Of Course I Like It

Those who know my gaming tastes understand that I’m a shameless Knizia fan.  If he puts out something new that looks even mildly interesting, odds are that I’m going to buy it.  If I hear talk of a classic Knizia design that has aged well, then I’m likely to hunt it down.  If we’re looking to add another project to our Bitewing Games publishing lineup, then we’re typically fishing at Lake Reiner before looking elsewhere.

Despite my strong preference for the tension, interaction, and elegance that Knizia games provide, I’m not afraid to acknowledge flaws in the gameplay or production when I see them.  The only way we can truly bring about industry growth and improve our collection curation is through critical analysis.  I have no qualms bashing on Modern Art: Card Game for being a zombified version of Modern Art.  I’m not afraid to call Tower of Babel one of the ugliest games I have ever seen.  And I’m eager to recommend Mille Fiori over Witchstone, as I feel the former blows the latter out of the water in terms of impactful decision-making.

In many cases, my criticisms stem less from design flaws and more from personal preferences.  But even then, a creative decision could be considered a flaw if it repels its intended target audience.  In the case of Ra by Reiner Knizia and 25th Century Games, I might just be sitting within the bullseye of the target audience.

  • Revered Knizia classic?  Check.
  • Tight auctions and tense push-your-luck decisions?  Check.
  • Simple rules, quick gameplay, and staggering depth?  Check.
  • Artwork from one of my favorite industry veterans—Ian O’Toole?  Check.

The question for this review is not whether I like Ra.  Of course I love it.  Rather, the question here is: How does this new version compare to older editions?  And is it a worthy addition or replacement in your collection?

Ra—Huh!  What is it good for?

For those who are uninitiated in the Egyptian antics of Ra, let me offer you some brief thoughts:

Ra is widely considered one of the greatest games created by one of the greatest board game designers.  Any list that explores the “best auctioning games”, “best set collection games”, or “best push-your-luck games” ever made that omits Ra from its lineup is like omitting the Grand Canyon from a list of the “best natural wonders.”  

Player turns are quick and simple: You can either draw a tile from the bag to add to the auction track, spend one or more God Tiles to steal one or more auction track tiles, or Invoke Ra to trigger an auction.  Each player has a handful of sun disks to pick from in each auction, where you always only get one shot to pass or raise the bid.  Whoever plays the highest sun disk will claim all of the tiles in the auction track, and their winning sun disk will get swapped out with the one on the game board.

What makes these auctions interesting is the multi-layered incentives tugging at you from all directions: wanting to claim tiles to score points is the obvious one; yet keeping valuable tiles away from hungry opponents is just as important; but swapping your low-value sun disk out for a high one can be even better than the auction tiles that are up for grabs; of course, you’ll ideally want to avoid winning the dreaded disaster tiles that sometimes end up in the auction row; meanwhile, spending your sun disks too quickly can let players get away with highway robberies later on as you are forced to watch them rake in massive points; on the other hand, waiting too long to blow your sun disks can be just as bad if the end of the era sneaks up on you.

That last point is key—any time a Ra tile is drawn from the bag, that’ll move the sun boat closer to the immediate end of the round.  So do you play it safe and spend your sun disks early, or do you push your luck and hope for easy auction wins later in the era when other players have tapped out?  The beauty of Ra is that there is no right answer until after the decision is made, and that’s where the juicy Knizian drama hits the table with full effect.

So, is Ra worth trying?  100% YES.  This is a top-tier game in my collection and a worthy addition to any hobbyist’s bucket list.  It even works great at any player count from 2-5, although 3+ is my preference.

But is This the Best Version? What If I Own An Older Version of Ra? 

Much of what I’ve said up to this point is old news, preaching to the choir, etc., etc.  For you folks, the most interesting question becomes what’s different about this version (for better or for worse)?

Image provided by 25th Century Games

On the surface, it seems like a simple matter of subjectivity… Which art style do you like the most?  The rules are unchanged, so it’s just a matter of personal preference.  But from playing this latest version by 25th Century Games, I can confidently say that it is much more than that.  I’d argue that this is objectively the best production and most functional version of Ra that has ever existed.  Hands down.  Allow me to show you why…

Let me take you back to my first ever encounter with Ra from several years ago…. I was starting to dip my toes into the Knizian waters of gaming—naturally jumping from one popular classic to the next and thoroughly enjoying it.  So it wasn’t long before I tracked down a playable copy of Ra at a public game cafe.  At that point, I was already comfortable with reading rulebooks and teaching games, having done it dozens upon dozens of times.  Yet Ra proved to be abnormally tricky to get into.  

