Worker Placement – The Perfectly Average Middle Ground Mechanic

Written by Alex Harkey

wptitle2In 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.

If we carry over a similar mindset to questions surrounding randomness, luck and skill, Worker Placement has a similar and perhaps even an ideal location in the spectrum to meet maximum appeal. The mechanic gives players a relatively secure level of control over the outcome of games as it tends to incorporate perfect information and/or opportunities to mitigate luck or chance in these games.

wpcontrol

Theoretical Distribution of games when evaluated on player control. Worker Placement games tend to fall within the highlighted range.

Comparatively, however, modern game designs have skewed the overall player control spectrum toward lower variance in games and more control. Worker Placement doesn’t offer the completely skill-driven outcomes found in 2-player abstracts that use area capture (Go) or variations of spatial grid movement (Chess). WP also isn’t in the lottery of mechanics that use random draw distributions such as roll and move or random effects found in a variety of card games. As a result, games that use WP tend to fall right around the population average when evaluating player control.

Worker Placement is about the center of the spectrum as you can get in every characteristic you can graph. These reasons are largely why it has attained such tremendous popularity, but I think it also embodies the spirit of worker placement: steady gameplay and equally consistent production.

Has anyone ever stopped and thought about how impressive it is that any worker in some games can achieve the exact average production? Worker output in some games is so standard that the level of output has no standard deviation at all. Worker Placement is the jack of all trades. It’s a great projection of equality that all meeples can wake up every day and achieve startlingly similar outputs for any of up to a dozen skilled tasks. But I digress…

Strengths of Worker Placementwppositive

Worker Placement…
  • …is Intuitive
  • …tracks Memory
Worker Placement is Intuitive

intuitivepiecePlacing a worker and taking an associated action is about as straightforward an idea as we can find. One worker corresponds to one action. It’s simple to explain and easy to grasp since it follows similar patterns of exchange we use in day-to-day life.

intuitivelogo

Worker Placement frequently uses the intuitive “fill in this empty space” motivation also found in Tetris.

For contrast, try teaching an Action Point system where players are given a quantity of action points and a menu of eight options whose costs may vary from 1 to 10 action points:

“Here is your reference placemat, I’ve allocated 20 minutes for Q&A.”

One limitation that can make mechanics inherently more difficult to grasp are special rule situations. In its purest form, open spaces in WP are meant to be taken and the mechanic doesn’t suffer from spatial restrictions that might call for rulebook guidance. Imagine if WP followed in the footsteps of Area Control where players may need to start the game on the edges of the board, follow strict rules of adjacency and apply a special rule if you ever have fewer than three workers on the board.

Worker Placement tracks Memory

memoryThe tangible nature of Worker Placement actually provides numerous cognitive benefits to players. The workers that occupy action spaces help to modify the available options for the next player. The stationary nature of the workers placed help to minimize the “What did you do on your turn?” questions for the inattentive and the chance to roll-back moves for the indecisive.

In many games, one worker corresponds to one action space. The workers in front of you also correspond to the number of actions you have available and remaining, making this information easily countable. This makes it easier to plan ahead and consider which actions you absolutely must have before the round is over.

When was the last time someone in your group missed one of their actions or accidentally took too many? It can be very easy to forget whether someone has already taken three or four actions on a turn even if everyone is paying attention and it happens all the time. Even if your gaming group is made up of college football referees, you can lose track and give someone a game-winning fifth down which might lead to a controversial share of the 1990 national championship. Using an abacus to track actions is a little helpful, but being able to review exactly where workers have been placed is far more effective at refreshing our memory.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the memory provided by Worker Placement is directly beneficial to the exclusive nature of the mechanic. It’s probably easiest to illustrate this principle with an example:

Let’s say you’re a citizen of the Star Wars universe [no spoilers here] and on your turn you can do one of six things:

  • deathstarShuffle the Force deck
  • Identify your father
  • Engage in a light saber duel
  • Wrestle Chewbacca
  • Construct or Destroy a Death Star
  • Search the discard pile to find the droids you are looking for

Now you and your fellow intergalactic citizens will alternate taking actions, but no one may take the same action anyone else did this round.

Are you going to remember whether your cold-weathered friend Jon identified his parentage with all these crazy epic light saber duels and Wookiemania VII happening in the background? I certainly won’t, but it would help if we place some Jedi and Sith apprentices beside actions to mark our progress.

wpneutralNeutral Aspects of Worker Placement

Worker Placement…
  • …is Thematically on the fence
Worker Placement is Thematically on the fence

Stone AgeThe exclusive nature of Worker Placement can lead to some interesting thematic questions:

  • Why can the village only send one person to the fishing hole?
  • Why can only one person build a fence each year?
  • Why is there a one-child policy for an entire community in a Stone Age?

We won’t try to answer these discrepancies here, but there are certainly some logical inconsistencies that arrive from the frequent use of Worker Placement by game designers. It’s certainly an area of opportunity for designers going forward and several games have made great strides.

