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They Built This City on Solid Gold – A Belfort Review

This is another fine DICE HATE ME! review

As Linus van Pelt once so aptly conveyed: “Happiness is a warm blanket.” There’s a lot of subtle, yet strong subtext in that sentiment; we humans often have a base desire to be wrapped tightly in comforting familiarity, and while so wrapped, have no wish to do much more than remain so, content and without need or care of the slipping of time. In certain gaming circles – and, indeed, in the Dice Hate Me household – that emotional conveyance could often be repurposed, with no loss of power or sentiment, to “happiness is a long Euro.” And, so, this is how the latest release from Tasty Minstrel Games – Belfort – has a lot in common with a hand-drawn, grade-school philosopher’s best friend.

Make no mistake – despite the whimsy of elves, dwarves and gnomes amidst a fantasy city setting on the front of the box, within Belfort beats the heart of one beast of a Euro game. This is not an untamed beast, mind you (I did mention that bit about a warm, fuzzy blanket) but it is a beast, nonetheless, and one that requires – nay, demands – commitment and attention. The benefit of this beast (and, some elite gamers might say, drawback) is that Belfort is comprised mostly of several standard Euro conventions and gaming mechanisms that only those that have never even looked sideways at a German boardgame might not recognize.

The simple and typical goal of the game is points, divvied out every couple of rounds, but getting those points is far from simple. Players must use dwarves, elves and gnomes to engage in a veritable buffet of Euro mechanisms:

Worker placement: Elves and dwarves make up the bulk of the Belfort workforce and they can be placed in various locations around the city to obtain resources or nab special player abilities. Gnomes can be hired later after building certain structures to act as staff for the buildings, activating even more unique abilities for a player. The interesting part of worker placement here are the planks – certain locations that contain a circle and a square, meaning they can only be used by circle-tokened elves and square-tokened dwarves – and gnome locks – which, by virtue of their nomenclature, indicate that they can only be unlocked by the pentagon-shaped gnomes. These specialized locations add a layer of extra strategy in how to hire, delegate and best utilize your workers from turn to turn.

Resource management: The typical Euro resources abound in the lands surrounding Belfort – wood, stone, metal and gold. However, the delineation of worker types make decisions on how to obtain them even more maddening; elves can gather wood, dwarves can gather stone, together they can gather metal, and either can gather gold. Since each resource is precious, and all are used in various combinations to construct the various buildings in the city (to net points and gain abilities), there is always more demand than your workers can supply. There is also a subtle bidding mechanic inherent in the resource area; the player who places the most workers in a particular area can take an extra resource. It’s a sneaky mechanic, but quite often the player that pays attention and makes best use of this advantage is able to eke out a point or two in other areas of the game.

Variable turn order: Turn order in Belfort is determined by the number rank on player crests. During the worker placement phase, players can dedicate one or more workers to the King’s Camp in an effort to take control of a certain crest. Early in the game, players may find that it’s often best to go first in order to first place their workers in Guilds or other advantageous locations around the city. However, in the last couple of rounds of play, going last has a great advantage, as that player can better react to the scoring efforts of others.

Hand management: Each player starts with three Property cards in their hands; these cards represent the various buildings located in each of the five districts in Belfort. The main points of the game are awarded to players who build these structures and best take control of parts of the city (we’re getting there!). Property cards are built during the action sequence of a player’s turn through the use of the above-mentioned resources. Most players will be able to build an average of one structure per turn, which means that their starting hand will slowly deplete. However, the hand limit is 5, and there are buildings and Guilds that can allow players to draw several cards in a turn, and each player has the option to pay one gold at the end of their turn in order to draw one card. Hands fill up faster than expected, always giving each player a plethora of choices for both tactics and strategy. Careful selection of the buildings (which ones will afford the best abilities, which will be most useful for scoring) is one of the most crucial decisions in the game.

Area control: So, those buildings you just built to give you an extra gold each turn, or produce gnomes more cheaply? Those same buildings are your main source of points in Belfort. After exchanging resources to construct a Property, a player takes one of their little wooden Monopoly houses (well, that’s what they are) and places it on top of any building with the corresponding icon in any of the five districts that does not already contain a wooden Monopoly house from another player. During scoring rounds (rounds 3, 5 and 7), the player with the most Properties in a particular district is awarded a whopping 5 points (believe me, that’s huge), the second-most Properties gains 3 points and 3rd place gets 1. Players tied for any position both gain the points for the next-highest scoring level. There is often quite a bit of jockeying during scoring rounds (naturally), and Belfort contains mechanisms and Properties that can allow players to sneakily wrest control of a district from others when they least expect it. This demands concentration, quite a bit of planning and just a bit of luck, but the look on an opponent’s face is worth every ounce of energy.

As any of you dear readers can see, Belfort has a lot of parts to that beastly Euro heart. If that’s all there was to offer, there’s a possibility a few gamers might get bored. But allow me to elaborate before you all strike up the yawns.

To begin, variability of play in Belfort is astounding. Each game, a certain mix of Basic, Resource and Interactive Guilds are placed in the five districts of the city. When a worker is placed on a Guild, the player pays a gold coin to the city and can then activate special abilities, such as recruiting more workers (Elves and Dwarves) to collecting a boatload of stone or wood from the supply, to stealing Gold from another player. Players are also able to exchange resources in order to take control of the Guilds, taking money from any player that choose to use the Guild’s ability.

Scoring can also be influenced by sources other than Property cards. Players can build Walls in a district through the use of resources and without the use of a Property card. These walls can often be used to disrupt or take control of a district for a higher score. This is also true of taking control of Guilds. Players may also influence scoring through the use of worker majority. Those players who have the most Elves, Dwarves or Gnomes in their employ during scoring rounds will vastly improve their standings.

Needless to say, choices abound, so Belfort is not for the attention-deficit crowd, nor is it for those looking for a quick hit. To employ yet another simile, Belfort is like a well-crafted novel that you just don’t want to put down; it may be difficult to convince yourself to start, but by the time you’ve reached the end, you don’t want the story or experience to come to an end. As I mentioned before, some gamers may complain that there is too much familiarity, that Belfort contains too many well-trod Euro game staples; to that I say that it is the whole sum of these familiar parts that weaves the welcoming and comforting blanket that is Belfort.

This is another fine DICE HATE ME! review

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