The biggest thing that trips up newcomers—such as myself back at this cafe—is undoubtedly the tile scoring:  Which tiles score every era versus only at the end of the game?  Which tiles go away after each round, and which ones stay?  How many points do I get for these tiles versus those ones?  What does this scarab icon mean again?  Which of these is the nile tile and which one is the flood?  For veterans, these questions are no big deal.  For the uninitiated, it’s nearly headache-inducing.

Enter Ian O’Toole.  For those who don’t know, Ian is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the visual design of a board game.  Not only does he distill complex systems (see Vital Lacerda) down to clear iconography, but he also puts out some of my favorite box cover illustrations in the entire industry.  Beyond his raw talent and extensive experience, you’ll find an organic approach to his work.  

As a relatively new publisher, I’ve had the pleasure of working with several talented artists and graphic designers who each bring unique contributions that have made them perfect for their assigned project.  Ian is the only creator I’ve encountered who has this specified approach: He requests a prototype of the game so he can play the design, soak in the entire experience, and explore its mechanisms.  As he does this, he is analyzing and questioning every assumption that has already been made in terms of component choice and graphic design (even if they are just placeholders).  If a game contains point or resource tokens, he’s wondering if those might be better as a track.  If the design requires that players remember a tricky rule, he’s asking how it can be converted into a helpful graphic and where that graphic can be placed on the components for easy clarity.  In many ways, Ian is shouldering the job that publishers usually have to carry.  The big difference is that he is much more experienced and creative when it comes to visual design.

So the most obvious and drastic improvement to this new version of Ra can be credited to Ian O’Toole.  The functionality of the graphic design and component organization here are a massive step up from previous versions of the game.  Setup is a breeze, with player boards telling you exactly which sun disks and how many points you’ll start the game with.  Teaching, learning, and retention are intuitive thanks to the simple, clear, and consistent iconography running throughout the cardboard.  Gameplay flows with a smooth cadence as each tile has a fitted slot and all pieces are thoughtfully considered.  Even the most subtle of decisions can be appreciated here, such as the permanent tiles being sent to the left side of your player board while the transient tiles are sent to the right.

For anyone who wants the smoothest onboarding experience for Ra, the 25th Century Edition is a clear winner.

But visual design isn’t only good for getting players into a game.  It’s also critical for getting games to the table.  Consider with me your own collection of games… Which ones get played the most?  Your favorite games, right?  Well… mostly.  Obviously if a game has a niche appeal or a narrow player count range, then it’s going to hit the table less often.  But beyond that, wouldn’t you agree that your better looking games are generally easier to get to the table?  This is a topic that I explored a while back in my Tabletop Tastes series, particularly with the post about Sweet Evocative Art:

“I submit that evocative art is one of the most powerful tools that a board game publisher can possibly use.  Just think of how much effort it takes to muster your desire to play a good game that is gorgeous compared to a good game that is ugly.  What makes me hungry to play an unattractive game like El Grande, Castles of Burgundy, or Puerto Rico? I have to stretch and strain my arms of memory as I struggle to grasp at slippery ideas such as clever mechanisms and interesting strategies.  Contrast this with Scythe or Inis or Root: I simply have to look at a box on my shelf, or a painting on my wall, or a picture online, and I’m already salivating at the idea of playing them again. Evocative art not only enhances the experience, but it sweetens and strengthens the memories too.”

Yet even games with solid art can easily be overlooked if they don’t stand out among the many options in a stack or on a bookshelf.  Jamey Stegmaier made an insightful observation on this topic in his blog last year.  https://stonemaiergames.com/an-epiphany-about-the-sides-of-game-boxes/ His point was that in the heat of the moment, when you and a group of friends are eyeing which game to play next, it’s easy to pass over the boxes that don’t stand out or convey much personality.  So let’s connect the dots here—if you want to see Ra get the most plays, you’re better off choosing the version that pops off your shelf.

Amusingly, I saw this in practice when I took Ra to a friend’s house this past weekend and he and his wife had the following conversation:

Wife – “Don’t we own this game?”

