Belfort Review

So, I am pleased to introduce you to Board Game Reviews by Josh's first guest reviewer - Chris Casinghino.  Chris plays games with me on a regular basis in Philadelphia, and we seem to have similar tastes in games.  He told me one day that he liked "the new and the shiny" when it comes to games, and what better way to try out those new games than to help write blog posts, right?  Anyway... off to his review of Belfort!

Belfort game in play

The castle of Belfort needs constructing, but there’s a problem: the King has accidentally hired several architects instead of just one.  You must outdo the other architects by recruiting the most Dwarves, Elves and Gnomes and using them to construct as much of the castle as possible before Winter comes.

Belfort combines worker placement mechanics with area majority scoring.  The game occurs over 7 rounds where players use their workers at spaces in the city to gain resources and more workers.  Each round, players can use their resources to construct parts of the castle, unlocking new action spaces.  Players earn points both for having constructed the most buildings in each section of the castle and for having recruited the most workers of each type.  A scoring phase occurs at the end of the third, fifth and seventh rounds, and players who have been more successful will owe more taxes to the King in subsequent rounds.

While Belfort isn’t the first game to combine the worker placement and area control mechanics (see Alien Frontiers and Dominant Species) I found the implementation to be very fun and elegant, with plenty of neat little ideas.  For example, when players build a new section of the castle they both place a marker on the board (for area control) and unlock a new action space that only their workers may use.  These buildings come in 10 types, each with a different cost and providing a different action space or benefit.  Players start the game with a hand of three building cards, and can get more as the game goes on.  Restricting players to a hand of buildings elegantly prevents the number of choices from becoming overwhelming while still leaving enough room for strategic play.

player board for Belfort
A player board
There are a couple other gameplay elements that I really enjoyed.  First, players who earn more points in early rounds will owe more “taxes” in later rounds.  This very simple catch-up mechanic is helpful to players who get behind early without feeling burdensome or unfair to the leaders.  Second, the game comes with a collection of 12 action spaces called “guilds”, but you only play with five each time.  These spaces are often quite powerful, and they change the game in exciting ways.  Each game I’ve played has felt quite different, so I think the guilds really enhance replayability.  They are divided into three types (“basic”, “resource” and “interactive”), so you can customize the game by picking more guilds of the types you like.  This is also a great avenue for future expansions (in fact, TMG has already put out some promotional guilds).

Considering the strategic depth of the game, the rules are very easy to learn and teach.  The rule book is excellent both for learning and as a reference, with a table of contents and lots of nice big pictures
that make it easy to find what you’re looking for.  As a bonus, it’s packed with humor and was a delight to read.  It’s easily the best rule book I’ve read this year.  The player boards are well laid-out
and very helpful - the designers managed to pack in reminders for the starting set-up, the round structure, the cost of all the buildings and the scoring on each board all without making them feel cluttered.

Belfort game pentagonal board
Belfort's pentagonal board
The other components are wonderful as well.  The artwork on the boards and pieces is bright, colorful and whimsical.  Unusually, the main castle board is a large pentagon, and the fifths slide apart for easy scoring of each section.  There’s a lot of nice cardboard in here - in addition to the castle, there are two other boards with action spaces and five player boards.  The player pieces are thick wood and the game comes with nice Elf, Dwarf and Gnome stickers for the workers.  Overall the game is very nicely produced and packed with fun bits; I was surprised when I saw how much came in the box.

The game does have one problem, which is its length and the amount of downtime.  The box says it plays in 90-120 minutes, but that’s optimistic for your first games (especially with 4 or 5 players).  Our first four-player game took nearly three hours.  More, there is a substantial amount of downtime.  During the “action” phase, each player takes as many actions of various types as they would like (building properties or recruiting gnomes, for example).  Other players must wait for them to finish, and if you are playing with many “interactive” guilds it can get tricky to plan your turn ahead of time. This can get particularly bad in scoring rounds, where AP-prone players (Josh's note: AP or "Analysis Paralysis" is when a player has so many potential decisions that he cannot choose which one to perform) may spend a long time calculating how each possible combination of actions will change their score.  Our subsequent games have been a bit quicker, but with players who have trouble keeping a game moving consider leaving out the interactive guilds or leaving this game on the shelf.

With fun, strategic game play, beautiful production and an exceptional rule book, I’d recommend Belfort to almost any gamer.  Everyone should try it, and it’s a must-buy for fans of deep worker-placement games.
9/10

Board Game Reviews by Josh would like to thank Tasty Minstrel Games for providing us with a review copy of Belfort, and, of course, would like to thank Chris for his great review!

If Belfort sounds interesting to you, you might also check out Stone Age, Caylus, and Age of Empires III.

8 comments:

  1. I have this game, but have yet to play. Your review is very helpful.

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  2. Great review! Question, when game companies send you games to review, do you get to keep the game afterwards? Just curious! Keep up the great work!

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  3. I agree with you about downtime and game length. My wife and I have yet to finish a game, even with just two players. For all it's got going for it, we're having a hard time getting excited about it. We'll come back to it again, I'm sure.

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    1. Hmm - I think you might find the game a little more exciting with more players. Having more people interacting and competing for territory makes things a little more interesting. I haven't tried the 2-player game yet, though!

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  4. Edna - Generally, yes, though it really depends on the situation. I have actually had one game (Wok Star) that had only had a small print run which sold out. The designer was actually willing to send me his copy to play and review, and then I mailed it back to him afterwards!

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