On the table were Ra: The Dice Game and Canal Mania, both first plays for me.
I'm a huge fan of the original Ra boardgame, although I'm one of those people who feels strongly that the game is really only playable with three, but then it's a fantastic game. The game changes radically with more players, and once you get to five there's so little control that the game loses it's charm. Ra:TDG had me a little worried in that attempts to make some of the classic Euros into a different form (such as the Tigris and Euprhates Card Game) were abysmal failures. Would Ra stand up to such abuse?
The game has scoring that will be very familiar to the players - three epochs, you score Nile points if you've also gotten a flood, most pharoahs, number of Civs, and monuments get scored at game end. That's about it for similarities.
Unlike the boardgame, where you moved very briskly during your turn (mostly drawing a tile and putting it on the auction track), you now roll a set of five special dice that have a symbol for each of the four scoring tracks, an ankh "wild card" symbol, and a "Ra" advance the timer symbol. When you roll the Ra symbol, it leaves your pool and will advance the timer one space, but you are allowed to reroll any other dice. To get a Flood, you need to roll three Nile symbols at once, but only one to advance on the Nile Track. You need three civs at least to place, and you have to choose one of the dice colors with an actual Civ symbol on it. Monuments work in much the same way. Ankh's can increase the number of a given die symbol you've rolled, but you have to have one of those symbols in order to "match" it, and you can't use the color of an ankh to place a Civ or Monument. You get three rolls total if you want them, and if you get too many Ra symbols you'll at least get a few points, as happens if you have Ankh's you can't match up.
As you can imagine, this does nothing to improve the briskness of the original game. There's also no calling "Ra" to force a bidding for the auction lot, as there's no auction. Like in the four and five player version of the board game, I discovered very quickly that maxing the number of different monuments you have is not nearly as effective as shooting for multiples in the same monument, and in this game you have a lot more discretion in accomplishing that. A strong Nile strategy is tough to do, as you have to waste three dice just to allow for scoring in that round with the Flood, and it seemed that we only got four or five rolls before the track filled up.
As such, with four I have to give this a thumbs down, just as I would to the board game, but at least in the board game there are interesting elements whereas this didn't have them at all. However, I am interested in giving it another try with two players to see if it doesn't make for a more interesting game (although because you cut the number of Ra spaces in half, I'm not holding out a lot of hope). In a nutshell, this game was to the original as the Lost Cities boardgame is to it's original, but in reverse. In the LC card game, what you play down both on your play area and to the discards is critical, but in the board version that gets lost to a large extent because you rarely feel like you *must* make one of a set of bad choices. In Ra:TDG, it's like the interesting choices have disappeared to make a lighter game. What's crazy is that Ra is a very elegant game with very complex scoring, and the dice version lightens only the decision making but not the scoring at all - in fact, you could say it's more complex to a very small degree.
If you thought the original Ra gave you too many choices, or want to play with the same scoring and theme with two players, this may be a good game for you. However, it's not more portable, it's not as interesting, and I don't even think it's a cleaner game. I'm also pretty sure the original reprint edition comes in a smaller box. Stick with it.
I should also note that Cooley's Law did not apply in this game - I won rather handily once I figured out that it was generally a good idea to stack monuments rather than line them up, unfortunately near the end of the second epoch. Points were very tight in the game, and I believe I won with something like 20-25 points total at the most.
Next up was Canal Mania, from the guys who brought you History of the World, the Ragnar Brothers. This is a somewhat more directed version of Railway Tycoon, with some nice changes to make it more of a thinking game. For example, instead of getting a secret scoring card, you get an engineer that people can swap out. You can build over other people's canals in much the same way that you can build over track in 18xx, but without the limitations of the track tile set. Rather than building willy nilly, you take contracts that have you building specific canals (although you can build one short line of your choice during the game). When you move the single-colored goods, you can move them over any lines you like so long as the last canal travelled is yours and you don't touch two like-colored cities during the run. How goods get placed is tied closely to the card drafting mechanism, which gives that element an additional decision point.
My biggest knock on the game was that you were somewhat at the mercy of those contracts, and thus it could be difficult to get a nice long run going. I learned by mid-game that I needed to go for the longer routes early to build off of them, but the fact was that my routes were all over the board. If there is a single contract in the pool, you may take it and one from the five-contract refreshed pool if you didn't have one you were already working on, but I was never in a position to do that during the game. It requires a little more advanced thinking, much like Power Grid, and I'm sure I'd do better in my next game. As it was, Ryan was sitting to my immediate right and took pretty much every contract and space I wanted to take as the game went on.
The thing I liked best about the game was that there are three phases, and in every phase you have a choice of two to four things you can do, but only one per phase. For example, you can draft cards or build tiles, but not both. You can move goods or draw a blind card in the third phase. I found that I could have my turn planned out without too much screwage playing into it because there weren't *too* many choices, and so my turns went by pretty quickly. However, the game did go on for quite a while with four, nearly three hours with 'splainin' (which Greg did quite well). Of course, I came in last by quite a margin, being the only newbie to the game, while Ryan did a masterful job of pulling a long route with a lot of special tiles (and thus points) fairly early, and my lack of understanding of the subtleties of moving goods cubes cost me and helped him as the game went on. David did make a very strong comeback at the end to come within ten points of Ryan (who was around 105 points at game end), but it wasn't enough.
Despite Cooley's First Law (just not a good night for my laws, I guess), I enjoyed the game quite a bit, despite the contract taking chaos. However, I think that this would be a most excellent three player game where it would be easier to come up with nice long lines and have less downtime. With four it was still very interesting and kept me engaged, but like Ra this one looks like it will shine with three and I plan to pick up a copy. I hear Mike has one he might consider selling...
By now it was 10:30, and I needed to get home, but the other three were ready to continue on, and in fact another player, Holly, had showed up as well.
Thanks to Greg for hosting and to his lovely wife Aurora for dinner and a wonderful fig crisp. I probably won't make it there too often because of other weeknight commitments, but it's good to know I have some options when RCG isn't meeting or my band isn't rehearsing.