Oh! The Bureaucracy – A review of Belfort

In Belfort by Tasty Minstrel Games you play a Master Builder chosen by the city planners to provide the city with the buildings and districts that will be a testimony to the glory that is Belfort. However, due to a minor (minuscule really, no reason to knock it up to the administrative offices) bureaucratic error, the planners hired all the builders. Now we have an issue – one city, five districts, 2-5 competing Master Builders and their crews of snotty elves, drunk dwarves, and meticulous gnomes. The only way to make it through is to start gathering resources, forming guilds, constructing buildings and trying to gobble up the choice pieces of property in each district. Get moving people! This ancient, mystical wood ain’t gonna deforest itself! These hill-giants won’t strip-mine without proper supervision! Paper needs pushing…forms need to be notarized…

Basics:

Designer: Jay Cormier, Sen-Foong Lim
Players: 2-5
Game Length: 120 minutes
Ages: 12+
Category: City Building, Economic, Fantastically Ineffectual Bureaucracy, Stupid Gnomes
Mechanic: Area Control/Majority, Worker Placement, Drunken Dwarves

How do I play?

The goal of Belfort is simple…hire workers, gather resources, build buildings and gain a majority in as many cities districts as you can. All while keeping an eye on the taxes you will need to pay, the buildings and guilds available, and don’t forget those horrible, horrible, horrible gnomish bureaucrats.

Belfort-game-componentsSet-up: Oh my! Set-up is a bear. In fact, the one thing keeping this game off of my table were the insane amount of bits and pieces that come in the box. This isn’t a huge problem but new players may be a tad bit intimidated by the shear avalanche of stuff that will be spread out on the table. So…bottom line, this game comes with a veritable gnomish explosion of bits. Also the modular, 5-district, Game Board plus the Calendar Board plus the Collection Board and then the individual Player Boards tend to shock new players into a coma. Everything is wonderfully illustrated, well designed and high quality. Generally, I am not a huge fan of fantasy tropes in my games (this is despite being a huge fan of fantasy fiction and shouldering a young adulthood of RPGs). However, Josh Cappel’s amazing graphic design and artwork on this game will turn anyone’s head – even those who prefer more realistic settings. The artwork is welcoming and endearing.

The set up goes something like this:

  1. Place the 5 Game Boards together to create a pentagon. The scoring track that circles the boards should be intact in numerical order.
  2. Put the Collection Board next to the Game Board and pile the resources next to the appropriate spots.
  3. Choose Guild tiles and place them on the Guild spaces on the game board.
  4. Place the Calendar board next…..

By the Gods! OK. Listen…read the instructions for the rest or watch a video. Watch It Played has an AMAZING tutorial that is absolutely mandatory viewing for new players. We played it with 5 newbies and one experienced moderator and everyone appreciated the video to get them started. Even then it takes a round or two to get everyone moving. This is the most challenging element of the Belfort and well worth the effort. The massive footprint of the game can chase newcomers off as can the amount of mechanisms and decision space in the game.

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDCR-sLLKhc%5D

Belfort-collection-board-close-upSpeaking of a dwarven ton of mechanisms, in Belfort you primarily have worker placement, area control, resource and management, and variable turn order to spread your cognitive ability across like so much jam on toast. For fans of Stone Age, Lords of Waterdeep, and The Manhattan Project, the worker-placement element of the game is fairly straight forward. Your workforce consists of elves and dwarves, each of which can do some similar and specialized actions. The iconography of the board is shockingly simple and well done to facilitate placement. The various locations around the districts (the guilds for example) will have a circle and a square which means either elf (circle) or dwarf (square) can take an action there. The Resource Board has similar markings with elves able to cut down trees for lumber and dwarves mine ore but both skill are required for other actions. Elf and Dwarf workers can also be promoted to Master status to collect more resources than their lesser brethren. Gnomes have the ability to unlock the bureaucracy of certain locations to allow newly constructed building to open for business. Most of the newbies in my group loved this element of the game and were quickly able to fall right into the strategy of the specialized abilities of each fantasy race and the importance of hiring and placing these dependent upon the player’s overall strategy.

