(image by cnidius @ BGG)
I’ve talked about Reiner Knizia and auction games a few times in the past. Knizia’s Modern Art is almost as pure an auction game you will find while other titles like Amun-Re and Hollywood Blockbuster feature interesting twists on auctions. I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m not a huge fan of auction-style games, mostly because I tend to be really bad at evaluating the worth of things. Ra, however, is one auction game I think everyone can love.
In typical Knizia fashion, Ra’s theme is completely irrelevant. The game takes place over three years with players either placing a new random tile to the collection of items up for grabs or calling an auction. Ultimately you are trying to collect these tiles which earn you points either at the end of each year and at the end of the game. Ra bares an Egyptian theme where tiles represent rivers, civilizations, gods, buildings and who knows what else. Why you are collecting these things through an auction is inconsequential; thankfully there’s a fantastic game sitting underneath the tacked-on chrome. I will say that the art and theme should age well, though, giving the game a classic feel.
Two things really make Ra tick:
Fixed Bids – The game comes with 16 bidding tokens numbered 1 through 16. Players are given three each and one token is on the main game board up for auction with all the tiles. All auctions are once around: bidding starts with the player to the left of the auctioneer and each player is allowed only a single bid. The winner takes all the tiles that were up for auction along with the bidding token on the board which goes face-down in front of them, unavailable until the next year. Finally, they place the token they used to bid on the board and it is now up as part of the next auction.
Ra works because you know what bidding tokens everyone has and as the auction is once-around you know who can and cannot outbid you. The key decision is knowing when to call an auction or make a bid that forces the difficult decision on someone else. Let’s say a couple of tile were up for bid and the bidding starts with me. My hand is 3-5-10 and the next player’s hand is 2-9-14. Those two tiles out there aren’t necessarily worth a whole lot but it may very well be in my interest to bid my 3; now the next player has to bid 9 to outbid me. They have to decide if it is better to let me get those tiles for a small bid value, spend their higher bid to stop me from getting it or hope someone else outbids me. For me those tiles could easily be worth 3 but I’d also be just as happy seeing another player outbid me and use up one of their three bids for this year!
(image by @ wizardless BGG)
Push Your Luck – Ra features a great push-your-luck mechanism as you draw tiles. The main game board features two tracks: the bottom track shows the collection of tiles up for bid and the top row is where the Ra tiles go. If you pull a normal tile on your turn it gets added to the collection but if you draw a Ra tile it goes on the upper track and you are forced to start an auction. The catch is that when the last spot on the Ra track is filled up the year is immediately over and you start the next year of bidding! It is quite possible that you won’t have used up all your bid tokens by the end of the year and unless you won a big auction earlier you could end without much to show. You need to decide how long you can hold out for the perfect set and when you need to be happy with whatever you can get.
Scoring adds further tension to the push-your-luck element. Some tiles earn you points for sets, some stay in your collection from year to year while others are discarded. You may lose points for not collecting a specific type of tile and disaster tiles actually destroy tiles you may have collected so far! Things get agonizing when there’s only a couple of spots left on the Ra track, you are on your last bid token and there’s a great set of tiles up for auction but it doesn’t contain the tile you need to keep you from losing points this round. Ultimately you need to weigh how many points you stand to gain or lose against how soon you think the round will end.
I love Ra because it is less about evaluating the worth of things and more about pushing those tough decisions onto your neighbors. If you have a bunch of low bidding tokens it is usually in your best interest to call auctions as frequently as possible; you don’t have much bidding power, so make the other players decide if they really want to spend their bigger bidding tokens on a small set of tiles. With higher bid tokens you know you have the muscle power to win but holding out too long means you may hit the end of the round before you can even make a bid.
Like many of Reiner Knizia’s games, Ra looks awfully dry on the surface. I highly recommend giving it a shot, though. The game plays quickly (around an hour), is easy to learn and filled with lots of tough decisions and tension-filled moments. I don’t think I would ever turn down a game of Ra!