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Subject: Coal is the goal! - Haspelknecht Review by meepleonboard rss

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This review is available, with pictures, at
Many thanks to Games Quest for kindly providing a review copy of Haspelknecht.

Let’s be honest here – who hasn’t at some point desperately wanted to live out their secret desire to reenact the early days of sixteenth century coal mining in the Ruhr Valley, preferably in board game form? I know, I know, talk about jumping on bandwagons! Agricola started it all off (probably) with medieval subsistence farming and now they are all piling in to transport us from our technologically cossetted lives to some utopian ideal of grinding servitude and borderline starvation. Well, like London buses, you wait years for a board game about mining in the Ruhr to turn up and then three come along at once for Haspelknecht is part of designer Thomas Spitzer’s coal trilogy, so anybody who loves their ore extraction is bound to…erm…dig it.

I usually calibrate my initial impressions of a game’s components by the gap between what I expect to find and what actually turns out to be inside the box. Haspelknecht scored several plus points when I discovered that its hex tiles are not only generously proportioned, significantly bigger that the fiddly ones in The Colonists (reviewed here), for example, but also just a couple of hair’s widths thicker than they need to be. The advantage of this is that it immediately makes Haspelknecht feel like a quality production, and a reviewer or player is going to take that goodwill onwards into their first few runs through the rules.

In fact, pretty much everything in Haspelknecht speaks of a quality-led approach to this product. There is a goodly selection of cardboard niceness in the rectangular box, the usual selection of player boards, tokens, hexes and so on, all satisfyingly well made, as well as a colourful and well explained rule book and plastic baggies. The colours are also bold and strong, leaning towards the darker hues, which I find hints ever so slightly at hard work and oppression, a good choice.

All those tokens, hexes and boards hint that we might be looking at a solid Euro game here, and such proves to be the case, for in Haspelknecht players will attempt to forge a decent economy through the employment of various different types of workers and the extraction and sale of coal from their mines, all while trying to dodge the vicissitudes of the weather and the financial demands of their noble leaseholders.

At first glance the icon-rich player boards look complicated enough to place Haspelknecht into the heavy category, but a read of the rules corrects that impression, and it becomes clear that the graphic design on tiles and boards is designed to make something that could have been unnecessarily complicated into a thematic pleasure. For example, a player’s mine will gather water in winter and autumn, and the water tokens are placed at the entrance illustrated on the board, where there is a graphical representation of how many tokens are allowed to stack up before the mine is considered flooded. Nicer still, players need to gather wood to prop up the mine shafts if they are going to extract the deeper coal, and these tokens are placed upright on the board to represent supports. This actually gave me the feeling of building something, of constructing a mine as the game progressed, and I found it a real positive.

The player board is but one element of Haspelknecht, however, for while it incorporates many of the standard elements of modern Euro games there are a couple of intriguing tweaks that set this game apart from the crowd and give it an extra layer of individuality. Advancements are acquired according to a rudimentary tech tree, for example, that is constructed out of those lovely thick hexes, and players need to plan their moves across this carefully, as once you have entered this board at the top moves to adjacent hexes are free, but picking something else will prove to be more costly. Developing an advancement first allows a player the possibility of gaining a reward from the others in the game if they also later want to use that item. This is a clever piece of design that reinforces the theme in a very gentle manner – you cannot simply jump to a significantly more advanced technology, but if somebody else has developed it then you can pay them for their knowledge. It is subtle and clever stuff.

The yearly progress of the game, as signified by the roundel on the central board, provides Haspelknecht with its gentle rhythm, the summer providing the chance to obtain more food, while storage and rent payments need to be made in the winter. Autumn and spring bring with them the changeable weather that forces players to ensure that their mines are clear of rainwater, and so the game pushes forwards across its three years in a gratifyingly thematic manner.

In terms of actions Haspelknecht also does something unusual. Rather than players taking turns and swapping the start player from year to year, instead they draw action discs from the resource boards, and the total value of these as indicated on the scoring board determines who will be the start player for the round. These yellow, brown and black discs will be used to activate the various workers in the game and thereby to take the actions such as clearing out the mine, excavating coal, or acquiring developments.

