Coal Baron [Preview] [Mini]

Base price: $XX.
2 – 4 players.
Play time: 60 – 75 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Check it out on Kickstarter!
Logged plays: 2

Full disclosure: A preview copy of Coal Baron was provided by C&C Publishing. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game. 

I did that thing I keep swearing I’ll never do, which is crowdfunding previews in January. December is, essentially, a non-entity month; too busy with family and holidays and travel and PAX Unplugged and end-of-work-year shenanigans. This means that I essentially end up doing all my review work for January and February in between Christmas and New Year’s, and oh, would you look at that? It’s happening right now? Shocking. Anyways, we’ve got a few games hitting the various crowdfunding sites in the next few months, so over the next few weeks I’ll have more to say about them. First up is a new version of 2013’s Coal Baron; let’s check that out!

In Coal Baron, players become industrialists in the early 1900s. Each with their own mines, they seek fame and fortune through … pretty unabashed worker exploitation. The game doesn’t really cover that last bit, so maybe you just run your mines much better than literally everyone else who did at that time. One can hope. But in order to fulfill the many orders you’ll need to make, you’ll be recruiting workers in town, making sure they’re prepared, and putting them to work doing everything from manufacturing minecarts to building tunnels deeper into the mine to picking up more money from the bank! It’s a business and you sit at the top of it, waxing your mustache or whatever. Will your workers lift you to wealth and prosperity?

Contents

Player Count Differences

All things being equal, the game tries to compensate for player count differences to the best of its ability. At higher player counts, however, I think the scores will be a bit generally lower. At low player counts, you have more workers and fewer people going after spaces you want, to some degree. The game, as I said, compensates for this a little bit by blocking off a few locations so that players can’t access them. However, the spots that it blocks off are all the lowest-value spaces, so a ton of value isn’t really lost, there. At higher player counts, those spots are unlocked, but you also have more players and fewer workers going after those spots, so your personal utility will be a bit reduced. It’s, again, compensated for a bit with the majority scoring between rounds; players can get second-place Victory Points for majorities, whereas they can’t do that in two-player games. This all adds up to a small amount of functional difference, though you’ll likely experience more blocking at higher player counts. I tend to prefer a bit less chaos in my longer games, so I’ll probably stick to two players, on this one.

