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.
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 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.