I’m getting the Black Lung, Pop: A Review of Coal Baron

Welcome to Essen! Strap on your boots, light up your head lantern, pick up your shovel and brandish your pick because in Coal Baron from R&R Games you are a coal magnate and you will do none of those things…but you will delegate those tasks with flourish. You are sending miners deep underground to uncover, acquire and then ship out coal in order to fulfill lucrative contracts. But what about the Black Lung you say? Pish Posh! Real coal miners love the Black Lung. They eat coal for breakfast and poop out diamonds! So get to work securing contracts, finding coal and getting orders fulfilled faster than those other inferior coal companies. I’m a’looking at you, Betsy! I will BURY YOU in my shaft…er..jeez…I’m sorry, that totally didn’t sound right. just forget I said anything.

Basics:

  • Designer: Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling
  • Publisher: R&R Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: 60-75 minutes
  • Category: Black Lung, Prison Riots, Alien Autopsies, Natural Disasters…er…mining
  • Mechanic: Worker Placement

How do I play?

The goal of Coal Baron is simple. Fulfill orders of coal in order to gain points. Each order completed will score you immediate points and at the end of each of three shifts players will be scored on an increasing scale of stacked elements (most shipped coal, most used transportation, largest mine levels). This makes which contracts your choose important. Workers will be placed each shift, money borrowed, tiles purchased, coal mined and moved…deliveries made…beers drank…

Set-up: Each player gets 13-18 hexagonal workers (depending on the number of players), some cash and an individual player board (the Pit) with a movable elevator shaft and one cube of each quality of coal placed on the appropriate level. Tunnel tiles are placed on the main board and players draft for 7-13 initial order cards set out randomly at the beginning. Leftover order cards are placed on the new order spaces of the board. Let the carnage begin!

Actions: The players have five actions to choose from:

shaft
Elevator go up! Elevator come down! [source]
  • take loans,
  • buy tiles (in order to find coal),
  • move the coal (as per allotted action points),
  • transport/sell coal (by different vehicles),
  • pick up coal orders (they are really just coal orders).

The central board is divided into areas to place workers to do the above actions. You have 8 spaces to purchase tunnel tiles with various quality and quantity of coal; 4 spaces to take actions points to extract and move coal through, up and out of the pit; 5 spaces to take money out of the bank (plus the only free open-to-all space to get 1 buck); 4 spaces for delivery — by cart, horse & buggy, truck and train; 4 spaces to get new orders — each order card is  a wee little clip board with the amount and type of coal desired and the preferred method of delivery plus the points rewarded. You will be placing worker[s] to take the money to purchase the tiles to find the coal to complete the delivery to fulfill the order to score the points to pick up new orders and begin again.

Coal is “discovered” and mined from each players’ personal board [the pit] which is equipped with an elevator shaft, four subterranean levels of quality going from the surface down into the dark, and a spot to temporarily store your mined coal. On one side there are lighted tunnels and the other side has dark tunnels. Each of the tunnel tiles purchased will associate with a level (yellow, brown, grey, black) and with a side (lighted or dark).

Placing Workers: The mechanism in Coal Baron for placing and removing your workers is slightly different than some other standards of worker-placement (Stone Age, Lords of Waterdeep). On a player’s turn they place one worker on the board to complete an action. If no other worker is present it is just that simple. However, if the area is already taken, this doesn’t prevent a person from placing a worker. Oh no! Instead, if a worker[s] is present in the desired area then the player can displace the other worker[s] (even their own) by placing one additional worker more than is present. The displaced worker heads to the bar to drown their sorrow is sweet, sweet German beer.

This is Sven. Sven won Coal Baron forever.
This is Sven. Sven won Coal Baron forever.

For example, Sven places 1 worker on an empty slot to transport coal via buggy. Wonderful! Sven’s friend Ken can also choose to use the buggy slot by placing 2 workers in order to take the action (Ken’s friend Sven is now sent to the cantina) . If Sven and Ken’s friend Ben also wants to jump on the buggy bandwagon then it would cost him 3 workers! Then Sven and Ben’s friend Ken is sent to the cantina, leaving the buggy all to Ben…poor lonely, lonely Ben…

The idea here is that you have a limited amount of workers (13-18) and you are forced to spend more workers in order to complete tasks. You’d think this would lead to some amount of tension in the game but it really doesn’t unless you are playing Sven. Rather the real-estate on the board isn’t worth more because the space is limited (as in Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep), because the relative costs to take the action are still so low. Oh DEAR! I must spend two miners as opposed to the preferred one! My, what a conundrum! Whatever will I do?

