Posted by: gschloesser | October 7, 2014

Coal Baron

Design by Wolfgang Kramer & Michael Kiesling
Published by R&R Games
2 – 4 Players, 60 – 75 minutes
Review by Greg J. Schloesser 

Coal Baron

Note:  This review was first published on the Opinionated Gamers website

Mining coal is a dirty business, requiring back-breaking work in conditions that—at least in the times  preceding the late 20th century—were hazardous and often fatal.  Accidents were common, and the long-term effects on workers’ health were tragic.  Fueled by the needs of the industrial age, coal mining proliferated across the United States, Europe and much of the world, and millions of men and women endured these harsh working conditions in order to earn a living for their families.

It is a bit surprising that such a bleak and dark subject was selected as the theme for a board game, at least here in the U.S., where domestic publishers generally prefer lighter subjects for themes.  The hobby game market, however, has no such qualms, and in comparison to other themes, coal mining is actually rather tame, albeit bland.  Still, I am not sure it will have the allure of a more glitzy, pleasant theme. That is a shame, as Coal Baron is an excellent worker placement game that is both tense and fun to play.

As is expected with prima designers Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer, Coal Baron is a tight, well-designed game that is filled with tough decisions.  The game combines the time-tested action point mechanism that the duo perfected in games such as Tikal and Torres with the currently popular worker placement feature.  Players place workers at various locations to mine and deliver coal, obtain orders and earn constantly-needed cash.  Action points are used to move the coal from the shafts to the delivery vehicles.  A clever 3-tiered scoring system rewards players for obtaining majority and/or secondary status in terms of coal delivered, vehicle types used and empty mine carts.

Coal Baron2Players alternate placing workers onto various locations on the main board, which graphically depicts a mining complex, including the mine cart factory, order and delivery sections, and money lender location.  There is even the canteen, where workers go after their work is complete.  Space in each section is limited, but unlike many worker placement games, players are not completely shut-out if a space is occupied.  A player may place one more worker than currently occupying the space in order to gain that location’s benefit, moving the previous workers to the company restaurant.  This can be costly, but it is often worth the increased cost in order to secure the benefits.

There are four different types of coal—yellow, brown, gray and black—and these are obtained by obtaining the matching carts in the mine cart factory.  Carts cost from $1- $8, depending upon the color of the coal (yellow being the least expensive) and the number of carts (1 or 2).  There are eight spaces for carts, and a spot is immediately refilled once one is purchased.  There is also a space wherein a player can draw the top five mine cart tiles, select one, and return the remainder to the top or bottom of the cart stack.  This can be risky, but sometimes there is a specific type of cart one is seeking.

When purchased, the cart is placed in the player’s mine shaft at the appropriate level and on the correct side (right or left), which is determined by whether the cart depicts a lit or unlit feature.  This is important as points are lost at game’s end if a player’s mine shaft is not balanced between lit and unlit tunnels.  Carts come loaded with the appropriately colored coal cube(s), one per cart depicted on the tile.

Players must have money to pay for those carts and coal.  A player’s meager starting supply of cash is quickly depleted, so there will be regular visits to the five money slots, which earn from $1 – $6.  These are the only spaces where money can be earned, so the slots fill-up fast, requiring players to expend more and more workers to exceed the number of workers present on each slot.

Once coal is in a player’s mine, it must be moved to the surface.  This is accomplished via the use of action points, which vary from 4 – 10 depending upon the slot on which a player places a worker(s).  Each player’s mine shaft has an elevator that the player moves between the surface and the four mine levels.  Points are spent moving between levels and loading and unloading coal cubes.  The elevator has a capacity of five coal cubes, so players must plan carefully so as to optimize their action points.  It would have been very appealing if the coal shaft and elevator were three-dimensional, but I am sure the cost would have been prohibitive.

Once at the surface, the coal can be unloaded into a storage facility or, optimally, directly onto orders.  Orders depict the number and type of coal demanded, which can vary from 1 – 4 cubes.  Easy-to-complete orders yield less victory points than the more difficult four-cube orders.  Orders are obtained in the same worker placement fashion from one of the four order spaces.  As with the mining cart factory, there is a space that allows the player to sort through the top five order tiles, selecting one.

Once the coal is placed upon an order, the work is not yet complete.  These orders must be transported to the client before the benefits—victory points—are reaped.  There are four different types of transportation ranging from cart to train, with one type depicted on each order tile.  A player may transport a completed order by placing a worker on the transportation space that matches the one depicted on the order.  Multiple completed orders depicting the same type of transportation can be delivered simultaneously, which encourages players to concentrate on obtaining multiple orders depicting identical modes of transportation.  This is also encouraged by the scoring system.

Once players have placed all of their workers, a scoring round is conducted.  There are three shifts (rounds), and each shift four more scoring elements are added.   In the first shift, players score points based on the four types of coal delivered.  Players with the majority or secondary status in each of the four types of coal score points, which varies from 2 – 5 points for majorities and less for the secondary position.  The second scoring round adds points in the same fashion for modes of transportation used in fulfilling orders, while the final shift adds empty mine carts in the four categories.  As one would expect, there are more points to be earned in each successive round.  At the conclusion of the game, additional points are earned for remaining money (5:1) and coal (3:1), while points are lost for unfulfilled orders and having an unbalanced (lit vs. unlit) mine shaft.  Most victory points wins.

I have made no secret of my admiration for the designs of Wolfgang Kramer, especially when he is teamed with Michael Kiesling.  His output has been staggering, with hundreds of games to his credit.  His deeper strategy designs are always filled with tough decisions and are characterized by ongoing tension and angst.  They are, as one gaming friend described, a “rich gaming experience.”  How true.

While Coal Baron may not be on the same lofty level as his masterpieces—El Grande, Torres or Princes of Florence—it is a solid, tightly-woven game that forces players to make some interesting and often tough choices.  He has deftly combined the worker placement and action points mechanisms without giving the feeling of a mechanism mishmash.   While offering various tactical and strategic options, it does not fall into the trap of too many mechanisms and too many options; it is not an overload.  Rather, it offers one of those rich gaming experiences in a relatively short time frame of just over an hour.  Further, the theme—albeit a bit unsavory at first glance—actually works and the mechanisms and features, for the most part, seem appropriate.  The only one that feels artificial is the balancing of the lit and unlit sides of the mine shaft, although it does present players with one more challenge.

Coal Baron is solid design, one that is easy to teach and grasp, yet quite challenging to play well.  I continue to be enamored by Herr Kramer, and am happy to see he has lost none of his brilliance.

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