Strategy

  • This game is a pretty tight one; efficiency is going to matter a lot over the course of the game. You don’t have nearly as many actions as you think you do. In an ideal world (two players, no conflict) you’re going to have eighteen workers over each of three rounds, or fifty-four actions total. Practically, I’d be surprised if you got more than forty. There will be conflict between you and your opponent and you need to plan ahead if you want to avoid wasting workers and getting stuck. A lot of it is keeping an eye out for helpful combos, like being able to submit a bunch of filled orders at once or placing a tunnel tile on a level that your pit cart is already on; things like that will prevent you having to spend additional workers on repeating actions.
  • Try to keep an eye on what your opponents are going for; you’re going to need to decide if you want to outpace them or avoid them. If you and your opponent(s) are collecting a lot of orders of the same type (either coal tokens required or transport type), you’re going to have to make a tough decision: do you want to try and beat them to what they’re going for, or do you want to try going a different route? It may be worth waiting until they’ve gotten what they need if they’ve already got a bit of a lead on you.
  • The spaces that let you sift through the order cards or the tunnel tiles can be pretty useful. This way you not only get to get something that might be better than what’s currently on the board, but you also get to see what tiles and cards are coming up in the near future. That can often allow you to plan ahead for future rounds, especially if you know which tunnel tiles are going to be available.
  • Money is a bit harder to come by; you might want to prioritize it. I was surprised by how consistently broke I was throughout the game. In one game, I managed to buy twelve tiles, but even then, that’s not a ton of money. You can’t rely on an income step or anything to really help you out, so manage your finances a bit if you want to be able to purchase things down the line. Being out of money is also a crummy place to be, just because then your opponents know exactly what you need and can pretty effectively block you. You don’t want to have to send your workers to the Bank (1 worker -> $1).
  • Make sure you’re counting your Mining Actions; you will need to know which spaces will let you get things done. Mining Actions are a tricky thing; you should always know exactly how many you need to get to the board state that you want. Surprises are non-optimal, here. Remember that it costs one to move the Pit Cage up or down to any point, and one Mining Action moves one coal token from anywhere to the Pit Cage (provided the Pit Cage is on the same level) or from the Pit Cage to anywhere on the same level. There’s a bit of counting that you should have done before you take any of the Mining Action spaces.
  • You absolutely want to cash out your orders before the end of the round; otherwise, you’ll miss out on pretty lucrative majority rewards. You get majority rewards for types of cubes delivered, types of transport used, and types of minecarts emptied, and they’re progressive. All Shift 1 Rewards score again in Shift 2, and both Shifts 1 and 2 score again for Shift 3. You can get a lot of points if you’re delivering orders quickly! Not to mention the points that you get from actually delivering the orders. These majority rewards are going to be a lot of what separates the winner from the losers, since you largely score points similarly otherwise.
  • Also do your best to keep track of where you’re placing your tunnel tiles; you don’t want to have an imbalance. Just try to stay balanced; if you’re taking a lot of lit tunnels, try to take some dark tunnels later in the game. Just be careful; again, if you show an imbalance, you run the risk of another player working to try and block you so that you get stuck with negative points. This does depend a lot on how aggressive your group tends to play, though.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • The game was a lot more approachable than I expected, which is very nice. I always worry about games in the 60 – 90 minute range, since they can range from Strategy to Complex without necessarily missing a beat. Usually, after a work day, I’m not always looking for particularly complex fare, though I would like to play something.
  • I really like how mining actions work! They challenge the player with a neat little efficiency problem, which is fun to solve. You need to be very thoughtful to make the most of your mining actions, otherwise you’ll get stuck in some intermediate state where you have three tokens still in the Pit Cage and you haven’t delivered on orders yet. Naturally, not ideal, but I think the challenge of it all is very fun.
  • It’s also very fun to move the pit cage up and down to do actions. That’s just a great component; it’s a little elevator that slides in the middle of a double-layered player board. I imagine if you’re too aggressive with it, the friction will eventually mess with the components, but it’s very pleasant and makes the whole elevator aspect of things more fun.
  • Once you get going, the game moves pretty quickly. The turns are pretty quick since there’s not much to do, to the point that we were doing the “do you mind if I take my turn while you’re finishing {MINING ACTIONS}?” or something similar. Just be careful with that; it’s easy to get some turns mixed up if you’re not careful. Either way, though, until we neared the end of the game, things moved at a good clip. Naturally, at the end when the final actions matter a lot, there’s a bit more thought happening, but that makes sense.
  • I appreciate worker placement games that are (mostly) non-blocking. One of the reasons I don’t always gravitate towards worker placement is that they tend to be fundamentally about blocking your opponents’ actions, which can feel a bit mean to me. I’m more of a multiplayer solitaire kind of guy; I don’t want to be mean if I can avoid it. This (and Wreck Raiders) are among games that I enjoyed because you aren’t totally blocking your opponent. Here, you can boot them out if you have enough workers (or even boot yourself out, which is nice). The one hazard of this is that if you don’t have enough workers to boot another player out (you need the current number of workers on the space +1), then yes, technically, you’ve been blocked. But that’s a bit less likely.
  • I also like the little boxes for holding the components. It’s a pleasant cardboard storage solution, which I appreciate as someone who has too many little plastic bags. You can even use them during the game, if you want.
  • I mean, the mustache guy has an incredible mustache, but he also looks like a cartoon railroad villain. He’s just very funny to look at.
  • The entire system of orders adds a nice pick-up-and-deliver mechanic to the game. I enjoy games that mash up two elements, and here you’ve got the worker placement and the pick-up-and-deliver gameplay coming together and meshing nicely. It’s a good fit.
  • The game nicely ramps up in complexity as you get more ways to score between rounds, which is interesting. I appreciate that the game draws you in with some easy scoring criteria to start, and then adds on more and more ways to get majority points later in the game. It’s even better because you have no real way of remembering who got what orders if there are enough of them, so you might genuinely be unsure as to whether or not you’re in the lead with some of the cards. This is a much easier thing to remember at two players, granted.

