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Belfort

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Tasty Minstrel Games, 2-5 players, ages 13 to adult, 90-120 minutes; $59.95)

 

It seems that even fantasy lands have to deal with the bungling of bureaucracies. In this particular kingdom, it turns out there has been an “error” by the powers that be in doling out the job of constructing the castle of Belfort, the veritable jewel in the crown of the kingdom. Instead of one Master Architect doing the work, there are now multiple Master Architects competing to do the job. Players, as those Master Architects, vie to exert their influence as they increase their workforce of Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes to better construct – and amass Victory Points – in each of the castle’s five districts in Belfort, the new game designed by Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim.

belfortboxBelfort comes in a large bookshelf box so heavy that you think that, perhaps, a few of the bricks used to build the castle are inside. Not so. Instead, what we have here is a deck of Property cards, Guild tiles, five sets of wooden markers (in different colors), Gnome pieces, resource pieces, player boards, a “Calendar Board”, a “Collection Board” and a main game board which depicts Belfort castle.

This main game “board” is actually comprised of five virtually identical segments giving an “aerial view” of the castle with spaces for buildings to fill. Within the castle are five “Guild” areas and Guild tiles are placed in those areas. (More on them later.) The starting workforce of each player consists of 3 Elves (circular pieces) and 3 Dwarves (squares). As the game progresses, that workforce will grow including the hiring of Gnomes for special tasks. Property cards depict the various buildings that may be constructed in the castle along with their cost and special abilities once activated. The Property Card deck is shuffled and each player dealt 5 cards, keeping 3 of them with the remainder discarded. Three Property Cards are then placed face up for all to see. Players also receive 12 property markers in their chosen color and a scoring marker which begins at 0 on the scoring track.

You need resources to build and each player receives some to start: 1 Wood, 2 Stone, 1 Metal and 5 Gold. They also receive (randomly for the first turn) a turn order crest which sets turn order for the turn. The crest is placed on each player’s individual board which also serves to help players arrange resources and workers as well as being a first class play aid. The Calendar Board and a “Collection Board” complete the playing areas.

Five phases make a round: Calendar (where you advance the round marker to mark the beginning of the next round), Placement, Collection, Actions and Scoring.

In turn order, each player places one worker on one of several available areas. For example, workers may be placed on the Collection Board. The Collection Board is divided into several sections: The Recruiter’s Desk allows players to expand their workforce by recruiting another worker (an Elf if an Elf is placed there, a Dwarf if a Dwarf is placed there instead). Available spaces for recruiting are determined by the number of players in the game. The King’s Camp portion of the Collection Board enables turn order to be reset by players committing workers there. Alternatively, a worker may be placed on one of the Guilds.

belfortboardThere are three varieties of Guilds: Basic (which grant useful bonuses such as being able to recruit another worker, draw Property cards or build an unclaimed Property without the required Property card), Resource (which offer resources in bulk) and Interactive (which allows players to directly affect others as they enable you to swipe resources or Property cards from your unlucky opponents). Of the 12 Guilds available, only 5 will be in play during the game. Depending on taste (and the degree of “take that” you like in your games), you can randomly or deliberately select which Guilds to use. But no matter which Guild a player wishes to claim, placement costs 1 Gold (payable to the bank OR to the player who has previously built it). A worker may also be placed on a Property card a player has previously constructed. Property cards offer a host of benefits, some better than others, of course, but all good.

If a player has workers left over after committing them to his locations of choice, final placement MUST be in the Resource area of the Collection Board to get additional resources: Wood, Stone, Metal or Gold. (The player with the most workers in a particular resource area is rewarded with a +1 bonus of that resource.) Finally, players receive income (many built Property Cards generate gold) and then must pay taxes.

