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Caleb
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Seminole
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I've owned Raj for a number of years. Got it in one of the first Math Trades done here on BGG - back in the waning days of the Ultimate Trades. Good times.


Anyway, Raj has always been one of those games that I'd play from time to time, think it was decent and relatively fun if rather boring, but never really cared too strongly about it. In fact, there was a stretch there where it didn't get played for over 2 years. Normally if a game in my collection sits unplayed that long, I try to get rid of it. The challenge with Raj is that it's really not worth much, so taking the trouble to engineer a trade wasn't high on my priority list. It also doesn't take up much space on the shelf, so there was really no strong incentive to get rid of it. So there it sat, year after year, looking rather forlorn (the somewhat tattered box didn't help matters either...)

On March 26th I pulled it out for a quick game when some friends dropped by. No idea why I chose it, except that I finally decided it needed some love. Since then I've played it again, and am really looking forward to future plays. So what changed? In a word, the Tournament Game.


Raj is an Indian-themed game by legendary designer Alex Randolph. My version is from Winning Moves. Raj is quite abstract, but the components, rules, and design story of the game all combine to make it quite...authentic-seeming. You can actually picture yourself playing an authentically Indian game, despite the fact that Randolph, and American, invented it in the last quarter-century.

(As an aside, his history of how the design came to be is pretty fascinating reading. It's included in a card in my edition of the game; I'll try to scan it and load it here to BGG because I think it's a neat story that others would appreciate as well)

Raj is essentially a blind bidding game. You have 15 cards numbered 1-15, with an Indian-themed design on the backs. Other than that, the cards are very nondescript, but are quite functional. I can picture myself holding these cards in some seedy tavern on the waterfront of Calcutta (does Calcutta have a waterfront? I assume so).

The only other component in the game is a set of 15 ivory-colored plastic tiles, numbered -5 to 10 (no zero). The tiles have some Indian-themed artwork, like cobras on the negative tiles, and various things like elephants, a chess piece, and a tiger on the positive tiles. Overall, these are also quite evocative of the Indian theme. These tiles are shuffled, face-down, and each turn one tile is turned up for bid.

Players secretly select one card from their hand, then all cards are revealed simultaneously. For positive-value tiles, the high card played takes the tile. For negative-value tiles, the low card played takes the tile. In both cases, everyone's played cards are discarded and a new tile is flipped up. In this way, each of your 15 cards will be used to bid on one of 15 tiles.

So far, the game is quite pedestrian, even if vaguely authentically themed. However, there's one little rule that really mixes things up: tied cards cannot win a tile. So if you play the same number card as an opponent, neither of you take the tile, and the next highest (un-tied) card wins the item.

This introduces a really interesting element of double-think, especially when considering plunking down your 15 card...if someone else also plays theirs, then your highest-value card is wasted.

Once all the tiles are claimed, players simply add the value of their tiles (subtracting negative values) to come up with a score for the round. High score wins the round.

Now, so far, I've explained the way I've always played Raj - each round sort of counting by itself, in a vacuum. I did play several rounds in a row before, but we always treated them as self-contained "game-events" with a player winning or losing and then moving on to the next round. After a few rounds, we'd tally up who won the most rounds. This was OK, but wasn't exactly earth-shattering fun.

However, Raj has some variants. The main one is the "Tournament" variant where you keep a running tally of the *points* you score each round, with an escalating bonus for the player who actually wins the round. The winner of the first round gets one bonus point; then 2 for the second round, 3 for the third, and so on. Once someone hits 111 points (or 71 for the "short tournament"), you declare a winner.

This simple rule changes the game for the better. The stakes have increased, and there is still value to coming in a close second in a round. The escalating bonus points don't sound like much, but they really do add an element of excitement that would be very lacking without them. It's possible to hang in there in second or third place and then vault into the lead if the leader has a really bad round (negative scores for a round are not too common, but they do happen). Playing for tournament points is really where the game is at, and if you're just playing isolated rounds, you're missing most of the fun.

Playing to 71 points usually takes 4 rounds, and a round can easily be banged out in 5 minutes. So Raj plays fast, even though there are excruciating choices to be made each hand. Playing multiple rounds in a row with accumulating scores really escaltes the psychology of the double-think as well. You have more chance to get into the heads of your opponents, and how you spend your cards early in the round can really impact your options later.

