RA >> Far Better Auction Games Out There
The only two things I really like about Ra are the production quality (especially the wooden blue Ra piece) and the zero-sum bidding (where all the money remains in the game and simply shuffles hands).
What do I dislike about Ra? Wow... There's so much to choose from. I'll try to just hit the main sticking points that may be of use to people skimming a review to find out whether or not a game includes mechanics or devices that will appeal to them.
1) Being Force Fed Your Turn. There are far fewer decisions to be made, it seems to me, than there should be. Often you are forced to open up a set for bidding by either having the board filled (no decision on your part) or by drawing a Ra tile (again, no decision on your part). I like making my own decisions, rather than being forced into decisions on MY turn which end up (at least with the strong potential of) benefiting other players more than they do me.
2) Lack of Intuitive Information. The tiles desperately need some sort of icon system to distinguish buildings and civilization advances and their scoring impact. It amazes me that the game didn't come with scoring sheets like those found on BGG. The game drops a full rating point or two for this inexcusable oversight, especially given the horrendously non-intuitive scoring system. The tiles should also have had some way of denoting what tiles are discarded after an epoch rather than kept.
As it stands, there is no information on the tiles to know: whether the tile is discarded after an epoch, which set the tile belongs to, how the tile will score, the total number of that type of tile in the set. By contrast, the Stock cards in Union Pacific hold a great deal of information (type of track to be used, number of cars available, number of stock available) while still retaining a sharp look.
3) Knowing You Can't Win. With perfect information of the available bids, it's incredibly frustrating to be holding the 10 and seeing the 11, 12 and 13 in the hands of other players. Yes, there is some strategy into playing your higher tiles to try and force those upper bids into play, but you're still guaranteed to lose at least 3 bids in the round if you're the one holding the 10 tile... And in a game where there may not be many rounds of bidding at all (at least, bidding on lots with some value), being on the low rung when there's finally a good lot of items available stinks.
4) Wildly Variable End Game. Since all the Ra tiles are shuffled in with the other tiles willy-nilly, rather than having X Ra Tiles seeded into stacks of tiles, it feels like the wildly random end game often has more impact on the final results than the individual play of the players. Where some see a tense finish and push-your-luck element to try and grab tiles before the end of an epoch, I see a sloppy contrivance which further reduces player involvement.
In Union Pacific, the Gold Car/Payout cards are at least seeded through the deck so there's a bit more focus and direction for the end game. I think that sort of seeding would work much better. It's not uncommon (especially in later epochs where the Ra Tile:Non-Ra Tile ratio is considerably higher) to have *several* consecutive draws where a Ra tile is pulled. And when there is nothing on the bid track (or only something like say, Anarchy) it artificially shortens the game with no decision making or player involvement. In fact, the last round may consist of 1/2 as many lots being auctioned off as in the first round. Further exacerbating the impact of problem #3 noted above.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Oddly enough, I've done quite well at Ra, but for the life of me I don't know why. I certainly don't feel like I'm making better decisions than my more seasoned opponents, who understand the intricacies and the values better than I do.
In fact, in our last 3 player game, I won handily: 75-54-36... Which I think is more ammunition *against* the game -- how balanced and strategic can a game be when someone who makes worse decisions and is *far* less experienced than his opponents can have that sort of success? For bidding games, I far, far, far prefer Traumfabrik, Modern Art, For Sale and Goa. I rate RA a 4.5, dropping it down to a 3.5 without the excellent player mats found on BGG.