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

Can’t Stop: Belfort Edition

Two friends of mine, Xavier and Matt, gave me a really cool birthday present. They saw that I had the game Can’t Stop on my Want List on, so Xavier took some of the available artwork from Belfort and made a totally unofficial Belfort edition of Can’t Stop! I love it! Thanks guys!

If you haven’t played Can’t Stop, it is a game I recommend. It’s definitely a filler game and pretty much defines the “press-your-luck” category of games.

This will tide me over nicely until we get Belfort back from the printers in China. We’re expecting the game to hit the stores this summer, and are planning a marketing buildup on boardgamegeek in the next few weeks, so be on the lookout for that!

Step 11: The most important Commodity: Playtesters

Once you’re confident that your game is working (this might take a few tweaks to your first prototype!), then it’s time to bring it to the masses.

One of our Playtesters, Xavier, enjoying a prototype of Belfort

Now we come to the most precious commodity every game designer needs – playtesters.  To a game designer, playtesters are like gold.  Here is a group of people who are taking time out of their lives to play a game in an unfinished state and provide you feedback to help you make it better.  Here are our Three Rules about playtesters:

Rule 1: Respect your playtesters. Don’t subject your playtesters to a game that isn’t ready.  We learned this the hard way with The Dig, and all it does is tarnish your reputation as a serious game designer.  It will make it even more challenging to recruit these same people to playtest your next game (or your next tweak to this game).

Rule 2: Let them play the game. Don’t spoon-feed them strategies or help them too much.  Eventually this game is going to be played without you there, so as you continue playtesting the same game, back off further and further with how much support you give players.  This is also a great way to see if the game is broken or just how you explained the rules.

Rule 3: Listen. This has two meanings.  Meaning 1: While the game is being played listen and watch to what players are doing.  Are they complaining about something over and over again?  Are they confused about a specific rule a lot?  Are they trying to circumnavigate the rules to make it work for them?  Watching and listening to people play your game will give you a lot of insight into what’s working and what’s not working.

Meaning 2: really listen and be humble when the game is over.  By now you should have an idea already if they genuinely enjoyed the game, but now it’s time to get their actual feedback.  When they share their feedback, do not get defensive at all.  Accept all comments without defending why you did it your way.  Of course you don’t have to take any of their advice, and it’s impossible to take everyone’s advice all the time, it’s silly to ignore feedback, especially if you get the same feedback multiple times.

The one thing that we’ve found out about playtesters is that they usually enjoy being a part of the process, if you’re open to suggestions at the end.  To some people, helping overcome hurdles that a specific playtest might have had is like playing a game in and of itself.  The more times you get the same people to playtest each improved iteration of your game, the more context the feedback will have as they will understand where the game has come from and what changes have been made.  It’s especially rewarding if you have used some of their feedback in the next playtest.

Matt's suggestion of adding Taxes to Belfort

For Belfort we were having some issues with a run-away leader and were brainstorming ideas on how to overcome this with our playtesters after a specific challenge.  One playtester, Matt, suggested some sort of tax that was higher for players in the lead.  We fooled around with some balance but this feature ended up in the final game!  Thanks Matt!

Remember the purpose of getting playtesters to play your game isn’t for them to pat you on your back, it’s so you can get honest feedback on your game.  Treat your platesters like gold!

-Jay Cormier

Oh, “The Dig”…the Bamboozle Brother’s albatross, hanging around our neck like a millstone…But it was a good learning experience for us. It showed us the value in a) playtesting solo and b) having a solid working relationship with our core playtesters, many of whom we count amongst our best friends outside of gaming.

While some designers might have some difficulty accepting that we can get unbiased, constructive feedback from our friends, I would challenge them in that if you follow the rules that Jay has outlined, you can.

Rule 1: Respect your playtesters…

… and they will respect you. This is really the crux of our playtesting experience so far. We try to foster a mutual level of trust and respect between us,m nnn and our main playtesters. We are open so they are open. We are mature enough to know that there is nothing personal if they provide us with seemingly negative feedback so they are mature enough to give us a reality check when we need one or a boost if it’s deserved. They also know how seriously Jay and I take game design and they want to see us succeed. None of them want us to fail and would not blow smoke up our collective ass just to make us feel good. The fact that most of our playtesters are our friends who we already trust and respect is one thing, but we strive to do this with anyone who plays our games whether we’ve known them for 10 years or 10 minutes.

Rule 2: Let them play the game…

… is a hard one to follow because, as the designer, you have a preconceived notion of how the game “should” be played – and of course you should, otherwise you would never have made the game in the first place. And so we sometimes stick our big noses in when we shouldn’t. One thing we most definitely need to get better at doing is doing “blind” playtesting – where the playtesters read the rules and play without any input or interpretation from the designers. This is the true test of how well the rules have been written, how well your graphic design has been done and how well your player aid and board transfer information to the players. The more you allow your playtesters the freedom to interpret what they see with eyes wide open and a clear mind, the better off you will be because the feedback will be untainted by outside interference (i.e. YOU). One thing that is hard to sometimes recognize is that if the players do something unexpected, it is more likely because your explanation of the rules (be they verbal or written) was inadequate than any fault of the players themselves.

Rule 3: Listen…

… and take notes during game play. Accept their feedback. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it, but you have to respect that their opinion is their opinion and all opinions are valid at this point in the process. I know I often have to stop myself from saying, “We thought of that already…” or ‘No, that won’t work because…” One rule I try to apply to myself when taking feedback is that I will not respond, I will only record. This, again, speaks to respect. For the majority of our serious playtesting, we have serious playtesters – “hardcore” gamers whose opinions we respect, and so we listen. But, for some of our less strategic games, we may have family members and friends who game casually play – does this make the feedback any less relevant? No – sometimes, they have the most realistic view of the game because they do not know common game parlance, memes or conventions and require things to be spelled out clearly. There is no such thing as bad feedback, only bad listeners. Don’t be one of those. Take everything under advisement.

All in all, playtesters are hugely influential in the journey from inspiration to publication. Without playtesters and their feedback, designers would never truly know if a game was worth presenting to a publisher. And no publisher would produce a game without playtesting it. A well-playtested game stands a MUCH better chance of getting published than one that hasn’t been. We’re starting to work with some outside playtesting groups (i.e. not personal friends) so our 3 Cardinal Rules are going to become even more important as Jay and I move forward with our games! I know that just reflecting on this post for the blog has helped Jay and I realize that there’s a lot more we could do to make more efficient use of our most valuable contributors. We’ll definitely have more blind tests. We may have more formalized feedback sheets again (we tried that once or twice), who knows? Maybe we should post them if we can find them…

In closing. I’d just like to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt thanks to all of our playtesters to date. We couldn’t have gotten this far without you! You guys and gals rock!

-Sen-Foong Lim