Gaming Unplugged: Ra

September 20, 2007

Growing up, one of my favorite game shows was Press Your Luck; it was briefly reincarnated in the early 2000s under the name of its mascot, the Whammy — a playful little imp who delighted in taking away a contestant’s prize money should they be so unlucky to stop their “spin” on one of his spaces. The oft-repeated mantra of “No whammies, no whammies, no whammies… STOP!” has taken root in the pop culture lexicon, and you will frequently hear it invoked during playthroughs of Reiner Knizia’s Ra, a tile game combining an auction mechcanic with set-collection scoring system.

The object of Ra is to acquire the most fame (points) over three epochs (rounds) by the collecting of various types of tiles won during auctions. You can only win a limited number of auctions (which varies with the number of players) each epoch, and there is a chance that an epoch can end prematurely, denying you one or more chances at auctions.

To begin, each player is assigned a group of suns valued sequentially from two to thirteen (or to sixteen with five players); these are what you use to win auctions, with the highest sun bid winning. Each player also starts with ten points, represented by stone tablets in denominations of one, two, five, and ten. The tiles in the bag represent various aspects of ancient Egyptian culture that are needed in order to have a successful dynasty (scoring tiles), disasters that remove two of their corresponding scoring tiles from the auction winner’s possession, and tiles depicting Ra, the Egyptian Sun God. The tiles themselves are colorful and eye-catching, with basic but serviceable art very much in the style of Egyptian hieroglyphics; the Ra tiles in particular stand out with their bright red backgrounds — much like the Whammies of PYL. The quantities of each type of tile are listed on the game board for probability reference (e.g., “how many Floods are left in the bag?”).

On each player’s turn, he has three options: 1) pull a tile from the bag and place it on the auction track (or the Ra track if it is a Ra tile); 2) spend a God tile (won in auctions) to claim any one tile on the auction track; or 3) invoke Ra. Drawing a Ra tile or invoking Ra initiates an auction for all of the tiles currently on the auction track, plus the sun used to win the previous auction; the first completed auction of the game includes the sun valued at one, which can obviously only win an auction if you’re the only player placing a bid. The sun you win via auction is placed face-down in front of you for use in the next epoch (or for scoring after the third); when you are out of face-up suns, you are done for the epoch.

An epoch ends either when all players have used all of their suns or when the final Ra tile is placed on the Ra track — which is usually when the Whammy reference comes into play, as the final Ra tile ends the epoch immediately, discarding whatever tiles may remain on the auction track. This is especially true when only one player has any suns left and is essentially in sole control of the board. If your playgroup is anything like mine, the inherent tension created by “pressing your luck” is usually amplified by the other players (without suns) actively rooting for you to hit the “Whammy” and get screwed; sinister chants of “RA! RA! RA!” are not uncommon in my experience.

After each epoch, points are awarded for various criteria — and occasionally deducted for a lack of certain aspects. Certain tiles are discarded every epoch, and others are retained; the latter are noted by a symbol so inexperienced players know which are which. At the end of the third and final epoch, there are two additional scoring criteria. The highest total then wins.

As the default action of pulling a tile takes about five seconds, and auctions being restricted to one bid per player eliminates down on “arms race”-style bidding increments that can occur in other auction-based games, Ra features very little downtime. Even a five-player game shouldn’t take more than an hour to finish; three players can probably get done in around half that time. The only complaint most owners of the game have comes from the fact that at some point between editions the tiles became bigger than they were originally but the bag that you draw them from did not, creating a situation where it is difficult to “shuffle” them adequately; an upcoming reprinting of the game is said to correct this nuisance. Also, I highly recommend visiting BoardGameGeek’s Ra page and printing out one of the players’ mats/scoring sheets, which will help you keep things organized and greatly speed up play (especially scoring).

While there is a heavy luck element to Ra, it is restricted only to which tiles are pulled in what order. Everything else is public knowledge, so there is a high level of strategy balancing out the random tile draws. One of the key strategic elements is knowing when to invoke Ra, which can force players to make unfavorable bids if they really want something on the auction track — or possibly let you get what you want for your lowest-valued sun if no one else steps up. Just be sure you really want (or can at least make do with) what’s on the auction track — if Ra was invoked and no other player makes a bid, the player who invoked Ra must bid, to prevent invoking from being a stall tactic.

Do you place a higher bid to cut off later bidders from getting what they want (or at least from getting them cheaply) and risk “wasting” one of your own suns? How many Ra tiles are left in the bag, anyway? Should you bid now to trade one of your low-value suns for a higher-valued one for the next epoch, and pick up some extra points before that last Ra tile messes everything up? Can you afford to eat the losses that disaster tile will cause? Hey, Chris is really collecting a good amount of Monuments over there… should I try to stop him from racking up some major points in the final round? Questions like that are what makes Ra challenging — and a blast to play for the thinking gamer.

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