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Coal Baron

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(R & R Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 60-75 minutes, $44.95)

coalbaron1For admirers of the Euro/German style of gaming, the German city of Essen is the epicenter of the universe for its gaming convention held there annually. But Essen has more to its history than games. It is also the site of coal mines that powered industrialization in Germany at the start of the 20th century. In this latest Wolfgang Kramer/Michael Kiesling design, players are transported back to that time and, as coal mine owners, seek to expand their mines, fulfill contracts and rack up Victory Points along the way in the aptly titled Coal Baron.

The game board in Coal Baron depicts the environs of the town with critical areas being tunnel tiles, work actions, orders, order delivery and the bank. There is also a “shift” clock. The game is played in three shifts and the hand of the shift clock reminds players which shift is current and what will be scored at the end of the shift.

Everyone gets their own mine shaft, a partially cut out cardboard board which shows a surface level and four levels of tunnels where various grades of coal (represented by yellow on the first level, brown on the second, gray on the third and black, on the fourth and deepest level) can be mined as well as a “pit” cage used to travel up and down the shaft. (It should be mentioned that the cardboard, being a little thin for this purpose, tends to warp. This, however, is just a minor cosmetic flaw and has no effect on actual play.) One side of the tunnels is lighted with lanterns while the other side is dark (no lanterns there). In addition to their mine shaft, players begin with workers (the number depending on the number of players) in their chosen color, one cube of each coal color (yellow, brown, gray and black) which starts on the mine car of its color in the mine as well as money (from 8 to 10 Marks depending on the number of players). They will also draft a starting supply of Orders.

Order cards display how many and what kind of coal is required to complete the order, how the coal must be delivered (by barrow, carriage, truck, or engine) and the amount of Victory Points awarded for making the delivery. At the beginning of the game, a supply of Order cards are revealed and, in reverse turn order, each player will choose one so that, when the dust clears, each player has three outstanding orders to fill. The one remaining card will go onto the board (in the Orders area) joined by two or three new order cards for consideration. Now, the game can commence.

On a turn, the active player will do ONE action by placing one or more of his workers on the appropriate space. The actions include:

coalbaron21. Mine carts factory – In this area, players are presented with a bunch of tiles representing different types of coal in one or two mine carts. By placing workers here, a player may buy the tile to add to his mine. Cost depends on the type of coal and number of carts. Yellow coal costs 1 Mark per cart, brown 2, gray 3 and black 4. Some tiles will be “lighted” and some “dark”. Bought mine tiles are placed on the proper level and on the proper side of the shaft, light tiles to the left, dark tiles to the right. Appropriately colored coal cubes are placed directly on the tiles once bought. (You may also claim the space allowing you to draw FIVE mine tiles, choose one and replace the rest on the top or bottom of the mine tiles stack.)

2. Mining – In this area, placed workers give you “work steps” that you can take to get the coal out of your mine and prepare for delivery. Your mine cage starts on the surface. Each step up or down requires one work step. Moving coal from mine cart to mine cage or from mine cage to surface area or from the mine cage to an open Order costs one step too.

3. Delivery – Placed workers on a delivery space allow you to deliver ALL completed orders that use that method of delivery.

4. Money – Here you receive the specified amount of funds, needed to purchase those vital mine tiles.

5. New Order – Placed workers here enable you to pick up a new order to fill and deliver. You can claim a revealed order OR, if you wish and can afford the space (like the above mentioned mine cart space), draw five Order cards, choose one and return the rest to the top OR bottom of the Order deck.

Once all players have used their workers, the shift ends and scoring occurs. For the first shift, players with the highest and second highest number of yellow, brown, gray and black coal spaces on their COMPLETED orders will score Victory Points. The second shift scores this and also gives points to the players with the first and second highest number of Order spots delivered by barrow, carriage, truck and engine. The third shift scores for these previous categories but also scores, again for the players with the highest and second highest amount, for EMPTY mine carts in their mines in each of the four types of coal. In all cases, ties are friendly so players tied for first EACH get the full amount of points in that category.

After the first shift, the player with the most workers in the mine carts area becomes the first player for the next shift. Now all workers are collected and the next round of plays begins. After the third shift and the third shift scoring, additional scoring occurs.

Every 5 Marks a player still has converts to 1 VP. Similarly every 3 coal cubes or any color anywhere in that player’s possession (in the mines, on unfinished orders etc.) equates to 1 VP. Each Order card that has NOT been completed will cost you 1 VP. Finally, a “balance check” is done for your mine. Players look to see how many lighted tiles and how many dark tiles are in their mine. For each tunnel tile that one side has more of than the other, you LOSE 2 VPs. (So, for example, if at game’s end, I have five lighted tiles and 3 dark tiles, I would lose 4 VPs.) High score wins!

The worker placement style of play has been mined for quite awhile now and it takes a lot to make an impact. Under the talented direction of Kramer and Kiesling, it does. Coal Baron’s twist to worker placement is the placement itself. Generally, in the standard worker placement game, once a spot is taken by a player, that spot is gone for the round. Not so here. ALL spaces are up for grabs provided that you are willing and able to place one worker MORE than the worker occupying that space. So, if player A has claimed a spot player B wants or needs and has a worker there, player B will need to expend TWO workers to claim that space. This applies even if YOU are the one occupying the space and want to take that action again. (Ousted workers are placed in the “Canteen” where they “rest” until the round is over when they return to their owning player to be used in the subsequent round.) It is a simple twist but, as with all of the great designers, simple things can become profound in their execution as this opens up a whole layer of decisions and forces you to evaluate just how much a certain space is worth to you. Since you have a limited number of workers at your disposal (anywhere from 13 to 18 workers depending on the number of players) and you’re trying to build tunnels, mine them, get orders, fulfill orders and then deliver them, you cannot easily afford to overpay (in workers) for actions. And yes, sometimes, you may have to commit two, three, even four workers to a “can’t live without” action. But don’t despair. If you only have one worker left, you can always place him at the Bank (which handles an unlimited number of workers) and get 1 Mark. (It may not sound like much but money is tight in this game and even one Mark can help you get the mine tiles necessary to get needed coal.)

Another nice touch is the way scoring is done at the end of each round. Scoring accelerates, from four categories to eight to 12. Just because you won a category in a previous shift does not mean you will win it again. Things change as more orders get fulfilled. This tends to make competition more intense.

Had Coal Baron been published a decade ago when worker placement was a fresh idea, this game would have taken the gaming world by storm. Where worker placement games like Russian Railroads (featured last issue) are sophisticated examples of the genre, Coal Baron is worker placement 101. Even so, the clean, streamlined implementation of that game mechanism with that multiple workers twist, the family friendly ties in scoring, the appealing mine shaft device and clear rules, all make the game stand out so that, in playing Coal Baron, players mining for coal end up striking gold.


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