The Alea Analysis, Part One: Ra (#1), Chinatown (#2), Taj Mahal (#3)

Over the course of 2009, I deliberately played through all 22 games then published by Alea, from Reiner Knizia’s Ra to the brand-new Alea Iacta Est. As I played each game, I wrote an analysis of it at my livejournal. If you wish, you can still read the original 22 Alea posts there.

Rather than keep all that material locked up on a non-gaming site, I’ve decided to bring it over here, where I’ll be revising and regularizing the content to make it into a more coherent series. So, here is the first of several articles on Alea, based on my thoughts from a couple of years back. I’ll be publishing more every 2 or 4 weeks, so as not to dominate the blog with this material.

Big Box #1: Ra (A+)

Author: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Rio Grande Games (2008), reprint pending
Alea Difficulty Scale: 4
Other Articles: Review (12/05)
My Plays: 17 for Ra (15 when I first wrote this), 6 for The Dice Game, 3 for Priests of Ra

Ra Board & TilesAn auction game of set collection. Players choose whether to increase the size of lots or start auctions for them, but each player only has the opportunity to win up to three (or four) auctions during each of three rounds of play.

Ra was one of my first Euro Holy Grails. When I got into the field the old Alea edition was out-of-print and it was late 2005 before the Überplay version appeared. I’ve since gotten to play Ra 17 times (or 20 if you count the broadly similar Priests of Ra), making it: my fourth most-played Reiner Knizia game (following Lost Cities [69], Carcassonne: The Castle [21], and Through the Desert [19]), my second most-played Alea game (after San Juan [35]), and my 22nd most-played game since I started keeping track several years ago (or 16th if you prefer to include Priests).

Strengths: Unique Auctions & More

A lot of the auction elements in Ra are both unique and innovative. They’re a lot of the reason that the game is great:

  1. Set Bids. The auctioning is done with set money units. Each player gets 3-4 “suns” labeled from 1-17. In the once-around auction, a player decides whether to bid one of his suns or pass. Exactly which suns you have available to you can weigh heavily on your strategy in the game.
  2. Auctions of Lots. As already noted, the auctioning is done in lots — a methodology that Knizia also uses for MediciMoneyStrozziHollywood Blockbuster, and probably a few other games that I’m missing. One bid gets you several items. Even more intriguingly, the players decide collectively how to size the lots by either adding to a lot or starting an auction on each turn.
  3. Bidding for Bids. Each lot includes the sun that was bid on the previous auction, meaning that you’re also bidding for your bidding power in the next of the three rounds of play. There’s no other game that I can think of that uses this particularly clever idea — except maybe Reiner Knizia’s Money where you’re primarily bidding for cards to add to your sets, but you inevitably turn some of those cards around as bidsin future rounds.
  4. Set Collection. Speaking of sets: the things you’re bidding on are (as noted) kind-of, sort-of set-collection elements, which means that as the game goes on, the value of individual tiles will diverge for different players. I think this is an important element in any good auction game.
  5. No Guarantees. The length of a round of play can be variable, so if you save up your bidding resources, you can sometimes lose out.

This all mixes together into a very harmonious and still quite original whole. Though there are just two decision points — whether to start an auction or add to a lot and which of your sun tiles to bid, if any — those decisions points feel very crucial. As with the best Knizia games, the decisions can sometimes be very difficult too. (I suspect this is due to the very limited resources available in your bid tokens.)

The other good elements of the game are that it’s short, it’s pretty quick to play, and it has a nice rapid fire of turns, so you’re never out of action for long — unless you use up all your bidding tokens. It’s also got some nice strategy (as you plan which sorts of tiles you’re collecting in the long-term), though its play is largely tactical (as you figure out what you’re doing each individual turn).

Weaknesses: Harsh & Random

There is definitely some segment of the gaming population that doesn’t like Ra. I’m surprised when someone says it’s boring, and I think that those people just don’t get the importance of your possible actions. However, I understand people who say that it’s too random for them. There is definitely an uncontrollable element, based on which tiles are drawn (and particularly, when round-ending Ra tiles are drawn). However, even more than most random games of this sort, I think your choices are very much of the “risk vs reward” sort. If you go for longer odds then you may (or may not) be rewarded appropriately — a topic I’ve covered more than once in this blog.

