Review: Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890

As early as 1770, coal barges reached deep into Germany, up the otherwise unnavigable Ruhr river to load up on the rich coal deposits that lined the river. The river was littered with dams and mills and the barges could only travel short distances downstream until they would need to transfer their loads into barges waiting on the opposite side of the obstacle. Every transfer reduced the quality of the coal and by the time it reached Ruhrort it was sometimes only dust. After the barges reached their final destination, they would be drawn upstream by teams of horses. Over time, 14 locks were built along the river to allow the barges to freely transport their cargo from as far deep as Witten all the way to Ruhrort without transfer. By the end of the 19th century, the water-based coal route was replaced by a railway.

As you might imagine, Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890, gathers 2-4 players to transport and sell coal along the Ruhr river and to make it as profitable as possible.

BGG classifies the game as a pick-up and deliver and a worker placement game but in my opinion that’s a bit misleading. At the core is a set collection mechanic that players strive for to match patterns on an individual player board. Match specific patterns of delivery and you’ll unlock other features of the game allowing you take actions other players cannot and to establish board position to gain end-game victory points.

The board is split into two halves with the downstream half (the left western half closer to Ruhrort) “unlocked” at the beginning of the game. As the game progresses, players will gain the necessary tokens opening up the eastern half of the board.

The game lasts 12 rounds and in each round, an historical event occurs. In most cases this is a positive event but in some cases it represents a negative point in the history of coal transport. In addition to the historical event, an obstacle/demand marker is drawn from a bag. The demand tiles place money on delivery points along the river representing a higher demand for delivery (this money sweetens the deal when delivering to these locations). In other cases, they represent some limiting factor for the round (low water, etc.)

After the event/demand/obstacles are dealt with, players choose a single action and pay it’s cost. These actions allow players to haul their boat up the river to a coal deposit, uncover a new coal deposit, the freedom to ship farther downstream than is normally allowed, etc. Once chosen, the player’s coal barge is placed next to a coal deposit (a die). Some drawn obstacle tiles block the use of some of the actions for the round. Players are required to haul and deliver coal to a destination every single round.

After all players have placed their barge next to a coal deposit (taking debt to pay to haul their barge up the river if they’re out of money), players ship their coal (the die) downstream to a delivery point, selling it for money. If the coal passed obstacles it loses value decreasing the amount of money the destination city/port is willing to pay for it.

Players place resource cubes on a personal player board depicting where they’ve delivered coal and of what type (black or white). These resource cubes establish a pattern and if the pattern matches those of the individual tiles on the board (you can see the little dots in boxes above the tiles in the image below), the player earns the tile, unlocking a new feature of the game. Players start the game with a matching set of permanent game features they can unlock but there are some limited, one-time use markers that players can earn and then use when it’s most effective for them.

Players are then free to purchase items with the money they’ve earned but you’re limited to what you can purchase based on what features you’ve unlocked in this and previous rounds. Players can build locks, build warehouses in the cities and coal depots, in Ruhrport’s export area, etc. Building things earns the players immediate victory points and helps establish end-game victory points depending on what features you’ve unlocked during the game.

I really like this game. I’d read that the rules were a mess so I stuck to the rewritten rules available at BGG. Even using the rewritten rules requires some persistent reading. There’s a lot going on in those 12 pages of densely packed text. But stick with it; it’s worth it.

The game rewards a player that sticks to a strategy but can remain flexible in the short term to weather particularly nasty demand/obstacle tiles or the effects of other player’s actions. The game also features a highly variable turn order mechanism as one progresses through the different phases of a turn. As players vie for different positions to load high-valued coal and deliver it to locations needed to unlock feature of the game, turn order must be taken into consideration as it’s always east to west, down the river (highest upstream to lowest downstream). Some resources are limited and if you don’t go first you may miss out or at a minimum have to pay more to stick to your strategy. There is a lot of indirect player interaction taking spots other players want or need before they can making them shift tactics, pay more, or take debt at just the moment when they can least afford it. Points are tight, with the end-game in the low to mid-thirties in my experience.

A copy of Ruhrschifffahrt is a bit hard to come by. I managed to pick up a copy in a BGG auction for about $50. Don’t be surprised, however, to pay $70 or more for a NIS copy.

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