During the majority of the design process for Belfort, we always had some sort of threat that impacted the players. The threat started out as a dragon that would visit the city of Belfort and do damage to various buildings. First, we had to come up with some sort of AI for how often and then where the dragon would show up. Usually this had the dragon flying in from one of
the 5 sides which could be blocked if you built a wall. That made walls interesting throughout the game instead of just the endgame. Then we had to figure out an AI for how it moved around. I remember sometimes we allowed specific players to control the dragon, and other times it had specific ways in which it moved. The board was broken down to spaces – such that each building was in its own space, and then the dragon could move from one space to the next.

Players were complaining about how punishing it was and we heard this feedback and decided to give some agency to players that would help them protect themselves from it. We introduced guards! There was a property you could build called the Barracks, where you could recruit your own guards. Then you could place your guards at various points around the city to protect you from the dragon. If you had a guard then the dragon would move onto the next space. See? We listen to our playtesters! They didn’t like getting punished by the dragon – and now you can choose to protect yourself. Brilliant! Sarcasm alert, as we didn’t really listen to what they were saying yet. When the dragon ended its movement, it would damage that building. Players would have to place a damage token on that building and they would have to spend resources in the future in order to repair it. Otherwise you don’t get to use that building at all.

A lot of the feedback we were getting was about how the dragon wasn’t working for them. We kept tweaking it over and over again by changing each lever we had access to: How often the dragon came in, where and how it came into the city, how it moved, how you could defend against it and how it impacted your buildings. Every time we tested it our playtesters kept telling us that they didn’t like the dragon.

OK…what about an orc horde? Yes, we kept diverting the feedback they were trying to tell us and instead kept trying to force this threat into the game. We went through the entire gamut of changes again, but still the players didn’t like it. What could we do? Well, we could really listen to what the playtesters were saying and just remove it entirely. What? Is that really an option? It’s part of the core experience! It’s been part of the main design for such a long time! Yes. Yes, it was an option. A really good option.

What we eventually learned was that in games where players are building things with their hard-earned resources, they don’t like it when those things are destroyed or damaged. It basically forces them to deal with this threat either proactively – which takes them away from the fun parts of the game of building properties – or deal with them afterwards by repairing damaged buildings – which again, takes these resources away from them, which they could have used to build more properties and had more fun! It’s amazing how long it took us to learn this lesson because they were saying the same thing over and over again, but we kept misinterpreting what they were really saying.

When have you misinterpreted your playtesters feedback? Did it turn out ok for you or did you eventually figure it out?

With a section reserved just for observations, we could have written down times when our playtesters were getting frustrated whenever the dragon or orc attacked.