Haspelknecht: The Ruhr Valley is a modular expansion to the most exciting coal excavation game of the last few years. While I make that claim in slight jest, it’s surprising how many games there actually are that deal with the subject. In fact, Haspelknecht is part of a trilogy of coal mining games from the same designer. How much more heat can this expansion generate?
How it Plays
Haspelknecht: The Ruhr Valley requires a copy of Haspelknecht to play. Read our review of the base game here.
There are three distinct elements to the Ruhr Valley expansion that can be added to the base game experience in any combination you wish. The first module is simply thirteen new development tiles. You mix them with the base game’s tiles and randomly create a grid from the enlarged tile pool. Just as in the base game, they provide unique benefits to the players that manage to research them. There’s the Wicker Basket which awards you action discs to be used at the time of your choosing. The Thanksgiving tile awards you one food and then during the autumn phase allows you to give one food to another player in exchange for victory points.
The next module is a set of black development tiles which can be added to the bottom of the development tile grid. These work in much the same way as the regular development tiles except for two key differences. First, they are exclusive. Once one player has taken a black development, no other player can research it. Being first is even more important than usual. Additionally, each of these tiles offers some choices to the player. You can choose from two immediate benefits depicted on the tile and one of the available end game scoring tiles. The Horse Mill, for example, allows you to either receive two food or remove five pit water. Some of the end game scoring tiles include getting victory points depending on the number of your discs on development tiles or ignoring the penalties of up to two debt chits.
The final and most substantial part of the expansion is the addition of iron. In addition to the wooden beams needed for the coal mine, a new overlay is placed over your board that requires the use of iron beams for support. In order to dig the entirety of the shaft a combination of wooden and iron support beams is required. In order to produce iron, a workshop overlay is placed on your board once you’ve cleared your pinge.
Every iron support beam you construct will award you a victory point at the end of the game and you’ll also gain a victory point if you manage to store an iron during winter. It can be difficult to manage yet another resource so to compensate another round is added to the game when playing with iron.
I won’t pretend to have played Haspelknecht enough to have exhausted exploring the system and strategies and yet it is a pleasure and a comfort to know that there are even more development tiles to explore. Aside from the ones that deal with iron, they fit in seamlessly with the original tiles. It’s always a tricky proposition adding more variety to a game. It can make it seem as if though the original was somehow lacking or, if you want to be cynical, that they were held back for future expansions. The original version of Haspelknecht is a fine game and felt totally complete. But the new tiles are such an effortless addition that I’ve simply mixed them together with the originals. The rules overhead is so low that I see no reason not to.
It might be a little difficult to get excited by the addition of a Wicker Basket or a Water Channel, but that’s part of the charm of Haspelknecht and a lot of the reason why I like board games in general. There aren’t too many other places where you can simulate 16th century coal mining. Sure it may seem mundane on the surface, but so can manufacturing aluminum cans and I’ve definitely spent my share of hours watching episodes of How It’s Made. There’s beauty in the mundane. There’s a romanticism with the old ways that’s alluring and I can’t help but feel drawn to it.
I’ve never been one to dwell on balance. While I certainly play to win, I never play at such competitive levels that I get fixated with the power levels of individual elements of a game. I find most cries for “overpowered” to be overblown and I tend to trust the game designer’s vision when it comes to such things. I never felt the new development to be too powerful. They all seem useful to some degree or another and power imbalance is already dealt with in the game since they are available to all players.
Except for those black tiles. The second module is where the expansion starts mixing things up. There was always an incentive to being first to reach a development since it would be cheaper, but now there’s an imperative to reaching the black tiles first. Exclusivity adds even more tension to an already tight game. What I enjoy most about these tiles is their flexibility. They each allow you to choose from two benefits. The Horse Mill, for example lets you get two food or remove up to two water tokens. Both are powerful, but depending on your situation, one will probably be better than the other. This means if you’ve worked all the way down to the bottom of the development grid, you don’t feel trapped when taking a black tile.
The end game bonus tiles are another welcome addition. They are available to all players at the outset on a first come, first serve basis adding yet another point of tension in the game. If you’re not put off by a little more stress, then I’d recommend playing with the black development tiles every game. They rules complexity is low enough and the flavor of the game remains largely similar to the original with a nice twist of tension.
The iron module adds the most significant changes to the game, so much so that it nearly crumbles under its own weight. In order to facilitate the changes, multiple overlays are needed to change up the base game. A mine and a workshop overlay is placed over everyone’s player boards and a winter payment tile along with a round tracker tile are placed on the main board. It would almost seem bolted on, but overlays are used in the base game so it’s not completely out of place.
Adding another resource to worry about is a difficult proposition in a game where resources are tight to begin with. Under the normal game rule conditions, balancing this new iron resource would be downright brutal. To make it somewhat reasonable, an additional round is played. The byproduct is a longer playtime. I don’t mind long games, but a game can certainly be too long. I appreciated Haspelknecht for providing a substantial gaming challenge in a relatively short amount of time. So do the added systems make up for the added gameplay length? They certainly do.
Where the base game has you concerned with wood, coal, water, and food, the expansion tells you that’s not enough to juggle. And a juggle it is because adding another resource to worry about, provide, and store ramps up the difficulty in a significant way. There are some development tiles and a new workshop building on your board to help facilitate the gathering of iron, but that doesn’t make it easy to acquire. This expansion is for players who don’t mind an added challenge.
About half of the Ruhr Valley expansion can be thrown into the base game without a second thought. New development tiles add a much appreciated bit of variety from game to game and the black development tiles add some nice flexibility with very little extra to explain. The second half is a more radical change that will give you quite the challenge. That’s saying something since the base game was no walk in the park. The best part about it is that you have the option to play a shorter and still challenging game in the base and the option to play a longer, even more challenging one with the expansion. The core of the experience remains unchanged, which is a good thing in my mind. The identity is intact. It’s still about clearing water and digging mines. And if that’s not exciting to you, then I don’t know what is.
Review copy provided by Capstone Games.