Buzzworthiness: Belfort

I recently got a chance to play Belfort, which I covered on the blog back in July.  I usually try to do a review after playing a game I’ve expressed interest in, so here we go.

image by BGG user Surya

To recap – Belfort is a game that was published by Tasty Minstrel Games, and designed by Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim, aka The Bamboozle Brothers.  It is designed for 2-5 players age 13 and up, and takes around two hours to play.  I have played one five-player game with three others who had never played before, so take that into consideration when reading my review.

The game is all about building the city of Belfort.  Mechanically, it features worker placement (elves, dwarfs, and gnomes that work in buildings), resource management (wood, stone, metal, and gold to build and do other stuff), and area control (the most buildings in a sector scores the most points).  There are seven turns in the game, with scoring occurring after the third, fifth, and seventh.  In each turn, you’ll be placing workers at various sites – guilds for special bonuses, the recruiter’s desk to hire new workers, the king’s camp to change turn order, property cards that give you extra abilities, and resource areas where you’ll collect what you need to do other stuff.

After placement, you collect your resources – elves in the forest give you wood, dwarves in the quarry give you stone, elf and dwarf pairs in the mine give you metal, and elves or dwarves in the gold mine give you gold.  After hiring workers and changing the turn order (if you put anyone there), you’ll receive income based on the property cards and pay taxes based on your position around the scoring track.  In the action phase, you’ll activate all workers not already activated (i.e., those in guilds or property cards), build new properties or walls (spending the proper resources to do so and placing buildings on corresponding places of the board), sell and/or buy goods at the trading post, hire a gnome to unlock certain property cards, or buy a new property card.

For scoring, you’ll count up each building in each of the five sectors, giving five points to the player in first, three to the player in second, and one to the player in third (in 4-5 player games only).  Three points go to the player with the most elves, dwarfs, or gnomes, with one point going to the player in second.  After the third scoring, the player with the most points wins.

COMPONENTS: The components in this game are extremely high quality.  Tasty Minstrel learned a lot from their problems with Homesteaders, and have obviously been working hard to produce better bits.  The board comes in five triangular sections, each identically illustrated to form the five sectors of Belfort.  This board, while pretty nice, is actually my biggest component complaint.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the unique shape.  My problem is just the ease with which it can be bumped out of position.  It might have been nice to develop some kind of locking mechanism to keep them together.

Each player gets a player board which is absolutely one of the best components in the game.  Mostly because it gives a very concise round summary, as well as storage areas for each individual bit you have in your supply.  These storage areas are also labeled with the starting resources you get – awesome idea.  I only wish there was some kind of corral for the elves and dwarves you haven’t recruited yet.  It’s not a big deal, just keep them as separate as possible, and try not to take one from the wrong pile.  The bits themselves are very well crafted.  Instead of using cubes for everything, the wood is shaped like sticks, the stone is cubes, and the metal is in the shape of bars.  Elves are round, dwarves are square, gnomes are pentagonal.  The shapes make everything very easy to distinguish.

From the cover, I was initially expecting the art style for the game to be fairly cartoony.  But it really isn’t.  The buildings on the cards and boards are all very well designed so that they look like each other.  Each board segment is logically laid out so that it not only looks like the others, but also doesn’t feel overcrowded.  Josh Cappel did the art for this game, and he’s one of the best game artists working out there, having also done the art for games like Pandemic, 1960, Endeavor, Wasabi! (which he also designed), and many others.  So thumbs up for the art, and thumbs up all around for the components.

THEME: Tom Vasel of the Dice Tower is constantly harping on Eurogames for going back again and again to the same boring theme wells.  This game could very easily have been about building a city in medieval France, with carpenters and masons collecting wood and stone, and apprentices unlocking card features.  However, by making the small tweak of a fantasy setting, the game becomes that more interesting – carpenters become elves, masons become dwarfs, apprentices become gnomes.  The theme certainly doesn’t matter, as with any game in the European style, but that small change (and it really is small – nothing else in the game has any fantasy overtones) helps the game become something better.

