Jim White recently downloaded the Belle of the Ball Beta and playtested it with his group. He sent such a thorough and well-considered critique that I decided (with his permission) to just post the email in its entirety. I hope it starts a bit of conversation and maybe gets some more playlists going soon.
I printed out and played Belle of the Ball Beta v.1.1 yesterday, and I thought I'd email you about my experience with it.
We had 4 players; two of us were moderately hard-core gamers, and two were more casual board gamers. To give you an idea of our gaming context, yesterday we also played Bananagrams and Ticket to Ride Europe, and Bohnanza is a perennial favorite game.
I picked Felicia Fawsley's Felicitous Feast as it seemed a simpler belle to start with. After a quick walk-through of the rules, we got to playing. First thing we wished for: Honored Guest tokens need to be something physically substantial so they can be seen more easily.
I heard many comments akin to, "I have no idea what I'm doing," or, "I guess it doesn't matter what I play." I feel like there's an overwhelming randomness to the game that makes it difficult to enjoy. In our game, if we got lucky enough to draw an eating guest (a 1 in 4 shot), we could score during play. Otherwise, we could try and build up the Honored Guest collections or spoil them with a singleton somewhere else on the board, which wasn't terribly compelling. And given the difficulty in saving cards for endgame with a hand size of only 5 plus the ease of spoiling Honored Guest points in a single play, there didn't seem much point to planning strategies for endgame. In our game, we didn't have an Honored Guest score over 2 due to spoiler activity, and the player who drew the most eating guests won the game hands down.
Design ideas follow. Feel free to ignore or take with a grain of salt.
Right now, the Belle entirely drives the rules and there's effectively no basic game. Cards for the Belle's scoring conditions all come up one time in three or less. I would like to see a mechanic more akin to Ticket To Ride, where every time you play to the board you score something. Maybe if you score 1 for each similar characteristic one step away from the guest just invited, whether that's action or suit, that would give a better sense of control to players on every turn rather than "Nothing I play will matter in the long run." Or better yet, maybe counting up similar characteristics and just score the one characteristic with the most points would work - so if I place a dancing Dundifax next to 3 other Dundifaxes and 2 other dancers, I'd score 3 points. With this approach, players would have a reason to want to build Honored Guests up and give endgame a little more impact. I think the few cards in the deck with no actions need to do something special under this system - maybe making them wild cards for purposes of action matching when they're played or something.
Given that idea, maybe you could offer optional advanced rules could give bonuses by suit played for scoring conditions. For an off-the-cuff example, if you play a Crawhole, you can score both neighboring eaters and Crawholes as opposed to choosing one or the other. Or a Dundifax counts double when it's next to a Dundifax that shares no actions, since they'll want to have the most skills available when fleecing other guests.
I was thinking of ways to add a more social element to the game, like a Diplomacy-like alliance system to make it more like a dinner party, but I can't think of a good way to do that. I don't think a trading mechanic would work with the flavor of the game, though it would add a social component.
Overall I like the feel of the game and I think it's got potential, but right now it seems incomplete. Once the basic game can stand on its own, adding in the Belle's effects and advanced rules for house bonuses would really add some depth to the game.
Later, Jim sent further thoughts:
I had another idea for an optional rule. What if players could choose a family to play? Endgame the player would score as if she were a card in hand, and that would give incentive to build up honored guest blocks.
Further, if each player of a family had a "main operative" token (a simple glass bead would work) that they could place on any member of their family any time their Honored Guest token moved to a different group, then their operative could be scored at game end as if it was just played. Alternately, families could earn separate family-specific bonus points based on the placement of their operative. For example, let's say Dundifax wants to influence as many other families as possible, so they get 2 points per distinct family bordering their operative at endgame.
Family-specific bonuses are really easy to replace or modify with house rules. In fact, optional rules may do well as printed cards you can lay by the board to let everyone know what rules are in effect, as kind of a game-specific Belle card for Families.
If you can use these ideas or post them for more discussion, then I am content.
Thank you, Jim!
So, have you had a chance to playtest Belle of the Ball? Any thoughts on adding elements from Ticket To Ride or any other game?