Friday, October 7, 2011

Belfort: From the Ground Up

Belfort is a new strategy game from first time designers Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim. The game development was done by Seth Jaffe (Eminent Domain) and the artwork and rulebook were done by Josh Cappel (Wasabi and many others). The game was published by Tasty Minstrel Games and was first available to the general public at Gen Con 2011. It was one of only two new releases I bought at the convention (with the other being Hibernia from Vainglorious Games). I wasn’t necessarily planning on buying either game, but after Michael Mindes did a demo at the con and I saw the components, I was quickly sold.

First off, let me congratulate the entire Belfort team on an excellent game that I predict will land in the BGG top 50 after it becomes widely available. Why? Because the game has all the makings of a big hit: the most well-written rules I have seen in a long time, fantastic art, excellent components, entirely reasonable playtime, a bit of randomness, and a lot of replayability. Another important point to make about Belfort is that the rules themselves are very straightforward and streamlined, even if they hadn't been documented so well. I have a lot of respect for the folks that worked on this game.


Belfort comes with a main board representing the city (comprised of five separate wedge-shaped segments that are put together to form a pentagon), five player aids, a resource collection board, and a calendar board (to keep track of turns and to store gnomes and cards). There is also a deck of 50 property cards and 12 guild tiles. The iconography on the boards, cards, and tiles is very clear, and the player aids put everything essential right at the players' fingertips. The text is in English only, but is very easy to read (and some of it is humorous!)

The artwork on the stickers, boards, and other game materials is plentiful, colorful, bright, and fun. The board is very detailed, too, with touches that remind me a little of some of the Agricola tiles (one of the Inns on the board appears to have a flying saucer beside it). The art in the rulebook, and its layout, are similarly top-notch. Visually appealing, easy-to-read fonts have been used throughout and there are plenty of colorful examples on every page. Josh did a super job with this and with making the game shine visually.

And then there are the bits. To be sure, Belfort has a lot of components, over 300 of them. You’ve got resources (wood, stone, metal), money chits, elf and dwarf discs for five players, houses for each player to mark properties he's built, scoring markers, gnome tokens, and more. There are so many components that I think the box could have stood to have been a little bigger.

The quality of the bits is excellent, although I'm not exactly sure what they're made out of. It seems to be a composite material or some type of compressed wood, rather than what I am used to seeing. The metal resources are decorated with a silvery metallic paint, which is a really nice touch. I was a little consternated at first when I learned the worker discs (elves, dwarves) and the gnome tokens (pentagonal!) must be stickered with 142 stickers (took me about 90 minutes). But after you've played the game, you won't mind having done the extra work. Plus, I prefer the stickered discs to a cardboard chit or an undecorated wood token.


As previously mentioned, the rulebook is one of the most clearly-written ones I have read in a long time, and they are very well thought out. At the risk of using too much hyperbole, I find the game to be of the same caliber as some of the classic Euros here on the 'geek. You will have undoubtedly seen the core game mechanics used elsewhere (worker placement, resource gathering, area majority), but they have been combined here very effectively. There is really nothing in the rules that I would view as non-essential.

There are also no rules "patches", with the sole possible exception of the two-player rules. While this variant is documented clearly enough in the rulebook, it feels somewhat like a band-aid for a game that is better played with three to five players.

Without further ado, let's get into some of the details of the game. I won't rehash all the specifics of the rules here (you can download it in the files section on the game entry page if you're interested), but I do want to give a clear feel for basic game play.

Game Play

Each player takes on the role of a group of dwarves and elves working to build a medieval city (don't leave, stay with me!), with the help of some gnomes-for-hire. The goal of the game is to have the largest workforce and/or construct the most buildings in the five districts around the city (these are the two ways to score points). The game is played over seven turns, each of which has a worker placement phase, a resource collection phase, and an action phase. Turns three, five, and seven also have scoring phases.

In the game, the players' dwarves and elves can be placed as workers to collect resources. The game has only three resources: dwarves collect stone, elves collect wood, and together they can collect metal. Either can also collect gold. In addition, elves can be upgraded to master elves, and dwarves to master dwarves, to collect the resources more efficiently.

(Image credit: jtemple)

After resources are collected, players who opted to recruit new elves or dwarves retrieve them from the supply, and any player who opted to take a new place in the turn order does so by swapping turn order badges with any other player. I have not come across a game where turn order can be rearranged with quite as much flexibility, and it is something I have yet to explore to determine its utility. Any turn order changes go into effect beginning immediately.

