Tuesday night gaming returns! We tried a 5-player version of Belfort, a whimsically themed game which pits the players against each other to build a city, with elves, dwarves, and gnomes for workers, and wood, stone, metal, and gold coins for resources.
As usual, BoardGameGeek has plenty of comprehensive reviews on the excellent bits, the gameplay mechanics, and so forth. It really is an extremely well-produced game, and has earned praise for its combination of worker placement and area control. In short, there are 3 scoring rounds which happen at the end of turns 3, 5, and 7. You score by having the most, second-most, or third-most buildings in each of five zones. You also score by having the most or second-most elves, dwarves, and gnomes. Those workers, among other things, give you resources which you use to buy the buildings. Translated, that means you spend a lot of time with your brain asking itself questions like “Do I put my elf here to get extra resources? Or here to get to go first next time? Or here to hire more elves for later turns? Which options will my opponents take away?” And that’s just for the worker placement phase. The rest of the time you’re staring at the board, thinking, “Okay, so I’m in first place here, tied for second there, but if I get one of those buildings, I can either secure my lead in the first zone, or take over first in the second zone… but it might be worth sneaking into this third zone where I can get third place without a problem…”
I won by about 5 points over Nathan, with Malka and Dorian tied for third only a few points behind Nathan, and Paul within a few points of them. So it was a close, well-played game, and I think we all enjoyed playing it. That said, I think many of us wouldn’t want to play it again — certainly not with five players. Here’s why.
The particular players we had were simultaneously the right audience and the wrong audience for this game. We all do love the heavy strategy games and the mental masturbation that comes from sitting there staring at the board trying to calculate the best possible optimization of turns and resources and buildings… while simultaneously taking into account the potential moves of the players taking their turns before us… and devising strategies to overtake the players ahead of us on the score track. We’d curse when we realized that we were one wood short but if we had just put the elf THERE and not spent on a gnome last turn we could have put a dwarf on THAT space and that would have gotten us an extra building and WHY DIDN’T I SEE THAT ARGH.
It’s all in good fun… but it meant that this 90-120 minute game took a whopping 3 1/2 hours for us to finish. That’s AFTER twenty minutes going through the rules. You read that right… about twice as long to play.
It’s not a first for us — we’ve had other 1-2 hour games take 3+ hours as well. Why? We sometimes care too much about optimizing each turn to just put our heads down and barrel through it. We talk things out loud and others listen and offer strategy corrections. We may take back a move immediately upon realizing some new piece of data when the other player hasn’t gone yet. As a whole, we politely let people take back some things like that, since we’re relatively new to the game. All this is acceptable behavior for us.
But that’s the flaw of this game for our group. Several reviewers mentioned the potential problems with the game scaling beyond three players. Namely, that while one person is taking a turn, other players can’t do a whole heckuva lot. They can try to plan their own turns, but too many things can happen on a person’s turn to change the equations and lead astray the best-laid plans. But you can’t not pay attention, because you want to know how they incrementally changed the board. And with all the variables to try and keep track of, let alone optimize, you find yourself lost in analysis paralysis.
A few game strategy tidbits that people can appreciate, whether they’ve played the game or not.
Going into the game most of us had a false sense of stone security because the board (which is slightly different every time) had a Miner’s Guild. One worker there = 4 stones instead of 1, so we thought it would be easy to get stones. Yeah, well… the first or second person to move every turn grabbed that guild. This doomed Paul’s start because his opening building cards, Blacksmiths, required a lot of stone. By the time he got those built he was a building cycle behind.
In the middle of the game, I found myself with one building card in my hand — these cards can be surprisingly scarce as it takes workers/resources to acquire them. Malka tried out the Thieves’ Guild which allows you to steal one card from another player. I saw my game life flash before my eyes, as I realized how absolutely and totally screwed my next two turns were if she took my one card, leaving me nothing to build. I spent half that turn trying to construct contingency plans. When her turn came, she was about to take my card, but then realized it didn’t bring income and changed her mind. Besides thinking, “Wheeeeeew,” I also thought, “Remember this.”
In the end, I won by tying or having the lead for the most elves and the most gnomes in all three scoring rounds, and scoring points in 2-3 of the five zones each turn. Nathan actually got himself into a great position with lots of income buildings and resources and two zones under tight control, and was in a fine position to win the game handily. Frankly, the only way I was able to get ahead of him at the end was by convincing others he was The Scourge and needed to be ganged up against. (I still claim that’s my primary advantage against Nathan in these games — working the room, making deals or alliances, or otherwise using my soft skills to put him in the crosshairs.)
More importantly, though, I learned from Malka’s move in the middle of the game. On the next to last turn, I went to the Thieves’ Guild with the sole purpose of stealing one of Nathan’s two building cards, derailing his carefully crafted plan for the final two turns. I ended up using that Gatehouse card to place two houses at the end of the game and win extra points in two zones. It’s all too easy in these games to play them with a solitaire strategy and hope “the board” (as created by the other players) doesn’t mess up your plans too much. Those interactive spaces are there for a reason!