There’s coal to mine and you’ve got half a mind to mine it. Farming’s been fine so far, but coal is the future! Lucky for your, your farm sits on top of a newly discovered coal deposit. You’re literally walking on money. Problem is the coal is pretty hard to get to and the rain isn’t making it any easier. If only you could get help from a specialist, someone trained in the art of coal mining. If only you could get help from a real life Haspelknecht.
How it Plays
You begin the game with a player board depicting your farm and the coal that’s yours for the taking. Your goal is to have the most victory points after 3 years which is accomplished mainly through the mining of coal, but as with any self respecting euro game, there are other ways to supplement your victory point total. Every year is broken up into seasons, the first three of which are action rounds and winter acting as the scoring and upkeep round.
The action rounds begin with an action selection method quite unlike anything I’ve seen before in a game. There are multiple action pools with discs of various colors. In turn order, players will select discs from a single pool of a single color. The color corresponds to the type of action you can take this round and the number of discs will dictate how powerful that action will be.
Once all players have collected their action discs, it’s time to assign them to their workers and carry out the actions. On your player board, you have two workers which you will assign action discs. Usually, the workers will collect resources based on the color of disc assigned to them – black for coal, brown for wood, and yellow for food. You can also hire another worker that’s specialized in getting coal, but he will only accept a yellow disc, food, or money.
Instead of collecting resources, you can assign one of your workers to development. Off to the side of the main board is an array of development tiles that can be built in order to help out around the farm. Each tile has an action disc requirement such as 1 yellow disc and 2 discs of any color. So the discs normally assigned to gather resources are allocated in order to meet the requirement of the development you desire. These developments range from barns in order to store resources to handcarts which provide food.
In the winter round, you will turn in all the coal you’ve collected throughout the year and receive victory points equal to that amount of coal minus one. You’ll then need to pay food and/or money to the nobility for use of the land (the perks of being a serf). This requirement increases every year. And finally, you can store a single resource in your farm house to carry over to the next year.
In addition to the points you receive for turning in coal every year, you’ll gain points every time you acquire a development, as well as the points for clearing your mine. The deeper you delve into your mine, the more points you will be awarded. Whoever has the most points at the end is the winner.
You get an action! And you get an Action!
Ideally a game’s theme will inform its play. Whether it’s setting expectations of how certain elements behave or creating motivations that push the player forward, theme is an important element to bring players into the world of the game. A player intuitively understands that a raft will help them ford a river and they are motivated to thwart the corruption of the world by and ancient being. It’s not to be confused for bombast or story. All games, at some level, are an abstraction of whatever theme it attempts to convey. Generally, whenever the theme comes into conflict with its systems, a choice is made. Either the game can compromise its theme in the name of smooth play or it can stay true to its theme at the expense of rules overhead. My personal preference is for the former. I bring this up because, save for one glaring omission, Haspelknecht manages to stay true to it’s mundane, coal mining premise.
Nearly every action you take makes sense. There is a a thematic reason behind moving every piece. Except for the selection of action discs. Try as I might, I can’t think of an in-world reason of why it works the way that it does. Even the rulebook doesn’t attempt the stretch it would take to get it under the umbrella of its theme. Luckily, it’s done well enough that that it makes up for the disconnect.
The action discs are split into separate pools. If you select from certain pools, you’ll need to add a single pit water to your mine. Why? Because it makes the decision that much more difficult and that much more interesting. You see, when too much pit water fills your mine you’ll be unable to get to the coal and you’ll have to spend time drudging up the water. Your decision is now complicated by the balance of getting the action discs you want and avoiding a muddy coal hole. That issue can be alleviated by being early in the turn order.
Turn order is determined by the type of actions you select. Each of the three different colored action discs has a value associated for purposes of establishing order. Yellow are 3 each, brown 2, and black 1. Turn order will proceed based on the cumulative value of the action discs you select, with lower values going first. This adds yet another decision point to what on first blush is a straightforward selection system.
And it doesn’t end there. Next to each action selection pool is a smaller pool of action discs that will be moved into the active pool the following round so that you can see a bit into the future and plan accordingly. And even still, the mix of discs are not equal. Yellow discs are about 2/3 as prevalent as the other two colors, putting them at a premium. Even though you’re just picking discs, there really is a lot to consider in your decision. It’s strikes a good balance of being meaningful in a multitude of ways without being overwhelming.
This selections system is also one of the major ways you interact with other players. You can take a maximum of five discs during this phase of the game, but you can only select a single color at a time. If you select less than five discs, you will be able to make another selection of discs after everyone has made their first selection. Only this time you will not incur the pit water penalty of some of the action disc pools. What this allows you to do, if you are early in turn order, is make a selection that forces your opponent to choose suboptimal action discs or take on some pit water. Let’s say, for example, you notice that your opponent is in desperate need of food, but there’s only 1 yellow disc to take that won’t incur the pit water penalty. If you were feeling particularly punchy, you could take that yellow disc even if you don’t particularly need it just to put the screws to your opponent. There are some real mind games played here, but it’s most prevalent in two player games where you can more easily anticipate your opponent’s moves. With 3 or 4 players, it can be incredibly difficult to predict what will happen by they time it comes back around to you. It felt much more advantageous to worry about myself then to try and meddle in my opponents’ affairs.
