Ra is one of my favourite Reiner Knizia games, which is saying a lot. Reiner Knizia is a great designer and has designed a staggering number of games. I think it is probably the first game I ever ‘tripped out’ – introducing a rather nice felt bag to draw the tiles from rather than having a messy pile of them on the table.
I have played it many times over the years with gamers and non-gamers alike and it always goes down well. The mechanisms are simple, yet interesting, and stand up well against modern boardgames. How does it work? Let me tell you about it…
Ra is essentially an auction game. You’re bidding for tiles that score you points and whoever has the most points at the end is the winner. The thing is, I don’t generally like auction games. I find people can become irrationally fixated on winning a bid one moment and then have no interest in winning the next.
I suppose a skilled player could take advantage of such volatile behaviour, but I always seem to end up with the short end of the stick. People bid ferociously against me for the things I want, and when somebody else really wants something, no one bids against them. I’m sure it’s psychological, but with Ra, it never happens. How can that be? Well, it’s a very unusual style of auction.
Each epoch (round) you have four numbered bidding tokens and each token can be used to win one bid. So you can never win more than four auctions each epoch (of which there are three in the whole game). You can also only bid once in each auction, so you have to choose your bid very carefully.
Before we get to the nuts and bolts of it, I should perhaps explain that players take turns pulling a tile out of the bag and adding it to the selection in the middle. When an auction is called (more on that below), players can use one of their tokens to bid on the revealed tiles.
So you might like the selection of tiles in the middle and you might have the 3, 4, 6 and 11 bidding tokens. If you really want it, you could use your 11, but then you’re going to find it hard to win other auctions if you win this one, as your highest remaining token is only a 6. If you use a lower token though, there’s a good chance someone will outbid you.
The other interesting thing is that the winning token goes into the middle and the winner of the next auction wins the token as well for use in the next epoch. So if there’s a 13 in the middle, you might want to win the auction, even if the selection of tiles isn’t that great, because it gives you a very strong bidding token for the next epoch.
Players can voluntarily call an auction instead of drawing a tile if they like the selection of available tiles and there’s quite a bit of strategy to this. If you have low bidding tiles, you probably want to call the auctions early. If there only a few tiles available, people may not be interested in bidding, particularly with their higher bidding tokens. You can pick up quite a few tiles this way.
Some of the tiles in the bag are ‘Ra’ tiles though. When these tiles are drawn, an auction automatically takes place (although everyone can pass when this happens). People can wait for more and more tiles to be drawn if they have strong bidding tokens, but this can be risky. When a certain number of ‘Ra’ tiles are drawn, the epoch ends immediately and no one gets any more tiles.
Different kinds of tiles give you points for different things: there’s some set collection, some majorities and some tiles you need to have or you lose points. It’s all fairly standard stuff. The genius of the game lies in that auction mechanism.
If you win four auctions, you have to sit out of all future auctions until the end of the epoch. So timing when to call the auctions, when to bid, and what to bid with is remarkably tricky! I really like the push-your-luck element.
If you can get people to use up their bids early (by calling an auction for something you don’t really want, knowing that they want it), you can end up being the only one left in and then draw tiles with impunity. Of course, if you draw too many ‘Ra’ tiles, you could get nothing. But you could win so much if you’re lucky – it’s so tempting!
Reiner Knizia re-designed Ra ten years after its original release and came up with the slightly more family-friendly Priests of Ra. I think either game is perfectly suitable for families, but play them with gamers and you’ll see all the strategic hats come out when they realise how much depth there is to the bidding.
If you’ve not had the chance to try this classic, I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t usually go for auction games! If you’ve played it though, what do you think? Is it worthy of the ‘classic’ brand?