Belfort: Designer Diaries, part 3: The Artist


In our latest installment of “Belfort: From Inspiration to Publication”, we take you into the creative world of one Josh Cappel. Hailing from Toronto, Josh is a fellow member of the “Game Artisans of Canadian” and his artistic skills grace many a game, including Pandemic, Endeavor, Terra Prime, and the upcoming Pirates vs. Dinosaurs, to name but a few. He is also the co-designer behind Wasabi (currently enjoying it’s 3rd printing, thank you very much) along side Adam Gertzbein. So the fact that he had time to talk to us was pretty fortunate!

Jay: Hey Josh, thanks for your time! First off, although it’s been said many times, Thank you so much for the beautiful art for Belfort! We love it!

Sen: Absolutely! So tell us – how did you come to be the artist for this project?

Josh: A mysterious scroll was appeared on my windowsill one morning. I cracked the seal and before I knew it I was magically bound to the task of illustrating Belfort. Okay, not really…

Jay: Did Tasty Minstrel Games come to you out of the blue? Were there other artists in the running?

Josh: Belfort is my second game for Tasty Minstrel; I did the art and design for Terra Prime last year. They did ask me to put in a bid, so there may have been other contenders for the gig. Luckily for me, they didn’t accidentally hire several artists at once and have no choice but to turn it into a competition. Though I feel I could have won it, if they had.

Sen: Yep, I think you would have too! So, what did you think of Belfort when you read the rules and saw the prototypes? What was your first impression?

Josh: Honestly? My very first first impression was, “Pentagonal board? Cool!” I am a sucker for the visually interesting. After a quick pass at the rules, my impression was “Okay, it’s Caylus with a fantasy theme.” I suspect that a lot of people will leap to the Caylus comparison simply because the central story is that the players are building a castle of sorts, and because there is some worker placement. First impressions are misleading though! Belfort doesn’t share much at all with Caylus. The game structure is entirely different, there’s a spatial aspect that is very central to game play, resource-gathering is less cutthroat, and the choices available to the player are many and varied at any given time. It has its own feel, and the feel is “interesting”. I hope that sounds as complimentary as I mean it.

Jay: Yes it does – and we are thankful for your praise!

Some early concept sketches of an elf and dwarf from Josh Cappel.

Josh: Playing Belfort, I find I am often struck by the depth of a given decision, and interested in the reasons I might or might not make the decision. Take buying a building: Can I afford the cost? If not, can I exploit one of the many resource-gathering/juggling mechanisms to manage it? Does it grant me income? What special actions does it grant me? Will I need to staff it with a Gnome? What on-board location should I claim if I do buy it? And so on, all with cascading implications for the future. I am always interested in my options during the game, engaged in the possibilities that open up from any choice. Good meaty fun – never boring, never scripted.

Sen: Well, that concludes our interview – no need to hear more after such kind words like that!

Jay: Ha! Well, maybe a few more questions! Tell us what the best part of working on “Team Belfort” was.  I mean, besides being around the awesomeness that is Sen and Jay.

Josh: The best part of working on Team Belfort was that we cobbled together a game world that I think has the potential to be the setting for other future games. It just feels fun to me.

Jay: And what was the most challenging part? Besides the fact that you had to be around Sen and Jay, that is.

Josh: The most challenging part was reconciling the level of detail I decided to paint, with the schedule we were on. The gameboard was incredibly difficult. Keep in mind that the board is a pentagon, and I did the city in an overhead isometric view. That means I had to figure out how to illustrate the differently-shaped buildings of each district rotated 72º from the previous one, while keeping the perspective consistent and each building immediately recognizable despite the rotation. Seventy-two degree rotation. Easy, right? YOU try it. Turns out, not so easy.

Jay: Here’s an image of the first draft of the board for Belfort. Now it sure is purdy, but the final board is a million times better (he said, without hyperbole).

First Draft of the Belfort board

Here's the first draft of what the board was going to look like. It still looks great, but Josh wasn't pleased with it and started over, turning it into an isometric view instead. In my opinion - well worth the extra effort!

Sen: I know we were surprised that you were going for that look when we saw the first segment of the board. We were excited about what it would look like when it all came together, but realized that you just signed yourself up for a crazy amount of work!

Josh: Add to that the insane decision to populate the city with hundreds of teeny little denizens all going about their business, and you have yourself a task of lengthy proportions. Luckily for me, the good folks at Tasty Minstrel loved my early game board samples enough to extend my deadline so that I could achieve it.

Sen: Luckily for us, too! We love the game board and couldn’t be happier with how it turned out, so thanks for all your effort.

