieties. Additional bonuses are earned for collecting three, four, or all five of a single type. Monument acquisition is a long-term strategy but an often lucrative one. Itís not unusual for someone to lag behind in early rounds only to surge into victory at the end on the strength of their monument collection.
Finally, thereís a bonus and penalty for the players with the highest and lowest totals of suns at the end of the game. An elegant solution to what would otherwise be the problem of auctions sun markers making no difference in the final round, since they wonít be used again.
For a little spice some of the tiles are actually harmful, forcing the buyer to discard two pharoahs, niles, monuments, or civilization tiles depending on the disaster. This poisons the well if youíve got tiles of that type, but enables you to make a cheap steal if youíve got nothing of that type to lose (in which case the disaster is discarded harmlessly).
There are many different pathways to victory in Ra, making it a very approachable game. Often one needs to play an auction game once before fully understanding the value of what youíre bidding on. Thatís not the case here. Everything has a fixed value, you know up front what persists and what goes away, and youíre bidding with your points so itís harder to screw yourself through ignorance. Which isnít to say there arenít subtleties which escape the novice.
Knowing when to call Ra is a skill acquired through experience. Itís readily apparent to players with low suns that a good strategy is to call Ra early and often, preventing large sets (on which heíll always be outbid) from forming. Less obvious is that such a player is best served by alternating his quick Ras with long sets. Long sets tend to get high suns onto the auction block, which the holder of low suns can then nab with a quick Ra.
The gameís theming is one of the most transparent veneers ever, somewhat surprising since it was in place very early in the gameís development cycle. Itís a very abstract bidding game with paint slapped on. You can justify the theme if you try hard enough, but it neither informs nor services the gameplay. We could just as easily be bidding on collectibles or anything else. The admittedly attractive artwork is initially daunting, with no hint on the tiles themselves as to how theyíre scored or whether theyíre kept or discarded. All of that information is shown on reference charts at two corners of the game board instead, but it would have been nice for, say, persistent tiles to have red borders instead of white ones.
If Ra is the result of breeding Itís Mine with Medici, it has inherited some problems from its parents. As with Medici, some players will purchase their lots before others and be left with nothing to do until the round ends. The wait here is short, though, and in practice it will rarely be an issue. As with the random draw of cards to fill the last playerís hold in Medici, the odd game can be swung by a lucky tile draw by the last player with suns. This is more of an issue in 3- or 4-player games, as with 5 players the Ra track usually fills before all suns are gone anyway.
Ra appears to be something of a sleeper title. In Europe, it was the first game published under Ravensburgerís new gamer-targeted Alea imprint, and as such was received with great interest. Perhaps expecting something closer to Euphrat & Tigris in feel, many were initially unimpressed by Ra. Those opinions seem to be changing as the game grows on people.
So what we have is a solid game which, while not a masterpiece, is more than merely a confection either. Family-friendly yet having enough meat for gamers to chew on, Ra looks like a game that will continue to get table time for a while to come.