Review: Belfort Mashes Two Genres Into One Compelling Euro Game

In Belfort, players are challenged to strategically collect resources and use them to build a castle. Wait, don't leave! Euro gamers have been through this routine ad nauseam, but Belfort aims to provide a fresh path through this oft-trodden ground. The surprise is that it succeeds.

Belfort takes worker placement mechanics and uses them as a means to an end in controlling an important area control competition. This can be seen as taking a page from the 2010 hit Alien Frontiers which demonstrated the power of merging two gameplay types into a unique experience. The big difference here is that Belfort strips out the dice and adds in a lighthearted fantasy theme, increasing its appeal to the Euro gamer audience. Read on for the full review, and to find out exactly how Belfort wound up impressing the gamers at my table.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-5

Playing Time: 90-120 minutes

Age: 13 and up

Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games

MSRP: $60.00

Release: November 2011

The Gameplay:

Belfort is a victory points-driven game, but players can only earn points in two ways: as a reward for hiring the most workers of each type, and for constructing a majority of the buildings in each of the castle's five map sections. Over the course of seven turns, players will use a hand of cards and a pile of collected resources to accomplish both of those goals.

An example of one Belfort map section with some building cubes already in place. You'll want to build the most in each map section to score points in this game.

Each turn starts with the movement of the turn marker onto the castle's construction calendar. Of the seven turns, only three of them will have a scoring phase at the end, but we'll get to that later.

During the second phase, players will take turns placing their workers (represented by three elf and three dwarf tokens at game start) onto a variety of different action spaces. These spaces allow you recruit new elves and dwarves, adjust the turn order, collect resources (wood, stone, metal, and coins), or perform special guild actions.

There are twelve guilds included in the game, but only five will ever be used, creating some replay value. In general, the guild action spaces either allow you to collect a large stash of some resource, or slightly bend the game's rules in your favor. An "interactive" set of guild tiles is also included. These add in actions that have players directly impacting each other's progress, for gamers that prefer such a style of play.

For those not familiar with worker placement-style games, this can play out a bit like a game of chicken. Each of the possible actions listed earlier has a limited number of spaces available, so it's just as important to feel out which your opponents might need and factor that into your placement decisions. A little bluffing and misdirection can keep another player from blocking the spaces you really want.

The resource collection area in all its glory,with several workers ready to claim their good. Early in the game, most of the available spaces for your workers are found on this board.

The twist here in Belfort, and the reason for splitting the workers into elves and dwarves, is that some spaces are open only to one type or the other. Further complicating your decision is the fact that the four resource-collection areas have an unlimited number of spaces. Whichever player has the majority of workers in those spaces will earn a bonus resource of that type, making how many you place, not just where you place them, an important factor.

But how are you supposed to know which action spaces to claim and which resources to collect? That's where your hand of cards come in. Remember how the real goal of this game is to construct buildings on the map? In order to construct a building, you must have a card of that building's type in your hand, and must be able to pay the resource cost printed on that card.

Immediately upon constructing a building, you get to place one of your cubes on the map and begin jockeying for majority control of that area. You also get to play the card down in front of you, and take advantage of a new worker placement space printed on it. These spaces are available only to your workers, and can be quite powerful. Some examples include the blacksmith, which allows you to collect one metal at a reduced cost, and the library, which allows you to draw new building cards into your hand.

All of this building and card-playing takes place in the final phase of the turn, but there are a few other actions available to players here. New cards can also be purchased for one gold, selected from a row of three face-up cards, or drawn randomly from the top of the deck.

A worker of the third type, gnomes, can also be recruited during this pase for three gold. Gnomes are required to unlock the most powerful worker placement spaces you'll find on your building cards, and the gnome workers also count when scoring recruitment majorities. Lastly, players can visit a trading post, where they can exchange resource for coins, and vice versa.

The player reference card pretty much teaches you the entire game, and has a handy reminder of the scoring rules I'm about to summarize below.

At the end of turns 3, 5, and 7, players will earn victory points. Whoever has the most of each worker type will earn 3 points, with second place getting 1 point. For each map section, the player with the majority presence will earn 5 points, with second place getting 3 points. In games with four or five players, third place will also get a point.

Belfort has a way of punishing those who get too far ahead, though. As players move up the score track, they'll start to owe an increasing number of coins in taxes each turn. For each coin of tax that cannot be paid, they'll move back one space on the score track.

The Components:

  • 1 Rulebook
  • 5 Disctrict Boards
  • 1 Collection Board
  • 1 Calendar Board
  • 50 Property Cards
  • 12 Guild Tiles
  • 80 Wooden Resources
  • 22 Gnomes
  • 35 Elves
  • 35 Dwarves
  • 60 Property Markers
  • 5 Player Aids
  • Cardboard Money Tokens

As far as deep strategy games go, Belfort is one of the rare instances where I doubt you'll ever find yourself consulting the rulebook. All credit here is owed to the graphic design, which manages to cram an astonishing amount of information onto the components. On the player reference cards alone, there is not only a succinct summary of the game's turn structure, but also resource and worker storage areas with subtle reminders of the game's proper starting resource amounts.

It's incredibly refreshing to see form meet function here. The component cues in Belfort practically force you to set the game up properly. How many of use have mangled the rules to a game before it has even started? Admit it, you've been there. Once the game is underway, easily-recognizeable symbols help keep players on track, and that makes playing Belfort a cinch.

The strong graphic design carriers over the rulebook, where a whole-page diagram gives players an excellent overview of how to set up the game.

The achievement that puts Belfort's design over the edge is that it manages to assist gameplay, but also looks damn good while doing it. Thick lines establish the cartoony feel of a fantasy-themed construction crew, and the whole game is one giant splash of color. Bold hues fill the map, cards, and reference sheets, making Belfort one of those games that will turn heads at a convention based on looks alone. Expect to have people approach you and ask what you are playing if you find yourself in that setting.

One red flag here is that you will have to put stickers on some of the pieces (the elf, dwarf, and gnome worker blocks), so be forewarned. Even so, I'm willing to give Belfort a complete pass on this because given the game's mechanics, I can't think of a better component to use. Euro games can be a bit weak on theme, so I can understand why Belfort needed to keep some sort of personality on the workers, while at the same time allowing them to be stackable and double-sided (to signify a "super elf" and "super dwarf" upgraded status that doubles the worker's production).

As for overall component quality, Belfort hits all the marks. There are plenty of wooden pieces and the metallic coating on the metal pieces is an especially nice touch. All cardboard in the game is thick and sturdy, and all cards are printed on high-quality cardstock. Lastly, the rulebook is clear, consistent, and succinct, which is all you can ask for. It even manages to toss in a good amount of humor without getting in the way of a coherent rules explanation.

Final Thoughts:

There are so many moving parts in Belfort, yet the game still feels simple. That is because all of these parts wind up moving in harmony. Within two turns of play, you'll realize how one action can have specific effects on numerous other aspect of the game, and how you can plot these actions out in a cohesive strategy.

The theme doesn't necessarily tie directly into the mechanics (games of this type rarely do), so the decision to not take the game too seriously was a smart decision on the the Belfort designers' part. I can see this game replacing Stone Age in many gamers' collections, serving as the lighter and faster alternative to the weightier Euros, and providing a good introduction to deeper strategy for players ready to take the plunge.

If you that sounds like a game you could use in your collection, than I would not hesitate to add Belfort. It is a game that will not disappoint.

Disclaimer: MTV Geek received a complimentary review sample of this game