A diceless, card-based story game about labour rights and the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Last Sunday I played The Price of Coal by Jennifer Adcock game remotely with Camilla Zamboni, Kevin Kulp and Betsy Rosenblatt. We used the online version of the game on roll20.
This is a game for 3-5 players. There were four of us so we decided to have four acts each season (fall, winter, spring, summer). The start of the game we chose a miner each and a supporting character each. The characters had some build in relationships, and each had two questions to answer which provided additional relationships amongst the characters. Camilla drew them out in a little node-and-lines map which was very helpful for keeping them straight.
Playing the Game
There are decks of cards for each season, and we drew four cards each sesaon. Each prompt card has a title, a situation and a question that has to be answered during the scene. After the scene was set, we role-played out the details until we came to a sensible conclusion.
Everyone has a couple of individual scene cards they can throw in at any time for a little scene that is just about them.
For fall, winter, and spring we had four scenes each. Summer is unusual because you draw cards and play scenes until the Ordinance card is drawn, which ends the game, and we narrate epilogs for each of our characters.
One of the things that I wasn't sure about was when we should actually be calling for the strike - maybe there was a card for that which we didn't ever draw, but I'd like to have had the moment where we all said "We strike!" but we didnt see where that should have happened.
Why I like this game
I love that this game is based around a real historical event. I kind of hate it too, because it is horrible to think that this was going on barely a century ago. The conditions for the miners was beyond awful (mining is a hard and dangerous enough job without all these extra problems).
The relationship set-up at the start of the game helped us get a sense of the characters, and a starting point for the relationships. It wasn't a straight-jacket though, as we found that we naturally evolved the relationships over time.
I freely admit that I'm a sucker for games that help you feel real feelings (it's the driving force behind many of my games), and this is a game which engages feelings in a big way. Like Ten Candles (and to a lesser extent my Cool and Lonely Courage) you know this isn't going to end well... but what do you discover about the characters along the way?
Where can you find the game
I'm not sure where to purchase physical copies at the moment, but the Roll20 version for online play can be found here https://marketplace.roll20.net/browse/gameaddon/16655/the-price-of-coal
Would you like to see a story?
- John Bailey (husband of Sarah and optimistic labour organiser)
- I trust Sarah, because she has a good head on her shoulders
- I persuade Simon Perry by feeding him stories for his newspaper
- George Baird (deputy sheriff for the company)
- I amuse David because he actually knows how to use guns and I don’t.
- I honour Nathaniel when he takes a stand
- Nathaniel Freeman (miner, faith, takes a stand, son of Eliza)
- praises David because he was a veteran
- Watches John Bailey because he wants to learn how to lead
- Simon Perry (newsman, secret lover of David)
- admires Eliza
- Shames George Baird
- David Burke (miner, ex soldier, lover of Simon)
- protects Lester because he is reminded of his commander who died horribly
- Bribes George with snippets of info obtained from Simon
- Sarah Bailey (wife of John and woman’s organiser)
- tolerates Eliza - disagree on a lot but she knows how to handle adversity
- Restrains John by threats of leaving him
- Lester Bairn (old, keeps his head down, brother of George)
- Blames George because he has sold out
- Teaches Sarah how to get away from John
- Eliza Freeman (mother of Nathaniel, survivor)
- Avoid David because she has seen his violent side
- Keeps Nathaniel safe. Will do literally anything to keep him safe.
The air is crisp and clean in early fall. The leaves are starting to turn and there is a bit of a confrontation outside the company store. Eliza and Sarah are complaining about it to deputy sheriff George who is attempting to keep the peace. Simon the journalist asks awkward questions. George is ill at ease defending the closure of other stores and raising of prices in the company store.
It’s Labour Day and there is unrest in the bar as people complain that the company is still profiting from the miners on their own day. John Bailey points out that it is their day, for them, and they can make it their own day entirely - some people go out and hunt some local hogs, a fire pit is made up and moonshine spirited out from somewhere and the miners families have their own celebration without giving the company anything.
The one room schoolhouse is closed as the teacher has left. John wants to leave for the city with their two kids, says that they should have a better life than him; but Sarah says this is their home and she ain’t gonna go. If he goes, he goes without her. Besides, she can teach the kids mostly. Simon the journalist will look out for other teachers that might be available in nearby towns.
A big town meeting in the church with all the new green incomers into the town, here to look for scarce mining jobs. Lester and Nathaniel want them to understand the threats that they face.