You might be wondering why I’m spending so much time covering a single element of the game. There’s a good reason for it. The action disc selection is the single most important decision you will make in the game. It will dictate everything you will do going forward. It could even be argued that it is the only decision in the game. Once you have your action discs, it’s just a matter of carrying out the plan you had in mind when you selected them. So it’s important to understand all the many facets involved in the decision. There is a lot to consider, but it’s never unwieldy. I always felt I had a grasp of the ramifications of my actions. Whether I could accomplish everything I wanted to do is another question.
The game basically boils down to 9 major decisions so it’s vital that they are interesting and satisfying or the whole experience won’t hold up. I’m happy to say that they work and they work well. As you can see, there is a lot to consider in your decisions, even though they don’t come around too often. They game flies by as a result and it feels like you’ve really wrestled with some puzzling challenges over the course of the game. I enjoyed making them and seeing my plans comes to fruition. I was less enthralled with how those plans played out in practice.
Ideally, you’d have your round planned out by the time you’ve collected your action discs. The rest of the round is just going through the motions and physically moving the bits around to indicate what you’ve done. The only real possibility of opponents affecting your plans at this point is on the development tile grid which bears some further exploration.
The development tiles will give you all sorts of advantages and rule breaking abilities when acquired. In a large way, they will dictate your success in the game. Not only do they award victory points for simply getting one, they will also give ways to manipulate the game in your favor. While it’s certainly possible to go through the game without development, I’ve never seen anyone go that route. How could anyone resist the allure of their very own rope or that really sexy ladder? It really is one of the better parts of the game. Analyzing the development tiles and working out which combination of tiles will work for you is a satisfying puzzle. The fact that there are a few dozen tiles and that they are arranged randomly will make sure that each game will play out differently.
Noticed how I mentioned arrangement? Well, that plays a large factor into how development tiles are acquired. There are 4 rows of tiles that are of different colors. The first tile you research must be one of the top tiles and any proceeding tile you get must be adjacent to the one you’ve previously attained or one that another player has attained. In order to show that you have a tile, you place one of your discs on the tile and if you lay a disc on top of another player’s (because they got the development before you) you must pay them resources. I assume it’s some sort of patent fee, but it can be enough to dissuade someone from taking a tile and is another reason why turn order is such a large consideration. What ends up happening is that the development tile grid becomes a mini area control game in which speed is paramount and taking the most efficient route to the developments you want is vital. Jockeying for position and staking your development claims is a good source of enjoyment.
So Haspelknecht is a game with meaty decisions and an enjoyable upgrade system, but it never achieves the highs that would put it amongst my favorites. Some of it has to do with the pacing. As mentioned previously, most of the game is played out in the action disc selection phase. The rest of the game is mostly just moving the bits around the board to show everyone at the table what you had planned out. It’s a really involved and satisfying decision for sure, but the fact that there’s only one per season, it lends an unevenness to game. There’s a really high high followed by quite a bit of lull. It’s a relatively minor thing, but it’s palpable.
My largest issue with the game is actually one of presentation. Even though my favorite games often involve a high degree of player interaction, I don’t automatically dismiss games that are on the lower end of the player interactivity spectrum if they offer something else I really enjoy. First and foremost, the game has to offer challenging and meaningful decisions. Haspelknecht has that down pat. I also enjoy the ability to create something or build engines. I love looking down at the table at the end of a session and seeing the fruits of the my labor sprawled across the board whether it’s a farm or railway network I’ve built.
Haspelknecht does have you acquire development tiles, but it’s represented by discs in your player color placed on the grid. Only occasionally will you add a building to your farm as a result. It would have been nice to actually have the ropes and carts somehow represented on your board. I know it’s purely presentation and I like how the system works as a whole so I can overlook it. But this ethos is carried over into how your coal mining progress is tracked.
In the beginning of the game, you put cubes in your mine to represent the available coal to be mined. At the end of the game, if you’ve done a good job, your board will be mostly empty. Yes, there will be some support beams in your mine, but it will still be mostly empty. It’s still satisfying in it’s own way to see your board cleared due to your efforts throughout the game, but for me it doesn’t compare to something like Small City where I’ve built an entire city. There’s a lot less interesting things to admire and the satisfaction doesn’t reach the same levels. It’s a superficial qualm to be sure, but in an era where we are swimming in available titles you’d be well within your right to go after the games that tickle your particular fancy more. So even though Haspelknecht offers some truly enjoyable elements, it doesn’t quite nail the things that I’m looking for in a game.
There’s a lot to like about Haspelknecht. It’s difficult without being obtuse. It’s relatively easy to learn and offers some nice meaty decisions to keep you on your toes. It’s also incredibly tight. Resources, especially money, can be incredibly hard to come by making every season a tension filled ordeal. I happen to enjoy that, but it could certainly be offputting to some. The game just happens to take an approach that doesn’t meet my ideals for a low interactivity euro game. They’re mostly petty complaints, I’ll admit, but what can I say? I like what I like. Overall, I still enjoyed my time playing Haspelknecht and might even break it out from time to time when playing with certain players. And it’s designed well enough that I’d recommend just about anyone interested in euro games to try it out.
Difficult and meaningful decision(s)
Little wooden water drops
High tension keeps you on your toes
Player interaction is usually coincidental, particularly at larger player counts
Little left to show for your hard work at the end
The rulebook is difficult to understand (I believe the new English edition will have a new translation)