My one complaint is that the variable turn order is critical to the the strategy of worker placement and it tended to be forgotten by new players and will totally be taken advantage by the experienced players. During the placement phase of the game, players can choose to place a worker in the King’s Camp. I assume to gain the King’s favor and thus move up in the turn order. However, going first is not always the best tactical place to be. This provides a nice balance of tactical and strategic thinking that most experienced players will relish in but many newbies will struggle with slightly. The fact that, at times, especially near the end of the game, it is more advantageous to see what other players are doing rather than going first. This allows more flexibility and more tactical variety. While this led to many newbies in having a tough time near the end of the game, it was a point of strategy that could be explained during the game or afterwards during a debrief. My concern was that this subtly would detract from the game or cause some frustration. However, the pure joy of placing a worker to gain a benefit tended to outshine any lapses in decision-making.

Belfort-board-close-upAnother element to the gameplay is hand management. So, not only are players managing resources in order to construct buildings and jockeying for turn order, but they also must make a determination of which buildings to purchase and hold in their hand. At the beginning of the game each player is drafted three property cards which represent the potential buildings located in each district. Similar to the guilds within the district, each building provides certain abilities for the player who construct and then opens/unlocks the building (via a Gnome). In order to build the correct buildings to gain majority in each of the districts, players need to choose the cards and buildings in a manner which allows for optimum control of the city. Cards require certain resources, money, and may need a Gnome (those dastardly gnomes) to unlock the bureaucratic red tape in order to provide the benefit of the building and place your influence into a district. Most cards allow for one building in a district but some such as the Gatehouse allow for one building in two adjacent districts and the Keep allows for two buildings in one district when constructed. Other buildings allow for a single building as well as some added benefit that may be activated once or repeatedly with a placed worker.

Lets talk about guilds, shall we? So far Belfort is hella heavy in the Euro category but the guilds provide a bit of excitement and are one of my favorite parts of the game. First of all, one random Guild tile is placed in each district for a total of five. This provides for some increased variability in play and can, potentially, change the strategy for a game and increase player interaction. This shift away from playing an optimization game really appealed to me. The Guilds are categorized into basic, interactive or resource types but the interactive types really make the game fun. I like the Spies’ Guild which causes all other players to reveal one card from their hands and then the activating player can choose one. The Wizards’ Guild allows the activating player to switch two locations of the same type and switch ownership and, lastly, the Bandits’ Guild allows for thievery. Some games can be completely free of these elements, while others can be chock full of them.

belfort_ensadesFinally, the last element of this game is area control/majority. Each building you construct provides you with abilities but it also provides you with some added influence in the district you choose to construct the building. When I think of area control/majority I usually conjure up an image of Tammany Hall with the constant ebb and flow of influence becoming almost impossible to track. Belfort is different in that the potential area for expansion is small enough that you need to be cautious about placement but can easily track the strategy of everyone on the board. Since I am fresh off of a few games of Alien Frontier, I found the area control/majority element of both games to be very similar with a limited amount of placement for huge payoffs. During the scoring rounds of the game, the players with the majority in each district garner 5 points. Second place gets 3 points. Since the scoring rounds are during the 3rd, 5th and 7th rounds (marked on the calendar by a big red “X”) players will spend the preceding rounds building up influence and planning for a big push right at the end.

Goodness, so much stuff and so many moving parts! Before I continue, I should reiterate that this game is [can be] friendly to newcomers to Euro-games while still providing enough depth for experienced players. However, it serves better as an step up from a gateway worker-placement games such as Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep but before T’zolkin or Yedo. Give at least one practice round to teach everyone the mechanics and understand how they interact with each other.

Let’s briefly talk about the phases of the game.

  • Calendar Phase: Move the Calendar Marker up by one. If the month is marked by a big red “X” then it is a round is punctuated by a fifth scoring phase.
  • Placement Phase: According to turn order, players assign workers to locations on the game board (guilds), cards or the collection board for resources. Only one worker is placed at a time unless the player goes all in and ends their turn by placing all remaining workers on the collection board for resources.
  • Collection Phase: Players collect their workers, starting with resources, the recruitment center and the King’s camp.
  • Action Phase: In turn order, players take actions. (building walls, properties, and/or guilds, activating workers on the Game Board, using the trading post, hiring a Gnome, and lastly, buy a Property card.
  • Scoring Phase: If the round is marked on the calendar be a large red “X” then players enter a scoring phase and score points for majority city district and worker majority.

What did you think?

