Belfort was 4 years in the making from initial seed in our brains to final product on game tables everywhere. In our interview series, “Belfort: From Inspiration to Publication”, we bring you the perspective of the whole process from start to finish from the perspective of the people involved in making the game a reality. Next up, we’re sitting down with Belfort’s developer and fellow game designer, Seth Jaffee (Terra Prime, Brain Freeze, Eminent Domain).
Sen: Welcome, Seth! Good to talk with you again. Tell us – what motivated you and Michael to sign Belfort initially?
Seth: We played it at GAMA and I was really happy with the overall feel of the game. It really fired on a lot of different cylinders for me, much like Homesteaders did when I first played that.
Jay: Which, coincidentally was how we met. You were playtesting an almost finished prototype of Homesteaders and I asked if I could play – not knowing you were part of the publisher team! But enough about you – more about Belfort!
Seth: Well, I thought it could use some polishing but I saw a lot of potential there. It was clear to me, in talking to Jay, that a lot of thought had gone into the game. At the time, Michael and I didn’t have a long list of great games to publish, so we thought this would be a good one to add to the list!
Jay: Thanks for making that choice – we appreciate it! For other designers out there, what are some things that designers can do that make their games appeal to a publisher?
Seth: I’m not sure I have a good answer to that except to say something generic like, “make it awesome!” I know that I like and appreciate thorough games that are well thought out. It’s also got to have some kind of “hook” – many games are solid structurally, but have nothing to really capture attention, they come across as just mediocre to me.
Jay: I remember you and Michael talking to me at GAMA after playing it for a second time. Michael mentioned that he would like a shot at publishing it, but wanted some time to develop it further. That’s where you come in as you’re Belfort’s developer. What’s the role of a developer on the team?
Seth: My role is to find games with that spark, that potential, and then make sure that potential is realized. Basically, I get to say, “I think this game would be better if…” and then I get to see if I was right! My goal is for the game to feel to me like a real, finished game that I would want to play again and again.
Sen: Is there a timeline for that goal?
Seth: The best answer to that is “yes, and no.” I would like to have more time to concentrate on the games so that they can get finished up and published faster, but having a full-time job puts a bit of a damper on that. Also, it’s tough to find willing playtesters as often as I’d like. So it’s very difficult to stick to any particular timeline! I’m trying to improve that though.
Jay: What’s the process of developing a game that you didn’t design?
Seth: The process is basically an iterative playtest: consider changes, tweak, playtest some more, repeat. Considering changes includes listening to players’ comments as well as my own ideas, so it’s important to pay attention during playtests.
Jay: It’s been very interesting as designers to work with a developer (i.e. you!) on a game we designed. As designers we’re very happy with the game and have had it playtested numerous times to get it to the place where Tasty Minstrel was interested. But then to have you develop and tweak it even further has been really interesting as you definitely added to the overall balance of the game. What were some of the things that you knew you wanted to tweak immediately?
Seth: It’s tough to remember specifically what happened with Belfort, but I recall that there were some things I knew should change right off the bat. Other changes came up over time and testing, and some changes didn’t work out or even got reversed. Some of the things that I remember changing over the course of development were things like…
- Costs of the buildings (and balance of powers)
- Number of spaces and how many workers a player can send to the Village
- Placing workers 1 at a time (until passing) vs sending as many workers to your buildings as you want at a time (and only once per turn)
- When you collect things from buildings compared to Income
- Guild configuration (and specifics of powers)
- Scoring specifics
- Exactly how the Trading Post worked (I can’t remember the original version, but I see notes that it changed!)
- Cost of walls
Stuff like that. Mostly details, but some significant structural changes. In all cases, my proposed changes were in an effort to accomplish what I thought the game was already trying to achieve- I was not out to change the game per se – just to find a better way!
Sen: We think you did an admirable job! Out of all the changes made, what do you feel is the biggest improvements that you and your playtesters made to Belfort?
Seth: I think the biggest improvement was probably changing the game length – jumpstarting the early game and reducing the total number of rounds so that players have turns to get things done, but the game ends in a reasonable amount of time on the clock.
Jay: A fine balance, indeed! And speaking of balance, how do you balance your vision of what a game could be with the designers’ original intentions? As a designer yourself, is it hard developing other people’s designs?
Seth: I actually think it’s easier to develop someone else’s idea than to design and develop my own game from the start. When picking up another designer’s idea, they’ve already done a lot of work so I can pick and choose the parts of theirs that I think are working and I can try to fix the parts I think need work.
Jay: Were there any areas that were “off-limits”? I don’t’ specifically remember any really! But do you have to get approval for any changes by the designers or the publisher?
Seth: I think that once they sign a game, a publisher can pretty much do what they want, and I have heard stories of themes and rules being changed without the designer’s knowledge or approval. I’ve also heard that some designers, such as Reiner Knizia, put stipulations in their contracts requiring that they must approve all significant changes to rules. I personally like to keep the designers in the loop, so when I think of a change to the game, I usually run it by the designer – it might be something they’ve already tried, and I am not out to reinvent the wheel. It’s also helpful because the designer can playtest changes with a different pair of eyes and different players, making for more testing of any proposed change.
With Belfort, I didn’t consider anything “off limits”, but I did discuss each change with you guys.
Sen: That’s right – I remember. We were always excited to see on the forum that you had another playtest and had a few new ideas or tweaks to suggest.
Jay: I too remember having great debates – in a totally friendly way – about the merits of certain game mechanics. In the end, more playtesting always answered our questions.
Sen: Early on there was a chance Belfort could be more serious with humans as all the workers instead of elves and dwarves. Were there any other thoughts of changing the theme of Belfort?
Seth: I don’t think I ever considered changing the theme of the game, I liked it the way it was. I also secretly thought to myself that the light fantasy setting of the game might be the land where the TMG logo dragon lives!
Jay: And astute observers of the final game board can see that you are correct! Thanks for your time and effort, Seth! Belfort wouldn’t be the same without you!
In our next installment, we will be talking to the game’s artist – the prolific Josh Cappell (game designer of Wasabi, artist: too many to mention here).
For past interviews in this series, please go here:
If you are interested in learning more about how we came up with the ideas and how the game grew from something small into what it is now you can read this interview by Jeff Temple and watch this video we recorded.