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Board Game Review: Belfort by TMG

Gnomes, Dwarves, and Elves. But no Pixies… yet!

It’s Friday, which means it’s Board Game Review day! Today I’m reviewing Belfort by Tasty Minstrel Games, which currently has an awesome expansion available on Kickstarter (KS link) for only $20. So since the Kickstarter campaign is live I figured now is as good a time as ever to post this review!

In Belfort players take on the role of a builder who has been hired to build the castle Belfort. Unfortunately, other builders were also hired in a mix-up. So you are tasked with being the best builder of the castle.  To do that you have to make effective use your elves and dwarves with a worker placement mechanic in various spots throughout the city.  Leftover elves and dwarves can be used to claim wood, stone, metal, or gold. Decisions in this game get tough and heavy. But that makes it awesome. The other part of the game involves building the buildings of the castle to claim a majority of a district. That’s how players can obtain points, which are needed for victory. When you’re ready to visit the Pub for some Master Dwarf action, or the Blacksmith to get some metal, then grab your friends and sit down for a game of Belfort!

Here’s a look at all of the awesomeness that is Belfort (image from BoardGameGeek.com):

This game is awesome!

I’ve played this game a bunch and I totally love it. But the real question is who can find the Ton Ton from Hoth on the game board first?

The Upside:

  • ARTWORK: I must start with the artwork. This game is so visually stunning that I sometimes set it up just to stare at it (not true). It just looks so good that I must give a shout out to artist Joshua Cappel! Excellent work!
  • STRATEGY: This game looks too fun to be a heavy strategy game, but that’s exactly what this is!  There is a lot of strategy behind each decision from the first turn throughout the whole game.  Players have to optimize their workers capabilities and then optimize which building to build and where to build it.  There’s a lot to think about in this game!
  • THEME: The theme of building a castle with your hired elves and dwarves is a lot of fun.It is easy to get immersed in this game and feel like you are really putting your elves and dwarves to work. And everything works together thematically, which always makes a game better!

The Downside:

  • ANALYSIS PARALYSIS PRONE: While I am a player that enjoys heavy strategy and tough decisions, there are some players that I play games with that would struggle mightily with indecision throughout this game.  There would be times where they wouldn’t know what to do or why they are doing it. Beware that this can lead to long games.
  • SETUP TIME: This game has a ton of components. Thus, it requires a higher than average setup time. If you know you’re playing this game during your board game night perhaps you should set it up beforehand!

Designer Perspective – What I Would Change:

Belfort is a brilliantly designed game of worker placement and area control. The upcoming expansion looks like it will enhance the game greatly, so I won’t offer anything that the expansion is already doing (or at least that I know of it doing). If I were to change anything I think I’d add the ability of players to swap buildings between districts. This would add a huge “screw-you” factor to the game, but might also unbalance the game. By being able to swap my Inn in district 1 with you Inn in District 2 I could gain the majority in both! Bonus!

Beer Pairing:

I would normally pair this game with a heavy beer since the game is a heavy game. However, I just can’t imagine the worker elves and dwarves sipping a heavy, gentlemen’s beer after a hard day of work on the castle. So my preferred beer pairing is one that drinks easily, tastes great, and would work perfectly in the hands of elves and dwarves. And that beer is New Glarus‘ Cabin Fever Honey Bock. It is a very tasty beer brewed with clover honey, but not too much. And it goes great with brats, BBQ, and Belfort!

OVERALL RATING:

This was at the top of my Christmas list a couple year’s ago and it has lived up to that! Belfort is a great game that is a ton of fun to play. There is deep strategy, awesome artwork, and a lot of tense decisions. I can’t wait for the expansion to come out! I will rate Belfort 9 out of 10 on the BoardGameGeek rating system!

Excellent game.  Always want to play it.

Excellent game. Always want to play it.

BGR: Last Will

Yes. It’s like Brewster’s Millions.

Another Board Game Review! This time I’m reviewing Last Will by Czech Games Edition and designer Vladimír Suchý.

In Last Will you have received an inheritance of sorts from your deceased Uncle. But before you can “earn” the inheritance you have to prove yourself worthy of it! How do you do that? By spending an allotment of cash faster than your cousins. You’ll have to buy residences, farms, and mansions. You’ll have to throw extravagant balls. You’ll have to hire outstanding workers. And more! If you can go the furthest into debt, then you win!

