Reiner Knizia's classic Egyptian-themed auction and tile-collecting game Ra is not an easy one to figure out. When playing around a table, you need to collect the right tiles, look over to see what other people are collecting, keep an eye on the status of the sun/bid tiles and, in general, process a lot of changing information. If you enjoy this gameplay but don't like setting up the game or dealing with scorekeeping, the new universal Ra app is sure to please, especially at US$4.99 (it debuted at $6.99, but quickly came down).
Ra for iOS was designed by Sage Board Games, the same people who brought us the excellent Medici and have a lot of wonderful board games in their "convert to app" sights. Because it's such a popular game in the Eurogame community, a lot of people have been waiting for Ra, and it kind of feels like this is an important app for the developers. If it's a success, then we expect more board game apps to come. If not, then what happens? We have no inside information on the company's finances or strategic plan, but it's probably not cheap to produce an app like this, and no one wants to lose money -- even if they're making things they love.
Does Ra make the grade? We think so, but read on to see what its like to get a bit of desert auction sand in your iPad or iPhone.
Like many Knizia games, Ra is simple on the surface. At first, you have one choice each turn: you can either draw a tile from the bag to a central pile of tiles (possibly triggering an automatic auction) or you can declare the start of an auction. That's it. Oh, and try to score the most points.
Much of the game's complexity comes from its different types of tiles. The tiles you draw from the bag fit into a few different categories:
- Civilization tiles – you need at least some civ tiles to avoid getting negative points. A variety of them (more than three types) will score you even more points.
- Gold tiles – Worth three points.
- Nile/flood tiles – Worth one point each, but only if you have collected a flood tile by the end of an epoch (there are three epochs in a game).
- Monument tiles – Work similar to civ tiles, but are only scored at the end of the game.
- Pharaoh tiles – Collect the most, get five points, Collect the least, lose two points.
- God tiles – Worth two points, but can also be spent (and not scored) to take a tile from the center area into your collection.
- Disaster tiles – these can make you lose tiles you've so carefully collected.
- Ra tiles – these automatically trigger an auction and never sit in the middle field. Also, once the eighth non-Ra tile is put in the center, an auction automatically takes place.
As tiles are drawn and put into the center auction lot, each player's interest in them can wax and wane -- which is one thing the app gets wrong on the iPhone, as we'll see later. How do you bid? That's another of Knizia's interesting game mechanics.
There are 16 sun tiles in the game, and each player receives three or four to start the game in a pre-determined fashion depending on the number of players. One tile is placed in the center and will be collected by the player who wins the fist bid. He will then put the sun tile he used to bid into the center for the next winner to take. In each epoch, each player can only make three or four bids, and you can see what other players still have to compete with you. At the end of each epoch, certain tiles will be lost to the desert – it's a harsh climate, after all. There is a special scoring system used at the end of the third epoch (which ends the game), and it's here that getting monuments earlier in the game can sometimes pay off handsomely. For a complete description of how the game works, you can download the rules here (PDF), but suffice it to say that this is one of the modern classics in the Eurogame genre. Once you figure out what's going on, both the tabletop and iOS versions can provide a lot of replayability and entertainment.
Reiner Knizia's Ra app is beautifully done. We had to work to find something to nitpick, but first, let's talk about where the app shines. Ra is a universal app (Version 1.0 reviewed here) and, for the most part, gameplay is identical whether you're playing it on an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. Multiple human players can duke it out on one iDevice; this is easier on the iPad, of course, but you can play on smaller iOS devices by passing them around.
There is no online or Bluetooth multiplayer available. Instead, we get eight AI opponents ranging in smarts from an Elo rating of approximately 1200 to 1800, which makes the app suitable for a wide range of skill levels. You can play against multiple copies of the same opponent if you'd like to really test yourself against a particular AI level. I haven't played Ra more than a handful of times in real life, but I do know what I'm doing in the game – and I have yet to win a game against the computer. Given that the UI and the AI is where these kind of apps succeed or not, Ra starts things off right.
You can't turn off the game's animations –the desert eats tiles, sandwhirls swing by whenever an auction starts, and so forth. – but you can make them really fast so they're over quickly. They are well done, I just don't need flashy animations in my games. Some users may enjoy these flashy touches, but I would prefer a way to turn them off, and a way to turn off in-game sounds -- I've got my own music on my iPod, and I appreciate that the app lets me listen to that while I play.
Like the animations, the game's artwork is also quite beautiful. It is different from any of the tabletop editions of the game, so old school players might need a little adjustment time to get used to the new look. Also, thankfully, the horizontal screen layout rotates in either direction (none of that one-side-only nonsense as in games like Knights of Charlemagne). There is also no undo button, which I'm starting to think is much harder to implement than it seems, because why else would designers refuse to include one?
Unlike the ever-increasing line of Ra tiles in the board game version, progress through an epoch in the app is cleverly marked by a little stone "clock" that moves up one notch each time a Ra tile is drawn. The app can also display a warning when the next Ra tile will trigger an epoch's end. This is important, because any tiles that have not been claimed when the last tile is drawn are lost, and it's much easier to see on the table than in the app -- the monochrome clock can get lost in the colorful tiles. All the dialogs and warnings can be turned off, so newbies can get their sea legs before settling in for a bunch of quick games.
The app's biggest failure is really just a problem of screen real estate. The iPhone and iPad versions of the app differ in how they display the tiles a player has collected. When you play on the iPad (middle picture, above), you can see all of the tiles other players have collected at all times. On the iPhone and iPod touch (bottom picture), you can't. You need to tap into a separate screen, either the "Players" screen in the menu (for a clever overview of what everyone has) or by tapping a player icon to see what that particular player has in an easier-to-read format. It's understandable that the smaller space available on the iPhone's screen meant there needed to be some sort of alternative solution to the way the iPad app displays things, but I'd still really like some sort of "see everything at once" option on the iPhone, even if it's really tiny.
Other than that, I'm happy with this app. Some people are asking for a harder AI, and I hope to get to that level some day. Changes will be coming, since the game's welcome screen itself says, "Updates and more games coming soon." Taking a look at the titles Sage has licensed and could bring to the iPad and iPhone, I can't wait.
UPDATE: The developers say that online gameplay and Bluetooth connectivity will hopefully be available by Christmas.