Belfort: Designer Diaries, part 4: The Printers

In our final instalment of “Belfort: From Inspiration to Publication” we meet with Richard Lee of Panda Manufacturing, the Canadian company that handled the manufacturing aspects of Belfort for Tasty Minstrel Games. Panda has been setting the standard for having games manufactured in China in recent years. Belfort is a solid example of the work they can do.

Jay: Hi Richard! Good to speak with you again. Can you tell us what services Panda offers to publishers?

Richard (left), Michael Lee (right) and Belfort (middle)!

Richard: Hey Jay! Hi Sen! Well, Panda offers full manufacturing, sourcing, quality control, testing, and shipping services to game publishers all around the world. Our primary printing and assembly factory is located in Shenzhen, but we source components from all over China.

Sen: How did you find yourselves in this role?

Richard: My brother, Michael, and I have always been avid gamers and fans of the gaming industry. In 2007, Michael partnered up with our primary printing facility in China that specialized in commercial printing (books, magazines, packaging). With the help of some industry experts, he discovered that it was possible to create high quality board games in China that could match the quality of German-produced games. After all, the Chinese printers had access to the same materials and machinery as the Germans. It was simply a matter of workmanship, expertise, and experience.

Not long afterwards, he started offering the printing services to board game publishers and attended major gaming conventions to promote Panda Game Manufacturing.

Jay: So, are you hardcore gamers or game designers yourself?

Richard: We have been gamers for as long as we can remember and have always enjoyed tinkering with games and creating house rules. While we wouldn’t consider ourselves game designers at the moment, we do have some rough designs that we have worked on over the last few years. We look forward to the day when we will be able to bring one of our own games to market.

Sen: Tasty Minstrel didn’t use Panda for their first couple of games and their early woes with moisture are, by now, a cautionary tale in the board game publishing world. How does Panda Manufacturing ensure that this doesn’t happen?

Richard: Printed components made in China can be subject to very humid conditions, which can lead to warped components or even worse – mouldy components! Panda’s manufacturing process places a strong emphasis on ensuring that all components are properly dried in a specially-created climate control room. Component moisture levels are consistently monitored and brought down to American and European levels.

Jay: Seriously? That’s really interesting! But why does it take about 30 days to fully manufacture a game?

The factory in China...making games!

Richard: Actually, it takes more than 30 days to manufacture a game. Typically, after a publisher uploads their graphic files to our FTP site, we need 2 – 4 weeks in the pre-press and sample production stage to ensure that files are print-ready and that custom components samples are made properly before we kick off full production. In fact, we don’t start full production until our clients approve a proofs and materials package that contains full-colour proofs, a mock-up of the game, and sample materials and components. After we start full production, the average game takes 45 days to complete. Of course, this depends on the complexity of the project as well as the total quantity of the order.

Sen: So it’s not as simple as pressing ‘Print’ huh? Got it! Take us through some of the steps that Belfort went through to get through production.

Richard: There are many steps to producing a board game but here are some of the most important steps along the way:

· Creation of printing plates
· Colour matching
· Printing
· Creation of die-cuts
· Component sourcing
· Component quality control checks
· Assembly of games
· Packing in cartons & Palletization

Jay: What was the most difficult aspect of production for Belfort?

Richard: Overall, Belfort is a fairly standard production with wooden pieces, cards, punchboards, and a game board. However, the game board is a unique pentagon shape that consists of 5 kite-shaped pieces. To ensure that the game board pieces would fit together nicely, we printed all 5 game board pieces together and then cut the board into the kite shaped pieces to ensure a proper fit. This required additional pre-press work as well as carefully calibrated die-cutting machines.

Sen: Cool, that’s pretty neat! The board is a thing of beauty! But There is no insert to hold things in Belfort – is this something that’s common? If so – why?


Richard: After sending the publisher the proofs and materials package, which included the “white dummy” mockup of the game, we realized that the submitted box specifications did not allow enough room for an insert. Rather than adjust the box size (which increases both production and shipping costs) or reduce the thickness of components, the publisher chose to remove the insert from the game.

For games that do not have many wooden or plastic components, it is not uncommon for them to be produced without inserts. Belfort includes 12 ziplock bags, so there is plenty of storage to keep the game organized.

Jay: Ah, that’s actually great to know! As of the writing of this interview, we haven’t received our copies of the game yet and I was wondering if it was coming with bags or not. Yay!

Sen: And how much does each copy of Belfort weigh?

Richard: The weight of 1 game of Belfort is 1.65Kg (Ed: That’s 3.64 pounds for you Imperalists)

Jay: That’s pretty hefty! If great games were determined by weight then we’d be right up there! It could have been heavier because I remember we originally wanted Befort to have custom-sculpted elf/dwarf/gnome figures but the cost was prohibitive.

