Giant Fire Breathing Robot
Set in the Ruhr Valley in the very early days of coal mining, the theme is excessively German. But don’t let that fool you. While it is certainly well-ensconced in the euro category of games, Haspelknecht provides an interesting experience that provides some novel concepts.
The Basics. Each player starts with a board full of coal. The top of the board features the Pinge. This is the area where coal is so near the surface that any yokel with a shovel can go dig some. After that is cleared out, the player will have to transfer to a mine to gather the rest of the coal.
Played over three game years, each features Spring, Summer, and Autumn action phases along with a Winter scoring phase. Six action discs in three colors are set out in depots – one depot per player. On their turn, a player can grab all of the discs of one color from any depot. After all players have grabbed, then any player with less than five discs can grab from a second depot and take another color (up until they have five total).
Those discs, then, are used to activate your workers. In general, gold discs get you food, brown discs bestow wood, and black discs are used for excavating coal and eliminating any accumulated pit water. Because on each action phase you’ll have at most two colors, you won’t be able to take all the actions you need.
Players also start with a farmer and a farmhand, as well as a coal digger. The discs can be used on the farmer or farmhand for any action. The coal digger is more specialized and needs particular resources. When the Pinge is empy, he is replaced by a coal miner and a haspelknecht.
The farmer can also use discs to build developments. Developments are a semi-randomized tech tree that, when built, give the player ongoing powers or end-game points. Some of them also synergize well with what you’re excavating and it can be critical to get the right developments.
At the end of each year, coal is scored and rents are paid. The nobility charges rent for using the land and getting that rent can be difficult. Not paying it, though, will result in negative points. After the end of the third year, there is a final scoring and the winner declared.
The Feel. Haspelknecht feels like a medium/heavy euro. There are a lot of moving parts and a nice tension between strategy and tactics. You definitely want a long-term strategy that will focus on getting big scores. But on any given turn, you’ll have to fight with your opponents for the right action discs. And sometimes they’ll take the ones you need. So it’s important to have alternate goals so you can make the best use of your turn.
One of the most surprising aspects of the game is its playtime. Despite being a fairly meaty game, it races by with a playtime of about 75 to 90 minutes. Less depending on player count and experience. To me, this is a wonderful advantage. I get a full, satisfying experience in a short time.
But, while we’re on the subject of time, you do not have time to do everything you want. In this, Haspelknecht is reminiscent of Agricola. As the years go by, the nobility want coins instead of food. And you can’t just get coins. Discs will get you food. But only developments can get you coins. And most of them are pretty hard to come by. This means you need a coordinated effort if you want to ensure payment and avoid negative points.
But, those negative points aren’t as harsh as you might first think. Unlike some other games that really punish you, the -2 points you get are significant, but not game changing. You’ll often find yourself making the calculation of whether a particular action will get you more points than you’ll lose from failing to pay the nobility. And, most players are likely to have at least a couple of debts.
The action disc selection is also really interesting. You aren’t so much choosing an action as you are selecting a currency. Then, with that currency, you can power up your workers to perform different tasks. Also important is the fact that you don’t get to keep any discs from turn to turn. They are all use-em-or-lose-em. This makes your selection all the more critical. You can’t save up from turn to turn, so each one has to be as effective as possible.
With all of the tension in the game, and the organic growth as you move from Pinge to coal mine, Haspelknecht is very engaging. The turns fly by. Initially, it might feel like you have enough time to do what you want. But as the game progresses, you realize that simply isn’t true. It’s another great way of injecting tension into the title and making the experience meaningful.
Components: 4 of 5. Haspelknecht has good quality components. Painted wood or thick chits are the order of the day. Plus, the wooden bits are mostly cut to resemble water droplets or wheat bales, which is a nice break from mere cubes.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5. Haspelknecht shines in this department. The depots make the options available to all players equally. So it’s really about managing turn order and making sure you get the first pick when your turn comes. Plus, the game even gives you a sneak preview of some of what is going to enter the depot the next turn. It’s a solid balance that mixes up the gameplay and has you reacting to unexpected events, without feeling unfair or too random.
Mechanics: 4 of 5. The game has a solid mechanical foundation. While many of the ideas you’ll see aren’t unique, they combine into an interesting and creative title. Plus, I love that the development tech tree is not only semi-randomized, but you can build it out in innumerable combinations. As you do, you can approach the game with different strategies that might not otherwise be effective.
Replayability: 3.5 of 5. Haspelknecht is an easy one to take off the shelf. And this is in part because of the brief play time. It’s not a multi-hour slog that will challenge your logistical abilities. It fits snugly into game night. Plus, the randomized developments and resource distributions keep you thinking of new strategies within the same framework.
Spite: 1 of 5. Spite is mostly absent. There are no “take that” cards or ways to attack the other players. Still, the competition for resource tokens can be brutal. And particularly thin-skinned players might be insulted if the particular tokens they want are purposely taken by someone else.
Overall: 4 of 5. Haspelknecht is great fun. Each time I’ve introduced the game, I got skeptical looks about the theme. I get it. But everyone has been a believer after playing. Tight turns and tough decisions, that’s the Haspelknecht way. If you’re a fan of the euro genre, then this is one you should definitely check out.
(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)
OOK! OOK! OOK!
Love the theme and the mechanics are very driven by theme.