This game has players fighting to get rid of their money the fastest. Can you outwit your cousins and spend you allotment first? Or will you be stuck with valuable properties? If you’re ready to spend spend spend, then it’s time to play Last Will (Ben McQuiston’s 2012 Game of the Year! – personal shout out)

Here’s a sneak peek at the game:

Okay… that’s obviously not the game, but it’s the same idea!

Here’s a look at the setup of the game (Image from BoardGameGeek.com):

Look at those awesome Top Hats! This shows a two-player game.

The Upside:

ARTWORK: This is easily some of my favorite board game artwork! Everything is thematically cohesive. It looks amazing. The colors are brilliant. And they spared no expense! I also like that they avoided game-dependent text on the cards, despite the fact that I have to reference the back page of the rulebook for the iconography about two dozen times per game. Really outstanding artwork!

THEME: The theme for this is fresh, unique, and interesting. Having a game where you have to get rid of all your money is so different than the majority of games out there. But all of the mechanics in the game fit the theme really well.

DOWNTIME: One of the things that can take a good game and turn it sour is an abundance of downtime. In Last Will there is very little downtime. This is because in the main action phase all the players can perform their actions at the same time. That’s pretty solid game design!

The Downside:

FIRST PLAY: The first time you attempt Last Will will likely be rough. New players typically have no idea what to do. Why should they buy a building? How does depreciation work? What do companions do? There are a lot of areas where they can get confused. If you’ve only played this game once and were confused, I highly recommend giving it another shot.

ICONOGRAPHY (SYMBOLOGY??): There are a lot of icons (symbols?) in this game. Like I mentioned above, I have to reference the table on the back of the rules multiple times throughout the game. This can be overwhelming to non-gamers or light-gamers.

AP-PRONE: Yes, there are an abundance of decisions to make in this game. And they are tough decisions. I don’t recommend playing this with your AP friends unless you plan on talking with your non-AP friends a bunch during the game. Or you’re incessantly patient.

Designer Perspective – What I Would Change:

As a designer I can really appreciate how well this game is balanced. The design process must have been a beast for this game. There are so many interweaving things within the design. The gameplay works really well. The artwork is outstanding. And the theme is great. The only thing I would be tempted to change is the iconography. It looks nice, but I think the icons could be a little more clear on what they represent. They just are not very intuitive.

Beer Pairing:

This seems like a gentlemen’s (lady’s) game and I prefer to play while enjoying a gentlemen’s beer. And to me a fine example of a gentlemen’s beer is a Scotch Ale. I’m keeping it close to home with this beer pairing and I’m recommending Lake Louie’s Warped Speed Scotch Ale. It’s an excellent beer that goes well with this excellent game! A secondary local option would be Ale Asylum’s Sticky McDoogle! That’s also a great Scotch Ale that is as enjoyable as this game. Either way, you can’t go wrong!

OVERALL RATING:

I’ve played Last Will a half dozen times. I’ve enjoyed each play. There is a great amount of variability. The theme and artwork are awesome. And there is a lot of awesome strategy that keeps me wanting more. I yearn to be better at this game. I’ve won at least once and I’m hoping to win again soon, but just playing this one is a lot of fun!  Just get past that first play and this game really becomes outstanding. I’ll rate it 8 out of 10 according to the BoardGameGeek rating system:

Very good game. I like to play it. Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.

Very good game. I like to play it. Probably I’ll suggest it and will never turn down a game.

BGR: Empire Builder

A game with crayons? Aren’t I too old for crayons?

Today on Boards & Barley I’m reviewing a classic game called Empire Builder!

Empire Builder is a “crayon rails” game where players try to build a network between cities such that they can deliver the goods that those cities desire. Hold your horses there big fella… did you say “Crayon” rails? Yes I sure did, kind sir.

Here’s a definition from BoardGameGeek.com for crayon rail games:

The Crayon Rail System is a subcategory of Route/Network Building. Types of these games use crayon or other non-permanent methods of making connecting lines on a board, often eraseable. The most popular Crayon Rail games are part of the Empire Builder system.