I also suspect some people don’t like the fact that it’s sort of hard to figure out what you’re doing right (or wrong) through your first several games of Ra. I’m curious if this is an element thatAlea developer Stefan Brück is fond of, as I also feel that Taj MahalPalazzo, and Fifth Avenue have somewhat opaque strategies, while several others Alea games — beginning with Puerto Rico — take at least a few games before you can figure out what to do. Those strategies aren’t exactly opaque, like the first four I mentioned, but they are definitely complex.

It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s also notable that Ra’s core auction (or rather its interaction with the variable round length) can be really harsh. I’ve had more than one game where I felt like I was totally hosed after the first round of play.

Overall, I think that Ra is a terrific game: colorful, constantly changing, and quick.

I got a review copy of Ra from Uberplay, and it remains in my collection 7 years later. I purchased both Ra: The Dice Game and Priests of Ra, and those remain in my collection as well. They get more plays than the original nowadays due to their novelty factor.

Big Box #2: Chinatown (B-)

Author: Karsten Hartwig
Publisher: Z-Man Games (2008), now out-of-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 2
Other Articles: None
My Plays: 1 (and unlikely to be more between my “meh” and general inavailability)

Chinatown CoverA negotiation game containing three commodities: locations in the city; business tiles; and cash. The initial object is to gain locations in the city that are contiguous so that you can build a single type of business across those contiguous tiles, maximizing its valuation. The ultimate object of the game is simply to gather as much money as you can.

Just as Ra was one of my first Euro Holy Grails, Chinatown was one of my last. I didn’t get to play it until I tracked down a friend with a copy who was kind enough to bring it around to my local game store, Endgame, so that I could play it for this series.

Strengths: Negotiation & Brinkmanship

Chinatown’s strengths are ultimately that it’s pretty pure negotiation and it’s simple. You can make meaningful value assessments and trade or pay accordingly. This does mean that things can get really mathematical toward the end of the game, but you could say the same for Modern Art, so that’s not necessarily a strike against the game (though ultimately Modern Art has proven a bit too mathy for me too, and I’m more likely now to fallback to its cardplay compatriot: Masters Gallery).

There’s a bit of brinkmanship thrown into the negotiation in Chinatown, as you have to decide whether to build your businesses early (which maximizes your income over the course of the game) or to build them later (which improves your negotiating position since you’re not committed, and increases the odds that you’ll get to build complete sets of buildings together, both of which are likely to result in you earning more cash at those points).

Since cash is the ultimate point of the game, this brinkmanship decision is quite meaningful. It’s also nice to have a second factor to give some depth to the negotiations.

Weaknesses: Simplicity

Chinatown’s weaknesses are ultimately that it’s pretty pure negotiation and it’s simple. That simplistic negotiation also combines with the mathiness to produces a pretty colorless game; it’s like Acquire without the depth of theming.

On sum, I think Chinatown is an OK game, but that there are a lot of really good games in the Alea series.

Comparisons: Ra & Traders of Genoa

It’s worth comparing Chinatown to a few other games in the Alea series, as I think doing so highlights Chinatown‘s weakness.

Ra (#1) & Randomness. There’s no doubt about it, Chinatown is random. You randomly draw the locations and businesses that your entire game ultimately depends upon. Still, you could say the same about Ra, where you also randomly draw resources — in this case the tiles that form the lots.

The big difference is that in Chinatown there’s no filter: you get what you get, and that could be great or terrible. In Ra things are instead filtered through the auction system. A set of tiles that’s great for you could appear. You then might be willing to bid more than any other player, but at least your opponents have a chance to take the lot away from you.

I think that a really lucky initial draw can be a huge advantage in Chinatown, while in Ra a lucky lot draw is just a bit of a help. And that’s one of the reasons that I think Ra is a vastly superior game.

Traders of Genoa (#6) and Negotiation. The Alea series includes another negotiation heavy game: The Traders of Genoa (#6). I’m going to cover it more in the next article, but here I want to briefly say that I think Chinatown really pales when compared with its successor due to its simplicity. There’s just not a lot to the game, and that’s the main reason that I think Chinatown hasn’t been remembered over the years. Anyway, more on that comparison next time.

The original Alea edition of Chinatown was long out of print when I got into the eurogame hobby. When Z-Man Games reprinted it, I really wanted a copy, as I was then still hoping for a complete Alea collection, even if some were in different editions. But at $70 it was pretty overpriced for the field at the time. I’m glad I played it before I bought, as I was mostly unimpressed. Deciding not to buy Chinatown may have been the chink in my Alea armor that let me get rid of the couple of games I really didn’t like, a topic I’ll return to.