There's more strategy than meets the eye, especially when it comes to deciding where to spend your high-value cards. You can go for all the top tiles, but risk tying with other players. Another option is to punt on the high-valued ones, hoping people will tie and you'll pick up a good tile for a lowly 1 or 2 card, then go all-in on the middling value tiles, hoping that quantity will make up for quality. But there's always the negatives to watch out for!

Played with the tournament rules, Raj is a fantastic game of double guessing and resource (e.g. card) management. It can be had really cheap, so do yourself a favor and pick up a copy - you won't regret it, especially if you play against people you know well and can get into their heads a bit.

Raj has a couple of other variants, but as they both add more random elements to what is already a highly variable game, I haven't tried them. The tournament game is where it's at, and I'm bummed I spent several years not using it, thinking Raj was a decent but slightly boring game. Played with the tourament rules, it's anything but.
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Marshall Miller
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Malden
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Excellent review. I played this game once at the end of the evening and saw that it was elegant, simple, and attractive. I managed to get a used copy later that year and occasionally pull it out. I think its worth noting that the 2-player game is not nearly as good as with more players. Now, however, you have me thinking that perhaps the game can get even better! Thanks for shining some light on this oft-overlooked but worthwhile game and reminding me that I need to get it to the table soon.
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Caleb
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Mease19 wrote:
Excellent review. I played this game once at the end of the evening and saw that it was elegant, simple, and attractive. I managed to get a used copy later that year and occasionally pull it out. I think its worth noting that the 2-player game is not nearly as good as with more players. Now, however, you have me thinking that perhaps the game can get even better! Thanks for shining some light on this oft-overlooked but worthwhile game and reminding me that I need to get it to the table soon.



Yeah, it opens up a whole new dimension when you start tallying the points and aggregating them over several rounds. I've only played the "short tournament" version to 71 points, but it really wouldn't take long to get to 111 points. I've won both times I've played the short tournament, with scores of 91 and 82, so it would probably only take at most 2 more hands to climb over 111.
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Larry Tuxbury
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This, along with another early Winning Moves game--the much maligned Priceless--is what got me into gaming. Simple, elegant rules. Good game.
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Caleb
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Yeah - sometimes simple, elegant rules do lead to a somewhat boring and pedestrian game. But in the case of Raj, there's just enough to think about that the rules facilitate the fun, rather than getting in the way. This is something of a lost art lately, with even Euro titles groaning under the weight of their own rules (see Agricola, Le Havre, etc.). There's something to be said for going back to a game that can literally be learned (the rules, if not the strategy) in under 5 minutes. I think I've taught the game in under 2 minutes both times I've played it recently.

Honestly, I'm not sure any modern game designer can distill the essence of fun and interest down into as simple a package as Sid Sackson or Alex Randolph could. Knizia comes close sometimes, but often seems too clever for his own good (particularly when it comes to scoring). But I'm unaware of any other modern title that can truly be learned and played all in under a half hour, and yet is as varied, interesting, and fun as Raj (Knizia's Wildlife Safari is a good candidate though, along the same lines).

I'm not opposed to large, complex games (I love Britannia, and am a fan of Victory and some other Columbia titles, as well as Amun-Re on the Euro side), but I really like having the option to drop back on these simpler titles that belie interesting game play.
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Masacroso Total
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Raj is a good game but nobody says that it is a VARIANT of goofspiel or GOPS game, a game invented by Merrill Flood:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goofspiel
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Max Pfennighaus

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Masacroso wrote:
Raj is a good game but nobody says that it is a VARIANT of goofspiel or GOPS game, a game invented by Merrill Flood:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goofspiel


Very interesting, thanks for posting the Gops connection. I like the idea mentioned in the wiki about rolling over cards that receive tie bids to the next round, I'll have to try that variant.
 
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Martin G
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This story feels very familiar. I got a copy of Raj in a math trade a few years ago, played a couple of hands, was mildly amused and then passed it on as a sweetener in another trade.

Last night, a friend introduced me to the tournament version and we had an absolute blast!
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