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Subject: All That Glitters is not Gold: An Assessment of Coal Baron rss

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Michael Cheong
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Coal Baron (‘Gluck Auf’ in the German original) was one of the fresh offerings from Essen 2013. This review is based on a four-player game where all of us had no prior experience with Coal Baron apart from the rulebook that was circulated beforehand by the owner of the game. Rather than providing a blow-by-blow account of our session, I want to highlight the standout features of the game if you’re thinking about picking up the game for yourself.

Overview
In Coal Baron, each player takes charge of a coal mining company in Essen, whose objective is to secure and fulfil as many lucrative Orders as they can before the end of the day. Fulfilling Orders isn’t quite as simple as it sounds! Players must procure the correct type of coal, bring it to the surface and eventually ship it using the right mode of transport. All of these contribute to each player’s victory point (VP) total, which determines the winner at the end of the game.

Mechanics
Most of the gameplay mechanics in Coal Baron will be familiar to Euro-gamers, but vary enough to keep the game feeling fresh. There is a central board where players place workers to determine their action for that turn. Any resource that players wish to procure is obtained from the central board, including money (counted in German ‘marks’), coal, new orders and work-steps (see paragraph in this section on the coal-lift). To deliver completed Orders, players must also commit a worker to the appropriate mode of transport on the central board.

What I liked about the worker-placement system in Coal Baron is that you can ‘evict’ workers from filled slots. Say Player A places 1 worker on the empty slot to collect 10 marks. This does not prevent other players from choosing that same slot later. Player B can choose the same slot by playing 1 more worker (i.e. 2 workers) to claim it as his own. If Player C also wishes to claim the same slot after Player B has done so, he now has to pay 3 workers (existing 2 workers + 1). Therefore, players cannot technically obstruct slots on the board; they can only increase the cost (in workers) for the next player who wishes to claim it. Since players only have a limited number of workers (13 in my 4-player game), the decision to evict isn’t ever an easy one!

However, the most prominent gameplay mechanic in Coal Baron is the coal-lift. Each player is given a small board representing their coal mine, which has a lift shaft running through the five tiers of the mine: surface, yellow coal, brown coal, grey coal and black coal. To fulfil their Orders, players need to transport coal from the depths of their mines onto the surface. This is done by claiming ‘work-steps’ on the central board, which determine the number of movements the player can make using his coal-lift. It’s difficult to explain the finer points of how the coal-lift works without getting too much into the technicalities of the game, but I must say that I quite enjoyed this gameplay mechanic as a reasonably novel concept that was in keeping with the theme of the game.

Gameplay
The game is played over three shifts. A shift ends when all players have completely exhausted their worker supply. End-of-shift scoring (see ‘Scoring’ below) is done before players collect back their workers and start on a new shift. On paper, Coal Baron looked like it might take quite a while to finish, but our 4-player game couldn’t have taken much more than 90 minutes. More importantly, the game proceeded at a brisk pace in spite of the fact that we were all first-time (but relentlessly competitive) players. I suppose it’s the sort of game that appears more complex than it actually is once you start playing it.

‘Make sure you deliver!’ Those were the resounding words of advice from the game-owner right before we embarked on our own session. Sound advice indeed. When we were first confronted with the game, we were taken aback by the confounding number of variables that we had to keep tabs on: money, types of coal, ‘light’ and ‘dark’ coal tiles (see ‘Scoring’) and work-steps to operate the coal-lift. Yet, for all of the game’s ostensible complexity, it became clear that shrewd Order fulfilment was the route to victory. Not only did completed Orders provide immediate VPs, but their contents were also used in end-of-shift scoring.

Order cards have three main features: their VP value at the top, the type and quantity of coal required in the middle and the mode of transport required to fulfil the order at the bottom. There are four modes of transport found on the Order cards: wheelbarrow, horse-drawn cart, truck and locomotive. Once the correct amount of coal has been loaded onto the Order card, the player must then place a worker on the slot with the corresponding symbol on the central board on a later turn before the Order is considered ‘completed'.

The surprisingly quick pace of the game can be attributed to some excellent game design decisions. The ability to ‘evict’ workers in filled slots, as mentioned above, means that players cannot permanently obstruct another player’s progress. Players are also allowed to use two coal blocks of any colour as substitutes for another colour, which means that players are not severely hamstrung or forced to wait needlessly due to the lack of coal in the correct colour. Another point to note is that almost all information is open information in this game. The only information that players are allowed to hide from others are their completed Order cards. As such, there is hardly any need for second-guessing in Coal Baron.

Scoring
Order cards, once completed, give players the number of VPs stated at the top of the card. However, the most significant scoring is conducted at the end of each shift. VPs awarded to players with the highest and second-highest number of ‘x’, where ‘x’ is an in-game element found on the players’ completed Order cards or (in end-of-game scoring) in their mines.

In the first shift, VPs are awarded to players whose completed Orders reflect the highest quantity of each colour of coal. In the second shift, the variables used for scoring in the first shift are totalled and scored again, but further VPs are awarded to players whose completed Order cards made use of the same mode of transport the most number of times. In the third and final shift, , the variables used for scoring in the first and second shifts are totalled and scored again, but additional VPs are also awarded to players who have the greatest number of empty coal lorries in their mines, in addition to the scoring from the first and second shifts.

