Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Study in Worker Placement I: Belfort

Everybody loves worker placement. I like worker placement too. Can you have TOO MUCH worker placement? We will see.

I'm going to give me thoughts on a number of worker placement style games and lets just see how far this goes.

First up…Belfort!

Belfort takes everything you know and love about worker placement games and doubles it. And then it adds area control on top of THAT!

The ancient philosopher Plato teaches there are ideal versions of everything, and the real objects we interact with on a daily basis are just imperfect copies. Like shadows on the wall of a cave. So since this is the first review in what is hopefully a long and extensive worker placement series, let me describe some components of the ideal worker placement game before we delve into the Befort-shaped shadow.

The Ideal Worker Placement Game

1) You have a limited number of workers. Your workers are a resource you spend to do things.

2) You place the workers in houses, or spots on the ground or other sections and in return you get to take some kind of action or collect some kind of resources.

3) The first workers to get placed in the turn are the more important ones, because they block those squares for all the other workers trying to find spots later in the turn.

Now, this is a fairly generic description. What are some of the other features? Well, we don't know since we can only observe this perfect worker placement game by examining cruddy old Belfort. We might even LIKE Belfort. But compared to the immaculate version shining down from the 5th dimension, it is bantha fodder.


Belfort has a sweet 5-way pentagon pie of doom you slide together to get started. If I start to harp on Belfort too much, do remember I am incredibly fond of unusual board designs and this board is quite sweet. You also get another boring rectangular board. And a clipboard shaped board for distributing gnomes. And a bunch of player boards. It's a board-nanza!

Boarding Party

The pentagon board has 5 "guild" squares each ready to receive one of your willing workers. These are randomly selected from a pile, basically there's a guild each to collect extra resources of various kinds, plus some other special powers like drawing extra cards.

When you build a building, a wooden house goes on the board (because area control is how victory points are scored) and in front of you goes a building card yet another worker placement position. And unlike some games, you are the only person who can use your buildings.

Personally, I don't mind other people using my buildings, as long as I get a little something out of it. In Belfort, a lot of your buildings end up sitting empty while your elves and dwarves are cavorting elsewhere. Often, you aren't building for the ability, but instead for the position it fills on the pentagon.

Now, what about the regular rectangular board up top? It looks like guys are being placed up there too. How does that happen?

Well, here's one tricky part I manage to screw up every time I explain the game to anyone. The bottom part of the board you place workers on during the first placement phase, same time as on the pentagon board. There's a space there to recruit more workers. And a space to manipulate turn order. And a space you don't place anything on, that eventually forces you to PAY TAXES every turn. Someone call Grover Norquist!

But to place your guys in the top row of these very same board, you have to pass your turn.

If you have ever played Caylus, you pass your turn in much the same way. You stop placing dudes and let your opponents skip over you. Only instead of collecting some extra deniers, you get to dump the rest of your workers onto the resource spaces and collect wood, stone, metal and (shudder) gold.

Resources and Racial Politics

Now at this point, I should probably mention there are 2 different races of workers in this game (3 if you count gnomes, but I'm purposefully not), elves and dwarves. Elves can be placed on the wood, dwarves can be placed on the stone, one elf and one dwarf together can produce a metal and finally any elf or any dwarf can collect a gold. My mind wheels with possibilities on what could be lurking inside that tent.

This weird elf/dwarf dichotomy you get used to fairly quick. Although I don't know how necessary it really is. I can't imagine a designer was thinking "worker placement isn't complex enough. What can we do to make the use, acquisition and collection of workers more complicated." But this is exactly what happens. You need to make sure you have the correct amounts of each race available when you pass and go to the resource collection phase. One false step, and you are 1 stone short of an important building you were going to use next turn. The game makes things just a little crazier by making it possible to upgrade your elf/dwarves into SUPER elf/dwarves.

2 normal elves, 1 super elf.

The third race, gnomes, are not exactly workers. You get victory points for having "racial majorities" with the gnomes but in the game play they are more like building upgrades than anything else. Kinda creepy, but I'll go along with it and not think too much.

The Ecstasy(and Agony) of Gold

Resource Collection is further complicated because the workers on the pentagon and the workers in the resource pits are taken back at different parts of the turn. The resource pits are collected, new workers are recruited, turn over is established then the players have to PAY TAXES. Only after the taxes are paid do we then move to the action phase, where workers placed on "planks" from buildings or the pentagon are removed one at a time to take actions, like getting even more resources. Or MOST importantly…gold you wish you could have paid your taxes with.

A World of Micro Turns

I enjoy Belfort mostly, despite how I've perhaps come off so far. But there is one facet that is always ready to drive me up the wall and then back down again.

You never stop taking turns, and each turn is only about 10 seconds long. Not "turns" in the official game definition of course (there are only 7 of those) but turns by which I mean when someone says "your turn."

You take a turn when you initially place a worker. You take a turn when you take your workers back. It feels like about 10 turns per real turn, and that multiplies with each person you are playing with. And as I've discussed previously, I have a problem taking my turn.

And each turn (or action, I supose), by itself is so completely inconsequential. Could we not lump some of these into a single pile rather than me getting yelled at for not taking my turn, then 10 seconds later yelling at someone else to take their turn? Could we perhaps lump the placement of workers and the actions they take together? But Belfort doesn't do this, for whatever reason.

This "Micro Turn Dilemma" is one of the reasons I decided to tackle the worker placement genre head on.  I 'm taking an analytical eye to every one of them and we will see if there are other more streamlined or elegant ways of moving those workers around.