The way this game is played allows players to actually draw (as in, use a crayon to draw on the board, not as in draw a card) their train connection routes onto the game board. On your turn you will first move your “train” pawn up to the number of spaces allowed by the type of engine you control. Once you’ve moved your pawn you can then pay to add train tracks to your network. The objective of the game is to connect 6 of the 7 major cities and possess $250 million. The first player to get to that point wins.

So how do you get money? Players each have three cards. On each card are three demands. Each demand lists a city and a resource that they want. It also lists the money that city will pay if you can drop off that resource to them. Throughout the game players will be picking up resources in one city and then delivering them to another city. Each delivery gets them some cash. The tricky part of the game is to know when the best time is to start focusing on income rather than network building.

I’ve played this game about 15 times and would play it again tonight if the circumstance arose. It is a very simple game to learn in terms of mechanics. But the satisfaction one gets from fulfilling an demand on one of their cards is great!

Here’s a look at the game components (image from BoardGameGeek.com):

Notice the crayons? It’s time to color!

The Upside:

  • GAME PLAY: This game is fundamentally simple to play. It is easy enough to teach to non-gamers and those I’ve taught really seem to enjoy it. There are not any hugely daunting decisions in the game that would turn people off.
  • STRATEGY: I love the strategy in this game. Players have to attempt to balance building a larger network with delivering the most appropriate goods. My favorite is when I can fulfill two demand cards in the same city on the same turn!
  • THEME: So some people are sick of train games. That’s fine. This isn’t as much a  train game as it is a network game. That’s why the theme can work almost anywhere. There are versions of this game with maps from Australia, China, Japan, Britain, the Moon, Mars, and more! Choose your geography and start networking!

The Downside:

  • COMPONENTS: Each of the resources has a stack of three or four tiny poker chips. These can really get fiddly. And the worst part is when you accidentally knock the box over. Empire Builder is one of the few games that I make certain to never set on its side!
  • TIME: Beware… with 6 players this might be the only game to hit the table at a game night. It can take a long time to play since there are a lot of decisions that can’t be addressed until you draw a new demand card. I would almost recommend to keep this to 2 or 3 players.
  • ARTWORK: I understand that the board needs to be white so everyone can see what color tracks people are drawing on the board. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. The artwork is one of the worst parts of the game for me.

Designer Perspective – What Would I Change:

This game has been around for a very long time (since 1980). It seems to be very well designed and I am tempted to not change anything about the game. But since this portion of the column exists I might as well make a suggestion. I would like to see different scenarios in the game including different victory conditions. Sometimes a 6 City/$250 million game can take a long time. If there were setup or start game scenarios that could guide players decisions it could make for quicker game play with less downtime. If you think this start game scenario idea would be good, check out Empire Express!

Preferred Beer Pairing:

This game can tend to roll on and on. I recommend a nice beer to sip on. One I particularly enjoy for a game like this is Anchor Steam by the Anchor Steam Brewing Company. It also helps that this is a very “American” beer and you’re building your network across the good old US of A (unless you’re playing British Rails, Lunar Rails, Martian Rails, Australian Rails, China Rails, I think you get the point). A not-too-heavy, not-too-light beer is perfect for Empire Builder!

OVERALL RATING:

Empire Builder is great. I really enjoy it for a game night where I just want to relax. It’s not overly tense. But it is a great feel-good game. Dropping a load in San Francisco never felt so good! And the crayons just make it fun. You can see your network growing as the game progresses and there’s something neat about that.  I’ll rate this as a 8 out of 10 according to the BoardGameGeek rating system:

Very good game. I like to play it. Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.

Very good game. I like to play it. Probably I’ll suggest it and will never turn down a game.

BGR: Archipelago by Ludically

(Disclaimer: I am reviewing after two plays)

The rebels are advancing… quick, sell some exotic fruit!

A chain of islands has popped up in the middle of the ocean.  You have the chance to land on those islands and harvest their resources.  At first things are great.  You’ve got new land, exotic fruit, and you are quickly farming.  But beware.  The rebels native to the archipelago are getting frustrated with you.  A rebellion is growing!  If you think you have what it takes to hold the natives at bay while reaping what the land can offer, then you’re ready to try out Archipelago!