MECHANICS: Several mechanisms are in play during a game of Belfort.  For worker placement, you have a certain amount of elves and dwarfs you can place at other places, and you can hire gnomes to help as well.  Some of the workers will need to be used in places that everyone will be going after, particularly the guilds, but also turn order spaces and hiring new workers.  After you’ve done all you want to in that area, you can focus on putting your workers in places that only you can use (buildings you have constructed) or in the resource areas.  However, we kind of discovered that you should only go for the resources after you’ve done everything else, especially since you can distribute all of your remaining workers to the resource areas when you pass and there’s no limit to how many can go in each zone.  There’s a bonus for the person who gets the most in a particular resource area, so it’s sometimes good to wait to see what everyone else is doing.  That’s a nice bit of interaction for something that wouldn’t necessarily be interactive.

Another big part of the game mechanics is area control.  In traditional area control games like El Grande and San Marco, the object is to have the most of your markers within a particular territory in order to get the most points when a scoring occurs.  However, second place usually gets you some points as well, just not as many.  Belfort follows that classic model somewhat, providing 5 points to the majority, 3 to second, and 1 to third.  Unlike other games of the type (at least those that I know about), each region is identical, offering the same point spread to each person.  This makes your initial placements in regions largely inconsequential, but where you place further buildings depends on what is available and where your opponents have placed (or are likely to place).

Deciding how to manage your resources (wood, stone, metal, gold) is another mechanism that makes the game flow.  Each building of a type costs exactly the same as all the others, and the costs are printed on your player board.  The only problem is getting what you want when you want it.  There’s a random card draw, and though you can either buy one of three face up cards in the market or a face down card, there’s a likelihood that you won’t get what you want.  In our game, for example, I never had access to a keep (which gets you two buildings in a region at once) or a gatehouse (which has the possibility of giving you two buildings in adjacent districts).  I still won because I got an inn (which allowed me to hire workers cheap) and a tower (which allowed me to hire gnomes cheap) very early on.  So it balances out, but I did find myself wishing there were more building types in the game.  Practically, I know it wouldn’t work, and the guilds kind of make up for it.  However, there’s such a limited number of guilds in the game, it’s hard to take advantage of more than one (especially in a five-player game).

I like the game mechanics.  They all work together very well.  I said in my initial overview that I didn’t necessarily think this game offered anything new, and I take that back somewhat.  Everything feels very familiar, and that’s to the game’s credit.  It makes things easier to understand as the game progresses.

STRATEGY LEVEL: I hope I’ve already gotten across that this is a very strategic game.  There’s not very much luck involved, other than the card draw and initial guild placement.  These can have an effect on how you play, but the limited number of buildings and specific types of guilds used take some of the luck out.  It’s pretty well balanced how they all work together.  Big strategies to consider are not only what you build, but also where you place them.  Also, player order is a huge strategy point.  Going first is a definite advantage, though it’s sometimes advantageous to go last just before a scoring to see where everyone else places their buildings.  All in all, a very strategic game.

ACCESSIBILITY: This game is not very difficult to understand once you get going.  That being said, I wouldn’t suggest it to people who are unfamiliar with Eurogame mechanics.  I also wouldn’t recommend it to people who hate Eurogames.  As I mentioned, the fantasy theme isn’t really enough to turn this into something other than a worker placement-area control game.  This is not a gateway game, and is probably a few steps up the complexity ladder.

REPLAYABILITY: So far, I’ve played one game.  From what I can tell, not much changes from game to game, other than the guilds.  I’m not sure how much that will change each experience, though some guilds are more interactive than the ones we played with.  Playing with less than five will probably also change the experience, but I thought five was a pretty good number.  I’d be interested to try it with less, but it’s not really a game I’m clamoring to play again.  I feel like it was a fine game, but I can see it getting stale after a few plays.  I could be wrong – this is just conjecture.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY?: Yes.  I had a good time.  I like worker placement games, and I’ve been enjoying several area control games recently.  It also helped that I won the game – that always makes me enjoy a game slightly more.  But I think this was a good experience, and I’d recommend it to people who like this kind of game.  Congrats to the Bamboozle Brothers, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing what they come out with in the future.  Thanks for reading!

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