Mehs

  • They really went all-in on that mustache guy. I was looking at the old version’s pictures on BGG and this new version has this dude on the front of the box, on the backs of the player boards, on all of the money; it’s just a choice that someone made to go extremely hard on this guy, I suppose? Strikes me as a bit odd.
  • The cover art is a bit … odd. The lady on the front has some strange proportions. Not sure what was the choice being made, there. Edit: There’s new cover art which removes the lady entirely in favor of additional workers. That doesn’t seem … better.
  • The lanterns on the mine cart tiles can get a little hard to notice sometimes. It’s something that’s just worth checking when you buy tiles, to make sure you know which tiles are going on the light side and which are going on the dark side. The lanterns are illustrated into the tile background, so it’s somewhat possible to miss them. It would be nice if they were a bit offset somehow to make it clear, but, it happens.

Cons

  • A surprising number of rulebook typos; hoping that’ll get cleaned up before the release. This sort of thing happens, but it’s a bit disappointing to see since it’s kind of one of those things you expect will be done before sending it over to a reviewer. Thankfully, none of the typos meaningfully interfered with gameplay, but hopefully they’ll do another pass through before sending it to the printers.
  • Another one of those issues with the rulebook being the size of the box is that the layout can be a bit confusing; the rules flow from top to bottom (ish), but they tend to be all over the page. There are a few particular examples in the rulebook, but the Setup page has a few different issues, as it can’t always decide if it wants to go from left to right or top to bottom. There are some diagrams, which help, but a lot of arrows, as well. I wonder if a smaller rulebook with more pages might have been able to make it a bit more clear?
  • It’s been a while since I’ve seen a rulebook use “he” instead of “they” to refer to a generic player. Another thing worth fixing before the final printing; it’s more inclusive.

Overall: 7.5 / 10

Overall, I thought Coal Baron was a fun time. I think that it’s probably trending towards the upper edge of my personal taste for games that I could play without having to make an Event out of playing them; anything about two hours I have to actually plan around and take into consideration before I sit down and play. I think it’s a matter of stamina and cognitive preparation, but I’m not entirely sure. That’s my functional assumption. Either way, Coal Baron clocks in at a nice hour or so, and the game does a pretty good job leading you through the more complicated aspects. I like that Coal Baron doesn’t ramp up to full complexity until the third Shift; it starts by letting you see what’s going to become critical in later rounds (for the more planning-inclined), but even if you’re not on track for them right away, you’ve got some time to prepare. The challenge of games that concern themselves with efficiency to the degree that Coal Baron does is that, should you miss a beat, you can really get off of the cycle that the game wants you on, which makes some turns feel less than stellar. I love efficiency-focused games, though; they appeal to my personal pathologies, to some degree, and I like the feeling of perfectly landing an action that fulfills all the orders you’ve been keeping so that you can score big right as the round ends. For some folks, they’ll find the precision needed to make Coal Baron work best for them a bit frustrating; others will immediately take to it and get the multiple variable systems of the game working together in a perfect concert. It’s an interesting game, along those lines, and though they’ve definitely made some choices when it comes to the art, I think the game’s largely coming together nicely. I’ll be interested to see how the final version plays. If you’ve always fancied yourself an early 20th century industrialist, you enjoy solving efficiency puzzles, or you’re a big fan of worker placement, I’d recommend playing the new version of Coal Baron! You’ll likely find it interesting.


If you enjoyed this review and would like to support What’s Eric Playing? in the future, please check out my Patreon. Thanks for reading!

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