Components: Nice heavy wooden components and I love the square vs. circle (dwarf vs. elf) to determine placement of workers. There are stickers to place and some people hate placing stickers on pieces but the bits are chunky enough that it could be done easily enough. The pentagon board can be a pain when pieces slide around and this will happen when people are constantly reaching over it to place workers on the Resource Board or trying to pick up cards. It isn’t a huge issue but evidently people have constructed a wooden board to hold everything together so I suppose some people have issues. The game has a big footprint and will take up some table space.

Gameplay: This is a very tactical game with a seemingly, at first, random hodge-podge of mechanisms thrown in. At first glance, Belfort seemed to suffer from design by committee with extra mechanisms added on a whim. I was worried that the hand/resource management, area control and worker placement elements of the game would be too clunky and cumbersome for my group. Especially when they are used to smoother worker placements like Coal Baron or Stone Age. However, after the first few rounds the gameplay is surprisingly fluid and the interactions of the mechanism are chaotic at times but that allowed for more depth and a nice space with multiple strategies and plenty of tactical decisions. The big question for me was whether or not Belfort was a good second tier worker-placement game for those emerging gamers who have already done Lords of Waterdeep and Stone Age. With the groups I played complete newcomers, emerging, and experienced gamers had a great time playing and were willing to play past the first two learning rounds. The gameplay is accessible but a moderator or experienced gamer was helpful in teaching the game. It has a bit of a learning curve which is not insurmountable but assume that you need some extra time, a few videos and some patience for that first play through.  Since the interaction between the elements of gameplay were not too interconnected, the decision space did not get too cluttered. It fell back to (1) gather resources, (2) buy buildings (3) Place buildings where they give you a majority. While this strategy, by itself would not guarantee victory, it allowed new players a nice strategy to fall back on as they learned the game. Compare this to Euphoria where the sum of the mechanisms introduced into the game tended to multiply the decisions space to the point where newbies were lost, Belfort is a bit more accessible. And unlike Stone Age which can get formulaic after a few plays, Belfort relies on the guilds and property cards to add some replayability and increased player interaction. It was refreshing and pairs well with Alien Frontiers.

Theme: When asked whether the game was actually about elves and dwarves and gnomes, I explained that it wasn’t. The theme of the game is managing the bumpy road of bureaucracy with fantasy creatures. And here the theme integrated well. Taxes are a pain. Growth can make you a target, and it helps to play with your plans close to your chest. The design is delightful and I love Josh Cappel’s artwork and iconography. The cuteness of the characters allows for the theme to be more accessible to players not usually attracted to fantasy themed games.

Bottom Line: Worker placement knocked up a notch. It plays the line between complex and complicated. The added number of elements introduced into the games system can look intimidating but generally players were comfortable with the decision space and the added ability to just go “all in” on the Resource Board was oddly comforting at times. The mechanics, when taken separately, are simple and, when combined, add to the gameplay without making the system too complicated.

Would you rather?

Would you rather play Belfort or Stone Age?

The gameplay in Belfort is accessible for beginners but I still will fall back on Stone Age for the gateway into worker placement. Although, after one or two plays with Stone Age, I will jump a group right into Belfort for the added mechanisms and player interaction. If you are asking me whether I would prefer to play Belfort over Stone Age then the answer is Yes.

Would you rather play Belfort or Lords of Waterdeep?

The theme in Belfort is more attractive to me than Lords of Waterdeep. Belfort gets the fantasy feel across well without burying players in magic-users and Owlbears. The cute artwork is attractive to everyone and masks what can be a bit of a mean game. Both have nice replayability. But, in a pinch, I would go with Belfort if I have the time to set up and teach the game. If I am limited on time and people have decent vision, then Lords of Waterdeep.

Would you rather play Belfort or Castle Panic?

They are completely different games but I like the idea that the castle from Castle Panic looks like the city from Belfort and I think the two should be played together. First you build the city in Belfort and then you protect it from monsters in Castle Panic as the beasties from the woods come in waves to knock down your walls.

Alien Frontiers or Belfort?

Both! They introduce some more thematic elements and player interaction while keeping a tight Euro-base of gameplay. If I had a group that were primarily Euro gamers and I wanted to subversively herd them to space epics and dungeon delves then I would keep these two games in reserve.

Any issues?

The game looks intimidating but much like Ernest Hemingway, is a teddy bear at heart. It can play a bit long but can be shortened easily enough by only playing 5 rounds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: