Ragusa (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  • Designer: Fabio Lopiano
  • Artist: Bartlomiej Roczniak
  • Publisher: Braincrack Games & Capstone Games
  • Players: 1-5 Players
  • Time: 40-80 Minutes
  • Game Mechanisms: Commodity Speculation, Trading, Worker Placement
  • Times Played: 4

“Wonder why they didn’t just call this one The Big Ragoo?” 

I tend to love games that pack a lot of decisions and actions into sixty minutes — games that have a lot of bang for the buck. I especially love when I get to build, and while Ragusa isn’t your typical city building game, it does still manage to give that feeling as you are placing your “workers” out on the board. The city populates before your eyes, even though really, everything was already there. Once again, though, I am getting ahead of myself. 

Ragusa is the second game from designer Fabio Lopiano, who you might remember from that shooting star Calimala from back in 2017– and we’ll touch on that a bit later. In Ragusa, you are tasked with deploying your houses, which serve as your workers (for lack of a better term), to most advantageously gather resources, to turn into goods, which you will then churn into victory points. Along the way, you’ll be building a perimeter around the city, to keep out the wildlife we’ll presume, which will also score you more points. 

Everyone starts the game with a set number of houses, determined based on the number of players in the game.W ith the max player count of five, each player will receive nine houses, with three, each player starts with twelve. Two players plays a bit differently and I haven’t tried it withtwo players as of the time of writing, so just assume the rest of the review is based on three to five players. . Ragusa ends when everyone has played all of their houses to the board. 

On your turn, you will place a house on an empty space around one of the hexes on the board, gaining the benefits of the surrounding hexes that touch where you have played your house. In order to place a house in specific spaces, though, you will need access to the resources that are required to build said house. If you are building in a rural area, you’ll need access to wood, if you are building in the city, you’ll need access to stone. Yes, I said access to, not spend. You see, as soon as you place a house in a spot, you gain access to any resources that are surrounding it — be that wood, stone, grapes, olives, silver ore or even fish. This is important, because if it wasn’t this way, you’d never be able to start the game, as you begin with zero resources. Another important note about resources is that you never spend them, you simply have access to them. To keep track of this, each player has a player board with spots for the six different resources, and a card that tracks the number of that resource that you have access to. Simply rotate the card to increase the number each time you build next to a rural area. Fish are the only exception to this rule, as at any time you may spend fish at a given ratio to gain other resources. To build your first house around a hex, you simply need access to one of the appropriate resources, rock or wood. To build your second around a given hex, you need two of the appropriate resources, and so on. Some hexes straddle the rural areas and the city, so you would need access to both resources. It’s a bit odd to wrap your head around at first, but after a turn or two, you’ll almost forget about it and just know what you need. Just be careful with your tracking! 

In the rural areas you’ll be gathering resources, as rural folk do. In the city is where all the action takes place. There are ten different city action spaces, each with six places to build around them. Some of the areas simply allow you to convert resources into goods. The Winery, the Oil Press, and the Silversmith allow you to turn your grapes, olives, and silver ore into wine, olive oil, and silver bars, respectively. The Mason and the Architect allow you to build walls and towers accordingly. Walls and towers are important in end game scoring, where you will score points based on your longest section of uninterrupted walls, and walls will also score one point per house or tower of your color that you build the wall next to when placed. The Fishmonger and the Wharf will allow you to immediately convert resources into points. Remember, you don’t spend these resources, as long as you have access to them you will gain the appropriate about of points, and fish are a resource. The Fishmonger gives one point for every two fish and the Wharf allows you to sell a good, which you do lose, at current market value.

If you are counting along, that leaves three more spaces to discuss — The Rector’s Palace, The Market, and The Cathedral. 

At the beginning of the game, everyone is dealt three bonus cards and they get to choose one to keep. These bonus cards will score you points at the end of the game based on what the cards themselves require. The Rector’s Palace is where the players can go to get more of these bonus cards — draw two, keep one. 

The Market is where the ships come in, and you purchase items that are on these ships. At the start of the game, the ship portion of the board is filled with five ship cards. On the back of each of these ship cards there is a resource, as well as arrows which will fluctuate the market. Each time a new ship card comes out, adjust the market as noted on the card. On the other side of each ship card is the actual ship, containing the items that you will be purchasing. The cards have a static price, as noted below the card on the board — you have to pay that good in order to purchase the items from that ship. Sometimes a ship will have an extra cost that must be paid. When buying a ship, the market will fluctuate again as noted under the ship cards on the board.  As soon as you buy a ship, replace it, and adjust the market as necessary. 

