To wrap up our mechanic archetype series on pool builders, I’m going to trace a history of builders and try to hit the highlights of some of the most important developments in builders. Naturally, it’s impossible to describe every single strategy game that has ever used a builder mechanic, but I’ll aim to analyze the modern builder lineage and try to anticipate some innovations in the future of the format.
Origins of Deck-Builders
The most important and far-reaching mechanical innovation of Magic: the Gathering was that it introduced both variance and a means to mitigate that variance in the same mechanic. In any format of Magic, you’re responsible for creating a deck and drawing cards at random from it during the game.
It was the original prelude to deck-building: the genius of Magic is that randomness is a core part of the game (as it is with any game where drawing cards is involved) but because you can decide what cards go into that deck, you control the likelihood of drawing any given card. Indeed, the biggest variations in how Magic is played even today come from how that deck is assembled, whether through a draft or sealed packs or your own invention at home.
Like poker (which shares an enormous overlap with Magic’s audience), Magic inhabits a fertile middle ground between perfect information games like chess and perfect randomness games like war, where dealing with variance is an important part of the game’s skill. Again, success in Magic comes not necessarily from being able to see six moves in the future or from how to react to a surprise card draw you didn’t see coming, but from thinking through how to manage the randomness and optimize your chances of coming up with the exact card that you need.
It might be trite to describe Dominion’s brilliance as “Magic in a box,” but that’s exactly the innovation that it brought to strategy gaming. Magic’s brilliance as a business model and source of frustration for many a potential player is the financial commitment required to play it competitively. We tend to focus on mechanical design in this blog, but the democratization of the deck-building model into one box from which all of the players can build their respective decks, rather than having to invest time and money to bring their own decks to the table, is surely one of the many reasons for Dominion’s strong following. In this sense, Dominion is a fantastic example of how collection value is every bit as important as balance or approachability in making great games.
We launched a new series over the past year of what we call “Mechanic Archetypes”, an opportunity to examine mechanic-by-mechanic what differentiates successful game designs from the rest when we’re thinking about ones that fall under a label, such as Worker Placement.
Recently we’ve been thinking about “Pool Builders”, a collection of related mechanics like Deck Builders, Dice Builders and Bag Builders that are worth exploring side-by-side as they tend to share quite a few characteristics. In this segment we’re going to step back and examine games that fall into this mechanical category as a group while covering some broad observations as to their strengths and weaknesses. Our goal is that these observations may assist game designers stepping into this growing genre.
Pool Builders – The Algae of Game Mechanics
Since the concept of Pool Builders emerged on the tabletop scene, it has been a popular choice for designers and that popularity doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Depending on who you’re willing to debate with, the origin of Pool Builders could go back seemingly as far as you’d like it to, but the approach we’re familiar with today likely began with either Starcraft: The Board Game (2007) or Dominion (2008).
Our latest topic is “Pool Builders”, a collection of related mechanics like Deck Builders, Dice Builders and Bag Builders that are worth exploring side-by-side as they tend to share similar strengths, weaknesses and approaches to game design.
The most visible difference between these categories is the components they use, so we’ll often use terms like tools, resources and objects to collectively refer to the various components that comprise a player’s deck, bag or dice pool.
In this article I’ll introduce many of the key traits we can find in games that are described as pool builders and in our following articles we’ll explore the key strengths and weaknesses of the group of mechanics. In our concluding segment we’ll finish up with our observations of dozens of pool builders, showcasing some of the most innovative and brilliant ideas we’ve seen in game design that incorporate these mechanics.
What are Pool Builders?
At a high level, our ongoing exploration of game mechanics has developed into its own rank-based taxonomy. If Dominion or Ascension were considered species, their genus would be Deck Builders and their family rank would be Pool Builders in a classification hierarchy. If we’re being completely accurate, “Pool Builders” would probably also go by a fun Latin phrase like “stagnum aedificantes“.
When we explored Worker Placement, we thought it was worthwhile to revisit exactly what the mechanic is, since games that simply use the term “workers” (Terra Mystica, Puerto Rico) and games in which you add or remove meeples (Carcassonne, Five Tribes) are often curiously grouped into the definition.
We’ve been exploring Worker Placement over the last month, creating a working definition and identifying just a few of its strengths and weaknesses as a game mechanic. Before we move on from the mechanic, I wanted to touch on some innovations and a few final observations of Worker Placement.
This final article was an ambitious overview of seemingly countless Worker Placement games. I was thrilled when close friend and gaming partner Dave Satterfield was interested in contributing his thoughts and observations on a plethora of games. Dave is one of my favorite people to bounce ideas off of and without his tremendous input, this write-up would be half the size and a quarter as effective. Many thanks to Dave for his contributions.
Variations in Worker Allocation
One of the ideas frequently seen in Worker Placement is the harmonious match of one worker = one action. Placing a meeple and taking the desired action is simple and free from the transaction costs, tireless exchanges and tenuous bookkeeping we see so often in games. The process is direct, intuitive and usually quick to resolve. It’s also such a common trend it makes for a great opportunity to differentiate a game.
Stone Age is one of the best examples of a game that deviates from this idea. Two workers are necessary to place on the love hut for an action that yields a new worker. Furthermore, a player may place multiple workers in the resource collection areas in order to improve the number of resources the action will yield. In any case, players place all workers on an action at once, cutting down on the number of rotations around the table that may be needed.
Dominant Species follows the more common dispatch process of “one worker at a time”, but players are able to return to that area and place additional workers on subsequent turns. Later workers can achieve the same output, but may be resolved later and achieve another variety of power or position of the action reward.
In a hobby with with so many divisive subjects, we can hardly agree on a definition for Worker Placement. Earlier this month, Matt responded to this very debate by identifying the key characteristics that shape our working definition of Worker Placement.
We’ve been mapping board game mechanics for a long time and although I may never understand the unwavering loyalty some have toward Worker Placement games, it has a lot of characteristics that help it to achieve a broad appeal. I’ll tackle some broad trends of the mechanic before weighing a few selected strengths and weaknesses.
Worker Placement – The Perfectly Average Middle Ground Mechanic
Worker Placement as a mechanic tends to gravitate toward a mythical sweet spot of player interaction; an area palatable a large percentage of people. It tends to drive indirect competition; a desirable trait for anyone with an aversion to conflict or “take that!” mechanics which can be perceived as experiences high in hostility. At the same time, the ability to block action spaces and redirect opponents can provide just enough contention to avoid the dreaded “multiplayer solitaire” identifier.
We’ve just concluded an article series about the early structures in games, including the distribution of resources to start the game and means to decide the first turn. We got some excellent feedback and had some great discussions in our comments sections, so thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts. Before we move on to mid-game structures, our series on turning points and phase transitions in strategy games, we’re taking a brief detour to start a semi-regular feature on some of the most popular and prevalent mechanics in game design.
This month’s topic is worker placement. I’ll introduce the topic by discussing what we mean by worker placement (a surprisingly controversial topic!) and giving some defining characteristics of the genre. Alex will follow up with a pair of articles discussing some classic and creative examples of worker placement mechanics, and what some of the genre’s weaknesses are and what can be done to improve worker placement.