Also, when a worker is displaced, they could possibly go back into the player’s pool as in Euphoria or perhaps you could hold on to a spot for a while and block it from other players as in The Manhattan Project…but no…when a worker is displaced it goes to the bar <ahem> the cantina for a celebratory drink until the end of shift. Not only is the designer’s slip showing in that this is classically a German thing to do (drinking on shift) but also pretty much relegates all player interaction to forcing a player to potentially spend a couple of extra workers to do something…which really isn’t much interaction at all. There were a few moments where I wanted desperately to be “displaced” to the “cantina” myself.

The Pit!
The Pit! [source]

Shift Clock and Scoring: As soon as all players have placed all their workers, the shift ends and scoring takes place. The Shift Clock at the bottom of the board will dictate what is being scored for the specific shift (1st, 2nd, 3rd). The Shift Clock has 12 elements that are stacked with every shift: During the first shift, points are scored for the highest numbers of coal sold of each type. During the second shift you score for the above plus the most coal shipped with a specific transport (cart, buggy, truck and train). The third and final shift is scored for all the above plus the players with the most empty minecarts in each level. End of game scoring includes points for money and left over coal plus penalties for incomplete orders and “unbalanced” mine shafts (the number of lighted tiles should equal the number of dark tiles).

How do I win?

You fulfill orders, keep your shaft balanced and keep an eye on the shift clock.

What did you think?

Coal Baron Board
Coal Baron Board [source]

Components: (Interesting) For the most part, Coal Baron is pretty standard fare as far as components go — paper money (grr..just grr), cubes and little hexagonal workers didn’t really wow anyone. However, that mine shaft (#datshaft) with the ascending/descending elevator was pretty darned cool and it added a nice tactile element to an otherwise dull experience. It is refreshing to have some movement involved when the action points could easily be counted out. Shift Clock was interesting too…it would be more interesting if you could vary the scoring elements though.

Game-play: (Smooth) Just like the coal mined from Essen, the game-play was smooth and dull. You could place workers almost without thought and except for the end of the shift (when worker supplies were getting tight) rarely was your initial plan for placement not possible. Translation is that the game-play was boring without any player interaction. Luckily, the game moves fast but with each shift practically the same as the last (with the exception of scoring) most players were not interested in going past the first shift of play. Out of the three groups I played Coal Baron with eight different players, everyone was bored after the first shift…all ages, all levels of experience, everyone.

Bottom Line: Worker placement doesn’t get any simpler than this…I mean, really…it can’t. The mechanics are polished, simple and straightforward to a fault. The game transitions seamlessly from player to player and shift to shift but suffers from the death knell of every game of all time “Is this it?” Coal Baron is dull. Over the course of three shift, players barely interact with each other and paramount to a decent worker placement mechanism is the passive aggressive glory that comes with taking a space before someone else. The interaction should be subtle, defined and just painful enough to elicit a groan but not enough to render a turn useless. However, in Coal Baron, the interaction is not existent and it shows.

Would you rather?

Would you rather play Coal Baron or Stone Age? Despite both being very simple to teach for beginnings, Coal Baron does not come close to usurping Stone Age as my preferred gateway into worker placement games. While Stone Age is colorful and thematic with workers being fed and harvesting resources to build huts, Coal Baron is decidedly lack-luster in comparison.

Would you rather play Coal Baron or suffer from the Black Lung? This game requires a good bout of the Black Lung or some union riots…Oh! Or some communist sympathizers, or maybe a cave-in or a couple of gas pockets…stuff needs to happen! Diamonds! They find diamonds!

Would you rather just not play this at all? No, for all my complaints, Coal Baron has some interesting and very smooth mechanics. It flows beautifully. It is gloriously simple. For this reason it plays fast and that is a massive benefit. If you want a worker placement in less than an hour, Coal Baron will bring it — it brings it in a plain, brown paper bag but brings it nonetheless. The shift clock scoring and the elevator shaft were neat — I liked them — and they provided for some strategy which will likely come to fruition since really, who is going to stop you? Other players? HA! The main problem is that the worker placement costs that increased with each use just didn’t produce enough tension and competition for the spots.

So, what would you use it for? As an introduction to worker placement for emerging gamers when I don’t have time for a full game but still want a semi-satisfying experience showing the mechanic. The full game is short enough but it also scales down to a play of a single shift or two while providing some closure to the game. So, if I don’t have the time for a two hour game of Stone Age with beginners, then a 45 minute shift of Coal Baron would be a satisficing experience with nice flow and a good decision space. It wouldn’t be ideal but it would be a good presentation of the mechanic.

Jeez…it seemed that you really disliked this game? Who would you recommend it for? This is still a good game for players who

  • Prefer little to no player interaction in their games.
  • Players who “mommy” rule anything.
  • Love smooth, polished game-play over narrative experience.
  • Love to optimize rather than engage.
  • Wants a fast, friendly and simple worker-placement in around an hour.

Closing Verse:

Colorful leaves fall
after ages come and go,
coal remains. Dull. Dark.

RWF_art (1)

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