As far as overused board game themes go, archaeology is not quite “doing something in Medieval Europe” or “colonizing other countries”, but it’s certainly getting up there. So when I first heard about Naga Raja, a game about rival archaeologists trying to best plunder a temple before the other player, it wasn’t the theme that attracted me. Nope, it was the fact that it was co-designed by my main man, Bruno Cathala.
I’ve brought up Bruno Cathala’s name on this blog more times than Cathala himself would probably be comfortable with. I have reviewed his excellent 2 player game Mr. Jack , one of the first games I truly fell in love with when getting into the hobby, as well as his criminally underrated Hand of the King , a Game of Thrones themed abstract strategy game. He is, as mentioned in those other reviews that you should definitely read if you haven’t, my favorite board game designer, and it’s not even close.
So as I was saying, when I first heard that Naga Raja was being co-designed by Cathala, my interest level went from “meh” to “oh hell yes”. That interest evolved into a need to buy the game upon release, a rarity for me with board games, when I heard the rave reviews it was getting from various media outlets and personalities. And so, when it was finally released about a month ago, I did indeed buy it and I have since got to play it a good number of times. Does this game live up to the hype, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or is it more Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Well, grab your fedora and your bullwhip and some other Indiana Jones reference and let’s find out!
Naga Raja, designed by the aforementioned Bruno Cathala as well as Theo Riviere, is a two player only game about two explorers entering their own separate temples (at exactly the same time, for some reason) in a race to uncover relics faster than the other. You explore the temple by adding and laying tiles on the 3 by 3 grid in front of you, creating a network of paths that lead to the outer edges, where relics patiently wait to be overturned like clumsy, capsized beetles. The relics all have point values assigned to them and the first player to reveal 25 points worth of relics wins the game. BUT there are three cursed relics, lying in wait. These jerks give you 6 points each, more than any other relic in the game, but if you reveal all 3 at once, you automatically lose. Insert “The Price is Right” horn sound here.
This adventure plays out through tile laying, hand management, and dice chucking, three things I love. The game is played over a series of rounds, with each round beginning with a new tile being revealed. These tiles are all made up of pathways that, when placed into your temple, you’re trying to connect to your various relics. The round is spent trying to win that tile. You win the tile by rolling rectangular dice called fate sticks, with the tile going to whoever rolled the most pips. Don’t worry, there’s more to it than that.
Players will be jostling for this tile by using a hand of cards. And these aren’t just any cards….these are multi-use cards! Fancy, I know! Each card in the game has a top half and a bottom half and which half you’re activating depends on which phase of the round you are playing the card.
The top half features pictures of dice or, as they’re known in this game, ‘fate sticks’. These fate sticks are basically rectangular dice and they come in three flavors: brown, white and green. Brown fate sticks have lots of pips on them, which are good for winning tiles. White fate sticks have a moderate amount of pips, and a chance of getting naga (what the hell is naga, you ask? I’ll get to that!). The green dice are adorably stubby and are mostly naga (again, I’ll get to that, don’t worry!) with very few pips.
The top half of the card is what you’re looking at during the first phase of the round, which is referred to as “The Call of Fate” in the rulebook. Perhaps a little overdramatic, but I won’t fault them for trying to add a bit of panache to what is basically ‘play some cards and grab some dice’. In “The Call of Fate” (I hope you read that in a booming, god-like voice as I just did), a tile is revealed and players will decide what kind of fate sticks they want to roll to try and grab the tile. Players commit cards face down and then reveal. This is where the top half comes in: whatever fate sticks are showing on the top half of the cards are the fate sticks that player will be rolling in an attempt to gain the tile for their temple. So if I play two cards that collectively show three brown sticks and two white sticks, I take those sticks and roll them. After the sticks have been rolled, we enter the “Confrontation” phase. A little less dramatic than “The Call of Fate”, but I suppose “Duel of the Fates” is already taken. I’m hoping I don’t have to pay royalties to Disney for just merely mentioning it.
In the Confrontation phase, players can now use cards leftover in their hands, this time for their bottom half. You see, at the bottom of each card is a special ability that can be activated. In order to do that, you need to pay a naga. See? Told you I’d get back to what the hell a naga is! A naga is a little swiggly line on the sides of some of the fate sticks and if you rolled naga, you can spend them during this phase to cash in those powerful, helpful abilities. If you didn’t roll naga? Tough luck, maybe next round.
There are a wide range of abilities from these cards, such as simply being able to draw new cards, add pips to your current roll, or look at facedown relics to get a better understanding of the layout of your temple. There are some that even let you rearrange tiles on your temple, so that if you made a windy series of roundabouts and dead ends like a drunken civic engineer, you can erase some of those ‘whoopsies’.
There are also some meaner, more aggressive actions, such as the ability to force your opponent to discard some of their rolled fate sticks, a power that lets you rotate tiles in THEIR temple, and the dreaded trap tile. The trap tile is a dead tile that you can stick in your opponent’s temple. It is a dead end that blocks any sort of progress and can really set your player’s temple back a few turns, which also helps you in beginning to play out the hypothetical, “What if my opponent wasn’t my friend anymore?”
