Coal Baron is a unique take on worker placement from R&R games. Most people in the hobby know the name Wolfgang Kramer. Whether you’ve played Princes of Florence, Tikal, Torres, El Grande, or any number of other games, you know Kramer has a unique voice in game design.
With Coal Baron, Kramer takes on the worker placement mechanic with some new twists. Thematically, Coal Baron pits players against one another as competing mining companies, striving to fulfill the needs of a demanding coal economy.
One of the first things I noticed was the novelty of the player board. Each board is a mine shaft with five levels. The surface level, where coal is unloaded, and four mining levels, each providing a different color of coal. The center of the board features a movable mine elevator which is activated by a section of the main board that gives players a certain number of action points for hauling new coal to the surface and sending it to order cards. Having an action point allowance system nestled into a worker placement game was a really fun surprise in this design.
Another aspect of the player board worth mention is the coal shafts themselves. On one side, the tunnel images have hanging lamps, and on the other side they do not. This shows the player on which side of the board new tunnel tiles must be placed. This placement is important because at the end of the game there is a penalty of -2 points per tile for having unequal sides e.g. if a player has 3 tiles with lamps and 5 without at the end of the game, that player would lose 4 points.
The next thing that struck me was the way that workers were used. Each player starts with a large number of workers. The reason for this is that no space on the board is off-limits. If a player wants to use an action space that has already been taken, the player simply places one more worker than is already present to make use of the space. It can happen over and over, and part of the tension of the game is in deciding whether the need for a space is worth the number of workers it may cost players.
On the board, there are spaces to get new mine carts, take mine actions, get money, get new order cards, and deliver orders. One interesting thing about the options is that the new mine cart and new order card sections of the board offer a space that allows the player to look at the top 5 tiles or cards in the replenishment stack rather than take one of the face up orders on the board. They can then place the 4 cards/tiles they didn’t choose on the top or bottom of the stack in the order they wish.
The final unique aspect of the game is in the scoring. The game lasts three rounds, and in each round there is an ever-growing number of elements scored at the end. The elements scored in round one are also scored in rounds two and three. Likewise, the elements added in round two also score in the third and final round.
Overall, Coal Baron is unique enough to have its own place in the world of light-medium euros. If that’s your wheelhouse, I highly recommend it.