Everyone is the church - miners and the mine operators too. Nathaniel leads prayers which makes Eliza proud. The operators provided really nice tea and biscuits, and promise a days holiday at new year too. The extra days holiday naturally doesn’t arrive. But for a day, there is harmony.
Strike in Ohio
John is excited by the news of a strike in Ohio, and persuades Simon to get the news out about it - distributing flyers and making it known that there is a strike taking place over there, in order to encourage the miners over here. Sarah decides that everyone needs to start storing up provisions if they are going to strike, and persuades all the other wives to do the same.
We see Simon alone, passing leaflets in neighbouring towns, talking to pastors and miners whenever he can.
John and Sarah’s children, 6yr old Isaac and 4yr old Jane come down with the influenza which is sweeping the mine camp. Hannah York, the midwife suggests that they should leave for the city, but Sarah won’t go and this time John backs her up on it. With fear for his children, John decides to get deeper in debt to the company to get the company doctor to look at his kids. He has no other choice.
George and Lester have an argument that turns nasty. Lester starts it, George finishes it, and it ends with Lester on the ground and George has his gun drawn. The older brother Lester finds his attitude to George actually improving after this.
The company has started evicting families with no notice and no reason given. They huddle together in the church hall for as much as possible. Nobody knows how this is going to work out.
Sarah tells John that she wants to take in some of the kids who are on their own after evictions, alongside their own. She thinks she can stretch the food a little longer.
New Coal Vein
There is a new coal vein, but the greenhorn miners haven’t set the pit props correctly. John, David, Nathaniel and Lester can see the problem and Lester berates the stupid greenhorns. They give him attitude back, so David decks him. Lester helps him up and then decks him too. Timbers creak and the more experienced miners shout ‘run!’. Crouched over in the narrow tunnels, lights dancing off the walls from their lamps, they run. David attempts to keep to the back to make sure nobody is lost but there are three novices behind him… when the tunnel collapses. Three men died that day.
They are at the bar, discussing the black lung. Lester is chain smoking to keep the black lung away, seeing as how it has affected so many people. George has spent some of his own money in order to get him some pills from the company doctor that should help
There is a mine collapse in shaft 4. The men want to help look for survivors, but the foreman says that if anyone doesn’t get down shaft 2 right now, they will be fired, their family evicted and worse. Simon is in the foreman’s face shouting about it, but the foreman isn’t moved. John tries reason and then loses his rag, but before he does something he’ll regret David steps up. He can recognise a draft dodger, and the foreman recognises the ice in his eyes. Thoroughly intimidated, the miners are allowed to search for survivors after all.
John things that the new legislation is just words on paper and isn’t going to affect real people here like them. He wants the strike to happen now, supporting the brothers in Ohio and other places.
Things are clearly getting bad. David teaches John, Nathaniel, Lester and the others how to shoot. Apparently it is exactly like shooting game. Keep calm, breathe slowly, pull the trigger.
John goes to say goodbye to Sarah. He suggests she takes all the children away to safety, and kisses her tenderly. She says ‘Teach me how to fight’ and after a moments pause he shows her how to hold the rifle, how to aim, how to fire. ‘Pull it in tight here, it will kick some’.
The army and air force are sent in. The bombs and the gas come.
A number of miners grab George, intent on lynching him as a mine operator representative. Lester isn’t going to let that happen, and kills three of them before he is shot, freeing George.
David takes up a position defending the newspaper office with his Simon inside. Every person in army uniform who comes close he shoots. Every. One. Until his ammunition runs out and he dies to army gunfire.
John can see the gas rolling towards the houses and runs home - thrusting blankets into the water butt, he goes inside with a makeshift gas mask for himself and all the children, to try to save them from the gas. Sarah joins him. The makeshift mask isn’t enough and the extended family die together, huddled under the damp blankets, the parents arms around them.
Eliza and Nathaniel collect survivors and Eliza leads them out through backways that she remembers from her childhood. They waited as long as they could for John and Sarah but realised they were not coming and had to leave along the old trails.
George escapes alive, but all respect for the law is gone. The pillar which he had dedicated his life to seems like a hollow mockery now, and he becomes an outlaw, robbing the wealthy.
Simon writes up what happens, what the miners stood for and the appalling treatment that they suffered. He was successful in bringing their stories to light and preventing the governments actions to be anonymised and glossed over. The stories of John, Sarah, Lester, Eliza, his beloved David and others would be told.
I don't mind telling you that there were some wet eyes and sad faces at the conclusion of this game. I would heartly recommend it.
You can find the author of the game, Jennifer Adcock, on Bluesky here: https://bsky.app/profile/did:plc:s24kqnyrkepbloexarxtoyjk