I believe Ra is one of Reiner Knizia's bidding masterpieces along side Medici and Modern Art. Now a number of years old, it still holds up as good as ever and, fortunately for many, has had a new release just recently. The premise of Ra is hard to really grasp and probably isn't worth the trouble. Know then that it is set in ancient Egypt, uses some Egyptian termanology and has Egyptian pictures. You also get to say "Ra" a lot, which sounds Egyptian. This is a game for 3-5 people and works very well with all sizes. Many prefer it 3 player, I tend to like it as a 5 player game. This plays very swiftly at under 45 minutes and delivers maximum bang for the time buck. It is very easy to teach and learn and players tend to get the hang of it very quickly. It is a medium light game, with some thinking, but not really heavy.
The special thing with this game is that there is that little something, call it gaming magic, that happens each time I play. With all the group interaction that the game sets up, Ra brings to life more than just the set of rules may indicate. There is definately a "push your luck" element to the game as players match wits with an unpredicable timer mechanic and there is a lot of speculating as to what others might do with the bidding.
I think the components work just fine here. We have a very small board which serves as an auctioning block and place to put those tiles. There are a bunch of Egyptian themed tiles that are auctioned off. They are illustrated well enough, though there is sort of a mechanical look to them as a faux beveled edge effect seems like a stock photoshop trick rather than a better illustrated technique. A minor complaint here from a graphic designer and which will not bother most people. Tiles are all color coded nicely and the information graphics work very well to separate the different types of sets available. The board has this same faux treatment that bothers me about the tiles, but it is fine enough. Lots of Egypian inspired details to a board that is really only a place to hold some tiles while people bid on them. Victory points are money type chits which works out well. My favorite component to the game, though, is definately the Sun tiles. These natural colored thick wood tiles feel very good to the touch, both in terms of weight and in terms of materials. Each Sun tile also has a unique stamped number on them which seems very high end. Finally, we have a Ra token used for player order essentially, which is a larger wooden blue figure which is gold stamped with a picture. Very nice indeed.
Players will be bidding on sets of tiles which they collect and use to score during 3 sections of the game called Epochs. Each Epoch plays exactly the same as the other with a minor change at the end of the final Epoch's scoring round. Play begins with a starting player and moves around the table. On a player's turn they have 3 choices (usually 2) of what to do. Either, they
1. Draw a tile from a bag
2. Call for bidding (thematically it is to "call Ra")
3. Or, play a God tile (which is rarely done)
1. The Tile Draw. If they pick a tile from the bag, either one of two things will happen. Either the tile will be a bidding tile, in which case they will add it to the auction block. Or the tile will be a Ra tile which will set in motion an automatic bidding. If the former, the auction tile is added to the action block. Here, there is a limit of about 10 tiles that can be bid on at a time. If the auction block fills, an automatic bid is called. If no one bids, all the tiles are discarded out of the game and the auction block is ready to receive more tiles. If a Ra tile is picked, the tile is placed on another part of the board that serves as a sort of timer. Here, there are about 10 spaces (less with fewer people). When a Ra tile is placed in the last space, the Epoch is immediately over and players tally their score. If the Ra tile is not placed in the last space on that track, then the bidding starts automatically with the player to the left of this player. I will explain bidding in a moment but basically it's a once around where each player uses one of their numbered markers for the bid. If no player makes a bid, that player's turn is over and play continues with the next player. No one is obligated to place a bid when Ra is called through a tile draw.
2. Call for Ra. If a player decides to call for Ra – or start the bidding – then a one once around bid is initiated for ALL the tiles that have accumulated in the auction block as well as a Sun tile above the auction block. The auction starts to the player's left, giving him the most powerful position in the auction as the last to bid. Part of the genious of this game is the Sun tiles that players will use to bid with. At the beginning of the game, each player is given 3 Sun tiles (4 if with three players) which are numbered 2 - 16. The tiles are uniformly set so that each player starts with an equivalent hand of a low, medium and high numbered token. When bidding, a player is only allowed to bid with one of his tokens and each bid must be progressively higher. Highest numbered Sun tile wins. When Ra is called by a player, at least one player must bid on the auctioned tiles. If no one has bid when it gets back to the one who called Ra, he must make a bid and collect the tiles and the Sun tile. Here is where is gets interesting. The player first exchanges the Sun tile that he bid with for the Sun tile that is in the auction block. Next, all the auctioned tiles are handed to the winner of the bid. In this way, the next bid will be for the Sun tile used to win the previous auction. The winner of the bid adds the tiles to his collection as well as the newly acquired Sun tile. This Sun tile is turned over face down and cannot be used until the next Epoch. In this way, each player can win a maximum of 3 bids per Epoch (4 if with three people).
