Thursday 27 August 2009

Ra: the dice game

Ra was one of my earliest home-made games, in my early days of getting into the boardgame hobby. At the time it was out of print. I spent a lot of effort to make my own copy, so that I could play it. The effort was very much worth it though, as I was able to introduce the game to my Taiwanese friends (I was working in Taipei then), and they all enjoyed it. We played many many games of Ra. Later they even found a copy from Germany and gave it to me as a gift. So Ra always has a special place in my heart.

This year Reiner Knizia came up with Ra: the dice game. I couldn't wait, and have already completed a home-made copy, so that I could play. What surprised me was how similar it feels to Ra, and yet how different it is at the same time. It is also very simple to teach (maybe I am biased, as I know Ra very well). The play time is super fast, although that may be because I've only played 2-player games so far.

The game is played over 3 epochs. You place cubes onto the board to compete in four areas - pharaohs, the Nile, civilisation, and monuments. Each of these aspects has a different way of scoring. Most score at the end of each epoch, except monuments, which only score after the 3rd and last epoch. How quickly an epoch ends depends on how quickly the Ra marker reaches the end of the Ra track. And all the above is done using dice.

There are 5 dice in 5 different colours. One side is a sun, and getting this usually means you are forced to advance the Ra marker (i.e. the timer). There are four sides corresponding to the four aspects of your Egyptian kingdom, and when you roll these, there are different rules in placing / moving your cubes on the board. Rolling "Niles" allow you to advance your Nile marker, but you need to have a Nile flooding in order to score the Nile track. You need three "Niles" to have a flooding, represented by placing an additional cube on top of your Nile marker. You need to roll at least three "Civilisations" in order to be able to place a civilisation marker, so this is not easy. If you have no civilisation, you lose 5 points. So it's good to have at least one to avoid this penalty. However to gain positive points from civilisation markers, you need at least three of them, which is also tough to achieve.

The last side of the die is a joker, and there are some rules restricting how you can use it. There are some special cases you need to remember too. Two jokers can be used for scoring an immediate 2 points, if you choose to use them so. Three suns, instead of advancing the Ra marker, give you an immediate 3 points. Four or five suns trigger a disaster for all other players, e.g. killing their pharaohs, destroying their monuments, etc. You get to choose the type of disaster. Oooh... nasty!

When playing the game, I think the basic principle is to maximise the number of cubes you get to place / move. Fully utilise your dice. Squeeze the most out of them. However you often need to consider the competition too. Players compete quite directly in the pharaoh, civilisation and monument aspects, so sometimes you need to make a less optimal move in order to hinder your opponent. E.g. to place a single monument cube to prevent your opponent from completing a set, even if you would have been able to place more cubes if you hadn't decided to block your opponent. In this sense I think Ra: the dice game has more player interaction than some other dice games.

The game also has the push-your-luck element, like many other dice games (e.g. Can't Stop, Pickomino). You have the chance to reroll some dice just once, and it can be an interesting choice whether to reroll hoping to achieve something better. Even after you have decided to reroll, sometimes you also have to think about which dice to reroll and which dice to keep. There are many such mini risk-and-reward considerations throughout the game.

Managing the pace of the game is another aspect. If you appear to be trailing, you probably want to delay the epoch end or game end so that you can catch up, so when you roll two suns on your first roll (which means the Ra marker may advance two steps), you may want to reroll all the other dice and hope for 3 or more suns (so that the Ra marker won't move), even if the three other dice in your initial roll give you something good.

In the first game that Michelle and I played, she completely destroyed me because of her monuments. I had good Nile flooding and good Nile scores , and was leading in score most of the game. However at game end, Michelle's score from monuments allowed her to jump far ahead of me. I should have competed with her more in building monuments and should not have let her score so much so easily. After that our games were more normal - scores were closer. In fact in our second game we drew at 35 points. I think the average score in Ra: the dice game can vary a lot. It depends very much on how often suns come up in die rolls, which impact how quickly epochs end. Our games last around 15 minutes.

Start of a 2-player game. I use cubes and one white die from Yspahan, and the black pawn and the four other dice from Manila.

Game end.