Husband – “Yeah we’ve had it for quite a while.”

Wife – “Why haven’t we ever played it?”

Husband – “I don’t know.” ?

I imagine it didn’t help that the Rio Grande version of Ra was one of the most bland and beige boxes on his shelf.  I’ve observed the same kind of thing in my own collection…. Favorites such as El Grande, Ethnos, Condottiere, and more are far too frequently overlooked and neglected because they rarely catch my eye.  It’s crazy, but it’s true.

Image provided by 25th Century Games

Finally, I would be remiss to omit my feelings on the component and production decisions made by 25th Century Games.  Everything here is impressively on point.  The draw bag is spacious and gorgeous.  The game box is refreshingly compact.  The tiles and boards are of solid size and quality.  The sun disks are large and chunky, as they should be.  And that Ra Statue, OOO BABY, that Ra statue.  You may think you’ve enjoyed yourself a fine wood component or two in your day.  But in reality, you’ve never known the full joy of board game wood until you’ve clenched your fist around this massive hunk of tree and pounded it down to the table while exclaiming, “I INVOKE RA!!!!”  A word of advice: find yourself a lover who loves you the way that 25th Century loves wood tokens ?.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Some of the most common sentiments I observe in our hobbyist community include the following: 

“Why is this game out of print?  It’s criminally hard to find!”

“Why does this Kickstarter project have to be so overproduced?  It’s too bulky, too expensive, too much plastic, etc.  This is prohibitively wasteful.”  

“I hate how large this box is.  It’s full of air and takes up far too much space on my shelf.”

“I wish a publisher would do an updated version of this game with nicer art.”

Have you ever said anything like this?  Me too.  And for all of us who dream of brighter board game future, Ra by 25th Century Games and currently on Gamefound is our clarion call.  Do you wish it was easier to track down classic games from Reiner Knizia and other designers?  Are you sick of publishers trying to milk you with wasteful crowdfunding bloat?  Do you want to see more games like Ra surfing the wave of board game hotness?  Then what are you waiting for?!? Pledge your dang support, already!

Let me remind you that 25th Century Games is not run by a faceless mega-corporation that is hell-bent on ingesting and dissolving everything you love before discharging soulless products born from joyless algorithms.  This publisher is pretty much run by one guy.  His name is Chad.  He’s a cool dude.  You could even say that he is one of us—a fan who is passionate about the hobby.  And from where I’m standing (and playing Ra), it’s obvious that this project is a labor of love. 

Retaining your old version of Ra or waiting to find the cheapest retail deal is all good and fine, and these certainly have their place in our consumerist hobby.  But if you want to see more genuine passion projects and stone-cold classics coming from fellow fans like Chad at 25th Century Games, or us at Bitewing Games, or the many other indie publishers out there, then you’ve gotta support them directly.  Whether it’s $1 for a symbolic pledge, $40 for a standard edition, or $80 for an all-in deluxe reward, your direct support will continue to fan the flames and fuel more projects such as the masterpiece that is Ra by Reiner Knizia, Ian O’Toole, and 25th Century Games.

Current Rating: 10/10

Crowdfunding for Ra is still ongoing until May 25th.  You can find the Gamefound page here.  Preview copy provided to Bitewing Games by 25th Century Games.

Bitewing Games is planning to cover even more exciting releases from publishers including upcoming Knizia games and beyond.  We are also collaborating with Reiner on several publishing projects of our own.  To follow our game coverage and publishing projects, subscribe to the Bitewing Games newsletter!

Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite, including the upcoming Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mat

    Before I read your piece, I had decided that I was done with kickstarting games because of the inflated shipping fees, but you made a point that really resonated with me.

    In the era of $250 reprints of OOP games that come loaded with eye candy like the current Kingdom Builder campaign, it’s worth supporting the creators who are taking a more accessible approach. Chad has been brilliant at communicating with the community on BGG and being transparent about every single production decision, then offering two reasonable price points. I want the hobby to go in THAT direction so I voted with my wallet here and thank 25th Century Games for not trying to squeeze every possible cent out of this classic.

    I hope the T&E reprint takes the same approach.

    1. Nick Murray

      Amen to that! I’m glad that we’re able to speak with our wallets to (hopefully) push the industry in the right direction.

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