Unplugged: Invoke, curse the gods in Knizia’s Ra

July 27, 2012

There are few board games that can cause players to actively chant in the hopes of invoking the arrival of a god. There are even a couple that should cause everyone else in the room to run the heck away should that start to happen. (Arkham Horror, I’m looking at you!) When it occurs during a session of Reiner Knizia’s 1999 classic Ra, however, it’s more good-natured taunting than it is ominous insanity.

Besides being a difficult game to find via some search engines, Ra is another of Knizia’s auction-oriented games. Like its older brother Medici, Ra also features three rounds of tiles being pulled out of a bag until they are auctioned off and has elements of set-collection in its scoring, but that’s where the similarity between the two games ends. Instead of bidding with points, each player is assigned three or four values of suns ranging from 2-16 (depending on the number of players); each sun is a one-time only use per round (“epoch”), so you will only be able to win three or four auctions’ worth of tiles each round.

In addition to the tiles being bid upon, players are also bidding on the sun used to win the previous auction (the value-1 sun begins the game in the center of the auction board and will go to the winner of the first auction), with the suns won in this manner forming the player’s bidding supply for the subsequent round. You really have to plan ahead, as spending your higher-values suns only to wind up with lower-valued ones will probably cause you problems down the road unless you’re really crafty about it. And don’t think you’re out of the woods just because it’s the third round: at the end of the game, the player with the highest total value in suns will earn a five-point bonus, while the player with the lowest loses five points.

The tiles themselves come in several varieties, with each type having its own peculiar scoring. Pharaohs simply reward the player(s) with the most of them, and punishes the one(s) with the fewest. Rivers score a player one point per tile collected, but only if the player has also acquired one or more Flood tiles that round. Civilization tiles come in five varieties (Writing, Agriculture, Art, Astronomy, and Religion) and score five, ten, or fifteen points if you manage to collect at least three types, but a player who hasn’t collected any Civs that round will lose five points, so keep an eye out for opportunities to grab these when you can.

Monuments come in eight different varieties and only score at the end of the third round, with points awarded both for having at least three of a given type as well as for collecting different types, with bonuses for collecting seven or eight types. Finally, Gold tiles are worth three points, and God tiles are worth two, although God tiles also provide players the ability to trade them in to grab one tile off the auction track without having to bid for it. It is worth noting that Civs, Floods, Gold, and Gods are discarded at the end of each round, but all the others generally stick around.

I say “generally” because there are also two other kinds of tiles in the bag that do not score points. Each type of scoring tile other than Gold and Gods have two equivalent Disaster tiles that will cause any player who “wins” them to forfeit two tiles of the corresponding type (with Floods being forced to be tossed first should a Drought hit), which can include tiles won alongside the Disasters if necessary/desired. The final type of tile are the Ra tiles. Pulling one of these will do one of two things: 1) cause an auction to begin; or 2) end the round, with all of the tiles currently on the auction track being discarded, should it be the eighth, ninth, or tenth Ra tile for that round (dependent on the number of players). Auctions can also be started if the auction track is filled (eight tiles) or if the current player chooses to “invoke Ra”. Knowing when (and why) to invoke Ra is a crucial strategy, especially when you’re stuck with a bunch of low-value suns.

However an auction is triggered, the player on the left of the current player gets to make first bid (or pass). Each subsequent player must either bid a higher sun or pass, with the highest sun winning the tiles (and the previous sun, as noted). Should no other player bid, the current player’s options depend on the type of auction: in a Ra tile auction, they may pass without incident; in a forced (full track) auction, if they pass then all eight tiles on the track are discarded; in an invoked auction, the player may not pass and is forced to bid one of their suns to claim the tiles.

Things get amusingly interesting when all but one player have exhausted their supply of suns. With near-total control of the board, the final player suddenly enters a sort of “press your luck” situation. They can pull out tiles and bid on the track at pretty much any time, but they have to be mindful of the Ra tiles that could force the round to end before they can spend their last sun(s). The other players, if they’re anything like my playgroup, will probably be chanting “Ra! Ra! Ra!” in the hopes of that last red tile screwing this last player over, sort of the inverse of “No Whammies!”. That “whammy” will strike more often than not, especially in a three-player game, but sometimes you can successfully outrace the sun and those times are epic.

While the gameplay of Ra is simple and timeless, there can be a few flaws with the physical contents of the box. First and foremost, depending on the size of the tiles in your version, the provided cloth bag might only barely contain them all, making randomization awkward when you can barely even fit your hand into it. Secondly, keeping track of the various tiles you’ve collected in any sensible manner is somewhat difficult without some sort of player aid. Fortunately, several excellent offerings are available for download at the game’s BoardGameGeek page and you will definitely want to print off five copies of these before playing.

Being an older game, Ra has a few editions out there (generally published by Rio Grande) but is often out of print. When it is available, it retails for around $35-40. That being said, in any given group with experienced gamers it is a near certainty that someone will already own a copy, so not being on the shelves is hardly an issue. Be aware that there are also two spin-off titles out there (Priests of Ra and Ra: the Dice Game), so be sure you’re getting the title you want if/when you do decide to purchase this one.