Game in progress. 1's represent suns. When you roll suns, you place them ahead of the Ra marker (black pawn, in my case). They mark how many steps the Ra marker will have to move (unless you later roll 3 or more suns in total).

I enjoy Ra: the dice game, but unfortunately this game will likely become one of my just-another-filler games, i.e. I probably won't play it very often. I like it more than many of my other dice games (Risk Express, Can't Stop, Monopoly Express, Pickomino), but being a hardcore gamer, fillers just aren't the type of game that I plan ahead to play. I need more meat. Fillers, no matter how good they are, do not provide the kind of satisfaction that I look for in a game session.

How do I decide whether a game is a filler or not? I thought a bit about this, and found that for me, one general rule to not be a filler is the game needs to have a proper board (i.e. the minimal-use board in Lost Cities does not count). There are some exceptions, e.g. card games that are non-fillers, or boardgames that I consider fillers. For me, games that are just above the non-filler line are China (so quick, but still satisfying), Pandemic (it is quite straight-forward and I don't understand why it keeps drawing me back), Mystery Rummy card game series, Sticheln (I usually play to a certain score or play a fixed number of rounds), Bohnanza, Blue Moon. Race for the Galaxy for me is firmly in non-filler territory, because I find it very satisfying, despite not being a long game. Roll Through the Ages is probably right on the borderline. Games I consider fillers are mostly card games and dice games. E.g. For Sale, Battleline, To Court the King. There are few boardgames that I consider fillers. They include Blokus, Blokus 3D, 10 Days in Asia (and the series). I'm pretty sure different people have different criteria for what constitutes a filler. Hardcore wargamers may think of my whole collection as fillers.

Let's get back on topic...

I find Ra: the dice game to be among the better dice games that I have played. It will probably be more interesting with more than 2 players. With 2 players, the competition for pharaohs is less interesting. The player with the most pharaohs earn 5pts, the player with the least lose 2pts. There is no middle ground. The available spots for civilisations are less. Each of the 5 civilisation spaces can only accommodate one player (the formula is one less than the total number of players). With 2 players, I think it's too hard to have all 5 types of civilisations. Maybe that's intentional. The other thing that I wonder is whether monument building becomes too easy. It is easier to build many monuments of the same type, because there is only one other player who can stop you. So your opponent must try to stop you, unless neither of you are spending much effort at all on monuments. I think the game does balances well with different numbers of players. Players are forced to compete no matter how many opponents they have. But having more players probably will allow you more flexibility to specialise or deprioritise certain aspects.

Aaaaand... This review is too darn long for a game so short. I'm rambling...

Tuesday 25 August 2009

gaming in photos

22 Aug 2009. Pandemic. At game setup, Karachi was already infected to Level 3. I have some colleagues in Karachi. I hope they are OK. (sorry, lame joke...)

Michelle was the researcher (brown), who could give a card to another player even if they are located at the city depicted on the card. I was the dispatcher (purple but supposed to be pink), who could move another player's pawn or fly a pawn to meet another pawn. We did something illegal in Bogota.

This was what we did. Michelle spent her 4 actions to give me 4 cards, so that by the next turn I was ready to cure two diseases. I had thought that I only needed to discard down to the hand limit of 7 cards after the draw card phase of my turn. After the game I checked the rules again and realised that if you exceed 7 cards after someone else gives you cards, you need to immediately discard down to 7. Well, despite this mistake which benefited us, we still lost the game. We were playing at hard difficulty level.

This was how we lost. Too many outbreaks, and we ran out of black disease cubes.

Yspahan. This photo is very disorienting, because I was sitting at the "northern" edge of the board. The mix of the shading of the buildings drawn on the game board and the real shadows of the game components (green cubes and white pawn) causes confusion to the eyes.

I had built the building that gave addition $2 whenever you collected money. I was rich rich RICH! (yellow discs are coins)

Michelle on the other hand kept collecting camels. If this were Arabian Agricola she would have scored the full 4 point for the camel category.

Another probably even more disorienting photo. I quite like the board of Yspahan. It's beautiful.

Michelle won the game, and this contributed very much to it. She scored 22 points, plus 6 points from a special building, for the cubes she had placed in this district in Week 3.