Here's an example of one of our early boards and Josh's early board. Obviously Josh's was a vast improvement. Still, the final board is even more beautiful!

Jay: There are so many treats throughout that game board! I can’t wait for other gamers to experience everything that’s going on just on the board. And just so that doesn’t make it sound like the board is confusing – what I mean is that with all these tiny people all over the place, you can get lost just looking around and finding little stories all over the place!

Here's the final art for the board of Belfort! Wow. So much detail. The isometric view is stunning.

Sen: I think I spent a good hour just looking at the board when I first got it! Any clues as to the meaning of some of the Easter Eggs?

Josh: Well, there are a few Tasty Minstrel shout-outs. Michael Mindes himself is actually present on one of the board segments, although I added him in between preview approval and print file delivery… so he hasn’t noticed it yet! Surprise! There are a few references to my previous Tasty Minstrel Game, Terra Prime. And at least a couple references that board game geeks might pick up on, if they have sharp eyes. A lot of the stuff going on in the streets of Belfort isn’t “easter eggy” per se, but it’s definitely a lively town that I hope players will enjoy exploring.

This early concept scribble is ridiculously close to how it looks in the final version! Well, layout-wise at least.

Jay: Can you describe the working relationship between you, us and Tasty Minstrel? How is it working with people without ever physically meeting?

Josh: Actually, I have only ever worked for publishers that I have never met in person, so it’s pretty normal for me. The working relationship with you and Jay was ideal. You guys are creative and enthusiastic designers who (since you have a long-distance working relationship with each other already) know how to communicate easily and effectively online in a way that moves things forward. I would love to be involved in any of your future designs, of which I am certain many will get published. Tasty Minstrel Games and me are old pals by now. Since Belfort wrapped I have already started and finished another game, Martian Dice, and have just signed on for a fourth. I expect that I will still be providing art for Tasty Minstrel Games when we are all old and grey.

Jay: Nice! I haven’t played Martian Dice yet, but want to give it a spin, or a roll as it were.

Sen: Great to know that there will be an unending supply of Josh Cappell illustrated board games in our future!

Jay: So does that mean that board game art is your full time job or do you have a 9 to 5 job in the real world? It’s difficult to imagine you working in a cubicle somewhere!

Josh: Pretty much full time. I do take on non-game-related projects occasionally, but the great majority of my work is in games.

Sen: That’s so great to know that you can make your living off of providing such happiness to people who play the games you illustrate! You helped shape the world of Belfort as an anachronistic fantasy realm with a solid dose of humour. How did that come about and what lead to things like “100% Ent Free” rulers?

Josh: Early in the development process I wrote to Michael (head of Tasty Minstrel Games) and asked him if he was certain he wanted to do Belfort in this fantasy standard universe. Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes… you see them a lot in games and I didn’t want Belfort to get lost in the mix because the theme was overplayed. His response was that to create unique fantasy races would be fun and cool, but it would keep us from exploiting the tropes already established about the existing fantasy races that would facilitate player comprehension. Get it? Basically by giving players a fantasy setting that they are already familiar with, it’s a little less overwhelming when they first approach the game. So, working within that framework but aiming to stand out a bit, I decided to ramp up the personality, a.k.a. the funny.

That goofy looking elf was the extent of the humour we had in the game before Josh got his hands on it.

Jay: I was surprised by how much humour you added to the game…which is pretty much all of the humour! Belfort wasn’t inherently a funny game before you had it, with the possible exception that we were using goofy looking elves, dwarves and gnomes in our prototype.

Josh: Actually, it all started with the Gnomes, I think. You guys set up the Gnomes as workers that players can add to their buildings to make them run more efficiently. From there I just sort of expanded on the idea that the Gnomes are intense bureaucrats, and that of course meant that Belfort’s parent kingdom has a strong cluster of Guilds and Committees and Departments that keep things running under the surface of it all. Then for some reason I started dropping in anachronistic props for the Gnomes… in various places you’ll see clipboards, wristwatches, paperclips, coffee cups…

Sen: Wristwatches? Wow – I haven’t seen that yet! Now I have to go back and pour through the art again to find that!

Josh: Another big factor was the basic idea that this worker-placement resource-management castle-building game was set in a world with magic and monsters. Naturally, these sorts of elements would be part of the everyday life of Belfort’s citizens, so I decided to play up the matter-of-fact relationship with the fantastical.

Jay: Yeah I love how it feels like there’s a lot of red tape in this world and it’s very bureaucratic. There’s none of that in the game play really – but it adds to the anachronistic humour you created.

