Cliff Notes’ version – Preliminary Rating: I love it
The trip to Essen is just around the corner – I leave on Monday morning… But, the boardgame fairy still showed up Thursday with (probably) the last pre-Essen delivery – the eagerly anticipated Coal Baron from R&R Games. I had seen this in a previous incarnation at the Gathering of Friends back in April, but sadly, I did not get a chance to play it then; I only was able to watch a half game in progress.
I knew from what I saw that I was probably going to like the game. The theme and complexity are where I like games to be…. The designers are a well known team that have created some great games: Torres, Tikal, Java, Palaces of Carrara, Verflixxt… I have even heard that there are fans of Cavum floating around out there! I am more than familiar with the entire oeuvre of K&K, as Luke (ex-local gamer and itinerant OG writer) loves them so much as to own them all. We’ve even had a few days of nothing but K&K games in the past!
The theme of this game is coal mining – which should be evident from the title… The German name for the game is Glück Auf. And to borrow directly from Wikipedia:
Glückauf (alternative spelling Glück Auf; also, as an exclamation: Glück auf!) is the traditional German miners’ greeting. It describes the hope of the miners: “esmögensichErzgängeauftun” (“may lodes [of ore] be opened”) which is short for “IchwünscheDirGlück, tueinenneuen Gang auf” (“I wish you luck in opening a new lode”), because, when mining for ore, without prospecting, no-one could predict with certainty whether the miners’ work would lead to a reward. The greeting also expressed the desire that miners would return safely from the mine after their shift. Today it is still a common form of greeting in the Ore Mountains region of eastern Germany.
- Designer: Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling
- Publisher: R&R Games (Released asGlück Auf in Germany by Eggertspiele/Pegasus)
- Players: 2-4
- Ages: 10+
- Time: 60-75 minutes
- Times Played: Twice in same night with review copy provided by R&R Games
Overview of game play
Coal Baron is a straightforward worker placement game. Over the course of three rounds, players will place workers to accomplish five main actions: earn money, use money to buy coal on tiles, pick up new coal order cards, transport coal to finish orders, and selling completed orders. The game board is split up into areas for each of these different actions. Certain spaces are blocked off if you are not playing with the full complement of 4 players – but for the purposes of this preview, I will talk about the game as if it is setup for 4 players. There is also a end-of-round “scoring speedometer” at the bottom of the board that shows you what will be scored. Each player also has a personal board which has 8 coal shafts – 4 different colors, both lit and unlit – and a central elevator shaft that connects them all. At the start of the game, each player has one coal car (with a corresponding lump of coal) in each color.
Each player gets an allotment of workers: 18 in a 2p game, 15 in 3p, 13 in 4p. Each of the three rounds in the game goes on until all the workers are placed on the board. On your turn, you simply place a worker on a space and then take the corresponding action. If the space you want to occupy is empty, you simply place a single worker there. If the space is already occupied, then you must place one more worker than was previously on that spot in order to take the action. The displaced workers are simply moved to the cafeteria area of the board to await the end of the round.
I’ll go over the actions by type.
First, you can earn money. 4 spaces are available – worth 3, 4, 5, or 6 Marks. There is also space for the bank which guarantees a 1 Mark return for a single worker. Unlike regular spaces, there is no limit to the number or color of workers that can go to the bank.
Next, you can get Tunnel tiles. This is the only way to get more coal into your mines. There are 8 different tiles available at any time (shuffled and placed randomly). They each have one or two coal cars on them of a particular color. You place workers in one of the slots and then you buy the tile in that space. The cost of the tile depends on the coal cars pictured on the tile. You must be able to buy the tile in order to take the action in that space. You add the tile to your mine board, making sure to put it on the correct side of the mine (to the left if the tile has lights; to the right if it does not have lights), and you place a cube of coal on each car pictured on that tile. Once you have done this, you then draw a new Tunnel tile from the supply and place it on the newly emptied space.
