Saturday, February 19, 2005

RA – The Review

Imagine that you were a high priest back in the heyday of the Egyptians. You had a direct line to the RA, the Sun God. You had the power to call on RA to bestow good fortune upon your section of the Egyptian populace. There were other high priests of course, and each of you competed for RA’s favor, in order to claim responsibility for bettering Egypt’s lot through godly favor. Of course, with the good comes the bad, and sometimes a high priest had to accept that catastrophes happen from time to time, especially of he wanted something really good for his people.

You don’t have to imagine all of this – you can just play Reiner Knizia’s RA.



RA was the first big box game to be published under Ravensburger’s new imprint for strategy-oriented German games, alea. It also remains one of the best. RA went out of print in the early 2000s, and has been appreciating in the secondary market ever since. The production qualities of the alea edition of RA are exquisite. The numbered suns that the players use for bidding are beautiful, as is the wooden RA marker. The cardboard tiles and point chits are thick and smooth. The board is a simple single-fold affair. The only thing that one might find missing is a bag for the tiles. One might say that the whole thing is a bit overproduced (a card game called Razzia appeared in 2004 with much the same mechanisms as RA), but for a game this good, it deserves this kind of treatment.

The good news is that uberplay has announced that it is reprinting RA in 2005, and after some deliberation they have decided to retain the theme and the graphics. People who got into German gaming too late to have had a chance to purchase the alea edition at retail price are anxiously awaiting the final form of the uberplay edition RA. Will it retain the wooden suns and RA marker? Will the tiles and board be the same size? Stay tuned.

The Game

RA is an auction and set-collection game. Tiles are drawn randomly and laid out before the players. When an auction is called, players bid for the lot using numbered suns. Whichever player bids the highest-numbered sun wins the lot. The basic mechanism of the game is that simple.

Auctions are called in two ways – when a red RA tile is drawn, or when a player calls on RA himself. The auction is a once-around deal. The player to the left of the person who called on RA or drew the RA tile begins the bid, choosing to offer a sun or passing. The bidding goes once around the table, each player bidding a higher sun or passing. The player who called RA or drew the RA tile gets final bid. High sun wins the lot. If no one bid, players resume drawing tiles. If the lot gets to eight tiles (the maximum) RA is automatically called down. If no one bids on the 8-tile lot, the whole thing is chucked and play resumes.

Players are trying to collect sets of tiles. Certain sets of tiles score certain amounts of points. There are also bad tiles (catastrophes) that destroy tiles in the possession of the player who wins the lot with the catastrophe. Thus, lots are more valuable to some players and less to others depending on what has been collected by each. This is the heart of the game and what drives bids. Players may decide to bid on some lots just to deny the contents of that lot to a player who would score big if he won the lot.

The game is played over three rounds or “epochs”. A player has either three or four suns to bid with each epoch. A major twist of the game is that the sun a player wins a lot with becomes part of the next lot to be auctioned off. (A sun won in a lot can only be used in the following epoch.) Once a player is out of suns, he is out of the bidding until the next epoch. Thus, much of the time only one player will be left with suns at some point in an epoch, and the other players who have expended all their suns will be chanting “RA, RA, RA” hoping that the remaining player draws enough RA tiles quickly to end the epoch.

An epoch ends when a certain number or red RA tiles are drawn (depending on the number of players). At the end of each epoch, players’ scores are tallied based on what tiles they have collected. Also at the end of each epoch, some tiles are discarded, while some are retained. After the third epoch scoring, whoever has the most points wins the game.

Strategy

RA is a game of timing and opportunity. While the tiles drawn are random, players have control of their own destiny as they control the bid. Players can decide that due to the tiles that they win early in the game, they can “go short” and collect tiles that score once and disappear at then end of each epoch, or they can “go long” and collect tiles that are permanent and score repeatedly at the end of each epoch, or once at the end of the game.

A major decision point lies with the catastrophes. Sometimes, taking a lot with a catastrophe and sacrificing some tiles in exchange for others, especially if the price is right (a low-numbered sun), is palatable for a high priest. Other times, the presence of catastrophes can send an otherwise decent lot into the garbage bin.

RA has a certain pace which varies from game to game, depending on the appearance of the epoch-ending RA tiles. If many RA tiles are drawn early in the game, players are willing to settle for much less in the way of tiles, rather than get stuck with unused suns at the end of the epoch. One even sees players trading low numbered suns for the sun accompanying an empty lot, just to set up for the next epoch. Finally, there’s the “chicken” element in being the last player in the bidding, with just one RA tile left to end the epoch. How long do you keep drawing tiles before cashing out? It’s one of the most fun situations in any game I’ve ever played.

Reviewer’s Tilt

RA was a game that I first learned on the online gaming site BrettSpielWelt (BSW). My first experience with the game was ok, but nothing great. Then I learned a friend had the game, and he brought it to our next gaming session. We played the heck out of it for the next few months, with three and four and five players. Like most games, RA is best experienced face to face, with all the grimaces and cheers and curses and chants of “RA RA RA” accompanying the game. I also continued to play RA on BSW, and the more plays I got under my belt, the greater my estimation of the game grew. RA plays quickly, it’s very variable, and it’s always interesting.

I consider RA to be the evolution of Reiner Knizia’s High Society. It takes that excellent filler and adds several elements to make it an exceptional meatier middleweight game. The tension is always present.


Will someone call an auction before I get my next turn?
Will Jim use his 7
sun if I bid my 4 sun?
Can I force Jay to use his 12 sun by bidding my 10,
knowing that he needs that flood while I don’t really want this stupid
lot?
Will my 3 sun be enough to win this lot?
Where the hell is that
stupid flood? My 8-tile river is dying here!
Do’h, another RA tile, two more
and the epoch is over and I still have three suns!

All of this is packed into a game that goes 30 to 45 minutes when all the players are familiar with the tiles. RA plays well with anywhere from three to five. I like it with three as each player get four suns, and there’s more control as the turns pass around quicker.

It’s great that RA is being reprinted. With so many less exceptional titles regularly getting the reprint treatment, this is something that German game fans can rejoice about.

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