Taxes are one of the clever design touches in Belfort that tends to balance play. Taxes are not based simply on wealth bur rather on your scoring track position. When the game first begins, players pay no taxes. But as they become more successful and their scores increase, so do the taxes they need to pay in Gold. Can’t pay? Then for each Gold you are short, your scoring marker moves back 1 VP. Now players take actions.

belfortcardThis is where the Master Architect that each player wishes to be needs to rise to the occasion. Each player, in turn order, does ALL the actions he or she wishes to do from an extensive menu. This is when a player may build properties by paying the listed resources on a card in his hand, placing that card down in his play area and placing one of his colored build markers on any of the corresponding spaces in Belfort. (There are five cards for each type of building, one of each in each of the five segments of the castle). Each marker placed increases that player’s influence in that district. Property cards also grant special abilities.

Most Property cards have an area (a “plank” in game terms) that may be occupied by an Elf or Dwarf which bestows a helpful bonus if activated. If occupied during the Placement phase, that special ability may be used when taking actions. Once the action is done, the Elf or Dwarf returns to the player to be used on future turns. Many Property Cards also have a second area called a “Gnome Lock” which can only be “unlocked” by placing a Gnome there. During the Action phase, a player may hire a Gnome (only ONE per turn for 3 Gold) and IMMEDIATELY place him on an unoccupied “Gnome Lock” on one of his built Property Cards. These Locks grant additional benefits and they, too, are all good. (Unlike the Elves and Dwarves, however, once placed, Gnomes stay where they are.) This Property Card duality makes hiring of Gnomes more important than just the generation of Victory Points; they make your workforce more effective and this can make a big difference in your quest to construct more and more buildings in the castle.

Other action options include building walls (at the cost of 3 Wood and 3 Stone, the advantage being that they count for influence in a district but do not require a Property card to build), building Guilds (in effect, “buying” them by cashing in the required resources so that players deciding to go there on future turns have to pay the owner and not the bank for the privilege), visit the Trading Post (where resources may be bought and/or sold but no more than 1 buy and sell may be done per turn). The last possible action to take, and if taken, the last one you can take on a turn, is to buy a Property Card, either from the three already on display or as a blind “pull” from the draw deck. Once all players have taken actions and IF this is the 3rd, 5th of 7th round of play, we score.

There are two ways to score in Belfort – via District Majority and Worker Majority. Each of the five districts of the castle are scored separately. The player with the most Property markers in each District (counting Property, Wall and Guild areas) receives 5 points, second place 3 and third place 1. A similar thing is done for the workforce with the player with the most Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes getting 3 points and second most worth 1. Ties? Ties are UNFRIENDLY. If you’re tied for first, both player score SECOND PLACE points! At the end of the 7th turn and final scoring, the player with the most points wins!

Expanding your workforce is a key priority in the game as it, in effect, gives you extra actions each turn. Recruiting more workers can be done in a variety of ways (from the Collection board, activating specific Property cards and hiring Gnomes). Elves and Dwarves can also be “upgraded” by activating the appropriate Property card to make an Elf or Dwarf a “Master” and worth 2 when collecting resources, helpful in getting more for your workers and, possibly, helping you get a resource bonus.

The variability of the Guild tiles in each game makes for different game dynamics and can impact on your strategy. Choosing to build a Guild, thereby claiming it (no card is needed for that) helps in increasing presence in a district and can create a steady revenue stream if the Guild has an ability that has been demonstrated as being in demand.

Jockeying for position in each of the five districts can make for some difficult choices; you won’t be able to dominate everywhere so you need to know when to press an advantage and when to retreat gracefully. This can also result in some Property cards being less/more valuable based on how their construction impacts on your influence in a district. (With ties being unfriendly, it’s best to be sure you can hold an edge in influence before turning your attention elsewhere.) The rulebook contains a very thorough description and explanation of each of the Property Cards and Guild tiles. (It would have been nice to provide a similar rundown for each player for easy reference throughout the game but the icons are pretty self-evident after a play or two.) The game scales well with 3 to 5 players (and has special rules for 2 players that also work) and although the game can run long (especially with five players), time flies by as Belfort holds your interest throughout.

While the catalyst for Belfort is fantasy bureaucratic bungling, the reality is that Belfort, the game, is quite the opposite. This is a game that expertly combines tried and true game mechanics with a few twists of its own that, aided by some excellent and top notch graphics, makes for an extremely well crafted experience. Recommended.

 


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