When all the players have used their Sun tiles for that Epoch except one, there is a fun "push your luck" situation that occurs. That player may continue to draw from the bag and add to the auction block as much as they want until the block is filled or a Ra tile is pulled. (Traditionally, at this point, the other players will chant "Ra, Ra, Ra..." – an ancient Egyptian mantra, I think.) He may stop at any time and take the tiles in exchange for his Sun tile. If the Ra tile is pulled, he is out of luck and misses out on the bidding.
3. Play a God Tile. One of the tiles up for bid in the auctions is a God tile. If this is won, the player may, as their turn, expend the God tile to pull any tile they choose from the auction block to their hand. This is the only time that a tile may be individually singled out of the auction block.
The Epoch ends when either the Ra track has filled with Ra tiles or each player has used all their Sun tiles. If a player has used all their Sun tiles, they are out of the bidding for that Epoch. When the round ends, players tally their score and collect VP chits. At the end of the third Epoch, the highest total wins.
Part of the tension of the game is knowing when to bid and when to let it go for the opportunity of something better. Players all have knowledge of each others' Sun tiles and can make predictions on how high others might bid. If a player passes on a bid, they are taking a chance that many Ra tiles might be drawn and end the Epoch prematurely before they have a chance to use all their Sun tokens. Any Sun tokens not used are simply kept for the next Epoch which is a wasted opportunity. On the other hand, waiting until later to bid is a valid way to cut down the bidding competition. Lots of hard choices here that get much harder when we take into account something I haven't yet touched on, which is the different auctioned tile types.
There are 6 categories of tiles, each of which have a number of different types. Each catagory scores differently and takes some getting used to. If one is to criticize this game, it might be due to the unevenness of the scoring, which while not difficult, is certainly not a very "clean" design. Nonetheless, it works fine and the game plays beautifully, so I'm not sure a "criticism" is due. In addition to the unevenness in the scoring, some tile types are discarded after they are scored at the end of the Epoch, while other tiles can be kept for the entire game. Thematically, they all make sense – again, it just takes getting used to. The tile types and how they score are as follows:
Pharaoh Tiles: The player with the most Pharaoh tiles gets +5 VPs, while the player with the least loses -2 VPs. These tiles are kept from Epoch to Epoch.
Nile Tiles: Players score +1 VP for each Nile tile in their collection. However, they only score if they have also picked up a special Nile tile called the flood tile, which is also worth +1. No flood tile, no score. Nile tiles are retained for the next Epoch, but flood tiles are discarded after scoring. So, as you can see here, a player that has picked up a lot of Nile tiles in an early Epoch will be on the lookout for a flood tile in the following round(s) of bidding.
God Tiles: As mentioned, they have the special ability of trading in for others in the auction block. If unused by the scoring, a player gets +2 for each God tile in their possession. After scored, the tile is discarded.
Civilization Tiles: A player needs at least one or they lose -5 VPs. There are 5 different colors of these tiles. If a player can get a set of 3 colors, they get +10 Vps. 4 colors yield +15 VPs and all 5 colors yield even more. All civilization tiles are discarded after scoring.
Gold Tile: This is worth +3 VPs and discarded.
Monument Tiles: There are 8 different monument tiles that one can get. Players are rewarded for sets of like tiles as well as variety of tiles. The more that one can get either way, the greater the reward. Each tile can score in both ways as well so that a tile in a set of three can be used to count for the variety of tiles.
Also part of the final Epoch's scoring, the player with the highest total numbers on their Sun tiles get +5VPs, while the least loses -5VPs. In this way, players must pay careful attention to the Sun tiles they bid on even in the final round. Very clever.
To make things more interesting, there are disaster tiles that relate to four of the tile categories. When a player receives one of these within an auction, they must immediately lose the corresponding appropriate tiles. If the player does not have any such tiles, no action taken and the disaster tile is discarded. In this way, some sets will be spoiled for some players, while not for other players which makes for fascinating bidding opportunities. For the Funeral tile, the player must discard 2 Pharaoh tiles in their hand. For the Drought Tile, the player must discard 2 Nile tiles, priority given to any Flood tiles in their hand. For the Unrest tile, the player must discard 2 Civilization tiles and finally for the Earthquake tile, the player must discard 2 Monument tiles.
What makes this game so interesting, is how certain tiles and certain sets are worth more to certain players and have no value to others as the game progresses. I absolutely love this game. The way the Sun tiles exchange hands from Epoch to Epoch is wonderful. Strategies evolve from what kinds of Sun tiles one has to bid with. If a player has low numbered tiles, they should try to speed the bidding up keeping the auction block mostly empty. In this way, it will not be a tempting lot for those who might outbid them. On the other hand, those with high numbered Sun tiles hope that the auction block fills with tiles – after all, they are more likely to win, so it might as well be a lot. Some players will shoot for a Pharaoh strategy and go for the +5VP each scoring round, while others might concentrate on monument tiles. Then there are decisions to be made whether to take a loss for not having a type of tile, say civilization, in order to get more of a desired set.
Absolutely a lot to think about and enjoy in this game which comes highly recommended from me.