All these elements and boards would seem to make for a sprawling and disparate game, but Haspelknecht instead makes the most of all its constituent parts to provide a tight and integrated experience that, for the right players, can be an engrossing and enjoyable challenge, at odds with the rather dark but thematic palette of the game. At the end of the third year players score points for their tunnels, buildings, developments and coins, while incurring deductions for pit water and debts.

While Haspelknecht provides for a solid and meaty Euro experience with all the familiar elements intact but just enough innovation to maintain interest, there is a limitation in the game that is hard to ignore, and it involves the tech tree. Haspelknecht comes with only twenty development tiles in the box, and at its full player count of four all of those hexes are going to appear in every game. While they will, of course, appear in different places in the layout, and accepting the fact that the rule book offers variant layouts, there is no getting away from the fact that it is all going to become pretty familiar even after as few as five plays. This tech tree also represents the only real interaction between players in the game apart from the selection of tokens – apart from that it can all be a fairly solitary experience, even if it remains engrossing.

As it happens, an expansion for Haspelknecht has already been announced that includes twenty one more development tiles, and that will be mighty welcome for anybody who like this game but wants it to present a different challenge each time. Oddly this means that the base box of Haspelknecht, while most interactive with four players but with its greatest variability at two, is almost by definition at its best with three players, for it is at this point that certain tiles will be missing from each game but that competition for space still exerts some pressure.

Strangely for a game about coal mining, it is also possible to win a game of Haspelknecht without actually extracting any coal, thanks to the multiplicity of ways of gaining points elsewhere. If this kind of thematic wonkyness offends you then you might need to give Haspelknecht a wide berth, although you could always place yourself in the mental position of the evil venture capitalist overlord if that makes this curious oddity more bearable. Personally I do not find it an issue and like the way that players can find their own route through the different scoring opportunities.

Haspelknecht is yet another addition to what some might considered an overly crowded niche of board gaming, the mid to heavy Euro. For me the pinnacle remains Agricola for all sorts of reasons, and many other fine examples have come and gone from my collection over the years. Those that remain, whatever the theme, have to tick two important boxes – they need to do something different and they need to provide at least the promise of playability over many games. If whatever game about whatever topic fails in either of these requirements then it pretty quickly finds its way out of my collection.

Let’s be clear, Haspelknecht comes up short in terms of replayability simply because of the limited number of development hexes in the box, but it makes up for this at least a little simply because there are so many other options available in the game itself and, counterintuitively for a game about sixteenth century coal mining, they are all interesting. The colour and thematic integration of the game also feel just right.

As to whether Haspelknecht does something different, well, the answer is yes. While many of the individual elements that go to make up the game may have been seen before, their combination and execution make Haspelknecht feel different from your usual worker placement/action selection game, and that is no mean feat in such a crowded market.

Put aside that thematic wrinkle about being able to win without actually mining any coal and what you get with Haspelknecht is a solid, well-designed mid-to-heavy Euro with great components and a significant challenge. Whatever you might feel about the theme, if you have the kind of group that likes to play games such as the Rosenberg big boxes then it is well worth giving Haspelknecht a try. It is less tight with two and less variable with four, but it still works at those player counts, even if the experience is different.

I give Haspelknecht 8 out of 10 in the fervent hope that the forthcoming expansion will give it that extra level of variability that should have been in the original box – if that comes up to the mark then I expect my rating for this game to increase slightly. As it is, though, gamers who like the kind of challenge that something like Agricola offers should put aside any reservations about the theme of Haspelknecht and consider trying it. While it is not an all time classic it is still a more engrossing and involving experience than a mining game like Magnum Sal, and it actually made me go off and research its subject a little more, never a bad sign. Even on its own it is a solid and well designed game whose constituent parts somehow come together to work in harmony in an impressive way. In fact, it’s Ruhr-ly good!
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Neil Christiansen
United States
Mount Pleasant
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The expansion helps with replayability.
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