The final action space is The Cathedral, and it is strictly for end game scoring. It also leads into another important aspect of Ragusa. At the end of the game, The Cathedral allows you to sell a set of three different goods at their current market price, per house that you have surrounding it, for victory points. So, for example, if you have three houses around The Cathedral at the end of the game, you can sell three complete set of goods. 

Most of the action spaces in Ragusa are symbiotic, meaning that if you take an action, the power of that action is dependant on how many houses you have around that action space. Also, most spaces will allow everyone else to take that same action each time a new house is placed somewhere that already has houses. The only exceptions to this latter point are The Cathedral and The Rector’s Palace. With the conversion spaces, you will take the number of resources that you have access to, and multiply that by the number of your houses being activated around that space and you will gain that many goods. For example, if you have access to three grapes, and you place a house around the Winery and you already have a house there, you’ll be able to produce six wine and note that on your player board. Everyone else around the Winery will also be able to do this, based on their number of houses and the number of grapes they have access to. With action spaces like The Market, everyone with a house on that action space will be allowed to buy from The Market, in a clockwise direction around that space. 

Ragusa ends when the final player in turn order places their final house, and all the actions have been completed. Then the end game scoring takes place. During the game, you will be scoring points for places like The Fish Monger, The Market, and The Wharf, but at the end of the game, you’ll be scoring points for your Cathedral, your bonus cards — with each card maxing xout at twelve points — and your longest section of uninterrupted wall. Your wall will score you one point per wall piece, tower, and house in your longest stretch. This can include blank house or tower spaces, as long as there are no other color houses or towers interrupting the line. The player with the most points after all of that is the winner, and thus worthy of the title, The Big Ragoo!

Everything I love about modern Euro design is crammed into Ragusa. The competitive worker placement, the resource conversion, and efficient point maximization, is all packed into a sixty minute time frame, plus or minus fifteen minutes. One house placement each turn for the active player that can have a huge impact on actions to be taken. Each action taken in the order that the player chooses, hopefully benefiting themselves and the others already in a space.. It’s interactive, what you do can greatly affect what happens to others and what they choose to do down the road. Ultimately each and every placement is of absolute importance. But yet…

I have a growing feeling that there are advantages to being early in the turn order. You see, in the rules as written, the start player is always the first player and just doing simple mathematics, is likely to have more actions in a game than the last player. Being the first person into an action space, if it is a space that allows everyone to take actions, is going to trigger your house every time someone, including yourself, takes that action. So in theory, your first house on the Market, could trigger five more times, even if you never place another house there. You will always be ahead in actions. Admittedly, I have not seen this benefit help yet, each of our three plays so far have been won by players other than the first player, but the feeling is still there and I purposefully have put new players in the first spot to see if it gives them a bit of a competitive advantage. I think it has, but not to the extent that the turn order exceeds the importance of smart choices and game knowledge. I know others out there are not going to say the same thing. It’s inherent in games of this nature, like Calimala, which prompted Dale Yu to say in his review:

I think there is a bit of a question about balance due to turn order.  I don’t think that it’s a huge issue, but there does seem to be a calculable and definite advantage to going earlier in turn order.  To start, players need resource cubes to do anything at the start of the game, and the first player is likely going to choose to gain resources.  So will later players, and this means that the starting player will likely have a small but measurable resource advantage early in the game as the player who played first will likely get to repeat his actions sooner.  There is obviously a much better chance that an earlier played disc will get all three of its actions as well as promotion to the scoring area to be used in tiebreakers. Second, the tie breakers are in favor of the player whose discs were placed in the scoring area of the board first, and again, the starting player has the upper hand here.  I will say that in my three games, the starting player has not seemed to have an oppressive advantage, but it did seem like that player was always a little ahead.  

I know that three games is not enough to make any real conclusions, but in those games, the winner has been the start player twice and the second player once.  Again, too early to say that it is truly unbalanced, and I have faith in the two developers as they have both done great work in the past, but I think it should be mentioned as this issue has come up in discussion after each of my games. [NB: I have in fact spoken with one of the two listed developers, and they agree that they the considered the same issues which I brought up above, but they felt that the game balanced these things out.  First, the choice of action card to start the game in reverse order somewhat mitigates the need to go to the same spot that the first player might choose, and the fact that the order of scoring opportunities are known in advance may make people go in different directions from the start… At this time, I certainly don’t think that this is a game-breaking difference… and this comes from a developer who completed work on a game (Dominion) that most definitely has a slight but measurable first player advantage, so I know that games do not live or die by this!

That is two games, from the same designer, that seemingly have something in common with turn order advantages. Maybe it isn’t a pattern, and maybe it is working as intended, as alluded to in a couple posts on BGG. Maybe there is a first player advantage, and it’s up to the other players to be able to nullify that, to be able to play around the inherent math that adds up over time. But it’s not that easy to overcome. 

