Tech

Assessment: Coal Baron

Coal Baron is a new worker placement game by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling, two well-known designers who have collaborated before in many games, such as Tikal, Torres, Artus, Maharaja, Vikings and many more. This time the game they came up with puts the players in the place of coal mine owners, trying to run the most successful mining business by using the resources available in the game, namely workers and money. And of course their brains.

The game is set in the city of Essen on the verge of the 20th century and lasts 3 rounds, called “Shifts”. Coal seems to be in abundance in the region so you decide to invest in it. You set up a mine, hire workers and have some contracts going on at the start of the game. But how things are going to turn out after this promising start, is completely in your hands. You will constantly have to make important decisions about how to make the best out of your workers by assigning them to many different locations on the board in order to mine, to transport coal from the mine to the surface, to deliver goods, to produce money and to acquire new contracts. Players gain victory points in the course of the game and during three scoring phases, called “Shifts”.

In most worker placement games, whoever gets to assign first a worker on a space, is the only one who can use that space. However this is not the case in Coal Baron. In this game many players can take advantage of the same space on the board and even the same player can do that, as long as he has enough workers to assign because each time a player wants to use a space on the board he must place one more worker than the number of workers currently occupying that space. If the space is empty, good news. He can use it by placing a single worker. But what if 2 workers are already assigned there? Tough call! He must place 3 of his own in order to use it and remove workers already there. That said, cautious planning is required and the perception of when to make the right move at the right moment. That is the heart of the game really. When all workers from all players have been assigned, it’s time for the first scoring phase or “Shift”. Two more rounds occur with players assigning workers and a scoring phase at the end of each one, and finally the game can have a winner, the one with the most victory points. Players also gain victory points in the course of the game by delivering their orders.

So, let’s go a little deeper into the game. At the beginning of the game each player receives a predetermined number of workers and some cash according to the number of players. Each player also receives a pit which he/she will expand in the course of the game by mining. The pit consists of four tunnel levels (yellow, brown, gray and black) plus the surface level. The level closest to the surface (yellow) is easier and cheaper to dig and as we go deeper the cost of mining increases but so do the benefits. Each level has a lit and an unlit side that can be expanded. However it’s wise according to the game, to expand in a balanced way that is digging uniformly on the lit and unlit area. The most exquisite and fun element of the mine is a pit cage which acts as an elevator in order to transport coal to the surface and prepare orders for delivery or store the coal in a private storage for later use. It comprises of a square tile sliding up and down on the player’s board that depicts the pit. Players also get to choose 3 starting contracts by choosing one by one from a number of randomly revealed contracts.

The board consists of five kinds of spaces where players can assign their workers:

  • on the left side of the board (top and bottom) players can buy minecarts in order to get coal of a specific tunnel level and side. Tunnel tiles are shuffled at the start of the game and form a face down pile from where eight are revealed and fill the spaces of the board reserved for tunnels. Each tunnel tile depicts 1 or 2 minecarts of a specific level (colour), lit or unlit and the cost to purchase it. By assigning a worker on one of these spaces you pay the required amount of money, get the tile and put it on your pit, on the appropriate space (by level and side of the board) and most importantly take a coal cube for each minecart on the tile and place them on it. That’s the only way for players to get coal. After a tile is purchased, another one is revealed to fill the empty space. If none of the open tunnel tiles suits a player’s needs, he may assign a worker on a special space where he can look at the top 5 tunnel tiles of the stack, choose one of them and return the rest to the bottom or top of the stack.
  • on the top right of the board, there are 4 available spaces where players can receive money, from 3 to 6 marks (the currency of the game). There is also a special space, the “Bank” where you can assign a single worker in order to receive 1 Mark.
  • on the bottom right of the board, there are 4 spaces where players can acquire a new order. Each order card depicts a number of coal cubes of one or more tunnel level plus the way by which the order must be transported and the number of victory points earned when it is completed. After a tile is taken, another one is revealed and put on the empty space. Order cards are shuffled at the start of the game to form a face down stack. A certain number of orders is then revealed and players take orders one at a time until all have 3 orders to start with. The Order spaces on the board are filled with orders from the stack. If none of the open orders suits a player’s plans, he has the option of assigning a worker on a special space where he can look at the top five orders of the orders stack, choose one of them and return the rest to the bottom or top of the stack.
  • on the top-middle of the board are the “Mining spaces”. When a player puts a worker there, he gets the opportunity to mine his pit for coal. The number stated on the worker space indicates the maximum number of work steps the player may perform. Examples of work steps, are moving the pit cage upwards or downwards, moving coal cubes from a minecart to the cage if it’s on the appropriate level, move a coal cube from the cage to an order card or to a private storage if the cage is on the surface level.
  • on the bottom-middle of the board the “Delivery” worker spaces can be found. Each space depicts a specific way of transportation. Remember that each order must be delivered with a specific kind of vehicle which is displayed on the card. By assigning one or more workers on a “Delivery” space, a player may deliver all complete orders that require the given vehicle. Upon doing that he immediately gets the victory points depicted on all delivered orders and remove those cards from the Outstanding orders area, next to his pit.
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That was pretty much what a player can do with his workers. As soon as all workers have been assigned to worker spaces the first Shift is considered to have ended and the first scoring phase occurs. There is a special place on the bottom part of the board, aiming to assist players with scoring. It’s the Shift clock and it comprises a total of 12 elements. After the first Shift ends, only the first four elements are scored, then, after the second one the first eight and after the third one (end of game) all 12 elements are scored. All elements reward only the top 2 players for majorities (first and second place) The first 4 elements reward points to the players having the highest total number of Order Spos of a specific level on their delivered orders. Spots of the deeper level of coal (black) are the most rewarding as they are also the most expensive to fulfill. The next 4 elements care for the orders way of transportation thus awarding points to players with the highest number of orders delivered via a certain Vehicle. Transporting coal with an Engine is the most profitable one. The final 4 elements award players according to the number of empty minecarts of each level in the players’ pit. Yellow minecarts give the least points whereas black ones give again the most.

