Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Franz Vohwinkel
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
I don’t normally pick up a dice game, card game or roll-and-write game based on a popular design. There are some exception and Ra: The Dice Game is one of them. My decision is based on recommendations from fellow members of the OG guild in Board Game Geek. From the reviews, it seems like Knizia has designed a perfect dice game and so, what is a Knizia fan to do but to try and find a copy on the secondary market as the game is long out of print?
Ra: The Dice Game certainly employs a familiar Knizia dice chucking mechanism: Throw a pool of dice (7 in the game) and set aside some that you want keep while rerolling the rest. After a number of attempts, 3 in the case of Ra: The Dice Game, players assign the dice to different scoring categories. You get this in a lot of Knizia dice games: Keltis: The Dice Game, Pickomino, and more recently, Into the Blue and High Score. The list is certainly much longer than the handful of examples I have provided.
For Ra: The Dice Game, there are 6 scoring categories. Two are instant scoring, three are end of round scoring and one is scored only at the end of the game. Here, Knizia has covered his spread really well by setting up instant-short-intermediate-long term scoring strategies while blending in different scoring criteria for each of these approaches. For example, the pharaoh track scores each round only for the leader of the track with laggards getting penalized. Similarly, the civilization scoring also happens each round but all players score independently of each other. Kicker is that each region can only accommodate a few cubes depending on player count, so, first come first serve. The Nile score track also scores each round, but independently for every player. There is no need to fight for scoring here, but to actually score the Nile, one must flood the Nile first. Until you flood the Nile, your position on the scoring track will not yield any points regardless of how far you have progressed on your track. To flood the Nile, you’d need to sequester 3 dice of the same type. Finally, you have the Pyramid scoring which is the only long term scoring opportunity that happens once at the end of the game. Here, players patiently place cubes on a grid of pyramids over three rounds, hoping to score maximum points for as many cubes placed across all columns, but also in individual columns. The bonuses for Pyramid scoring can be impressive, but only if one is diligent about cube placement and is one area where defensive plays might be as useful
Just like Ra, the more famous sibling, the round ends when the Ra token reaches the end of a track. Each die has a “Sun” symbol on one of its faces. If you roll the Sun symbol, that die is locked out for the round and is placed on the Ra track. At the end of a player’s turn, the Ra token will move a number of spots based on how many locked dice are the track. However, if you roll three Sun symbols, one can opt for instant scoring of 3 points and the Ra token won’t move at all. If you lock up 4-5 sun symbols, then a disaster is triggered and the active player can rain down penalties for all other players which varies based on which scoring criteria you choose to penalize. I think it is clever that Knizia uses the dice as a time track to control the duration for each round. Players have some control on when the game ends by trying to roll for the sun symbols. Do you want to hang around and hope for the next round or end the game immediately to score points and limit the damage from opponent scoring? The tension and unpredictability of how each round ends is part of what makes the game good.
Overall, the game lasts for 3 rounds with the Ra token reaching the end of the track and is then reset at the start of the round. After that, the Pyramid scoring takes place and the winner is the one with the most points.
I think my opinion aligns well with another OG boardgamer that recommended this game. Basically, there is really nothing new in Ra: The Dice Game, but everything just clicks. You chuck a bunch of dice and hope to catch symbols that allows you to advance on specific scoring criteria. Failing that, you try your best to assign the dice in a way to maximize your own scoring and occasionally, to consider blocking your opponents. It’s essentially Knizia’s version of Yahtzee with a strong Euro twist to it, of course. Each of the scoring criteria is really well-balanced and unique in its own way, but counterbalanced to prevent runaway scoring. You will see several scoring areas having a high threshold for getting the big points. That means that the first few cubes placed on the board will score only a handful of points, while getting the final few cubes on board will be hard, but worthwhile.
Like all push-your-luck dice game, your choices will hinge on the dice rolls. Of course you can always mitigate these circumstances by deciding when to stop or reroll, but even then, you are at the whim of the dice gods. But hey, if you want a light dice game, then I argue you could do no better than a Knizia design as he a MASTER of this genre. I always find his dice designs to be a delicate balance between choosing to press your luck and maximizing what is given to you. To put yourself in the best position to win, one has to figure out when to reroll or stop. Importantly, Knizia also knows how much time a dice game of this type should last. Too long and it drags and too short and you don’t have enough control of your own choices. Just like Goldilocks’s preference for all things Baby Bear, everything is perfect when it’s not too hot or cold, not too hard or soft and not too big or small. I think Ra: The Dice Game is my Baby Bear.