Historically, I don’t like games that don’t have dice. Back in the day, I used to “play” Dungeons and Dragons and the Marvel Super Heroes RPG…but by “play,” I mean “make characters and then not use them,” because the generation process consisted mostly of rolling dice. Whether or not that points to some sort of innate gambling problem or what, I don’t know, but that was definitely the case. The last year or two has significantly changed my feelings on this, with my introduction to, and love of, Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne.
When looking at the Tasty Minstrel Games release Belfort, I got the feeling that it might be similar to those other games I had come to love, and since other TMG games (Eminent Domain, Martian Dice, Train of Thought, Jab), had received very good reviews on this site, I was pretty psyched to give it a whirl. My anticipation did not go unrewarded.
Belfort is a game of strategy and building…and Dwarves and Elves…and occasionally Gnomes…and many, MANY game pieces. Upon opening the game my friends and I were immediately excited and mildly alarmed at how much the game employs. Fortunately, it also comes with an easy-to-follow and well-illustrated instruction book that leaves very little confusion as to how to set up and play. The idea behind the game is simple enough: Multiple supervisors (that’d be the players) have accidentally been contracted to build the new Castle Belfort, and whoever completes building the most parts of the Castle gets the key to the city. To do this, each player must hire the best team of workers (made up of the aforementioned Dwarves, Elves, and Gnomes), while acquiring the necessary resources (wood, stone, metal, and gold).
Each player starts with 3 Dwarves, 3 Elves, 5 gold, and one each of wood, stone, and metal. They also get 3 Location Cards, which depict different structures within the Castle that each player is trying to build. The Castle/board is in five equal sections, with each section being identical in the Locations that can be built. Within each section, there is a spot for a Guild, of which there are 12 and each giving the occupying player some sort of reward. After the Guilds are selected (which you can do randomly, or via group discussion), all that’s left to do is to randomly determine the starting order.
Once you’ve got everything set up, Belfort’s gameplay is easy enough to grasp. The game consists of 7 rounds, with scoring in the third, fifth, and final round. Each round is made up of 4 stages: Placement, Collection, Actions, and (when applicable) Scoring. Placement is pretty self-explanatory, but in a nutshell this is when each player places their worker tokens on the board in order to collect either resources or workers. Once this is completed, the Collection round takes place, and everybody gets what’s coming to them…at least in regards to the game (there is no Karmic Retribution round). After this, the players then go into the Action round, where they can build Locations, activate previously place workers, trade resources at the trading post (not with other players), buy new Location cards, or hire Gnomes.
The hiring of Gnomes is pretty essential to the game, as they unlock bonus abilities given to you by building locations. Anyway, once everyone has done all this, if it’s a scoring round the scores are tallied. Points are given according to the number of locations each player has in each of the five sections of the Castle, as well as the number of workers every player has of each type. If it seems somewhat daunting, it really isn’t.
Belfort is another one of those games whose genius lies in its simplicity while being tough to be good at it. The illustrations and game design are fantastic with a lot of fun little nuances that make it a joy to look at and keep players interested. There is some strategy involved, but not so much that players should feel bogged down with too much thinking. In my mind, parts of Belfort are heavily reminiscent of both Carcassonne and Catan, but not to the point that you feel like you’re playing something you’ve already played.
I also enjoy the fact that, while you can inconvenience players along the way, there doesn’t seem to be any real way to get so completely screwed over by other players that it was no longer fun. It stays friendly. I never found myself cursing someone for doing something that impeded my ability to score points, so it continued to be fun even while I was losing. And I was totally losing.
That’s not to say that Belfort is completely without faults. For instance, there’s the…ummm…yeahhh. No, it’s pretty flawless. Well, that is to say, it’s flawless if you enjoy these types of games. I guess if there was on thing that concerns me it’s the number of pieces involved. There’s a lot of stuff to lose if you’re not careful. Plus, the use of cards doesn’t make it the snack-friendliest game ever. Seriously though, that’s all I can come up with. But I’m really paranoid about stuff like that. I hate it when my cards get all gunked up by messy eaters. This is definitely the type of game that could be easily decimated by one displaced Big Gulp, so if you have that friend who’s a little dodgy when it comes to proper beverage supervision (we all have one of those), you might wanna get that fella a completely independent drink/feed station.
If I haven’t convinced you about Belfort yet, I’ll leave you with this: I got this game from the PGM brain-trust for reviewing purposes. After finishing up with the first night of playing, our host for the evening asked, with a fair amount of concern in his voice, “You don’t have to give it back, DO YOU?” Thankfully, no, I don’t, but even if I did, I’d just go and buy it anyway.
tl;dr If you like Carcassonne and Catan, then Belfort is definitely something you should pick up as soon as possible.