After the third scoring phase occurs, players get a few more points for unused money and coal cubes and may lose some points if their pit is unbalanced (number of tiles on the left “light” side is different from number on the right “dark” side. These in general were the rules of the game. Now let’s see how it scores in our usual categories:

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Components:

The game board as well as the tunnel tiles and the pits are made of sturdy cardboard with nice graphic design and in such hues as brown, yellow and black. The pit is nicely depicting the various levels of the tunnels and extra information about end game scoring so that players don’t have to look up the manual for that. Workers and coal are made of wood. Workers are cylindrical in the colour of each player and coal comes in the form of cubes in the colours of the tunnel levels. It would be nice if it looked more like coal, maybe have a particular shape instead of the boring cubes that we come across so many euros. Order cards are of thick paper, and probably need sleeving due to shuffling. Money in the game reminds me much of classic board games I used to play as a kid, particularly Monopoly, but nothing’s wrong with that. A little trip down memory lane is more than welcomed. The shift hand which is used to designate what elements are going to be scored each scoring phase, maybe should be able to be attached to the board, instead of just floating on top of it. All in all the components of “Coal Baron” are satisfying. 7/10

Gameplay:

I am a fan of euro games but at times it seems that they are kind of repeating themselves. There are so many euros out there that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for designers to create something original and provoking. “Coal Baron” seems to have that little twist that gamers need in order to embrace it and give it a special place in their hearts. Originality comes from depiction of the pit and the way coal is transported to the surface. The idea of an elevator that transports coal is pretty smart and beautifully executed. The way the worker placement mechanic is executed is also a plus to gameplay as it works a little different than most games, in which usually players compete for each place on the board but only one gets to take advantage of each space. In Coal Baron it is possible to place workers where other players have already assigned theirs, however you must assign more workers than those already there. This mechanic enhances the strategic element of the game. Players have to constantly think of how to make most of their workers, by assigning as few of them as possible to each space. Careful observation of what other players do can help prioritize actions e.g if you see that players don’t have open orders with an engine type of transportation but you do, you may delay putting a worker there and prefer a space that you think will interest many players, such as a big money space. The heart of the game is really taking the best placement decisions for your workers having in mind the scoring process and what can award the most victory points. There is no interaction between players, which seems realistic for such a business. However just for the fun of it, I always appreciate even a glimpse of interaction and I’m sure that if properly thought designers could find a way to integrate it with the theme. 8/10

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Learning Curve:

This game is a traditional euro with straightforward rules. Casual players may need some extra time to fully understand the tiny details and grasp the strategy element whereas more regular gamers will be able to jump into the game easier. Thumbs up to the creators of the 8-page manual which is very rich with pictures and examples so that everything is clearly explained and no questions arise regarding the rules. After playing the game once, everybody will have understood what’s going on and probably won’t have to go through them again. 7/10

Theme:

A serious attempt has been made to integrate the game’s theme into its presentation and mechanics. First of all, the board resembles the appearance of a town, with several places to visit. We can see the Bank where you can get money, the Canteen where workers go to rest after their duties are done, some kind of Market building where you can get new orders and an area where all vehicles are waiting to provide delivery services. Those are pretty good implemented on the board. But then there is also the minecarts factory and the mining area which are a bit confusing. In reality a minecarts factory wouldn’t exist. There would be just a mine where mining takes place and then coal is transferred to the surface. Due to the mechanics of the game it seems that the mining and the transportation process have to be separated but it’s a bit confusing to see it on the board in different locations. Moreover you wouldn’t buy minecarts to produce coal but just dig. This is a little glitch of the theme adaptation for which we get compensated by the brilliant idea of the elevator in the pit. It adds so much to the theme that it’s easy to forget about any other minor theme glitches. 8/10

Replayability:

Did I want to play “Coal Baron” again after playing the first game? And will I want to play it often after a while? I definitely wanted to play again as soon as the first game finished. The game seems to have enough strategy to make you want to try different approaches to your play style and see how it turns out. As for if it will stand the test of time, I think that it has the originality to stand a bit from the crowd among the huge number of euro games that have been published the last couple of years. The game’s duration is about 60-90 minutes which categorizes it to the medium weight games that can often earn a place on a gamer’s table. 7/10

Fun:

Let’s admit it. Euro games are usually not much fun. Their main goal is to make you think of the best strategy to win, setting a bit aside the element of entertainment. Coal Baron is not an exception to that, and can be positioned in the middle of the fun scale compared other euros. Competition between players is not so high like other worker placement games due to the fact that many players can occupy a single space one at a time and the lack of interaction between players always takes some fun away. 6/10

Pros:

  • Original theme
  • What else? The Pit Elevator! Simply loved it.
  • Solid, balanced gameplay

Cons:

  • no player interaction
  • minor theme glitches

Recommended for: strategy gamers

According to our scoring system, scoring categories have different weights. Components have 15% weight, Gameplay 35%, Learning curve 5%, Theme 5%, Replayability 25%, Fun 15%. According to this system and the above scoring in each category, overall weighted scoring of the game is:

Overall: 7.25

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