Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 1, The Playtesters


Typically, we would wax poetic on how we came up with the idea for Belfort and slaved and slaved over it – lacking sleep, sustenance and hygiene – until it became the game it is today. At least, that’s what we think a Designer Diary usually is. Instead, we thought we’d flip the script a bit and also give you an “insider’s view “of how Belfort came to its final form from the perspectives of the Playtesters, the Developer, the Artist, and the Manufacturers. We’ll be releasing each part over the next couple of weeks, so keep checking back. By the end, you should have a pretty good sense on how a game like Belfort gets out of our heads and into your hands.

But before we tell you that story, we have to tell you this story.

From Humble Beginnings

Belfort comes from very humble beginnings. Very humble. 24 tiles humble.

June 18, 2007 was the first day we thought of this as a game. Since we live on either side of the country (Sen’s in London, Ontario and Jay’s in Vancouver, BC) we keep track of all our thoughts on a private forum. Belfort actually started out as a small 24 tile based game! Here’s the exact transcript – complete with typos and spelling mistakes – of our first couple of posts on the forum about Belfort:

OK – another idea – which is an amalgam a couple other ideas. 

Take that idea about building castles with orcs and elves…add in the paperclip idea and whammo – you have a weird idea that might not make a great game! 

Well – I’m still mashing it around in me noggin…so it might turn out to be an actual full-fledged game…but the intention is to make another pocket game. 

Ok onto my idea: 

    • each player has a card for each type of resource (not sure how many). On those cards there is a chart or grid of numbers from 1-5 or so. So the idea with this is – when you accumulate more resources – you slide your paperclip to the appropriate number. So each person would have 3-5 of these resource cards.
    • each person would have a card for each type of worker – with a grid of numbers along it as well. 

It rambled on quite a bit, but then two days later, we posted this, which looks a lot more familiar (though orcs were replaced by dwarves eventually!).

OK – so there are 3 resources and 2 types of creatures: 

    • elf 
    • orc 
    • wood 
    • stone 
    • metal 
    • 1 elf can make 1 wood 
    • 1 orc can make 1 stone
    • 1 elf and 1 orc can make 1 metal 

Each player (2 players only currently), takes their 3 resource cards – which now also has spots for their elves and orcs. The idea would be – if you collect resources or creatures – then you’d put a paper clip on the card indicating how many you had. 
There are 4 cards that make up the castle town (each one the same tho). In the town there are 6 different buildings: 

wall x2, tower, house, inn/pub and castle section 

Each structure requires different resources to complete: 

    • wall: 2 stone,
    • tower: 2 stone, 1 metal 
    • house: 3 wood 
    • inn/pub: 3 wood, 1 metal 
    • Castle: 1 wood, 3 stone, 1 metal 

Once we played this 24 tiled pocket game, we immediately knew it had to be a bigger game. We started scribbling down some ideas.  Right from the start, we knew it was going to be a pentagon shaped castle!  Why?  We don’t know!  We just found it captured our imagination.

Early notes show that there were a lot of ideas from the very beginning that made it to the final product.

Once we moved away from the 24 tile version of the game, it immediately became a pentagon board.

Even within the first inklings of the concept, there were a lot of solid ideas that survived in some shape or form to the final game. Not all ideas made the final cut, though (thankfully!), and we have our playtesters to thank for that, primarily.

The Playtesters

We thought you might be interested to “listen in” on some of our recent discussions with a few of our Playtesters: Marc Casas-Cordero, Xavier Cousin and Michael Emond.

Sen: Thanks guys for taking the time to reminisce about Belfort’s humble beginnings from waaaaaaay back in 2007.

Jay: So, what are your earliest memories of Belfort?

Marc: As an early playtester, I remember the five wedges forming a pentagon to describe the city of Belfort from the get go. I am glad to see the concept has survived through all the development iterations.

The use of dwarves and elves as resource gatherers was also there but at the time that is all they did. There was no management of these guys – just have them produce!!!!

The main game play was much more about positioning in the city and that seemed to be the primary place for tactical choices. It still remains an important aspect of the game, but it seems better balanced now by the resource management and other aspects of the game.

Xavier: What I can remember is that it was the same game overall with buildings to build, building upgrades that needed gnomes and resources that were pretty tough to handle (you wanted more but couldn’t fr@#’in store much!)

Sen: That’s right – we had Storehouses as one of the buildings back then and that limited how much you could store. You playtesters gave us feedback that limiting how many resources you had felt too restrictive – and hence, it is not part of the game any more

Michael: I don’t know if all of my memories can be trusted but I also vaguely recall that there was a dragon that could be summoned and destroy some of your buildings. I remember it as less focused than the current version but all the key elements were there, waiting to be highlighted and tweaked so they were more playable.