The tail end of the resource collection phase also has an income/upkeep step where players earn income for their buildings, but must pay taxes according to how well they are doing (e.g. how many VPs they have). This makes complete sense thematically, since points are awarded to players based on the number of workers they've hired and properties they've built. This upkeep step doesn't have the oppressive that some other games do (I won’t mention Agricola by name).

Another thing elves and dwarves can do is visit one of five guilds around the city, which are represented by tiles on the board and are randomly chosen from a pool of 12 at the start of the game. The guilds give special abilities, such as granting resources or an extra worker, much like the brown and gray buildings in Caylus. A player who becomes a guild master (by building the guild headquarters) can visit that guild for free or can instead gain income from other players when they visit.

Players can also construct buildings around the city (using the resources their elves and dwarves have collected) and then visit some of them on subsequent turns by placing workers to gain the benefits they bestow. Some of the buildings give extra benefits by placing a gnome-for-hire on them. I won't go into all the benefits that each of the different property types grant, but they seem to be fairly well-balanced. There is a thread on BGG that discusses the pros and cons of each, and the best time to build them. It is the cards in a player's hand that govern what he buildings he can erect.

Once completed, players will also place a house token on the corresponding board space in any of the five districts of the city that are free, attempting to gain the majority of buildings in as many districts as possible. The districts are mirror images of one another (logically, not visually); each contains exactly one of the ten building types (the 50 cards). Later in the game, choices of district become more limited if the same building type has already been built multiple times. While not a huge consideration, it may factor into the player's decision of what buildings to construct.

Gnomes, who can be hired by players who have enough money to do so, are able to do specialized work that cannot be done by the elves or dwarves, granting the player an extra benefit or two, which I've already touched on. They might allow the player to promote a standard worker to a master worker or to draw extra property cards. But there are a limited number of gnomes in the game, so players should hire them while they can.

The game also has a trading post where players can buy and sell resources, but at a reduced rate of exchange and not without restriction. Players can also buy new property cards to replace the ones they've built.

Lastly, as mentioned, points are scored at the end of the third, fifth, and seventh turns. They are awarded for having majorities in two categories: buildings and workers (with elves, dwarves, and gnomes being scored separately). Scoring really couldn't be any simpler and that is something I like.

My Thoughts

Belfort is a very strong offering from Tasty Minstrel. Jay and Sen-Foong have put together a solid combination of mechanics. The game is immensely enjoyable and I don't look at my watch when I play or feel like I need a calculator or scratchpad to take notes. I like that the game has multiple phases, with each one offering a different level of player interaction and requiring a different type of thinking.

The placement phase provides external tension as players vie against each other for the most beneficial guilds, as well as the worker recruitment and turn order spaces. All of these areas are likely to be hotly contested, as only one player can take each spot. I like the fact that this phase also offers players some noncontentious options as well: they can also place workers onto their own cards, safe from their opponents' workers (unlike a game like Le Havre). The placement of workers on the resource area of the collection board imparts a slightly different sort of tension, with no one wanting to make the first move. There will undoubtedly be some amount of AP during this placement phase with players who are prone to it, especially in later turns, but I am personally not bothered too much by it so far.

The action phase feels like more of a solitary exercise, which I can see as a complaint being leveled against the game, especially with higher player counts. In this phase, each player resolves his worker placement actions, hires his gnomes, performs special card abilities, constructs and places his buildings (in any order) and finally optionally buys a new property card. Play then moves on to the next player who does the same. It is worth noting that the game comes with four "interactive" guilds, which do add a small amount of player interaction into the mix, such allowing a player to steal resources or cards from an opponent.

Doing all this requires making many small decisions, a modicum of spatial perception and analysis, and quite a bit of thinking ahead to the next turn, which I really like and admire. It can be easy to forget things in this phase, like buying and placing a gnome or saving a gold or two for the next turn. Early and mid-game turns are relatively quick if players have prepared well, but in the final two turns of the game, it can take much longer for a player to complete his actions. With a three- or four-player game, I don't see it as being too much of an issue; with five, I can see it becoming a problem for some groups.

Belfort is a strategic game, with some short-term tactics, a combination that I really appreciate. While there are multiple paths to victory, players may find their strategies somewhat dictated by the selection of guilds in play and the cards they draw, particularly the first five. I can see a variety of different strategies emerging as the game gains a following and players post them in the forums. I can also foresee a mathematical analysis being done in some form or fashion in the not-too-distant future.

All in all, I really like this game (as I'm sure you can tell), and I can see the potential for it quickly becoming a favorite game. I should know after a few more plays.