Publisher: Alea/Rio Grande
Warning to readers - I do like Reiner Knizia games! When demonstration copies of Ra were being played at Essen in late 1998, I knew from the reports that I was going to like it even though it would be 6 months before I finally got to play it.
Reiner Knizia games tend to have a family tree, where you can trace design elements back to earlier Knizia games. With Ra, the genes of Mercator/Medici, along with a whiff of It's Mine can be spotted in the ancestry. Specifically, the lot bidding of Medici, combined with the variable scoring mechanics of It's Mine.
The theming of the game is light, but no lighter (or deeper) than other Knizia games. Players are trying to negotiate their Egyptian families through three epochs. Along the way they are using their Sun bidding tokens to acquire lots of tiles that are gradually drawn from a bag (there is no bag in the game, but we use one and just pass it from player to player). Players receive a small number of lots per epoch, so it's important to try and maximise your return when committing to a purchase.
A players turn is very straightforward; a player may draw a tile and add it to the auction track; may play a god tile to plunder the auction track; or may invoke Ra to auction the existing lot of tiles. The auction is the quick and elegant "once around the table" type, which keeps the game moving at a quick pace.
While players only receive few lots per epoch, a neat mechanism ensures that in some circumstances they may receive none at all! These are the dreaded Ra tiles which force an auction on the players. On top of that, the Ra tiles are an insidious mechanism that may force the end of an epoch before all players have an opportunity to purchase all they can. This can create some exquisite tension!
While half the game is bidding, the other half is collecting. At the end of each epoch, the score of the collected tiles depends on several factors - quantity, variance, and what the other players have collected. Bonuses and penalties are awarded based on how well or poorly players have faired relative to the other players. Points are paid out, or taken from, the players in the form of hidden tablet chips.
At the end of the game a final tally of victory points decides the winner, and this will be the player who kept a close eye on his opponents' sets and made the right bids at the right time.
This is the game of 1999 for me - simple to play, fast, beautifully balanced with some terrific tension. I've introduced this to gamers and non-gamers alike and each time a repeat game is immediately requested. It's that sort of game, you always feel you can do a little better and want to try it again straight away.
How this game could not even make it into the 10 finalists for Spiel des Jahres this year is beyond my comprehension. In my opinion, it should have won.