At a recent game night, I imposed Belfort on several friends as I am still in that “just one more play and I know I’ll get my strategy to work” phase of the game. The comment “it’s a little bit like Caylus, but you don’t have to share your buildings” was enough to interest the long-time gamer, but the other player (newer to modern boardgames) smiled and said “ah, yes… Caylus” – we were clearly aware he had no clue what Caylus was. However, knowing my audience, I quickly explained it was a game where you have elf and dwarven workers that gather goods, which are then used to build buildings. Buildings help you control areas of the nifty, pentagon-shaped board for points and also give you special powers – such as the pub that can turn your dwarf into a super-(drunk?)-dwarf. The mention of gnomes as special units that upgrade your buildings was enough to convince him to give the game a try. (The fact that the game components claim to be produced of 100% Ent-free materials was simply icing on the cake.) I was glad to get Belfort to the table once again, as I am currently fascinated by this economic build-up game where money is always tight, and everything needs to be accomplished in a measly 7 turns.
The game has at its heart a worker-placement mechanic, AND there are two types of workers players can use. Everyone starts with three dwarves, who can mine stone, and three elves, who can harvest wood. An elf and a dwarf can cooperate to mine metal and either type is allowed to work the gold mines to earn coins. In contrast to other worker placement games, the resource spaces can hold an unlimited number of workers, so a player can guarantee specific returns. However, the player on each location with the most workers will earn an extra resource of that type (so if I have three elves in the woods and the other players have two or less, I will actually get four wood for my harvest.)
After placing workers, players then gather in their resources, swap player order (if anyone placed a worker in that area), collect income (based on constructed buildings), and pay taxes (which are based on a player’s points, so it doesn’t come into play until after the first of the three scoring rounds.) Players, in turn order, then may activate any special workers placed, build any buildings (by placing down a card from their hand and paying the resource cost) and end their turn by purchasing a new building card for 1 coin (if they wish.) When a building is built, a player puts one (sometimes two) building token on the appropriate type of building on the pentagonal board. At the end of the 3rd, 5th, and 7th rounds of play, players score points for holding majorities in each of the five sections of the board (5, 3, 1 points for first, second, third place) and also score points for the most workers of each type (including gnomes).
The game is a very interesting mix of mechanics. Clearly, players want to gather resources and build buildings (which usually have special powers to aid in a player’s resource production in some way) but scoring is only indirectly tied to buildings. A player must also wisely place their buildings in areas of the game board to grab majorities. One might wish to hoard resources in order to swoop in and claim majorities only at the end of each scoring round, but that requires giving up one or more turns of use for that building. With only seven turns in the entire game (six if you consider buildings can’t really be used until after they’re built), hoarding resources causes players to take a significant hit on that building’s production. For me, the jury is still out on the area majority portion of the game. I love the economic side of the game, but it seems to be mostly disconnected from the area majority scoring mechanic. Obviously, if you can gain more resources you can build more buildings, but until the last couple rounds the area portion of the game seems somewhat secondary.
The Exciting bits:
While gathering resources is important, the other locations available for workers are often more lucrative. Each section of the pentagonal board has a randomly selected worker location that can be used for the cost of one coin. These locations are chosen at the game start from three categories: resources (providing anything from a whopping four basic resources to cash), building (typically making things easier for building – including cheap workers or gnomes – explained later), and interaction (the vicious actions that range from the fairly tame card-stealing to the harsher money or resource stealing and the dreaded building-swap power.) When placing workers, players can pay a coin and place either type of worker on one of the board worker spaces and then gain that action later during their building turn. Since a player can virtually guarantee how many basic resources they will gain each turn, most of the player jostling occurs over fights for particularly nice special ability locations such as free workers, large resource bonuses, or (particularly later in the game) nasty player interactions.
Each building has special abilities that may contain locations for worker assignments. Players may also place workers here to gain those abilities during the building phase. This grants another side benefit, since players place workers in turn order until they run out of bonus locations for workers, THEN they must place all their workers assigned to resources all at once. This means players going last or having the most extra worker assignment spaces can have a better chance of placing workers to earn that resource “bonus” by wisely choosing to place one more worker at a site than any other player.