Aside from potentially killing friendships, these special actions and abilities are absolute game changers and mean you can never rest easy. If your opponent rolls a lot of naga and has a decently sized hand of cards, they can swiftly sway the game in their favor with a few crafty decisions. This leads to a very tense, tactical feel that helps keep the game interesting down to the last tile.
After the ‘Confrontation’ phase is over, the tile is rewarded to whoever has the most pips on their fate sticks (including any that were added through use of cards) and they place it in their temple. If it connects any relics to one of their temple entrances, those relics are revealed. By that point, if none of the win or loss states have been achieved, then preparation for the next round begins.
As mentioned earlier, Naga Raja contains three things I adore: hand management, tile laying and dice chucking. What’s even better is that it seamlessly integrates all three in a cohesive package that packs lots of tough decisions and cool ‘gotcha!’ moments in just a mere 30 minutes. The multi-use nature of the cards forces you to really make some hard choices. Do you save this card to use its special action when you can really blindside your opponent OR do you spend it for the fate sticks at the top to greatly improve your odds of winning a tile? There are so many times when I want to use a card for the fate sticks but catch myself, knowing that if I’m patient, I can really use the card’s power to great effect. But then there are times where I’m so desperate to get a tile in my temple, I know that I just need to load up on fate sticks, special abilities be damned. Like lots of great Bruno Cathala games, it’s a balancing act, one that requires constant shifting of tactics and trying to read your opponent.
The cards are a treat to look at as well. The art is by none other than Vincent DuTrait, who is one of the most prolific and celebrated artists in the industry right now. I reviewed a game called Rising 5 which featured some of his brilliant art, and Naga Raja is another wonderful showcase for his talents. It’s got a rustic, weathered feel that perfectly matches the theme of archaeology and ancient secrets. Some of the more aggressive cards also have some pretty unsavory masked characters who I would almost certainly not enjoy running into while spelunking a temple.
But enough about the cards! That’s only half the game! There is of course the tile laying itself, which plays a huge part considering it controls whether you win or lose. It might seem pretty straightforward. Just speedily connect all the paths along the sides, uncovering your relics and rushing to 25 points first, right? Well, sure, but keep in mind that is a very quick way to accidentally uncover the three cursed relics and to lose automatically. Take it from me, that’s how I lost my very first game. As you play the game more and more, you start to uncover the subtle strategy behind the tile laying portion of the game. You want to win and place tiles that give you versatility in exploring your temple. As I mentioned earlier, it’s possible to create a winding nightmare of a temple, one that is hard to link together without getting some very specific tiles later in the game. Careful planning and cautious exploration of your temple is essential, which feels quite thematic.
You can even set yourself up for turns where one well placed tile can uncover a whole ton of relics. In one game, I found myself down fairly early. My opponent won a ton of tiles so I had to be creative with the few tiles I had won. I managed to use an ability that let me slide an already present tile in my temple to a new space, setting me up for a powerful move if I managed to win just one other tile. I did just that and uncovered three relics at once to push me up to 25 and steal the game at the last second.
No, that little story isn’t me working out my first post for r/iamverysmart. I’m not using that example to illustrate my cleverness, but rather the game’s. The fact that I was able to sneak out a win with limited tiles and a few well played special actions speaks volumes for this game. By that point I had already played the game five times, so to discover a new way to play and win was very rewarding.
The last thing I’ll rave about are the fate sticks. The decision to make the dice rectangular sticks deserves a Nobel Prize in Board Games. They are so incredibly tactile and fun to use and taking a whole handful of them and tossing them onto the table has yet to get old. Sure, the name ‘fate sticks’ is a bit goofy and sounds like something you’d find at a holistic health fair, but these rectangular dice really bring the game together.
I personally don’t have much to complain about with Naga Raja, but there are a few warnings I’d like to put out there. For one, there is certainly a healthy amount of luck in this game. I think the game offers plenty of tools to mitigate said luck, but there will be times when you desperately need naga and get none or you REALLY want to win a tile and get nothing but a bunch of squigglies staring back at you, like the world’s snarkiest plate of spaghetti. If the thought of this happening and having it determine the game frustrates you, Naga Raja may not be for you.
Another factor I want to make known is that this can be a mean game. I touched on it earlier, but there are a lot of aggressive, “take that” style cards in the game, and many of them are pretty nasty. I already mentioned the trap tile that can potentially ruin friendships, but there’s cards that remove dice, force the rerolls of dice, cards that force your opponent to discard cards, cards that allow you to switch relics around (possibly triggering them to get their three cursed relics uncovered in the process!), etc. I am very picky about my “take that” in games and I don’t mind it in this one because it’s so baked into the design. I go in knowing that my temple and plans are going to get tampered with and that I can retaliate with my own ruthlessness, so it’s okay for me. But I know there are many players out there who detest any sort of conflict or negative player interaction and I highly doubt Naga Raja is for them.
If you don’t mind potential moments of luck deciding the game or large doses of “take that”, I think you’ll find Naga Raja a rich, satisfying game of tactics and exploration that will entertain after many plays. It expertly combines different mechanics into a brisk 20-30 minute package. I am quite happy to have Naga Raja in my collection and suspect it will be one of my most frequently played two player games.