Review: Nagaraja

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Length

Release Date

Designer: Bruno Cathala, Théo Rivière
Artist: Vincent Dutrait
Publisher: Hurrican
Category: Dice Rolling, Hand Management, Tile Placement
Players: 2
Price: $47.90 Amazon.com

Nagaraja is a two-player game of hand management, dice rolling, and tile laying. Co-designed by the renowned Bruno Cathala, this “take-that” game offers a great deal of replayability with a simple ruleset. It is a great choice for gamers of all ages and experience levels.

Review

Nagaraja is a game about exploring temples in search of ancient relics. Every round, players compete to earn a single tile using clever cardplay and strategic dice rolling. The more tiles a player earns, the farther she can venture into her temple, but each time she earns one, she helps her opponent out in the coming round.

I have always been a sucker for cool dice, and Nagaraja has some of the most bizarrely-funky dice I’ve ever encountered.

(But technically, they all have six faces, so I guess that makes them d6’s?)

At the beginning of the game, each player receives a temple board and places relic tokens around three of its edges. These represent the treasures that can be found throughout the game. All of these tokens are worth points if discovered, but a third of them (the red ones) are “cursed.” Amusingly, cursed relics are the most valuable of the bunch, but if a player gets all three of them, she immediately loses.

Each player has this set of relics, randomly distributed around their temple board.

When everything is set up, the tableau will look like this:

Every round, a single temple tile is revealed, and players vie for it. Both sides have a hand of cards, from which they select one or more to play, in turn order. Players simultaneously flip their cards and roll the dice indicated on them. As an example:

Here, the player on the left spent two cards, and the player on the right spent one. Both players rolled their allotted dice (as shown at the tops of the cards), and the resulting total was 5 to 6. The player on the right has a higher base value, but both sides can now spend their Naga (“squiggle”) results to use abilities from cards still in their hands.

Nagas can trigger all sorts of game effects, including:

  • Adding to a die roll
  • Forcing the opposing player to reroll dice
  • Discarding dice from the opposing player’s roll
  • Peeking at relic tiles
  • Switching relic or temple tiles

Once all these Naga shenanigans are completed, the player with highest overall result wins the tile. The other player then draws three cards, chooses two to keep, and gives the last one to the winner. Additionally, this player becomes the “guide” for the next round, meaning she will win ties.

As players earn tiles, they add them to their temple boards. If a player manages to create a path from an entrance space to any relic token, she earns it immediately. Some tiles offer artifacts as well, which provide extra bonuses when found.

By adding this tile, the player will earn the blue artifact token and the adjacent relic token. (Note that one relic has already been claimed.)

If a player reaches twenty-five points, she wins the game, and if she draws all three cursed relics, she loses. Otherwise, if she places her final temple tile without triggering either of these conditions, the player with the highest point total wins.


I really, really enjoy Nagaraja. High-interaction family games are some of my favorites, and this one is basically a competition of “who can mess with their opponent the best?” It’s a blast to play.

It is remarkable how nuanced this game is, despite its simplicity. Nagaraja is full of mechanisms that are directly at odds with each other, which creates fascinating gameplay conundrums. For example:

  • Spending cards to roll dice is great, but in doing so, players forego the cards’ abilities. They can do one thing or the other, but not both.
  • The “better” a player’s dice are, the greater chance she has of earning a tile, but the less she will be able to mess with her opponent (and vice versa).
  • One player has to select cards before the other, meaning their opponent gets to know how many cards they will be playing. However, they get the advantage of breaking ties.
  • Cursed relics are awesome to find… as long as you don’t find too many.
  • Earning tiles is absolutely necessary, but each time a player does so, their opponent gets more cards AND gets to know a card in their hand going forward.

It’s little subtleties like these that make Nagaraja work so well. For every upside in the game, there is also a downside—to me, that signifies a higher echelon of game design. It has high replayability, and I don’t see it losing its charm any time soon.

Nagaraja far exceeded my expectations. This is an awesome game, and I give it a major recommendation.

A review copy was provided by Asmodee.

The Bottom Line

 

Author: Stephen Hall

A bard pretending to be a cleric. Possibly a Cylon, too. I was there when they dug up the "E.T." cartridges.