For example, when I first played Gunkimono, I felt there was a distinct first player advantage in that you get first placement you always have a leg up on getting to set spots first, get that first stronghold out there, but designer Jeff Allers pointed out to me, if that happens, then the other players aren’t doing their part to score their points, but also deny the leading player the points they have been getting because they got there first. In a game like Gunkimono it’s easy to do, once pointed out at least, but in a game like Ragusa it becomes more difficult because you aren’t only fighting over area, you are fighting over actions that take place in those areas. Actions that are greatly beneficial to everyone, but sometimes more beneficial to others. So it all becomes more confusing, what do you actually do? My answer is, I don’t know. As I said, I’ve not experienced the first player winning in action, but you can see it coming as more people have experience with the game and you can’t rely on giving that first player position to someone coming in with a disadvantage. I haven’t tried anything differently yet, I haven’t house ruled starting Victory Points based on turn order, I haven’t tried rotating player order each turn which can lead to some advantageous double turns or possibly the dreaded 8 turn down time. I haven’t felt it necessary to do that yet, so that’s saying something, right? I think that all of this advantage for the first player will appear moreso in larger games. Where there are more houses placed out and thus more actions possible. Once again, I have not tried the solo or two player options yet, so I can’t speak to those player counts. 

Stylistically and graphically, I think that Ragusa is a knockout. It looks impressive on the table as you build the city and surrounding wooded area, and, for the most part, things are easy to see and distinguish on the board. Through a nice touch by the publisher, there are two sides to the board, one is more minimalistic and the other adds more detail that could confuse newer players. That isn’t to say that there hasn’t been confusion among players. In our first game, one player confused silver ore with silver bars on their bonus card, so they scored minimally on that, where they may have won if it wasn’t for that misread. In our third play, we had a player confuse stone with silver, which I think may have been more of a player issue, than a graphic issue although stone and silver bars do kind of look similar. The resource cards don’t quite fit in the spaces allocated to them, but can slide under the player board rather than fitting in between. Once again, this may be more of a player preference thing. The rule book is a dream, well written and in a nice large font that makes it much easier to read on the eyes. Every card, every space, every anything is explained in exquisite and great detail, leaving very little, if any, ambiguity. The pieces are perfect for what they do in the game, even down to the houses fitting perfectly under the towers along the wall so the towers don’t block some fairly valuable house placement spots. 

It’s rare these days for a game to make me think about it so much after playing it, and then immediately after thinking about it, makes me want to play it again. In spite of all of my gripes about first player advantage and some minor graphical issues, I want to play it again, and again, and again. It’s not an easy game to get to the table, which is why I am grateful for my group that has kind of formed around Ragusa. We’ve played it three times in a month, sandwiching it between some lighter titles. I am hoping that this group will continue to stick with it and we can see if that advantage is overstated, or if we can actually overcome it through different styles of play. 

Ragusa may indeed end up being what fellow OGer Chris Wray calls a “Five and Done” game, but what I think Ragusa has packed into four plays so far leads me to think it may end up being more than that, I think that you can enjoy it a lot more than five times and I don’t think you will see every little wrinkle or route in the book. There are a myriad of ways  to score points, and a lot of different routes to get to those points. There seems to be, to me at least, more problems to be solved both with the meta and within the game itself game play wise,  which makes this a game that I want to explore far more. But also, five plays of most games now a days is considerable and something to strive for. I try for at least five plays of games before reviewing them. With some, that requires actual work, while with others, like Ragusa, it’s fun, and they sometimes make me want to review them prior to those fourth and fifth plays — plays which I’ve scheduled for this weekend as a birthday treat to myself. 

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Doug G.: Shelley and I enjoyed this as a 2-player quite a bit. However, the first couple of actions seemed rather proscriptive (you have to get wood to build in the country and stone in the city) so that first placement is pretty much set. From there getting into the city is important, as you want to benefit as much as possible from the other player’s choices. Oh, and the graphics could definitely use a redo, even though they had different chances to make it great on either side of the board.

Dan Blum (1 play): I like most of the game well enough, but the player order advantage was so apparent in my game that it turned me off from playing it again. You could easily track it during the late game: player 1 would place a house and get points, then player 2 could either place a house and both he and player 1 would get points, or place a house where it was useless to him. Then player 3 would have the same choice, etc. The rest of the game, while fine, I didn’t think was anything special, and even if it were I’m not inclined to try patching a game that has something that fundamentally wrong with it.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it. Brandon Kempf(for now)

I like it. Doug G.

Neutral. 

Not for me…  Dan Blum

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1 Response to Ragusa (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  1. Pingback: Ragusa (Game Review by Brandon Kempf) – Herman Watts

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