There is also a mystery meat space (which accepts workers like any other space) – where you get to draw the top 5 tiles from the supply stack and look at them. You may buy up to one tile from this group – paying the regular cost for it. Any unpurchased tiles can then be placed on the top of the draw stack OR on the bottom of the draw stack, in whichever order is desired by the active player.
Third, you can get new order cards. Each player starts the game with 3 order cards (which are drafted in setup). They have a VP value at the top, and have one to four cubes in the center which are the requirements for filling that order. Finally, at the bottom of the card, there is a mode of transportation which is used when selling the finished order. There are four different types here: a handcart, horse and buggy, truck and locomotive.
There are four different card spaces, and you simply place your worker(s) on one of these spaces and then take the order card associated with that space. There is no cost to picking up the order card nor is there any limit to the number of order cards that you can have. Like the Tunnel tiles, there is also extra mystery meat space (which accepts workers like any other space) – where you get to draw the top 5 cards from the deck and look at them. You may buy up to one card from this group – any unpurchased cards can then be placed on the top OR the bottom of the deck, in whichever order is desired by the active player.
Fourth, you can transport coal around your mine. There are 4 possible spaces here which grant a differing amount of movement points: 4, 6, 8, or 10. Every action on your mine board takes one movement point:
- moving your elevator down as far as you want
- moving your elevator up as far as you want
- loading a cube from the current level’s mine shaft into your elevator
- unloading a cube from the elevator to an order card (when elevator is at the top)
- unloading a cube from the elevator to the storage area (when elevator is at the top)
- moving a cube from the storage area to a contract card
(You have a storage area at the ground level of your mine where you can keep coal that is not currently needed for an order. It is a bit inefficient to move coal here because you will need to spend another movement point later to transfer it to an order card… But, your elevator only has space for 5 lumps of coal, and sometimes you just need to be able to carry up as much coal as possible from the shafts, so you’d like your elevator to be empty!)
The fifth and final action option is selling completed orders. There are four spaces here – one each for the four different transportation options found on the bottom of the order cards. When you take the action here, you MUST sell all finished order cards that you have of that particular transportation type. An order is complete if the all of the cubes pictured on the card have a matching coal cube on them. Note that you can also use any pair of cubes as a wildcard for a cube of a different color. Any cubes on those cards are returned to the supply, and you immediately score a number of VPs as printed on the card. The finished cards are then kept to the side, as you will need them for end-of-round scoring.
Again, the round continues until all the workers have been placed. Initial actions in the round usually only take one worker, but it is not uncommon for actions near the end of the round to cost 3 or even 4 workers depending on how the round has played out. Your workers are never wasted because, at a minimum, they can be placed on the Bank space to earn 1 Mark.
When the round ends, you go to the “scoring speedometer” at the bottom of the board for the end of round scoring. Each scoring criteria awards points for having the most and second most. In the first round, you only score the first 4 criteria – and the scoring is based on your stack of completed order cards.
- Highest total number of yellow order spots on completed cards
- Highest total number of brown order spots on completed cards
- Highest total number of gray order spots on completed cards
- Highest total number of black order spots on completed cards
At the end of the second round, you score the first 8 criteria (Again using all of your completed order cards in the game) – the 4 criteria from the first round, and then:
- Highest number of order spots on completed handcart cards
- Highest number of order spots on completed horse and buggy cards
- Highest number of order spots on completed truck cards
- Highest number of order spots on completed locomotive cards
At the end of the third round, you score all 12 criteria… The 8 already scored above – plus:
- Highest number of empty yellow coal cars in his mine (on his player board)
- Highest number of empty brown coal cars in his mine (on his player board)
- Highest number of empty gray coal carsin his mine (on his player board)
- Highest number of empty black coal cars in his mine (on his player board)
Once the scoring is completed, the new start player is chosen based whoever has the highest number of workers currently in action spaces for Tunnel tiles. Then, all players retrieve their workers from the board and place them next to their mines in anticipation of placing them in the following round. The Tunnel tiles and order cards are left where they are.
