NAGA RAJA is a rather unusual 2-player game from the brilliant gaming mind of Bruno Cathala along with the excellent creativity of Theo Riviere. Add to this Vincent Dutrait's artistry and deftness with pencil, pen and ink, and the quality control of Hurrican Games publishing and production department and you have a boxful of goodness; speaking of which (ie the box) time, thought, and care have been taken to present the game on opening the box (for the first time) in the excellently moulded insert - 8 specifically shaped indents for each separate component; but do great components make for a great game?
The action revolves around the exploration of two Temples in deepest, darkest India, recently discovered and thought to be built in honour of the legendary gods Ananta and Garuda.Ananta is supposedly guarded by snake-like guardians known as Naga who are the mortal enemies of the giant, winged, eagle-type creatures, the Garuda. The rumours abound that there are numerous ancient relics and treasures to be found in both Temples, but there are also tales that Garuda or his followers have cursed the temples and perhaps even their so far undisclosed rewards. Each player takes on the role of an intrepid archaeologist ready to face imminent dangers for the sake of bringing ancient discoveries to the public, by selling them to the highest bidding Museum (okay I made that last bit up but it seems much more likely than the archaeologists keeping their finds for their own personal collections). The players are rivals for the treasure trove, though ultimately history museums and their patrons will be the winner (I enjoy the game setting so much I'm getting carried away with my definitions).
Each player takes one of the Temple boards, either the Silver edged or the Golden edged (it makes no difference) and places it so that the slightly protruding edge (it also has short, light blue, entrance trails) is facing towards you, leaving you pondering three relic spaces per side, left, right and centre-rear. There are nine 'relic' tiles for each Temple, marked with Victory Points (1 x 3, 2 x 4, 3 x 5 and 3 x 6) and showing sacred artifacts that are egg-shaped and coloured blue fading down to green or red rings x 2 and a red sceptre - all very exciting for the player's 'inner' archaeologist. The relic tiles, all nine of them, are randomly positioned face down around the Temples. There is a slight problem though, and that is the red artifacts are cursed.
Unusually though, for a game of this genre, the red relics are still worth 6 VPs each towards your 25 VP (as required to win) total, but there is another problem - they are only worth their VPs as long as you do not disclose all three of them - do this and you immediately lose. Thus despite some skilful play throughout the 20'-30' minutes it takes you to reach this period of play it can take just one piece of unfortunate luck and your game ends, you lost! just like that!
Your Temple board comprises of a 3x3 grid where you can place passageway tiles, there being 6 different. These are fairly common tile types for games of the trail-creating genre, games where you the tiles have tracks/roads with at least two, generally three or four, exits which are always in the centre of the edge so that when tiles are correctly placed adjacent to each other the paths align and the roads continue (did I use enough nouns there to put over the idea that the players are basically connecting tiles via routes, alleys, streets passages etc etc etc).
The game play requires the use of cards that determine the number, colour and therefore size, of 'Fate Sticks' that have to be thrown, Fate Sticks are the game's version of dice.
There are three sizes of Fate Stick;
Green = small with 2 x 1 dot and 2 x Naga (snake) faces
White = medium with 1 x 3, 2 x 2 and 1 x Naga
Brown = large with 2 x 3, 1 x 4 and 1 x 5 No Nagas
Fate Sticks are cuboid shapes with sides of equal length. They are 'thrown' rather than rolled, because they cannot be successfully rolled.
The Fate Sticks are used to win the auction for the Temple tiles each round; the highest result of dots after card events have been taking into effect wins the tile, which is then placed into the winner's Temple making sure, like virtually every 'pathways' game, that the connections are legal; directly from one of the entrances or adjacent to a previously played tile. To score VPs the paths need to lead to the Relics or/and to an Amulet obtained when placing a tile with an amulet symbol. Many amulets have a VP value but others have a special effect; in my opinion it is a pity that they don't have both, as then the players would have to weigh the value of the VPs against the value of using the effect.
To obtain Fate Sticks to win the auction, cards with the same symbol are played and the Fate Sticks shown on them are added together to give you the numbers of each type to use. The lower part of each card shows an effect that can be used if the card is played straight from the hand by using a Naga result on a Fate Stick - players may only use one part of a card so there is some thought required; Fate Sticks of Effect?
When Temple tile paths meet a face down relic stone then the artifact under the relic stone is revealed and the VPs shown on it are added to the player's total. If this reaches or passes 25 then the game immediately ends and that player is the winner. A player also wins if their opponent turns over their third Cursed (red) Artifact - 3 strikes and you're out! The third way of winning is to play all nine Temple tiles legally without unveiling the three Cursed Artifacts. To do this you have to play tiles so that they bypass at least one relic stone, but even then it is the player who has the highest VP total at that point who wins, not necessarily the player who completed the deed.
Some 2-player games, and I mean those published specifically for two players, not 2-4 or other combinations of players, would make excellent games for more players. NAGA RAJA isn't one of them. As a 2-player game it is okay but in honesty the game play is contains some minor interference where players try to upset their opponent's plans, but overall there is a little too much luck to make it a memorable one on one challenge.
What it does have in its favour are icons and symbols that are clear immediately, or if not, will be after one game and rules that are easy to follow no matter who is playing, within the age range of 9 years and up, and whether they are regular or new to the tile-laying card games genre. Families and friends, players who do not indulge in regular Euro-style games, will most likely enjoy NAGA RAJA more than gamers who look for that little bit more in a game.
Games Lore are showing a £25.99 retail price and Boardgameguru have it at £29.99, both of which are reasonable prices considering the components, which, particularly the Fate Sticks, do their best to distract from the weak game mechanics. But they themselves, even with the player interactive Trap tile, which, by he way, gives the feeling that it has been added as an afterthought, cannot introduce any suspense, plus planning, strategies and tactics are all negated by randomness.
If you collect 2-player games then £25.99 is probably an okay price to pay to add this to your collection, but do look around carefully prior to purchasing it as there are a few eBayers and Toy/Game stores who figure that £38.37 - £59.99 is nearer its retail value, and even with the nicely produced components it isn't worth nigh-on sixty-quid of anyone's money.
I would not label NAGA RAJA as a 'bad' game, mainly because its mechanics, despite being mostly luck and a fair wind, work, especially for players who find these odd-shaped "dice" even more odd-shaped than Role-Playing polyhedrals. I played it several times for review purposes but didn't really warm to it in the way I have to Hurrican's other 2-player games 'Mr Jack' & 'Kero' which I have recently been fortunate enough to play. This means that, as an experienced gamer (I wouldn't class myself as hard-core or even 'core') it isn't on my Top Twenty or Forty list of games recently played that I would rush to play again.
Having said that, however, if I was invited to play it I wouldn't turn down the invitation. It's not that I don't like NAGA RAJA, it's just that it never enamoured itself to me in the way some games do.