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Subject: Five-player Belfort: The right game and the wrong game for us rss

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Jeff Foley
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( Cross-posted on a small blog I've started at http://wp.me/p2ugZf-s )

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, so I won't compete with those here. It really is an extremely well-produced game, and has deserved its praise for its combination of worker placement and area control. 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 to appreciate:

Going into the game most of us had a false sense of stone security because the board 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 Spies’ 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 Spies’ 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 stolen 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!
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Sen-Foong Lim
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Thanks for playing the game and posting the report. I appreciate the comment re: AP - it really does depend on the players you play with. Some great strategic / tactical hints at the end there! I hope you'll give it another spin now that you've got one game under your belt.
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Jeff Foley
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We do intend to play it again! Just... probably with 3 people. Nathan's already tried 2-player and enjoyed it. I bet we could go 4 people with the right people. And 5 once everyone was familiar enough with the game that they spent less time considering less viable options.

I'm also suffering from the "I won so of course I'd play it again" bias that would have me jump into a 5 player game.

(Of course, last September I was in a 5-person game of Agricola that stretched for probably 4 hours. I came in last place. And I would play Agricola again. So maybe I'm just a masochist for these things...!)
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Sen-Foong Lim
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LOL. Yeah, I find that as long as I personally get enough out of a game to warrant the time spent learning it, setting it up, etc., I will invest time in playing it.

Let us know what your thoughts are on the game with 3 or 4. Personally, I prefer 4.
 
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Matt Davis
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I think the building placement is maybe more interesting with fewer players, too. With 5 people start off with "their" area, along with some other places they're trying to get points. With fewer players everyone starts mixing it up more quickly, it feels like.
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Jeff Foley
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coolpapa wrote:
I think the building placement is maybe more interesting with fewer players, too. With 5 people start off with "their" area, along with some other places they're trying to get points. With fewer players everyone starts mixing it up more quickly, it feels like.

Funny, I thought that was going to happen too. It didn't.

Dorian didn't build on the first turn at all. Midway through the second turn started we had already had conflict -- the first major strategic choice of the area control game (since we didn't really know which buildings we wanted at the beginning) became "do I double up in the zone I've picked, or spread to a second zone for more coverage?" I think Nathan and Paul doubled up, and Malka and I spread out, and Dorian, who was going late in the turn, had enough resources for a double placement--and got to see where people ended up. By the first round's scoring we were each in at least 2 zones and overlapping all over. It really didn't feel like anyone had "their" area at all. One zone had four people tied -- for both the second and third scoring!

The other reason that people didn't claim a zone for themselves? The Wizard's Guild was in play. So everyone knew that at any point someone could swap their buildings around the board and foil their majority. To counter that, Nathan built up a presence in two adjacent zones (with the Gatehouse anchoring it) so he could hopefully withstand a Wizard's Guild swap. He ended up having his Gatehouse AND Keep swapped out in successive turns (c.f. my reference to "putting him in the crosshairs"). But when the swap outs happened, he still had majorities or ties in those zones, and ended up getting on the scoreboard in the zone his Keep was moved to.
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Matthew Mayes
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I'm sorry but I'm a little confused. I thought the Thieves Guild allowed you to steal two GOLD from another player or one gold from multiple players, not other players buildings. Am I missing something?
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Matthew Mayes
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Sorry not buildings I meant cards. Either way, isn't it gold that is stolen?
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Jeff Foley
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Kcrash5 wrote:
I'm sorry but I'm a little confused. I thought the Thieves Guild allowed you to steal two GOLD from another player or one gold from multiple players, not other players buildings. Am I missing something?

Oops, you are correct -- the SPIES' Guild, not the Thieves' Guild, is what we had in play. It forces everyone to show one card from their hand and the guild user gets to choose one to steal. I mis-remembered the name.

I'll edit the original post.
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Klure Junior
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Sounds like you have forgotten how to enjoy playing board games in general, statements like "mental masturbation" are quite frankly disgusting.
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Steve Duff
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jjfoley wrote:
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.


