Dec 19, 2011

Pro's and Con's: Ra: the Dice Game

Format: Boardgame
Designer:  Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Rio Grande Games

On this first edition of Pro's and Con's we'll be having a look at Ra: The Dice Game designed by the legendarily prolific Dr. Reiner Knizia. I thought it would be an appropriate first review given the recent release of my own game, Shake Out! which is also a dice rolling game that strives to be more than just a "dice fest".

As a gamer I've got, essentially, two sides. On one hand I'm a professional video game artist and semi-pro designer, on the other hand I'm an avid fan and consumer. The Pro's and Con's review brings together both of these facets to highlight some of the interesting things we can glean from a game as Professionals as well as the experiences we can have playing the game as Consumers.

Ra: The Dice Game is a, well, dice game based on Reiner Knizia's auction board game Ra. Though the game play is completely different, replacing the bidding for for tiles with rolling dice, the dice game retains much of the scoring and relationships between the types of scoring of the original game. I'll be honest that, having played both I am a bigger fan of the dice game than it's 'big brother'. I simply find that Ra: The Dice Game is a better dice game than Ra is an auction game in the end.

So, how does it play? On your turn, you roll your dice up to three times, Yahtzee style and in order to get different symbols that match scoring areas on the board. The rules for advancing your scoring markers or placing new markers in areas is different for each and offer interesting decisions on what to keep and what to roll based on weighing risk versus reward. After playing three "epochs" the player with the highest score wins.

Pro's Take:
I'm going to start with what is my only real gripe with this game, and that is the Nile track. The Nile track is one of the aforementioned scoring areas. Without explaining the rules of the game, placing markers on the Nile track requires that you roll boat symbols on the dice. By rolling a boat, you can advance your first marker along the track, this, however won't score you points, only by placing a second marker (flooding) will you score on the Nile track at the end of the Epoch, at which point your flooding marker will be removed, leaving you with only one marker. My problem with this is the fact the rules state that you can still move your marker up the Nile track after flooding (which requires you roll three boats) which, after many dozen plays seems overpowered to me and a missed opportunity for more risk/reward play. I would recommend playing with the alternate rule that you can only move your marker up the Nile track if you haven't yet flooded. In my opinion, this helps balance the Nile track scoring while adding yet another nail biting decision between using your boats to advance for more potential scoring at the end of the epoch, provided you can roll three boats again or flooding immediately for guaranteed points.

So, what do I find works in the game? Pretty much everything else. There is a nice variety between what persists and doesn't between epochs, which play's into the meat of the game which is managing risks versus reward. The simpler scoring area, the pharaoh track isn't your big score but it's safe and easy, while the monuments and civilization areas require significant investment to pay out, but pay out big. This importance of the variety of approach is magnified by the fact that, in good Knizia fashion, some of the areas, namely the civilization area and pharaoh track will actually cost you points if they are ignored. This means that if you are going to jump head long into investing in the Nile track or the monuments area, you better make sure it's enough to offset the points you will be losing elsewhere!

All in all Ra: The Dice Game strikes a great balance between the randomness of the dice and the tough decision making.

Con's Take:
Ra: The Dice Game is fast, fun and, mostly, easy to play. Getting through the rules will generally take as long as playing a game and once you've learned it you can jump in and play quite quickly as it's easy enough to remember how everything works. If you are new to it or you haven't brought it to the table in a while the included reminder cards to a great job at jogging your memory as to how each scoring area works.

Unlike some other dice games, Ra: The Dice Game actually found a few ways to get players to interact. The most blatant is the sun (Ra) symbol you will find on the dice. This symbol is generally used to advance the marker that signifies the end of the epoch, however, if you roll 4 or 5 of them you invoke a disaster allowing to force all the other players to loose progress in the scoring area of your choice. This can create some truly raucous "OOOH!" moments when nearing the end of the epoch as everyone dreads players rolling sun symbols in the hopes of getting another turn only to be hit by a disaster instead. The other way in which players interact is in the nature of three of the scoring areas. The pharaoh track scores comparatively, so players complete to place better on the track than their opponents and the civilization and monuments areas have placement restrictions that allow players to block their opponent's ability to score big.

The only bad point I can really give this game is with its tacked on theme. The theme doesn't really inform the game play and this high abstraction may be part of why my wife has sworn off the game. In her words:"There's no point to the game!". So, even though the game seems otherwise perfect as a gateway for non-gamers, some may need a little coaxing to get over the abstract nature of the game play and scoring. Oh, and the yellow die is a little hard to read in some lighting conditions.

So, at the end of the day Ra: The Dice Game is a fantastic choice as a filler for game geeks as the dice rolling keeps it nice and light while the very Euro-style scoring gives your brain enough of a workout to keep gamers happy. if you're hoping to attract new gamers to the hobby, you might consider a game of Shake Out! to test the waters before breaking out Ra: The Dice Game. But then again, I'm a little biased.

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