Richard: Yes, plastic components are fairly expensive, especially for smaller sized print runs (anything under 5000 games). That said, some publishers really want plastic components in their games and believe they can justify a higher retail price for the game. We have actually done plastic components for some orders as low as 2000 in the past but this usually adds at least $3 or $4 more to the production costs.

Jay: But what’s actually cheaper to use as a material? Paper, wood or plastic? What are the pros and cons of each?

Richard: Generally, paper is cheaper than wood, and wood is cheaper than plastic. Cardboard tokens are fairly cheap since you can fit many of them on a single punchboard. Wooden components have low set-up costs and are faster to produce whereas plastic components require an expensive mould set-up fee but have a lower price per unit afterwards. For smaller print runs wooden bits are cheaper than plastic bits, but for large orders sometimes plastic is cheaper than wood.

An example of the die cut for a punchboard (not for Belfort though).

Punchboard tokens are great because printed images and text will show up clearly on them. However, they have the downside of being 2 dimensional. Wood and plastic are more durable and are good for custom 3-D shapes. However, if you are designing a game where the pieces must be identical, keep in mind that wood pieces are prone to higher variances between pieces.

Sen: Has there been any really expensive game bit that you’ve had to manufacture?

Richard: Panda hasn’t actually been contracted to produce any game with a single component that has been especially expensive, but terms of games that have been more expensive to produce overall, the following come to mind:

· Tales of the Arabian Nights (with a special finish on the box and a huge book of tales)
· Merchants & Marauders (with plastic ships, custom bone dice, a cardboard treasure chest, wooden bits, and just about every cardboard component you can think of)
· Eclipse (an upcoming epic space game for a Finnish publisher – Lautepelit games)

Sen: Has Panda ever manufacture anything with electronics in it?

Richard: Panda has never produced a game with an electronic component. However, we are always looking for new and interesting ways to help our customers develop games of exceptional quality. In general, when working with new factories it is important to account for additional time to allow for more thorough quality control checks. In addition, we would encourage publishers considering electronics in their games to look into CPSIA and customs regulations related to toy testing standards for electronics.

Jay: If we were to do an expansion to Belfort, what should we consider from a manufacturing perspective?

Richard: Be sure to let us know if certain components need to be color matched to previous editions. For example, some card game expansions need extremely careful color matching. Otherwise, cards would be “marked” and the game might be unplayable. Also, you may want to consider advertising the expansion right in the base game. Many larger companies put game catalogues in each of their games. Lastly, there are optimal sizes for game boxes and boards, as well as optimal quantities for card decks. We would encourage you to contact us early so we can provide more specific advice for your game and find ways to help you save on costs.

Sen: For publishers thinking about manufacturing through you, what are some of the things they should know up front regarding both Panda Manufacturing and working with a production plant in China? What are the dangers of not using someone like yourself when dealing with printers in China?

Richard: It is not easy to be a successful board game publisher. You need to have an excellent marketing and sales strategy, great customer service, talented individuals, and of course fun games! Nor is it easy to be a successful board game manufacturer in China. We need a strong network of suppliers to provide quality components for all our games, and a dedicated team on the ground to ensure that colour matching, quality control, and shipping logistics are all carefully conducted.

Our service allows our clients to focus on their core business and be relieved of manufacturing headaches by letting us handle their production. Manufacturing a board game requires many small steps, many handoffs, and cooperation across many factories and companies. While there is always a chance that things can go wrong, Panda has built a reputation for standing by its customers and working with them to resolve any issues fairly and expediently. We take great pride in producing great quality games as well as solving problems if they do arise.

Jay: Is there anything else the world needs to know about Panda Manufacturing and the Lee brothers?

Richard: Panda regularly attends major gaming conventions such as GAMA, Origins, Gencon, and Essen. Feel free to email us at to setup a face-to-ace meeting. We would be happy to discuss your upcoming project or just hang out and chat over a casual board game!

So that concludes our Designer Diaries on Belfort! If you missed the first three, you can read them here:

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 1, The Playtesters

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 2, The Developer

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 3, The Artist

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.


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.

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 2, The Developer

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?

Game Developer for Tasty Minstrel Games, Seth Jaffee

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.

Seth playtested so much that instead of waiting for us to redo components or art for our prototype, he would just mock up the components he had with Post-it notes and such!





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?

One modification Seth made to Belfort was to reduce the game's length to 7 rounds to make it a faster game.

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:

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 1, The Playtesters

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.

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

Train of Thought Designer Diaries on BGG

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile then you probably know most of the story, but in case you haven’t – or you’re interested in learning more about the process we took from …well – from Inspiration to Publication (natch!) – then check out the Designer Diaries that was posted this wkd on!