For more updates, you know where to look. I've got work to do.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rex: First Impressions

So here we sit with Rex: Last Days of An Empire. An almost mythical game, reborn back in 2012 from the ashes of Avalon Hill's original Dune board game from 1979.

I have taken it apart, assembled all the pieces and played a single turn. The single turn took an hour, because I was constantly checking the rules and explaining the game.

Assembly took 2 hours because of the lively discussions focused on how the battle wheels and Dreadnaught Fleet should go together.

Play was lively, I enjoyed it, but will definitely need more of it to get the full picture.

So these are rough observations.


An incredible theme. Dune was one of the first "ecological" science fiction novels. It created an entirely alien culture of distant future humans, inventing an astounding level of detail that nevertheless manages to be very cohesive.

Yet Rex is certainly not Dune. There is not a character from Dune, a creature or even a word that exists within Rex. The aliens are lifted from Christian T Peterson's Twilight Imperium universe and bear absolutely no relation.

So it comes as something of a shock that I felt connected to Dune even as a I played this game which had nothing to do with it. If you've read Dune, you will see it in this game too. From the suicide-squad-style tactics used in the battles, to the traitor mechanics, to the betrayal win conditions.

The spice Melange, in particular, cannot be under-appreciated.

"Influence" is what you harvest in this game. But as to why it randomly "blows" up from the ground, and why your agents slowly hoover it up a piece at a time doesn't make a huge amount of sense unless you consider the original source.

If you haven't read Dune, the plotting, poker-hand bluffing and inevitable backstabbing might feel torn right from the pages (or TV screen) of Game of Thrones. With the added awesomeness of being in space.

The Play

The movement of the pieces feels like an older game. There is no deck building or worker placement to be found. And honestly, I enjoyed it. You get to move your pieces and pass the turn…instead of the fractured micro-turn splinters a lot of games are serving up nowadays.

And there is absolutely no dice rolling. Movement is standardized and easily anticipated. Combat is a simple affair, once the multiple layers of bluffing and strategy cards are played. Winning or losing is like revealing a poker hand…you know who is going to win, unless they've been feeding a line all along, and only now reveal their true power.

Finally winning (although I never got to this point) is an incredible array of victory conditions depending on faction. There is a faction of magical turtles who must guess which faction will win and on what turn. If they are correct, they are actually the faction that wins. I can only imagine these turtles were once the Bene Gesserit,

Which brings us to…

The Factions

In Ryan Sturm's "How to Play Podcast" on Rex, he mentions how playing the different factions feels almost like playing different games.

Typical Rex faction card.

Each faction has a mountain of special rules. Each starts in a different location, with different currency levels and troop levels as well. I am reminded of Axis and Allies, or any other game based on a real conflict. The sides could not be more uneven, and explaining the exceptions to inexperienced gamers would be a nightmare. Especially if someone refuses to read their faction card.

Do the factions feel like Dune? Of course. It's pretty easy to guess when faction were originally House Harkonnen. And the others stand out pretty well too. But again, referring instead to Game of Thrones it would be just as easy to see them as House Lannister, House Stark, House Greyjoy and so on.


No one understands combat until you go through it once. I explained it multiple times, but no one "got it" until the first actual battle happened. Let me say it now: in Rex, all soldiers are suicide-bombers. The only soldiers you don't lose are the ones you choose not to commit to the battle in the first place. And if you lose, the ones you held back die too. Battles are horrible, unless you have a trick up your sleeve. And usually your opponent has a trick or too as well.

In the above battle, the mewling Federation of Sol uses a cowardly atmospheric ionizer to cancel out my glorious biological weapon. He didn't really need to, though, because he also happened to have a TRAITOR card matching my deployed leader. Playing the traitor card removes all strategy cards from the battle, destroys my leader, and murders all of my troops being led by said leader at the time. A true Dune-style betrayal.

Finally the Dreanaught Fleet

The Dreadnaught Fleet, under nominal control of the Federation of Sol, conducts bombing upon the board as it leisurely travels in a slow orbit. Anything its path crosses is immediately destroyed.

The Fleet is represented by a intricately crafted miniature.

I'll keep it short: this little guy will break the moment your kid grabs it off the table. The moment someone bumps it with their elbow. The moment you put it in the box and close the lid. But it will be easy enough to use anything, since the Dreadnaught simply moves around the board independent of any of the factions.

More thoughts are certainly to come. But first I will have to play it all the way through. Hopefully with six players. Is it possible? Can I do it? If I can't you probably won't hear about it. But if I do…you know where to read it.

Until next time…

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

New Twitter Bar and a little bit about Rex: Last Days of an Empire

In keeping with my dedicated up-to-the-minute updates, I have added a Twitter section for you to see when I post things there.

Biggest board game news lately is some sweet Rex action. A game I have wanted to play for some time and then it was right there in my lap.

I will have a "first impressions" style review put together in short order.

My VERY FIRST "first impressions" I am ready to share. The Sol Dreadnaught Fleet, which moves around the board bombing the heck out of things, is a rather impressive miniature.

After a lengthy assembly, I can say with certainty it will never leave my house. It doesn't fit back into the box very well, and the plastic platform feels incredibly fragile. Imagine a base half the thickness of an Eldar Jetbike's base and how easy it would be to snap such a base in half.

Luckily, the Dreadnaught Fleet can be represented by just about anything. So I'll just steal another token of some sort from a different game.