Final Thoughts on The Ruhr: A Story of Coal Trade

There's a recent trend in board gaming to introduce narrative elements via books and apps or permanent changes to the board. It's an attempt to marry the traditional narratives we see in books and movies that we are more familiar with to the board games we so enjoy. Whether it's Imperial Assault or Near and Far, I've never been able to connect with them. Instead of peanut butter and chocolate, mixing narrative and board games usually ends up more like pineapple and black beans, two things I like but not the best pair. I always feel like the two are at odds and a sacrifice is made in order to try and fit them both in the same box. It overlooks the fact the board games can already do a great job of providing a story.

  Design : Thomas Spitzer  Art : Harald Lieske  Publishing : Capstone Games

Design: Thomas Spitzer Art: Harald Lieske Publishing: Capstone Games

This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.

The Ruhr starts small. You have a single barge, a warehouse, and just a few coins to your name. Your first few moves are similarly small. Pick up some coal and deliver it 2 spaces downriver for a pittance of cash. It's a humble beginning that eases you into each game. If that were all there were to the Ruhr, it would be a pretty lackluster game. Thankfully, it's smarter than that.

From the outset, there are hints of something grander in scope. There are additional warehouses lined up along the round track foreshadowing future growth. Your player board has the outlines of development tiles pre-printed on it, a glimpse into the future to come. The board is dissected into multiple areas, one of which is inaccessible. So while the game might start out small in scope, all the pieces of a grander games are already laid out before you, enticing to you partake in them as the game progresses.

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You can see the values of upcoming coal in the reserve

Board games have the incredible capacity to convey progress and growth. Whether it's the accumulation of goods of the expansion of your empire, there is a physical representation of what was accomplished. Whether it's expanding your house or capturing territories, a glance of at the board will tell you how far you've come. Even the good ol' victory point track is a visual indicator of your accomplishments. Your progress in The Ruhr is most prominently displayed on your player board. Every time you claim a development tile you add it to your board. Like a trophy case, it will either display your great accomplishments or how little you've actually achieved. More than that, The Ruhr shows growth through your increased capabilities over the course of the game.

Board games have the incredible capacity to convey progress and growth.

Slowly, but surely, you'll add new moves to your repertoire. Want to build locks on the river so your coal doesn't get banged around? You'll get there. Want to build warehouse in the city for some trickle income? You can get to that point. Want access to the high quality coal on the other side of the country? Yeah, you can earn that too. Either through developments or the natural course of the game, your arsenal of tricks expands. This not only increases the amount of things you can do, it also increases the decision space for you to operate in. Cleverly, The Ruhr places hints of your future abilities all around. Your player board has slots for each marker. There are empty warehouse spots scattered around the map. Locks are built by removing tokens from the river. And, even though it isn't immediately accessible, the high quality region of Germany is prominent in the play area. These are all little aspirational breadcrumbs that nudge you forward.

A Not So Simple Choice

On the surface, your turn to turn decision is quite straightforward. Simple even. What makes things interesting is how that decision will define your future. Every turn, you'll move your barge to a coal spot on the river and then deliver it somewhere downriver. The most obvious concern is how much money you'll receive. Higher quality coal will sell for more and will be highly contested. A little less obvious, but perhaps even more important is your delivery destination. Getting different combinations of development cubes is how you'll traverse the tech tree. Now your consideration isn't simply how much cash you can make, but how you can traverse the river while picking up the right combination of development cubes to get that next crucial technology. This is further complicated by the fact that going upriver is more difficult than flowing with the current. And don't forget the other players at the table who have their eyes on those same developments. Suddenly your simple choice is not so simple.

Your decisions are furthered weighed down by your ever expanding arsenal of possible actions. With more ways to spend money (exporting, building warehouse, or building locks), you have to be even more thoughtful about where to deliver and what to prioritize. Position, cash flow, and future developments all weigh heavily on your mind every round. Every decision becomes a beautiful entangled mess of rippling ramifications. Move too far downriver and you might leave too many spots open for your opponents. Focus too heavily on developments and you might not have the cash to actually take advantage of them. 

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Even though the decisions are multi-faceted, they are never overwhelming. The steady advancement of the game hits a comfortable zone of easing you into the complexity but still doling out enough new toys as to not get bored. You can keep your scope relatively limited to start the contest and slowly fold in the complexities into your game plan as you progress.


It's easy to be noticed when you cover yourself in glitter and shout to the skies. It's harder to be noticed for your substance and character. The Ruhr is handsome in its production and refined in play. It's a cultured British drama in an age of blockbuster, popcorn flicks. It may not score well at the box office, but it certainly has my approval.