Tuesday, December 24, 2013

DuckiCon Impressions - Coal Baron ( Game 6 of 6 )

The last game I played at DuckiCon was Coal Baron.
I had mistakenly thought that this was a train game of sorts ( I should try not to label games as train games just by how the cover looks ) and thus never bothered to give it a glance during my time at Essen.
We had 3 of us left by the time DuckiCon was coming to a close and decided that a quick short game was in order. Eric said that Coal Baron would be a quick yet somewhat satisfyingly good game, so we decided to jump right in.

Limited Edition Wooden Case

Coal Baron is a worker placement game where the earlier you go to an action space, the less you have to pay. That is basically its main mechanic. By cleverly positioning yourself on the board with your limited workers, you will try to purchase resources, obtain contracts, execute actions and get more money.
Its really quite the typical resource collection and contract fulfillment game. It does put a spin to things by changing up how you score points during each round and putting emphasis on how you collect resources as that will affect your end-game scoring bonuses.

Each player starts with the same number of workers and money to begin the game. The only way the game tries to offset going last is how you draft the contract cards at the beginning.
The game is played over 3 rounds and the player with the most points is the winner.

Each round, players will place their workers on the actions spaces in turn order. Once you are out of workers you must pass and the round ends when all players have passed. You will not be able to get any more or lose any workers throughout the duration of the game.
If an action space is empty, a player may only place 1 worker to take the space's benefit ( no overbidding to block others ). If the action space is already taken, the player must place one more worker than what is on the space if the player wants to take the benefit. So the earlier you go, the lesser workers you must spend. Once you replace the space that another player has taken, that player's workers go to a holding area and will be returned only on the next round. So the total amount of workers on a space does not accumulate, it replaces instead.

This rule applies to all the action spaces on the board except one where you may simply place one worker to receive one dollar. A very measly option but an option nonetheless especially when the board does not allow for any space of one worker.
So players will keep doing this in turn order to obtain the benefits they think will help them to victory.

What are the benefits available on the board ?
Well, there are mainly 5 areas on the board that will give you different benefits. Each area has multiple smaller spaces which allow for options in the choice of benefits, but the type of benefit on offer is the same.

The biggest area is where players may buy trains to add to their mine. These trains come in 4 colors and have a fixed cost to purchase each train depicted on a tile. The colors of the train matters as that is the type of resource that will appear in your mine for you to mine out and fulfill your corresponding contracts.
Once purchased, the trains will go into your mine with the resource it produces. The tile will also stipulate whether the tile is to be placed on the left column or the right column of your mine. This will only matter for end game penalty purposes.

The next area is the money area. Quite simply, the players will place their workers to get more money.

There is an area where players will be able to get new contracts. This is the only way to get more contracts than just what you begin with.

The most crucial area is the action point area. This area determines how many action points you get to spend in your mine. Its with these action points that you can mine the resources and subsequently attach them to any contract card of your choosing in your possession. This is the only way to mine your resources and prepare them for shipment.

And the last area is the shipping area.
Players will be able to ship contracts of the same transportation type as long as the contracts are all fulfilled.

So far so good, all your typical resource collection spaces and contract shipment spaces.
The thing that makes Coal Baron interesting is how points are scored each round.
The only time you score in-game is when you ship out fulfilled contracts. The contract will give you its immediate shipping points and goes into your hand of shipped cards.
The rest of the points are scored at the end of each round.

After round 1, the only thing that is scored is how often you have shipped a particular type of good. The player who shipped the most and second most of each type are rewarded points accordingly. So there are 4 opportunities to get points ( 1 per color of resource ). These are actually quite meager points as its only at the end of round 1.
After round 2, players will again score points per how often they have shipped a particular good. But now they will also score per transportation type of contract that they have fulfilled. ( Each contract is broken down into 3 parts: in-game points / transportation type / number and color of resources required ). So you once again get 4 opportunities to score points based on the 4 types of transport and this bonus gives you nearly twice as much as the particular type of good scoring bonus. 
After round 3, you will again score for the previous 2 conditions, and you will add in scoring for whoever has the most empty trains of each color. Trains with resources still on them will not count into the scoring criteria. This is the one with the most points awarded and is usually what the players try to build up to.

After all those are tallied, the game would have been over and players will convert unused cash and cubes into points and lose points for contracts that weren't shipped and for having an "unbalanced" mine. Players who have more tiles on either column than the opposite column ( more tiles on right side than left, etc ) will lose 2 points per tile more that they have.

Once all is said and done, the player with the most points is the winner.

Coal Baron really surprised me in a good way. It is indeed a fast game ( we played a 3 player game in about an hour - 2 newbies ) and yet it still provokes you to much thought on what and where you may want to commit yourself in the game.
The worker placement aspect is seldom used and very nicely implemented in the game. You will of course always want things on the cheap, but sometimes due to timing, you will want to spend more now and forgo other cheaper spaces so that it won't get any more expensive on a later turn. A few wasted workers here and there and you will see the writing on the wall soon enough.
The decision on what tiles to buy also adds another layer of depth to the game.
You no longer just think about buying trains to get the resources to fulfill your contract, you also want to think of 2 important factors when you buy those trains - am I closer to getting the round 3 bonus of most empty trains of that color ? and will that imbalance my mine beyond what I can control before the game ends ?
Its these two elements that not only increases player interaction, but it also makes the game less straightforward than it looks.

Player Board with Trains on both sides and the very cool lift in the middle

Everything is pretty tight in Coal Baron. I never had a scenario where I felt that I had an extra worker to do anything I want. It always felt like I needed just one more worker for my plans to work. That is always a good sign in a game. The different elements in the game are interconnected seamlessly and every action is an important process in your coal mining business. You can't do one without the other and so the question is that of how early and how much do you want to spend to do a particular action. Sometimes instead of committing more workers to obtain 10 action points, you may want to spend less workers by taking the 6 action points space twice. But that's just you pushing your luck thinking that it's cost wouldn't have increased by the time it gets back to your turn.

It isn't all rosy in the mining business of course.
Coal Baron does suffer from a runaway leader possibility. As the scoring per round is based on a majority set collection, someone who has burst into a big lead for a particular type of scoring bonus may just run away if uncontested and if everyone else has decided to fight over the other bonuses instead. When you are losing in Coal Baron, you will know once half the game has passed.
Coal Baron also has the possibility of outstaying its welcome after perhaps less than a dozen plays. It really lacks in terms of variability in a game. The only thing that changes are the order of how the cards and tiles come out. Everything pretty much stays the same. So I can foresee that after a few plays, the only challenge you will have is how the players change the cost of each action space for you and how it may disrupt your plans. But that's about it, you will be doing more or less the same thing each time. Random elements like changing the cost of the trains or the spaces on the board would have extended its shelf life considerably but that's a bit late now.
Lastly, I think the gameplay could have been improved if they had allow players to overbid and block out other players. It would have made the game less mechanical and allow the players to have a control over majority for scoring as you can block others from gaining on you or from running away.

Despite that, I think Coal Baron is still a decidedly good game.
It scales well between 3 and 4 players ( the only way I have played the game so far ).  
Its a light euro that incorporates its theme pretty well and can be taught relatively quickly and easily.
And its suitable for people who love fast playing games that provide player interaction and some tough decisions.


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