Belle of the Ball, a Fancy Schmancy Card Game, is the new(-ish) release by Daniel Solis via Dice Hate Me Games.
If you haven’t come across Daniel, he’s an absurdly talented game designer and also graphic designer, with a very interesting and thoughtful blog which covers the development and production of his game concepts in great and absorbing depth. I guess he started writing about Belle of the Ball about the same time as I started reading him, so I’ve followed it all the way through to the successful Kickstarter campaign, and the delivery of the game into my hot little hand a couple of months ago. The evolution and development of the game’s structure and mechanics is a real object lesson in card game design, imo.
The game’s for 2–5 players, and at its simplest consists of 60 guest cards and 27 Belle cards, plus scoring tokens. The players are hosting parties, and trying to entice the best guests to come along – you’ll choose guests from a line on the table between you, and score in various ways according to their properties. There’s a mini-economy of Regrets: you can pay Regrets to not have to take the first guest in line; but if you choose to take a guest that another player has passed over in this manner, you gain the Regrets that they paid. There aren’t a lot of Regrets in the game, so you have to judge when it’s worth depleting your stock (costing future flexibility) for a particularly good card that’s down the line a little way.
Collecting guests is a solid and easy-to-grasp basic mechanism, but what adds interest and depth to the game is the Belle cards. These are action cards, of a number of different types: you can choose to take one on your turn rather than a guest. They may improve your own score, penalize someone else’s, introduce a new global scoring rule, act on players’ cards or hands, take effect immediately or remain on the table for future reference… This is what the skill of the game is mostly about.
Belle of the Ball has that nice combination of being easy to initially learn, but it becoming quickly apparent that repeated play will enhance enjoyment. Clever combinations of Belle card effects will score you (and cost your opponents) vastly more points than just plugging away to collect good groups of guests. The potential downside of this is that an experienced player will always trounce a novice, as the random element balances out pretty evenly. Some novices will be inspired by this, others deflated… judge your playing group.
During the course of the design Daniel came up with a number of wrinkles and additions, and thanks to the Kickstarter, these are included in the box. An advanced setup, advanced scoring rules, two new types of card, and an interesting-looking card called The Belle’s Favor which would seem to mitigate the effects of Regrets disparity. I haven’t tried any of these, but they all look solid and sufficient to refresh interest should the base game ever start to pall.
I mustn’t omit to praise the artwork, by Jacqui Davis: it’s appealing, warm, interesting and generally adds a lot of delight to the game. Each of the guests radiates personality. (You can see a few of them in the picture above.) And they all have silly names, which caused much hilarity around our table. (‘Manburgerhead Headburgerman’ may be my favourite.)