24 September 2019
Temples for two
To stumble across one ancient temple full of treasure is good luck. Finding two identical temples equally stuffed with riches is even more fortunate. Best hold on to that luck – you’re going to need it.
This is the very light framing of Nagaraja, the latest two-player-only effort from Mr. Jack and Kero studio Hurrican. Each player ventures into their respective temple – loosely inspired by Ananta and Garuda, the serpent and avian mounts of Lord Vishnu in Hinduism, though you really shouldn’t expect to find reverential handling of the theme here – to explore its maze-like hallways and ‘recover’ (cough) priceless relics.
In motion, Nagaraja – the title approximates to something along the lines of ‘Snake King’ – blends together hand management, route-building and bidding. It’s an interesting mix that slides along smoothly enough, even if it lacks the bite needed to leave a lasting impression.
The players bid on a room tiles to slot into their three-by-three grid, creating pathways from a starting entrance side to hidden relic tokens placed facedown around the remaining three sides of the temple. Many bidding games don't scale to two people particularly well, something that Nagaraja attempts to solve by combining its auction for each tile with dice-rolling… minus the dice.
Instead, players chuck ‘fate sticks’ of varying lengths that return a number of pips and nagas – snakes. The most pips wins the tile, while nagas can be used to activate ability cards that benefit yourself or affect your opponent, peeking at hidden relics, swapping tiles or relics, drawing extra cards, adding to or rerolling a fate stick result and more. The different sticks each vary in their balance of pips and nagas, with each player also spending one or more cards to determine exactly what they throw for that turn. The use of the sticks in place of four-sided dice helps Nagaraja to feel distinct, with the opportunity to control what you throw – if not always the result – providing a decent amount of strategy. In the same way, the dual use of cards as either bid or action poses a decision for players to ponder over without making Nagaraja’s gameplay sluggish.
Even so, Nagaraja’s layering of luck elements can cause frustration. Careful hand management can still be hampered by unlucky draws – though the way cards are distributed at the end of the round, with the person who didn’t win the tile choosing two to keep and one to pass to their opponent, is an elegant way of balancing things. The point values of the relics – randomised and hidden – can be peeked at by using the right card, but players risk an instant loss if they reveal the three cursed relics mixed among the nine artefacts.
Even when your luck holds out, Nagaraja’s light gameplay simply isn’t as exciting as it should be. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it – the cards do look roundly fantastic, thanks to artist Vincent Dutrait, and the fate sticks are a fun gimmick that add to the look – but there are simply better games out there for just two people.
PLAY IT? – MAYBE
Nagaraja looks attractive, and its mixture of hand management, bidding and route-building works surprisingly well. It’s solid enough, but the gameplay lacks excitement – and given the limited player count, it’s hard to justify adding this to your collection.
Designer: Bruno Cathala, Théo Rivière
Artist: Vincent Dutrait
Time: 30 minutes
Purchase the game here
This review originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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