Even choosing which building to construct gives players some hard choices to make. In most games, players will average about one building per turn, thus quickly setting each player down a particular path towards a style of resource gathering. The buildings with the most powerful abilities tend not to generate cash, and in most games (depending on which five main worker locations selected at the start of the game) cash is quite tight. It is a hard balance
to make between gaining income, improving one’s resource gathering, or even aggressively going for area control. (A few of the buildings give little in the way of extra abilities but do allow placing of TWO building tokens on the board instead of just one – obviously a handy building to have in the end-game.) With income coming in before building (and after worker placement) it is important to save a few coins when building, just to be able to place one’s workers on some of the better spots in the next turn.
I mentioned Gnomes before, and they are a special kind of worker. Most buildings have some special effect, but almost all buildings have a special ability that can be “unlocked” only when a gnome worker is placed on that building. One gnome can be purchased per turn for the somewhat hefty price of 3 coins. There are a few other opportunities to aquire gnomes (one building produces them, and a worker creating location is sometimes present as one of the five open worker placement locations on the pentagonal board) but they are in limited supply and do require a bit of effort. However, using gnomes is key to getting the most out of your buildings. For example, some of the cheapest buildings in the game (Gardens and Pubs) produce 1 income but nothing else – until a gnome is placed on them. Then they instantly change a player’s worker (elf or dwarf, depending on the building) into a “super worker” which is entirely equivalent but collects TWICE the production on the production board. (So a super elf can collect two wood, pair with two dwarves to get two metal, or collect two coins.) Inns produce more dwarves or elves (for 1 coin if you place a worker on them) but can only be used if you first unlock it with a gnome. You can even earn more gnomes by building a tower, which grants more gnomes (but, again, only after you unlock it with a gnome in the tower…)
Final Thoughts on Gameplay:
I’ve got quite a few plays under my belt now, and I still haven’t tired of Belfort. My first few plays seemed somewhat disjointed, as my focus tended toward simply constructing buildings with powers I enjoyed. I lacked any strategic focus on placement of my buildings on the game board to acquire area majorities. I’ve since matured in my playing and have begun to see the importance of some of the less-exciting building powers (such as the gatehouse and the keep buildings that allow players to put TWO buildings on the board with one construction.) I also enjoy having a wide selection of powers to select from when deciding which five special ability worker spots are used on the central board. The game comes with four buildings of three types. One set grants resources (4 wood, 4 stone, a few coins, some metal), another set helps with building things (extra building cards, more workers, etc…) and the last set is the “interaction” set for those who like a bit more direct confrontation. This set allows players to steal building cards (not buildings), swap building locations on the board, and steal resources or money. With the three different sets, players can still randomly set up the game but tailor the game for the audience. With beginners, I tend to have few (if any) of the interaction powers, while experienced players who want a more aggressive game can use several. The “default” game is 1/2/2 of the resource/building/interaction powers. These powers make each game slightly different and prevent one single strategy from always prevailing.
A second bit of the game I’ve started to appreciate is the scoring. Yes, the buildings and area control seem a bit out of place to me in a resource engine type game, but they are closely tied to production. Early in the game, players are trying to build buildings that give them some production advantage, while late game the buildings that produce more building markers become very valuable. However, as the board fills up, one’s choices for building placement get even narrower so players may be forced to build somewhat useless buildings to try to aggressively take over control of areas of interest. In one recent game, our winner wasn’t even the best builder on the game board. He had slowly accumulated a massive pile of workers (elf, dwarf, and even gnomes) to sweep all three categories for points. (Whoever has the most of each type of worker earns 3 points, 1 point for second – whereas the five sides of the game board score 5/3/1 points for first, second, and third place.) This shows that the game has enough room for even non-building focused strategies to take place.
All is not simply a bed of roses. As an area control game, a bit of “bash the leader” can occur, it isn’t too bad as players tend to pick their area “battles” throughout the game and there is an opportunity to both build offensively (to increase one’s majority) or defensively (to fill in open slots in an area to prevent others from building.) There is already some leveling of the playing field, since the more points a player has (from the first two scoring rounds) the higher their tax level during the round. Score very well in the first two point rounds, and those last two turns can be a struggle to keep afloat with enough cash. (If you run out when paying taxes, you have to spend points to make up the difference.) While the last person or two to take a turn may be able to hurt one player more than another, I’ve found that the game seems to end in such a way that a player will have a clear choice that gives them the most points rather than having to find a decision that removes the most points from opponents. If it is a real problem for a player, then they should spend a worker the second to last round to change their position in the order to go last, assuring any plans they make aren’t entirely destroyed. While that is great for efficient use of one’s buildings to create area majorities, it may mean giving up on getting one of the last gnomes or building in a preferred location.