Sen: You were given a lot of latitude when doing the graphic design of the rulebook and you put your own spin on the text. We loved it so much that we all went with that humourous vibe and you received extra credit for your contributions. For others out there interested in the board game biz, was this an unusual case for you or is this normal expectation of an artist when doing the text and graphic layout of a rulebook? What initially compelled you to try to revise and improve the flow of the rules? Was there any resistance from the publisher at all?

Josh: It is definitely not normal for game artists, but it is par for the course for me specifically. Rulebook editing is one of my strengths and is an added service that I pitch to publishers; it’s part of what they are paying for when they hire me. I feel that my job is to provide the best possible clarity for the players via engaging illustration, effective component design, and smartly-presented rules. I never change the functional mechanisms of any game rules; that would be overstepping my boundaries. However I do what I can to improve how the rules are communicated to the player. Sometimes that means reorganizing the flow, defining game terms consistently, standardizing language/tense/voice throughout, and writing solid examples of play. Often I alter components during the design process and that means that the rules are outdated by the time I get to them so they have to be rewritten to fit.

Jay: The rules to Belfort are definitely the best I’ve ever seen in terms of layout, comprehension and artistic design. It makes me want to play the game! It’s very inviting. But it’s not just rules, you also wrote a lot of flavour text throughout the rules.

Josh: Yeah, I love writing flavour text, and when I started inserting little touches here and there in the components, the whole team reacted very positively. From there I continued the trend into the rulebook. You two and Seth (Tasty Minstrel’s developer) built a very strong and extensively-tested set of rules; that stable foundation allowed me to really pour on the personality.

Sen: There are a lot of guilds in the world of Belfort – What guild isn’t in the game that’d you’d like to see?

Josh: It’s hard to say without playing the game a lot more than I have. Usually those kinds of ideas come from repeated plays where you can start to say to yourself “wouldn’t it be cool if you could __________”. The Guilds are one area that definitely remains open for expansions. This is evident when you notice that we put the build cost of each Guild on its tile (even thought they all cost the same) instead of printing it onto the game board. This was done deliberately in case we decide to add a Guilds expansion where the new Guilds have different costs. That being said, there are at least two other Guilds mentioned in flavour text; the Rules Lawyers’ Guild and the Clipboard Makers’ Guild. Not sure if they’ll ever make a non-cameo appearance, but at least we know there are other Guilds in Belfort than the twelve game tiles!

Another early sketch, this time of the Calendar board.

Sen: And tell us about the blue-skinned creatures you added to the game world. What are they called and what is their role in Belfort? Where do they stand on the subject of Dwarf-Troll relations and will we be seeing more of them in the future?

Josh: Ah, the Goons. Big tough guys. The came about to fill an archetype gap. For some reason we decided during development that Trolls are not well-regarded in Belfort… you’ll see occasional anti-Troll comments here or there. That animosity doesn’t feature in game play at all, but you two had mentioned that there was a possibility of a future aspect to Belfort where the city would be under attack by “greenskins” (a generic term for typical fantasy monstrous humanoids like goblins, orcs, trolls, etc.). So, once it became clear that I would be illustrating a big bustling city, it was requested that I didn’t include any greenskins in the mix, setting up this future possible conflict.

In the end I did include a smattering of them scattered about. Aside from a few random pedestrians, a couple are playing dice with a Dwarf at one of the Pubs, and there’s one that actually has a stall at one of the Markets selling some decidedly evil-looking trinkets. I wanted a Trollish sort of creature to act as burly hired muscle in the city, so I painted up the Goons. They can be found mostly guarding Banks and Gatehouses. One is helping out in the background of the game’s box. I envision them as strong, quiet, loyal hirelings. Handy to have around in a fight… maybe one day we’ll find out.

Jay: Look into your crystal ball – If there was to be a future expansion to Belfort, what do you think it might be about?

Josh: Belfort under attack! I’m not sure whether that could be done as an expansion though. Maybe an outright sequel. Mark my words, we will return to the Belfort world for another game project. I have actually begun the process of converting one of my own existing game designs so that it is in the Belfort universe. We’ve talked a little bit about future plans, so I have an inking of where things might go with a possible sequel, mechanically.

Sen: If there was a “Super Grand Ultra Deluxe 10th Anniversary” edition of Belfort (think the 3-D version of Settlers of Catan), what would you want to see in it?

Josh: Ask me in nine years. That’s when I expect to begin working on it!
In our final installment of “Belfort: From Inspiration to Publication”, we will be talking to the Richard Lee of Panda Manufacturing, the company responsible for making all the bits and putting them in the boxes.

For past interviews in this series, please go here:

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 1, The Playtesters

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 2, The Developer

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.

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One thought on “Belfort: Designer Diaries, part 3: The Artist

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

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