At the end of the third shift, four more factors are taken into account. Every 5 marks that a player has is converted into 1 VP. Every 3 coal cubes left in the player’s mine are also converted into 1 VP. Every unfulfilled order by a player subtracts 1 VP. Finally, and perhaps most confusingly, comes the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ coal tiles. When a player buys coal tiles to add to their mine, they are either ‘light’ (with lanterns) or ‘dark’ (without lanterns) and are added to corresponding side of the player’s personal mine board. At the end of the game, the total number of ‘light’ tiles on the left of the player’s board must equal the total number of ‘dark’ tiles on the right of the player’s board. For every tile in excess either way, the player loses 2 VPs.

Summary
Coal Baron was an enjoyable moderate-complexity Euro that seemed extremely confusing at first, but turned out to be quite easy to play in the end. As a fan of games like Power Grid and The Princes of Florence, I would say that Coal Baron is more or less on the same level of difficulty. Direct player conflict and competition is minimal (there are no auctioning mechanisms, for example), but the decisions made by your counterparts are significant enough to influence your gameplay.

I made two observations from my single playthrough which will probably need further games to verify. The first is that the game doesn’t really reward risk or ambition: a limited but well-executed plan is often more lucrative than an ambitious one only part fulfilled. Secondly, the game generously rewards early leaders: a decent lead in the first shift is not insurmountable, but it does require a lot more effort from the chasing pack than some other games would have. Of course, these are only provisional observations.

The only major bugbear I have with the game is that the theme loses a bit of gloss when it comes to scoring. For all the elegant mechanics that have been worked into the game, the scoring feels somewhat forced, overly complex and out of line with the theme. Nevertheless, it didn’t detract too much from an otherwise enjoyable gaming experience.

In short, I think Coal Baron could be a great game in my book and I’ve given it an 8/10 for now. Coal Baron would sit well with eurogamers who enjoy a reasonably convincing theme coupled with some fresh gameplay mechanics.
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Dustin Schwartz
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Pretty good write-up, thanks for the thoughts.

Your title implies a negative review; I think the phraseology you might be after is "all that is gold does not glitter".
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Curt Carpenter
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FreedomGunfire wrote:
I think the phraseology you might be after is "all that is gold does not glitter".

Both are used:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_that_glitters_is_not_gold
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_that_is_gold_does_not_glitt...
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Dustin Schwartz
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curtc wrote:
FreedomGunfire wrote:
I think the phraseology you might be after is "all that is gold does not glitter".

Both are used:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_that_glitters_is_not_gold
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_that_is_gold_does_not_glitt...


Yep, I know that both are in usage. The reason I brought it up is that it's misleading; the version utilized in the title of this review implies that the game "glitters" but is not "gold".

I believe that the OP meant to make a clever pun on coal as "black gold." But really, it's a minor quibble.
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Curt Carpenter
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FreedomGunfire wrote:
The reason I brought it up is that it's misleading; the version utilized in the title of this review implies that the game "glitters" but is not "gold".

I believe that the OP meant to make a clever pun on coal as "black gold." But really, it's a minor quibble.

I read it as: The game glitters (looks nice), but isn't that great (not gold).

Black gold is oil, not coal.
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Michael Cheong
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Apologies if the title was misleading. The fault is all mine. I guess I was digging too hard for something witty.
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Dustin Schwartz
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No worries; it's your review after all. Well-written, by the way. I'm quite interested in this game, and looking forward to it arriving stateside.
 
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Mark M
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Coal does not glitter, but this does - so I took it as a positive.
 
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Stven Carlberg
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Hard coal in fact is shiny enough to glint in the light.

I'm really enjoying Auf Glück (have to admit I like the German title better -- I don't really feel like a "baron" in the game) and have played it three times now. If two other people in my group didn't already own it, I would definitely get my own copy to be sure of a chance to play again.

My assessment of the complexity level, if I have to name another game for comparison purposes, would be that it's in the Cinque Terre league. The things you do seem simple and straightforward, yet there's enough planning and prioritizing going on to make it interesting working out your approach.
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Gabriel Kuriata
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I understand that there are three large scorings that require long-term planning here. Does it mean that the game is strategic like - Puerto Rico, Caylus or Feld's games, meaning that a player can focus on something, ignoring something else? You know - like small earnings vs big payoff etc.?
 
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Stven Carlberg
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No, it's not like that. The first of the three big scorings is for the most coal DELIVERED of each of the four colors. The third is for the most coal MINED of each of the four colors. You can't deliver coal without mining it first, so these two are closely connected.
 
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Nick Case
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curtc wrote:
FreedomGunfire wrote:
I think the phraseology you might be after is "all that is gold does not glitter".

Both are used:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_that_glitters_is_not_gold
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_that_is_gold_does_not_glitt...


From original source they are all 'wrong'. 'All that GLISTERS' is not gold' is from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

"All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold."
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Shane Larsen
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redeemedegg wrote:
Apologies if the title was misleading. The fault is all mine. I guess I was digging too hard for something witty.

There’s no reason to apologize here. I think the title is perfect because it could be interpreted as negative or positive. It’s intriguing.

Why do some think the title of the review should include a clarification of positivity or negativity?

Also, I appreciate how you point out the positive and the negative, leaving it up to the reader to decide if it would be right for each’s own

Thanks for your contribution! I really like Coal Baron. Right now, I’m wishing I hadn’t sold my copy.
 
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