Refugium is yet another in the "building a city" genre of games. The game itself is extraordinarily simple: The gameboard is a standard 9x9 grid of squares with the central 3x3 area reserved as parklands. On your turn you place one of your 9 buildings tiles in any square, there are only two restrictions: You can't place a building next to a park tile or in the central 3x3 reserve. You also have the option of then placing a park tile, the only restriction here is that this must be adjacent to an existing park. (The game starts with a single park tile in the 3x3 reserve.) The game ends when either the players run out of buildings or there are no more park tiles left. As there are only 12 park tiles to begin with the game can be over very quickly. This is all very simple and straightforward. The trick is in the scoring: Each row and column is scored independently. Your score is the number of buildings you have in that row plus the number of empty squares you own. You "own" an empty square if its between one of your buildings and either the edge of the board or a park. The player with the most points wins that row or column. The winner of the game is the player that has won the most rows and columns, not the most points overall. (The scoring is difficult to get a grasp on until you've played a game or two at which point it becomes much clearer.)
There's plenty of thought required on your turn. As I mentioned its not your total points that win the game but the number of rows and columns that you've won. This has the effect that you must find a balance between spreading yourself too thin (and losing many row/column battles) or concentrating too much and winning too few rows/columns overall. Finding the right balance is tricky indeed and a wonderful "puzzle" to solve.
The components are simple and functional, no where near the standard of Hans im Gluck or GoldSieber but that's a rather lofty goal in any case. Still, I can't help but wonder if the game would be more enjoyable with 3-D plastic buildings and such.
Clearly this game's a descendant of Auf Heller und Pfennig and a comparison of the two would be in order: There's absolutely no luck in Refugium. This can, of course, be either a good or a bad thing. On the one hand it will reward skillful play but it can lead to overanalysis. As there's no secret or hidden information a "thoughtful" player could easily spend far too much time figuring out the best move. Also, I (and the people I played with) found it much harder to analyze the board situation. In Auf Heller und Pfennig it was generally easier to see "at a glance" what a good move was, whereas in Refugium it can be somewhat difficult. What seem like such simple little plays can have vast consequences on the outcome. In some sense the game is a bit chess like in this regard. (I suppose "Go-like" would be a more accurate description.) Whether this is a good thing or not will be up to individual tastes. However, I will say that I think Auf Heller und Pfennig would be easier to introduce to casual players than Refugium.
I also feel that the scoring system, difficult as it is to get your head around, works better than Auf Heller und Pfennig's. In that game the scoring was highly abstract as far as I was concerned. Rows and columns don't really reflect how businesses would work in a medieval bazaar. Why should a merchant profit from the fact that the King is "lined up" with his shop if he's half way across the marketplace? Yes, I realize that its all an abstraction and I have nothing against that per se but its much nicer when a game manages to exhibit a bit more realism. Refugium accomplishes this quite nicely. Scores are based more or less on how isolated your buildings are, nobody wants to live with a view of some ugly skyscraper next door but views of parks will command high rents.
I can't really find anything wrong with this game. I wonder if there should be more park tiles available, as it stands the game usually ends after 4 or 5 rounds. This is because you can usually use the parks to stuff your opponent and so why wouldn't you want to place one? Even still the game never felt unfinished when it ended this way so perhaps 12 is the perfect number. I guess the biggest criticism I can come up with is that the game's mathematical and deterministic nature might turn some people off. Despite its (potentially) quick play there's a lot to think about on your turn and each tile play can have rather large consequences. In short there are some players that this game is simply not suited for. This is hardly a fault of the game however, just as Charades & Chess have very specific audiences so does Refugium. For the analytically minded gamer I think this is a real winner that deserves to be given a try.
- Greg Aleknevicus