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Review: The Ruhr: A Story of Coal Trade

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A pile of coal, a dream, a barge, and a river. It’s not much, but it’s all you have. You roll up your sleeves and start loading your barge with coal. It’s hard and it’s dirty, but it’s honest work and with some determination it might even prove lucrative. Barge loaded, you head down the river and start your deliveries. The money is nice – could even buy you a couple of luxuries – but you know better. You invest it in your business. Now things are rolling. The money’s coming in and it’s all paying off. All of this thanks to the river, all thanks to The Ruhr.

How it Plays

Over the course of 12 rounds, players will run a coal delivery business in an attempt to earn the most money by game’s end. Each player has a single barge on the river, a warehouse, a player board, and some cash. The Ruhr is essentially a pick up and deliver game in which you will pick up coal from storage spaces along the river and deliver it do different places further downriver for cash.

Every round begins with a historical event. These vary in impact and are meant to simulate the actual events of the time period. They typically expand the scope of the game, but they can also increase the prices of certain actions, simulating the rising costs over time.

Next, a random obstacle/demand marker is drawn from a bag. These will flavor the current round by restricting actions or adding money to the board or many other events.

In player order, players will move their barge to a coal storage space and select a special action. Player order is determined by position along the river. Whoever is furthest upriver will go first and barges can only move in one direction, downriver, unless a special action is taken.

Other special actions will increase the quality of the coal, gain money, and let you deliver as many spaces downriver as you’d like.

Again in player order, you’ll take the coal and deliver it 2 spaces downriver and earn money according to the pips showing on the coal die. If you move over an obstacle marker during your delivery, the die will go down in value by 1.

Any time you gain money for a delivery, you must spend 1 thaler on a development cube. The cube will go on your player board according to the location you delivered to. The next phase is development. In order, players take development tiles if the development cubes on their player board are in matching arrangements. These tiles act as technologies that increase the scope of what you can do over the course of the game.

Next, players can purchase warehouses around the board if they have the required development tile. These are worth victory points and grant you money whenever someone lands on a space with your warehouse.

All Along the Riverbank

The Ruhr is a game of expanding scope. When you sit down to play, the extent of your reach is limited. You’ve got a small barge capable of carrying medium quality coal just a few spaces down river. Nearly a third of the board is inaccessible at the start. The game is small. Initially.

By the end of the game you’ll find yourself building locks on the river, coal depots, exporting coal at the major port, and dealing in the finest quality coal in all of Germany. It’s a far cry from your humble beginnings and the source of The Ruhr’s greatest joy: a sense of improvement.

Every decision you make and move you take is a step towards something greater, not simply a pursuit of points. From your very first delivery, your eye is on the developments markers, the soul of the game. In concept, it’s not much different that many other games that have technology trees. It’s a way to improve the strength of your actions or provide new ones altogether. What sets The Ruhr apart is the manner in which you unlock that tree.

There are three types of delivery locations in the game: cities, factories, and the port. When you deliver to one of them, you’ll earn a development cube on the corresponding space. The cost for claiming development markers is having cubes in specific configurations. To gain the development marker that allows you to build locks, for example, you need to have delivered at least once to the port and once to a city. Seems pretty straight forward, right? But once you realize that there’s no real chance of winning unless you claim some developments, then you start to see how it shapes everything you do.

Money is important in the game. It allows you to build locks and warehouses, which are major sources of income. Income is generated mostly through deliveries, so you might be tempted to just grab the most valuable coal out there. But then you remember that you really need to deliver to a factory in order to get that development tile you’ve been eyeing. The problem is, you’re last in turn order because you sped up the river and now there’s no coal next to a factory to be delivered.

Next round, you’re a few coins short of buying the warehouse in the port for some lucrative export opportunities, but the only coal die left that will give you the money you need doesn’t deliver to the city where you want to grab the crucial development marker. Decisions, decisions. It’s a beautiful tension that’s created.

The developments are also the means to growth. They expand your meager reach to a full on coal-hauling dynamo. I’ve found that you can generally claim a development marker every other round or so, which gives the game a nice pace. The slow drip of improvements serve an enticing morsel that pushed you forward and adequate enough reward after a couple of rounds of effort.

What starts off a simple game of picking up coal for delivery slowly unfolds into a cutthroat competition on the export market and warehouse field. And the scope unfolds at such a pace that it’s never overwhelming. Your new abilities and responsibilities fold seamlessly into your daily operations. Like slowly boiling frogs, you never realize the much more involved the game actually gets by the end.

If there are faults to be had it’s mostly with the presentation. I’ve never had the best eyesight, but I’ve never had much trouble with board games. The Ruhr really tested me. Many of the symbols are quite small and viewing them from across the table can really test you. Maybe I’m just getting older and it might become a more common complaint from me in general, but I noticed more squinting that usual in my plays.

Also, while it wasn’t too difficult to learn the game from the book, I don’t find it a very good reference. There are some easily missed rules that could be better highlighted or broken out to be more easily looked up.

Conclusion

The Ruhr is in many ways reminiscent of many other euro games, but it is refined and distills its concepts beyond other games in the field. The sense of growth and development was probably the strongest I felt from a game all year. And to top things off, there is an entire new map with significant gameplay tweaks included in the game. That’s some quality value. I do wish it was presented a little more clearer, but it’s a small quibble.

  • Excellent 9.0
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Summary

Pros
Tech tree
Sense of growth

Cons
Small icons and symbols

9.0 Excellent

I love board games. The more esoteric, the better.

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