Big Box #3: Taj Mahal (A+)

Author: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Rio Grande (2006), in print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 5
Other Articles: Anatomy of a Game: Blue Moon (2/06), Whose Job Is It? (04/08)
My Plays: 7 (the same as when I originally drafted this article)

Taj MahalA complex and unforgiving auction game. Over twelve rounds, players auction for six different prizes, each of which generates tokens and palace placement for the winner.

Strengths: More Unique Auctions

As with RaTaj Mahal succeeds because it goes far beyond the standards of an auction game and offers up a lot of intriguing intracacies that combine to make the game constantly thoughtful and difficult.

Here are the most unique & innovative auction ideas:

  1. Multiple Currencies. There are effectively six currencies: elephants, blue rulers, and the four types of other people. It seems a clear extension of the currency card-suits from Attacke (1993) and is reminiscent of the similar setup of Beowulf: The Legend (2005). The biggest difference is that Taj Mahal contain multiple currencies (meaning multiple symbols) on most cards, rather than having only one currency per card.
  2. Multiple Auctions. Unlike any of the other games I mentioned, here all the auctions occur simultaneously. There is thus the opportunity for there to be up to six winners each round, one for each “currency”.
  3. Playing Constraints. But wait, auctioning isn’t that easy. You can only play certain cards each round, based on the color of the cards’ background — one card with a colored background and then up to one white card. Constraints on what you can bid with have also shown up in other Knizia games, such as High Society (1995). The Taj Mahal system is also very similar to the way cards are played in Blue Moon — a game that generally has a lot of similarities to Taj Mahal (as discussed in the “Anatomy of Blue Moon” article that I linked above).
  4. Everyone Loses. Unlike many auctions, Taj Mahal is a game of constant brinksmanship, because everyone loses what they bid. This also shows up in the two other multiple-currency games I mentioned (Attacke and Beowulf: The Legend), making them practically a Knizia trilogy of game design.
  5. Leading Victory. Finally, the auction victory conditions are very interesting. Unlike just about every other auction, where folks have to drop out, here you just have to be ahead when it gets back to your turn. If I’m going to keep calling out other Knizia games, here I’ll point to Great Wall of China (2006), which similarly has multiple auctions (one per wall segment) and the need to stay ahead to win.

These auction elements combine to create a very unique and thoughtful game system. Because multiple people can win each round and because you have the opportunity to instantaneously grab a victory if not contested, there’s a lot of thinking about what other people will do and how you can turn it to your benefit.

The bare auction isn’t the only think Taj Mahal has going for it. There are also multiple paths to victory, a bid of geographical connectivity, the opportunity to jump around to take advantage of “low hanging fruit” that other players aren’t paying attention to, and also a nice ebb and flow to the game as you sit out some auctions to recuperate, then jump back in.

Weaknessess: The Players

The biggest complaint that I hear about Taj Mahal is that it’s particularly vulnerable to being spoiled by inexperienced players. Since so much of the game is about figuring out what other people are going to do, having someone play chaotically can spoil the fun of highly strategic players. In addition, even without new players, things can get chaotic if you misjudge opponents’ plans.

On the whole, however, as I’ve already said, Taj Mahal is a great game. It also really shows off how different an auction can be (and still clearly be an auction).

General Comparisons

Ra (#1) and Chinatown (#2), Generally. Taj Mahal is an interesting departure from the two Alea games that preceded it.  It’s more strategic and deeper than either of them — as correctly shown by the Alea Difficulty Scale. It’s 5, compared to 4 for Ra and 2 for Chinatown — though I actually think the difference between Ra and Taj Mahal is greater than that “1” point.

There’s also considerably less randomness in this third Alea game, though that chaos of player interactions can still mess up the best laid plans.

Finally, I find Taj Mahal a lot more confrontational than Ra or Chinatown — and generally more confrontational than almost all Alea games.

I bought a copy of Taj Mahal when Rio Grande rereleased it and it remains in my collection to this day, even though it hasn’t been played recently.

Author’s Note: Tap the “Alea Analysis” category link below to see a complete set of these articles, to date (just this one as I write). Or type the “alea” tag link to see everything I’ve written about Alea. —SA, 8/6/12

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