Rounds two and three are played exactly the same as the first. Your actions in the game are cumulative, however, because the bonus scoring always involves all of your completed contract cards, not just the ones finished during the current round.
If you have finished the third round, there is a bit of endgame scoring
- 1 VP for every 5 marks
- 1 VP for every 3 cubes of coal left in your play area regardless of location
- -1 VP for every order card left in your mine – even if it is complete!
- -2 VP for each level of mine imbalance
As I mentioned earlier, there are two sides to your mine: the left side which has lamps on the tiles and the right side which does not have lamps. At the end of the game, you count up tiles on both sides and figure out the absolute value difference between the two sides. So, if I had 6 light tiles and only 2 dark tiles, I would have a imbalance of 4, and I would lose 8VPs in the endgame scoring.
The player with the most VPs wins. Tie breaker is money.
My Thoughts on the Game:
Coal Baron will be a hit in my family. How do I know that? My boys and I just blew through an initial rules read and two straight plays of the game in about 150 minutes, and the boys were begging me to extend bedtime so we could play it again. A game does not get a better reception than that around here. Of course, it’s hard to put a rating on a game after only two plays, and that’s why my rating above is “preliminary”. But, this game hits a sweetspot for me in particular – it’s easy enough that I can teach it to just about any gamer in 10 minutes, and it’s fairly easy to grok. On our first play, we learned straight from reading the rules (I had not even pre-read the rules!), and all three of us knew what we were doing by the end of the first round. Of course, there were some plays that were sub-optimal in that first game, but all three of us felt afterwards that we were comfortable with the game structure and the choices we could make. Going straight into another game, we were definitely able to plan our strategies better.
Second, the game plays quickly. Our first game was just over an hour, but it’s not surprising to have longer game times when you’re first trying a game out. The second game clocked in at 45 minutes, and it felt shorter than that – with only three players, it felt like it was always my turn… (and not in a bad way – I just mean that there wasn’t much downtime and I was constantly engaged in the game).
The scoring at the end of each of the three rounds also gives the game a bit of an arc. I like the way that the bonuses build up over the course of the game. It gives the players something to shoot for in the short term as well as higher payoffs in the long term. Every fulfilled contract counts towards these bonuses, which is also nice because then every card is useful to complete and score.
Replayability – I think the simplicity of the game makes this easier to get back on the table. Like many worker placement/resource management games, the differences from game to game will come from the random distribution of the cube tiles and the order cards as well as having to figure out what the other players are going to do. For me, this is a positive, because it’s not like there will be wild swings if card X or action Y show up randomly in the game – the total set of choices is always the same; the difference will come from how you can react to theirappearance and the opponents.
I also think that the changing costs for worker placement will make every game different because it will create an ever changing valuation of tiles depending on when/where they get flipped up. At first glance, it seems that you have too many worker cylinders for each round, but once you start having to use multiple workers per action, your supply will quickly dwindle.
Is the game perfect? Well, there are a few minor quibbles I have with the components, and I will admit that these issues are not just with Coal Baron but with many current Eurogames. First, why do score tracks only get numbers on the 5s? I suppose that it might look a little cleaner to only number some of the spaces, but man, it really makes it harder to quickly and accurately score the game, especially when you are adding numbers like 16 or 27 to the score at times. I would much prefer that every space on the track be numbered.
Second, I wish the money denominations were more distinct. Like the crummy American currency, all the bills are the same size and color (green), and it was difficult at times to tell how much money people had, and it was also easy to make a mistake in paying/collecting money. Again, this is not limited to Coal Baron – I’ve just seen those things a lot this year, and it’s time to bring it to light.
The other question that I need to answer (and I will do it with multiple plays this fall) – is the scaleability of the game. Thus far, I have only played two games, both 3-player, and it definitely feels right. There was a good amount of tension as I usually wanted to do two or three things each turn, and I had to constantly try to figure out which actions would be around for my next turn… The increasing cost of repeating an action space makes this prioritization very important!