Jay: Yes – the dragon! We used to have a dragon in the game but ended up removing it. And because we no longer had a dragon, we no longer needed warriors. Here’s an image of one of early player aids. You can see that you had to make Warriors! And next is a photo of an early playtest. In that one we got rid of the dragon and added an approaching Orc Horde! They’re both gone now.

An early player aid shows many differences from the final game: Gold was a resource and not currency; Buildings had abilities but there were no Gnomes; Warriors existed to battle the dragon or approaching Orc Hordes!

Sen:  Are you happy or sad that they’re gone?

Michael: So very happy they’re gone! I think the key story element to this game is getting resources and building structures. Things like the dragons and the warriors felt forced into that story and the dragon, especially, was not a fun game element. You think everything is going okay and you’ve played well … BOOM here is the dragon to mess up everything!!

Here's a picture of a playtest session. You can see in the top right we had an Orc Horde track.

Xavier: The idea was fun but I remember playing with the dragon and it didn’t really work. It was too many things I think to handle and plan ahead so I bid it adieu with no regrets.

Marc: I can’t really remember them so they must have been nuisances.

Jay: Now we know that your input has changed the game a lot…

Sen: That’s what playtesters are for!

Jay: Exactly! Which elements in the final game do you think you had some impact on based on your playtests and feedback? What would be your “claim to fame” regarding Belfort?

Michael: My feedback was along the lines of, “Too complicated -Streamline the game more!” and I think that’s what has happened. In a sense, the current game has just as many elements as before but they fit together more logically instead of feeling like they were tacked on like a Lego house.

Before there also seemed to be a lot more ways to score points that made it a headache to keep track of all the things you needed to be doing. I noted that it was hard to determine what you should be doing as a player to maximize your score – it was only in hindsight you could figure this out. While I am not sure how much this has really changed, it definitely feels less complicated in its current version.

Marc: I would like to think I said, “Wow guys, the board looks fantastic! Do not change a thing!” but I can’t honestly say how I contributed to the game except that I suffered through the early iterations! It’s like sitting through the unburned early musicals of Stephen Sondheim. Except that musicals are shorter.

Sen: Ha! We’re the first to admit that the first few iterations of any game can be challenging. That’s we’re so grateful for having playtesters like you guys!

Jay: We couldn’t do it without you!

Here are the first attempts at giving each building its own card. Still no Gnomes - but the concept of unlocking an ability was there.

Sen: In some of the original versions, you could build any building you wanted anywhere on the board without needing a specific card in your hand – what are your thoughts on what’s improved or what’s missing since that decision?

Marc: I think the move to building cards is a smart one. It definitely improves the early game as players are not overwhelmed by the choices of the entire city. Furthermore, without building restrictions it was easier to hang on to leads in area majority thus reducing the overall suspense of the game. The choice of building what you what is also limited by your resources and that is a more interesting game decision.

Xavier:  Yeah, there was way too much thinking and less fun since you always had the possibility to go anywhere you wanted.

Michael:  I think it works well for two reasons:

  1. It helps focus me on what I can be doing. Yes, it restricts your decisions but that also has the benefit of focusing your decisions and simplifying the number of things you can do at any one time.
  2. It adds some luck without it making the game too luck-based. So it adds a nice element of chance that can spice up any game and creates more variability from game to game.

Jay: Previous incarnations of the game had gold in it, but it was just another resource used to make buildings. Alex Cann, one of our other playtesters who couldn’t be reached for this interview, brought up the fact that a common currency was needed to streamline decisions. How has the addition of gold as currency changed the economy of Belfort?

Here's Xavier enjoying the heck out of playtesting Belfort!

Xavier:  Gold is good to have since, without it, the game was a little “naked” in possible things to do. There’s only so much you can do with just the wood, stone and metal, so having a treasury to buy stuff makes it a little richer without making things too complicated.

Michael: It works because you can channel some of the different ways to get points into one common point system (gold) and allows for the addition of taxation. Overall, I think that was a smart move since it helps me, as a player, to be able to understand how one move (building a new building) relates to another move (getting more resources) in terms of overall scoring.

Jay: Oh yeah, the concept of taxation came from another playtester, Matt Musselman. He thought it would be a great idea to help those in the back make a bit of a comeback. And it was a great idea!

Sen: Well, thanks so much, guys, for sharing your early experiences of the game with us.

Jay: And thanks again for all your playtesting efforts!  They certainly helped make Belfort the game it is today.

Up next we’ll chat with the Developer, Seth Jafee.  “What does a developer do,” you ask?  Find out in our next post, fearless reader!

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.

-Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim


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3 thoughts on “Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 1, The Playtesters

  1. Pingback: Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 2, The Developer | Inspiration to Publication

  2. Pingback: Belfort: From Inspiration to Publication, part 3: The Artist | Inspiration to Publication

  3. Pingback: Belfort: Designer Diaries, part 4: The Printers | Inspiration to Publication

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