When all is said and done, in nearly every game it has been a tight finish. In all but one game the winner has only beat second place by 5 or fewer points. Combine a tight finish with an entertaining mid-game and you have a recipe for one of my current favorites (and thankfully a big favorite in my local club as well).
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:
Joe Huber (1 play): The fantasy theme of Belfort is not a plus for me, I must admit, but when a friend mentioned that it was his favorite new game from BGG.con, I wanted to give it a play. And – it definitely wasn’t awful, though combined with the theme it’s not a game I wish to play again. We initially were going to play the “advanced” game – but then saw the effects of some of the “advanced” cards, a couple of which are of the take-that variety, and opted for the basic game instead. Belfort does avoid one of the biggest issues I see with worker placement games – not being able to execute a plan because certain critical actions are limited – but as a result the game devolves, for me, to a not particularly interesting area majority game. On the whole, I suspect it’s a much better game for those who enjoy the fantasy theme and worker placement and area majority elements more than I do.
Larry Levy (1 play): I don’t think there’s anything particularly bad about Belfort, but the game didn’t engage me at all the one time I played it. One issue is that there’s very little that’s innovative about it, which is somewhat problematic in such a crowded field as Worker Placement games. Another thing is that it’s very much an efficiency game; usually that doesn’t bother me, but everything in Belfort is almost painfully balanced. I would be willing to give it another try, but with so many new games vying for my attention, it wouldn’t break my heart if that never happened.
Fraser McHarg (1 play): My one play was a while ago and I remember thinking that it was cute and that there seemed to be a fair bit going on and that different strategies could be played (in fact there were at least three very distinct strategies being followed in that five player game I played in). I was slightly concerned about if the cuteness of the 1st game influencing my opinion of it and was glad to see your comment “I’ve got quite a few plays under my belt now, and I still haven’t tired of Belfort.”. I recently got a copy in my loot from my Aus/NZ Secret Santa so hopefully will get some more plays in the future.
Dale Yu (4 plays): I’ve now played the game 4 times, and it is a pretty interesting worker placement game – it combines worker placement with area majority on the board to give a fairly streamlined game. The graphics and theme are done quite well, and the attractiveness of the game is certainly a positive. I like the fact that there are multiple scoring tracks, and this allows players to try to make the most of the actions they are able to win. Games tend to be very close all the way to the end, and in my four games, we have yet to have a runaway leader.
There are two things that keep this one from being an all-time favorite for me: game length and the “Interactive” cards. The Interactive cards are action cards which mostly introduce take-that actions to the game. I’m not a big fan of this sort of interaction in a worker placement game because it can really screw up your planning – and with only 5 turns in a game – if you get a turn mucked up due to a take-that card – you don’t have much time to recover from it. This is easily solved by simply removing the Interactive cards from setup so that you don’t have to worry about them — I have done that in my set. In fact, I have removed them from the box so that they can’t even be “accidentally” found and included in the game. My rating for the game: I like it – as long as the Interactive cards are out of the box. If they are in the game, this game would be Not for me…
The other issue is game length — my group tends to play games at a fairly rapid pace, and yet, we can’t seem to finish this game under two hours. A lot of the game length comes from turns near the end — the game is an efficiency game – so you can spend a lot of time looking at the board to min/max your play. There doesn’t seem to be a good way to speed this up – because the game mechanics want you to take time to min/max things. Usually, because the games are close, you don’t notice the downtime, but when you do notice it, it can drag on a bit. The average length of the game (>2hr for 4 or 5p game) is a bit longer to balance out what I get out of it – though, it’s not so long that I don’t want to play the game any more. I just wish we could get it in around 90 mins.
Belfort is a very good effort from Cormier/Lim and TMG, and definitely will make me keep an eye out for future releases from both the design pair as well as the publisher.
Rick Thornquist (2 Plays): One thing that I think should be mentioned about Belfort: the graphic design is outstanding. There are a decent amount of rules in this game, but it’s hard to go wrong with the very clear graphic design and the excellent player aids. I found the game itself, on the whole, to be quite good. There’s not a great deal new here, but what is here works very nicely.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!…
I like it… Matt Carlson, Fraser McHarg, Dale Yu, Rick Thornquist
Neutral… Larry Levy
Not for me… Joe Huber, Tom Rosen, James Miller