In Archipelago players represent Renaissance European powers who are attempting to explore, control, and cultivate the land of the archipelago.  To do so you’ll have to harvest the resources that the land is offering, then use those resources to build ports, markets, towns, and temples.

A round consists of an auction phase which determines player order, a “population effects” stage which adjusts the number of rebels on the island, a “balance of the archipelago” phase which has a requirement on a card that must be met lest the rebel population rises, an “actions” phase where players place their action discs to perform different actions, and finally an “evolution card” phase where players either purchase one card and rotate another or rotate two of the evolution cards.

Each player will also have a card that shows them an end-game scenario and a scoring condition.  If that end-game scenario is ever met, the game ends.  These scenarios include things like how many of a type of building has been built. Once the game is over the scoring conditions from each player’s card are revealed and scored.  There is also one scoring condition card for each game that is visible to all players.

Here’s a look at the game setup:

There are a lot of components in this one!

The Upside:

  • ARTWORK: this game has very nice artwork.  It is fun to just look at the different land tiles.  As a designer I appreciate when there are added details to artwork that are unnecessary.  This game has very nice artwork in all areas and I can tell that was a focus.
  • STRATEGY: There is a lot going on in this game, so the strategic decisions it offers are plentiful.  On your turn you can place your action discs to obtain resources, reproduce, hire extra workers, explore, use a market or port, or build something.  Trying to maximize your value-per-turn (VPT) can be tough, which is where strategy comes in.
  • THEME: The idea of exploring an archipelago and developing the land is a really cool theme.  Adding in the workers and rebels, the evolution cards, having to balance the archipelago, and maintaining a market balance all add to the theme.  It all seemed to work pretty well together.

The Downside:

  • COMPONENTS: There are just too many.  I found we were constantly dealing with the fiddly-ness of the game because you have to look at the two markets, the two population boards, the evolution card track, the action circle, the archipelago itself, other players evolution cards, and so on.  And it is a little tedious to use the box insert itself during gameplay.  The explorer tokens didn’t fit very well in the box.  The coins were hard to get out. Sure, we could have put them on the table, but the rulebook goes out of its way to say the box is used in the game.
  • TIME: this game takes a long time.  I read a BGG thread that said to not bother with the short game since you wouldn’t get the chance to develop the full flavor of the game, but I recommend the short version.  With three players playing the medium game it took about 2.5 hours.  But it only ended so quickly because we didn’t pay much attention to the rebels and they took over, and thus we all lost, pouring salt in our wounds.
  • INDECISION: normally I like a lot of choices in the game.  Normally those choices have a clear path forward.  In Archipelago it seems like you just gather whatever goods are available and hope to use them.  Sure, stone helps you build things.  But why are you building them?  It just seemed like too often I was choosing an action that didn’t really have any reasoning behind it.

Designer Perspective – What Would I Change:

I think that dropping the evolution cards from the game entirely would make it more fun and less fiddly.  That would also mean dropping the “balance of the archipelago” phase.  That would be fine since that phase seemed very random and non-thematic.  I would also make the game more about the actually exploration of the archipelago rather than the whole “control the rebels” nature of the game.  As a designer I have learned that it is super easy to add complexity to games.  It seems like that happened here.  On the other hand, games often get better when complexity is stripped out and the “fun” part of the game becomes the focus.

Beer Pairing:

Fiddler’s Elbow (Wychwood Brewery, UK): Mostly due to the name (Fiddler’s is close to “Fiddly”), but also because this is an English Pale Ale.  I could imagine the English exploring an Archipelago in the 17th century and having to deal with the natives.  Plus, I didn’t think this game was deserving of a more mainstream beer.  I suppose I should share that I haven’t had this beer.  But I feel like I understand the beer about as much as I understand this game.

OVERALL RATING:

While Archipelago is interesting, it is too fiddly for my liking.  During my second play we got to the point where we realized we weren’t having any fun.  The strategy is present and complex, but the fact that you have to pay attention to so many little details along the way really stole the pleasure from the game.  I’ll rate this as a 6 out of 10 according to the BoardGameGeek rating system:

Ok game, some fun or challenge at least, will play sporadically if in the right mood.

Ok game, some fun or challenge at least, will play sporadically if in the right mood.

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