Priests of Ra is essentially a variant of the Reiner Knizia classic auction game Ra. Not really a version 2.0 or improved version. The core auction mechanism is exactly the same, but the tiles you collect and how they score are all different from Ra. It also introduces a twist – double-sided tiles.
The game is played over three epochs. Within each epoch every player has 3 or 4 suns which can be used to win sets of tiles via auction. Tiles gradually accumulate on the board. You want to collect them and they score points in different ways. Auctions can be triggered voluntarily by players. They are also triggered if anyone draws a Ra tile from the bag. During auction, you bid and pay with one of your suns. If you win, you claim all the tiles on the board, and your payment (the sun used) goes to the board. The next auction winner will take your sun. You will have also claimed a previous sun from the board. This is turned face-down to remind you that you can only use it in the next epoch. You flip it face-up only at the start of the next epoch.
On your turn, you only have 2 options – draw a tile from the bag, or invoke Ra (i.e. trigger an auction). If you draw a tile, you are usually adding to the pool of tiles on the board, making it more valuable. However if you draw a Ra tile, an auction will be triggered. There is a Ra track on the board which will gradually get filled up by these Ra tiles. When it is full, the epoch ends immediately. This is a countdown timer which creates urgency for the players. If you still have unused suns by then, it is your loss. Normally you would want to make use of all your suns to win some tiles before the epoch ends.
When an auction is triggered, the player triggering it will be the last to bid in a single-round auction. Bidding starts with the player to his left. The sun values in the game are all different, so there will be no ties in an auction.
The tiles you win need to be arranged neatly in front of you. Scoring is done at the end of every epoch. Some tiles are scored every epoch, some only in the last epoch. Some tiles are discarded after being scored, while others are kept until the end of the game.
The game structure is very simple. Play three epochs, in which you collect tiles and score points with them.
These are all the tile types in the game. The twelve at the bottom are double sided tiles. Yellow is always on the back of blue, and red is always on the back of green. Whenever you draw such a tile, you immediately decide which side to use. This can greatly effect scoring. One side may be much more valuable to a player than the other side. Let’s take a citizen tile as an example. The green citizen is a farmer. When an epoch ends, whoever has the most farmers scores 5pts. If someone is competing for the most farmers, choosing the farmer side makes the set of tiles attractive to him. However if he is not competing for soldiers (the red side), then choosing the soldier side makes this tile worthless to him. Often you will choose the side which is helpful to you, but it is not always a straight-forward decision. If there is someone else wanting that side too, and he has a higher sun than you do, you may want to choose the bad side. Basically “if I can’t have it, no one else can have it”.
The purple citizens are the priests, and they are a special class. When you claim a priest, you can use him to flip a tile in your play area. This ability can be very powerful. In addition to that, if you have three of more priests at the end of an epoch, you can even remove a plague tile. Plagues are the only tiles which deduct points. The first one deducts 1pt, the second one 2pts, and so on. The max is a 20pt penalty, when you have 6 or more plague tiles.
Citizens, buildings and pyramids are the three main categories of the tiles you collect. Citizens are discarded at the end of every epoch after scoring is done. Buildings are scored every epoch, but are not discarded. Pyramids are kept and are scored only after the third epoch. Some pyramids have coloured chambers. If you have three or four in the same colour, you score extra.
These are your suns, used for bidding. During game setup, they are organised into predetermined sets, and everyone randomly takes a set. Once the game starts, it will be a free-for-all for the suns. Who gets which sun by the second and third epoch is entirely up to the players. During auctions, you must consider the value of the sun at the centre of the table. Sometimes it’s worth spending your low #1 sun to get the #16 sun even when there are no tiles to be claimed. Even by the third epoch you need to consider the value of the suns you will win, because at game end you will score based on total sun values. The player with the highest total gains 5pts, and whoever is lowest loses 5pts.
It is a little difficult for me to discuss Priests of Ra. I have known and played Ra for so long that it is hard to approach Priests of Ra like I’m a new player. I’ll just highlight some interesting moments in the game.
Watching the pool of tiles grow on the board is like watching a stock market bubble. The value keeps going up, unless someone draws a plague. What’s interesting is these tiles will often be valued differently by different players. As players collect different combinations of tiles, they will have different directions and needs. When you see that no one else really wants those tiles on the board except for you, it is probably okay to let the pool grow a little bit more before initiating an auction. However, it is also possible that a tile extremely important to someone else is added, suddenly making the tile set very valuable to him. You will then need to compete with this other player.
When your suns are low and others have higher suns, you would want to trigger auctions more frequently, while there aren’t many tiles on the board yet. When there are many tiles on the board, the player with highest sun will have an advantage because he can decide whether he wants them. So you need to force his hand. If the tile set value is neither here nor there, this will be a dilemma for the high sun players. Maybe there’s one important tile they really want, but they’d prefer to wait until there are more tiles so that they can get more at one go. If you trigger an auction, you will force them to spend their high suns. Even if they don’t take the bait, there is no big loss for you since you are spending small suns only.
The tail end of an epoch is often an exciting time. When there is only one player with any sun left, he goes into solo mode. Ideally he wants to completely fill the board (i.e. 8 tiles) before using his sun to claim them all. However, if there is only one space left on the Ra track, the epoch may end at any time. If he tries his luck, he may end the epoch and lose all those tiles on the board so far. At such moments, greed can kill, and cowardice can also lead to lost opportunities.
This set of tiles is a little tricky to evaluate, because there’s a plague. There are citizens in three different colours, which is a good thing. In each epoch when you have citizens in 3 or 4 different colours, you will gain ankhs. Ankhs are scored at game end.
When competing for citizens, whoever has the most in a colour scores 5pts. However you must have at least two citizens of that colour. Every pair of buildings scores 2pts. If you have pairs in 3 or 4 colours, you will score a bonus. Pyramid tiles need to be stacked like a pyramid. You will score points for your pyramid if it has at least two levels (i.e. 3 pyramid tiles).
When there are 8 tiles on the board, i.e. the spaces are completely filled, the player with the highest sun will be the happiest person in the room.
I searched for player boards on BoardGameGeek.com. I found some but were not entirely satisfied, so I made my own. A player board like this helps tremendously in teaching the game, an addition to making gameplay smoother. It is a reference sheet at the same time.
The game board does list how the different tiles score, but the font is tiny and hard to read.
This was Chen Rui’s player board. She completely slaughtered Michelle and I, scoring 140+.
These are the tiles discarded after every epoch – Ra and citizens.
What surprised me about Priests of Ra was it holds up well in comparison to Ra. From reading the rules, I had expected an inferior game, because it is missing some elements from Ra which I think are very thematic. E.g. the pharaohs, the river Nile and the various disasters. It’s a game about Egypt after all. The new tiles in Priests of Ra seemed to be less thematic and more mechanical and abstract. After actually playing the game, I found that it still gives much to chew on and does not feel lacking. It’s different, but not simplified or dumbed down. Ra is nostalgia for me, and Priests of Ra won’t be able to replace it. Priests of Ra is a fun variant when I feel like playing something which is the same yet different.
Playing Priests of Ra made me appreciate the clever auction mechanism in Ra all over again. It is genius and I preach it.
The double-sided tiles and the priests flipping tiles are the most striking change in Priests of Ra. This affects all three major scoring methods – citizens, buildings and pyramids. In this sense, there is some connectedness among the three areas. The game still has that tricky balance between short-term and long-term goals. Even within the citizens aspect there are both short- and long-term considerations. Going deep is short-term for winning in the current epoch. Going wide is long-term because of the ankhs which will only be scored at game end.
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