Updated: Oct 25
On the face of it, this new game, published jointly by Braincrack and Capstone, sounds like it is treading very familiar ground. The setting is a Medieval merchant port (Ragusa was the original name of the city now known as Dubrovnik in Croatia). Is this another more-of-the-same game that merely substitutes trading in the Adriatic for the all-too-common theme of trade in the Mediterranean?
Actually no. Ragusa will confound your expectations. Though the theme may sound derivative, Ragusa uses some novel mechanics to create a fascinating and surprisingly original game.
Designed by Fabio Lopiano, with art by Bartek Roczniak, in Ragusa, players are competing for points while collectively building the 15th Century city and its city walls. From a casual glance at the board you might suppose this was an area control game. It isn't. Though players are taking turns to place out houses on the board, their use feels more like worker placement. Houses are always placed at the intersection of three hexes and they take the benefits of the produce or function of all three. So, for example, a house placed at the junction of a wood, stone and grapes hex would generate for the player each of these three resources.
The six basic resources in Ragusa (wood, stone, silver ore, fish, grapes and olives) are used by players to create other more valuable tradable commodities but, unlike most other games with a similar theme, the basic resources are not consumed; they are considered a continuous production stream that is always available. To build a house in the countryside, a player must have at least one wood as a resource; so the first house a player places out will always be adjacent to at least one wooded hex. The wood from that hex will, however, always be available to next turn build a house in the countryside that need not be adjacent to a wooded hex. Likewise stone, the basic prerequisite for building at a city location.
When houses are placed at city locations, they immediately score points if they meet the requirements of that location. For example, a player who places a house adjacent to an oil press will be able generate oil for the amount of olives he produces. A clever mechanic in Ragusa is the fact that most city locations trigger the activation of all the spaces around a hex. This means that every time another house is placed next to the oil press, all the houses already built around that hex will also generate oil. Unlike the basic resources, commodities (oil, wine and silver) are 'spent' when traded. Ragusa incorporates a dynamic market which affects the victory point value of commodities; these tend to rise over the course of the game as more shipping cards are bought.
The other key way of racking up points in Ragusa is by building city walls (Mason location). Players will score for the longest run of houses they have connected by walls. The Architect location allows players to erect towers that can be fitted above houses, including those built by other players. Though the towers don't activate in the same way as houses, they can prove very valuable by contributing to a player's continuous run of city wall.
Because they are unusual, some of the mechanics of Ragusa do take a bit of getting used to. We found it took a couple of rounds for players to get their heads around the notion of basic resources as a continuous stream. We also found it took a while for everyone to get to grips with the specific prerequisites of each of the city locations. These are all explained fully in the rulebook but it would be helpful to have reference cards so players aren't all poring over and having to pass round the rulebook. Perhaps reference cards could be added during Ragusa's progress through its Kickstarter campaign which launches this week.
Players record their income using cards that are rotated to reflect each increase in the number of resources generated. This works, but it can be a bit fiddly: dials would have been less novel but they would be easier to use.
The standout feature of Ragusa is the way building in the city triggers activation of the other houses around the same hex; both yours and those of your opponents. It is unusual to have a game with such a high level of interaction but where there is no 'take that' element. Ragusa is a euro game where you can focus on maximising your own points-scoring engine without worrying about an opponent chucking a spanner in your engine's works; you do, however, have to watch out that your actions don't benefit other players more than they do you!
Ragusa takes up to five players, with special rules when playing with two. Extra cards and rules are included to facilitate solitaire play. Even with a full complement of five, you can expect to complete a game in about an hour once players have familiarised themselves with all the various functions of the city buildings. And because this is a game which has such a high level of interaction through triggered activations, Ragusa is a game where there's really no down time: you'll almost always find you've got something to do during other players' turns.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)