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.

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