So, what remains to be seen is how the game changes, if any, with a changing number of players. On first glance, the math is similar –
- 4p – 26 spaces, 13 workers each x 4 = 52 (2 workers/space)
- 3p – 23 spaces, 15 workers each x 3 = 45 (1.96 workers/space)
- 2p – 19 spaces, 18 workers each x 2 = 36 (1.89 workers/space)
However, with some of these worker placement games, the number of intervening actions between each choice can make a big difference…. i.e. in a 2 player game, I might be less worried about my next turn if I have 2 viable options. Even if my opponent chooses one of them, I can still get a desired move when it’s my turn. However, if I have the same 2 choices in a 4 player game, I’m a bit less comfortable now, because I have three chance for my best options to be taken. While the math is the same as far as the ratio of workers to action spaces go, my approach to the game will likely have to change. I find this an advantage to a game because it gives me multiple different games to play in the same box – I find this same characteristic in Caylus, another worker placement game, and it’s one of the reasons I still love playing it.
The components in Coal Baron are of good quality. There is a nice mix of wooden bits and well punched cardboard chits, and the publishers are following the current trend of including appropriately sized baggies in the game. The artwork is done by Dennis Lohausen – and he is in the process of having a great year. Along with Coal Baron, he also has credits for Yunnan, Glass Road, New Haven, Carcassone: South Seas and Light Line. I’ve always been a fan of his work; he has done some Dominion cards, and he was also the artist behind Terra Mystica, Hawaii and HansaTeutonica. The board layout is easy to follow for the most part. As I said earlier, I wish that the scoring track had numbers on every space, but other than that, it is pretty clear where the all the different bits should go, and this makes it easy to play the game, even when there are >50 wooden bits, tiles and cards strewn on the board…
Though I’ve only played it twice, I definitely like what I’ve seen so far. There is certainly nothing groundbreaking mechanic-wise though I am a big fan of the cumulative and additive end-of-round scoring. The rules are well written, without any ambiguities that I can find thus far, and all of the components of the game mesh together well. I am definitely looking forward to more plays of this in the near future with my regular gaming group, and I do think that they will find this right up their alley as well.
I can easily see this being a game that I can bring out with any type of gamer – novice to experienced. For the novice gamers, which in many ways my boys aged 12 and 10 still represent, it is a great introduction to the moderately complex game or to the worker placement genre. There are really only five different actions to choose from (though multiple locations for each type) which is enough to see the possible choices but not be overwhelmed by them. For the experienced gamer, this will be on the lighter side but it offers enough meat to provide an enjoyable game. Even with the narrower set of choices, there is still plenty of room for clever and tactical play. Though it’s obviously too early for me to tell if this will become a classic game – right now, it feels like Carc, Web of Power or Showmanager – all games that are easy to teach and learn, and all games that still get requests to be played despite their age.
Preliminary Rating: I love it
(My apologies on the pictures… All I had was the camera on my phone… and let’s face it, there’s a reason why people still carry around real cameras!)
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers:
Mark Jackson –
Coal Baron’s prototype was probably my favorite ‘heavy” game experience at the Gathering of Friends this spring… and I’m excited that R&R Games is making sure we can score copies here in the States. (Remember, this is me when you hear me suggesting that a game with a 60 minute playing time is a “heavy” game.)
Two things in particular stood out to me from that playing:
- the way that no job was completely cut off from a player… IF he had the extra workers to place there – I like that so much better than “cut me off just to cut me off” nonsense of some worker placement game
- the multiple directions/strategies you could use to garner victory points and therefore victory – Dale did a really nice job of talking about the story arc created by the varying ways of scoring points.
I also liked the elevator… but that’s more of a parakeet “ooh-aah” reaction than any real comment on the gameplay.
After one play: I love it