Because of the number of conventions that I attend, I sometimes feel like I'm previewing the same games over and over again — and sometimes I am.
We first recorded an overview of the two-player game Nagaraja at Spielwarenmesse 2018 in the Hurrican booth, but the presentation was not ideal, so we never published that video. At Gen Con 2018, co-designer Théo Rivière showed off the game in the BGG booth (video), then at the FIJ fair in Cannes in February 2019, co-designer Bruno Cathala and illustrator Vincent Dutrait got their turn in front of the mic (video).
What's more, Nagaraja was actually released at FIJ 2019! Yes, the game was available, and I went home with a review copy courtesy of Hurrican. Now the game is available on the U.S. market as well, and in case you need one more video about the game, I've posted one below from my perspective.
The gist of the game is that you want to find 25 points worth of relics in your individual temple before a competing archaeologist finds that amount of points in their temple. I'm not sure whether we're competing in mirror universes or side-by-side temples or in mock temples set up by our university sponsors to determine who they should put on staff. It feels odd us competing in this way, somehow having nearly identical temples, but at a certain point, you wave it off as game logic and get on with things.
Each player starts with a hand of five cards, and cards can be used for their bidding power — that is, access to fate dice that come in three types — or their special ability, which can be used on yourself, your opponent, or either player depending on how the card is labeled. Each round starts with players revealing one temple tile, then simultaneously bidding for that tile with one or more cards from their hand; cards come in four families, and all the cards you bid must come from the same family.
Once you reveal the cards, you roll the dice shown on your cards, with brown dice giving 3-5 fate points, white dice giving 2-3 fate points or a naga (snake), and green dice giving either 1 fate point or a naga. After rolling dice, players can spend nagas to play cards from their hand for their special abilities. Whoever ends up with the most fate points claims the tile, adds it to their temple, then reveals any relics they've reached with the paths that they've constructed. Relics are worth 3-6 points, but the three 6-point relics are cursed, and you lose the game if you reveal all three of them at once.
The player who didn't win the tile draws three cards, keeps two of them, and passes the third card to the opponent. Rounds continue until someone loses, someone reaches 25 points and wins, or someone fills their temple with tiles, at which time the player with the most points wins.
Nagaraja is simple at heart, but features delicious tension in its choices. You want to win temple tiles since those allow you to reach relics and score points — but if you just place lots of tiles, you might lose due to curses. You can use special abilities on cards to peek at your relics or swap them or rotate tiles or swap tiles in order to stay away from curses or hide relics previously found, but each card you use this way is one you can't use for bidding. You want to bid high for tiles (mostly by bidding brown dice), but if you overbid, then you've effectively wasted bidding power or cards, and cards are precious since you receive only one of the opponent's choice when you do win a tile. You might then bid more conservatively and hope to use nagas to play special powers if needed to beat the opponent, but you then roll no snakes despite having four green dice.
I've played three games to date, and each has been tense from beginning to end. Every choice seems important, but you also have to deal with fate in terms of the dice you roll. You have some say over how fate will treat you given that a brown die at worst ties a white die, and a white die always beats a green die, yet you don't know what your opponent will bid as you'll rarely know all of the cards in that player's hand. All you can do is make choices, then see how things play out, you and your opponent in a tug-of-war turn after turn for tiles and cards as you race one another for points in twin temples...