Ticket to Ride. We played with the Big Cities variant that comes with the USA 1910 expansion. I kept all four of my initial tickets. All were big tickets, and all required connecting cities from east and west. This was the early game, and I found myself being blocked or threatened to be blocked by Michelle all over the place. Look and my green trains and you'll see how desperate I was. I had four disjointed segments.

Surprisingly, I went on to win the game. I had exactly enough trains to complete all four of my tickets, not a single one more. If I were short by just one train the results would have been disastrous. Michelle drew tickets near game end, and failed to complete a 16 point ticket, which was painful. She hadn't expected me to finish using up my trains so quickly. When she drew tickets, I was only a few cards away from being able to play my three 6-length routes and one 2-length route.

Monday 24 August 2009

more Through the Ages errors

I have played Through the Ages 40 times. That's no small achievement considering this is a long game. It still take Michelle and I 2 to 2.5 hours to play a 2-player game. And I just discovered that we are still playing with some mistakes! I read through an FAQ at and found these.

  1. Producing at improved mines / farms - After you play a more advanced mine (e.g. a 2-stone-per-blue-token mine), when you produce (assuming you have two 1-stone-per-blue-token mines), you can't place one blue token on the new mine technology. You must still place two blue tokens next to your two old mines. We had thought that we couldn't immediately "swap up" blue tokens that we had already produced, but could make use of the more efficient card from that point onwards. Now I realise that we have to upgrade our old farms before we can enjoy the benefit.
  2. When Age III ends, you don't draw any more Age III military cards. This probably would have had little or no effect.
  3. After gaining military cards from a new colony, you must discard down to your hand limit before you enter the civil action / military action phase. I am not entirely sure whether we have played this wrong, but at least now I know I need to watch out for these.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

gaming in photos

2 Aug 2009. I taught Michelle a 2-player variant of Automobile which I found on I think it was by Soledade, a gamer from Portugal. It is quite simple and doesn't require many additional rules or changes from the standard game. The game is definitely better with more players, but this variant is OK to play if you don't have enough players and are keen to play Automobile.

I used black cubes to block off some spaces on the board which are not available in the 2-player variant.

Cars had been produced, and we were starting to sell them now. Michelle loved choosing the Howard character, which allowed her to sell two extra cars. She also produced many cars, flooding the market. Talk about destructive and ruthless sales strategies. Because most of my cars were older models than hers, I was usually at the suffering end when market demand was less than our car production. Ouch.

8 Aug 2009. I had one thinner than usual car piece.

The difference is more obvious in this photo.

I really like the drawings of the cars on the game board. I don't know most of the car models, the exception being the Ford Model T.

The full game board. This was a 2-player variant game in progress.

15 Aug 2009. Ticket to Ride: Europe, the second game in the Ticket to Ride family, which I had not played in a very long time. This particular game turned out to be quite exciting, despite being a 2-player game. Michelle and I needed to connect to many cities which were close to each other. This was still early in the game and the tension was already building up.

A fan-like castle in Carcassonne (with Inns and Cathedrals and Abbey and Mayor expansions, although you don't see any tiles from the latter yet). This was the game that got me into Eurogames, and this was the game that started my game group when I was in Taiwan in 2003-2004.

Early game in Attika. We had a very resource-rich starting map, but most of the resources are covered up (i.e. used up) by now.

Since we played a 2-player game, I used the unused buildings as markers to cover my already-constructed buildings.

Near game-end. Neither of us ever seriously threatened to achieve an instant win by connecting the two temples. I won by being first to construct all my buildings.

16 Aug 2009. Jing Yi, Sui Jye and Chee Seng. China, my favourite Michael Schacht game, in play. We also played Automobile, Villa Paletti and For Sale. Automobile is still great. This was my secord 4-player game, my other games being the 2-player variant. I never quite liked For Sale as much as most other people. I never quite understood the strategy. I did try to apply some, but I still do badly at this game. I wonder whether I still don't get it, or you actually do not have much control in the game.

Villa Paletti. Sui Jye very carefully trying to remove a pillar while Chee Seng watched with glee (I guess he was hoping for the whole structure to crash).