First of all, I have to say it's not really fair to blame the game for how your group chooses to play. You choose to play it slowly, that's fine. But that's your decision, not anything inherent in the game.

Quote:
Namely, that while one person is taking a turn, other players can’t do a whole heckuva lot.


I have to disagree with this. A player puts a single guy on the board during his turn, so at most the player before you takes one thing you might want to do. As the turn order works back around to you, it's extremely easy to have a plan of "I'm going to put my guy on the Thieves Guild, or plan B, on the Recruiters Desk if that's taken".

And, since many of your placements will be on your own cards, those can't be blocked in any way. You don't even need a Plan B in those cases. So a great many turns are 2 second turns like "Your turn Bob. I place on my Tower. Your turn Nancy".
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Jeff Foley
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re: the term "mental masturbation" -- apologies if that offends; I thought it was a cute term. What I'm trying to convey is the pleasure of sitting and staring at a problem by yourself trying to figure out the answer, even if it involves a lot of spinning your wheels and not actually getting anywhere. Brain stimulus that's fun along the way, then makes you feel darn happy when you figure out an answer. I certainly didn't invent the term; a quick google will show several references to the concept of puzzle solving for fun.

re: "blaming the game" -- it's not about what's to blame, it's about the fit of the game to the group. To some degree it's the design of the game -- games like Power Grid and Agricola have the same problem. Whereas games like Seven Wonders or the simultaneous worker placement of Dungeon Lord do not. (Dungeon Lord has its own delay problem, though, when it comes to figuring out the puzzle of your own dungeon.)

re: other players can't do a heckuva lot. Let me re-state that -- other players CAN do a heckuva lot, but they may have to rethink things once others make their move.

I'm afraid we'll have to disagree still. "A player puts a single guy on the board during his turn" -- did he put it in a zone you're trying to control? If so, you may need to change where you build. And what's his next move going to be? Or the person after you? And it's not just about building placement. Should you stack all your elves on wood gathering? If you delay a turn and put one of those elves in your inn instead, will you have enough elves to get the extra wood bonus or will someone have enough left to beat your stack? Okay, now the person in front of you has just put four elves in wood, and you have four elves but needed 5 wood for your current plan, so you needed the bonus. Now it won't work, but you didn't know that until RIGHT AFTER the person before you took his turn. Hmmmm... what about a bonus in gold? You get the picture -- there ARE ways to be blocked, and even if you get it down to two choices, a player's move (or threatened move) may make you rejigger your options. Not every time, but enough times to slow the game down (pleasurably).

If you're playing a worker placement game, and you're not trying to anticipate the moves of the other players, then you're playing PvE, not PvP, to borrow MMO parlance.
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Doug Bass
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Good review. Based on your descriptions, it sounds like you like the game more than you don't like it.
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Bill Gallagher
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jjfoley wrote:
If you're playing a worker placement game, and you're not trying to anticipate the moves of the other players, then you're playing PvE, not PvP, to borrow MMO parlance.

Agreed. Those who simply do that they think is best for them (in the short term) instead of considering moves that stop an opponent from gaining a significant advantage are in essence playing "multi-player solitaire" (the board game equivalent of PvE). One classic example of this is in Puerto Rico, when a player takes the Craftman, or refuses to take Captain at a critical time (to hurt a shipping strategy player).

Players do need to consider second and third choices (in the event they're blocked) before their turn starts to speed up the game. This applies in any worker placement game. One also needs to make an attempt to figure what people playing after them might do; again, that thought process should be made before your turn as much as possible.
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Nathan Berndt
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Hello all. I am the one who got hosed by the interactive guilds in the original post, so I can vouch for Jeff's session report.

Just to clarify, I believe Jeff was trying to make a simple point. There are people who, despite all of their other wonderful qualities, are slow game players. This may not be a game you want to play with those kinds of people, particularly not in a 5-player game, unless you are prepared for a *long* game.

Otherwise, I really enjoy Belfort - with the potential exception of those annoying interactive guilds.
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