For what complaints we might have about theme, workers in WP are certainly better than “theoretical actions” we saw so often prior to the mechanic’s popularity. I thought nothing of it at the time, but looking back it was tiring to learn game after game whose explanation started with something like “You can do four of these six things on your turn, but none more than twice”. At least Workers personify a labor element involved in fulfilling an order or action. By contrast, action points are a seemingly imaginary and arbitrary limit to what one can achieve without any sort of flavor or context.

wpnegativeWeaknesses of Worker Placement

Worker Placement…
  • …is extremely turn-order sensitive
  • …is prone to player scaling issues
Worker Placement is extremely turn-order sensitive

The exclusivity of action spaces in Worker Placement typically constricts a designer’s turn order options. Most notably, simultaneous action selection doesn’t fit with our pre-described characteristics of the mechanic.

eketorpEketorp fulfills many aspects of our working definition and it might be the best illustration of why traditional Worker Placement and simultaneous action selection don’t mesh well together.

Players in Eketorp secretly allocate their vikings to various resource spaces. If multiple vikings arrive in the same location, they enter into a battle which is resolved by card play, the loser earns a visit to the field hospital. The game is high in variance and uncertainty, and can be very high in conflict and direct player interaction. As a whole, Eketorp doesn’t share the same ambiance we find in WP games despite meeting many of the mechanic’s qualifications.

turnorder2

More noticeably than in other games, Worker Placement also implies that if you don’t have a good position in the turn order, you’ll quickly start to face inferior choices. Ideally you give players the ability to manipulate turn order or rotate it each round, but that can create alternate design problems we won’t rehash here.

To offer a reference point, consider a mechanic such as auctions, where if you absolutely need to harvest grain this round, you would at least have the chance to bid on it until the cost outweighs the benefit. In Worker Placement, a new round may present the first player with a highly valued opportunity with a steep drop off to the next best option. It has come to be expected, but it is also a “normal” attribute of WP that can determine outcomes more than it probably should.

Worker Placement is prone to Player Scaling issues

In all the playtests we’ve done over the years, Worker Placement games tend to have some of the most discernible pitfalls during playtesting. This is actually a great characteristic because all games have flaws and the intuitive nature of the mechanic can make it easier for designers to refine and more clear for playtesters to offer feedback.

The greatest risk Worker Placement games have is that they can be susceptible to a loss of their identity. That identity is found in achieving the right amount of scarcity.

Scarcity in WP is typically important to both the number of action spaces available and the number of workers players possess. Having too many or too few action spaces/workers can lead to a host of issues.

ScalabilityThe problem arises because games can be designed for an ideal player count. Games with a need for precise levels of scarcity (Such as WP) need extra attention as the game a lot can be needed to scale from a 4-player game to become a 3-5 player game. As for scalability, the level of scarcity will typically fluctuate simply by adding or removing players. The simplest approach is to add or remove workers, action spaces or other resources to scale a game up or down to a specific player count.

One constraint Worker Placement games might have are that they can be based around a fixed board of rigid action spaces or one that uses a few key actions that cannot be easily scaled to the ratio of players, such as the reproductive hut in Stone Age.

Conclusion

patreon2I had the challenging task of hacking and slashing our full analysis of Worker Placement down to a manageable list of five, but there are so many more strengths and weaknesses of the mechanic Scott Nicholson aptly refers to as the “Middle Management” mechanic. There are many things we didn’t explore but now we want to hear from you:

What are the best (or worst) characteristics of Worker Placement?

Further Exploration:

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12 comments on “Worker Placement – The Perfectly Average Middle Ground Mechanic

  1. LostAgeGames

    “It’s a great projection of equality that all meeples can wake up every day and achieve startlingly similar outputs for any of up to a dozen skilled tasks.” I loled at this. Great article.

  2. Shao-Ying Chen

    Great article! I’m a boardgame gamer and designer in Taiwan, and I’d like to translate this article into Chinese to facilitate the understanding of boardgame designing principles for boardgame designers in Taiwan. Of course, the original author and the location of this article will be subscribed in the beginning of the translation article. May I have the preasure to translate this article and publish on the Facebook fan page about boardgame designing and testing? Thanks!

    1. Alex Harkey

      It would be an honor, Shao-Ying. Thank you for helping the global game design community and thank you for asking!

  3. Joe Pilkus

    Great article! I thoroughly enjoy all of these offerings as it provides a wonderful primer into the world of board games. As for Worker Placement, I’ve played several with some frequency which use dice as proxies for meeples, such as Kingsburg and Troyes. Both are excellent and I’ve recently expanded my collection to include two new games…Shem Philips’ “Raiders of the North” and Randy Rathert’s “The King’s Abbey.” I’m in full agreement with many of your observations, but most notably the fact that WP can satisfy those players who are a bit conflict averse, but still enjoy causing a bit of mischief.

    1. Alex Harkey

      Thank you again Joe! Dice as workers are a fascinating subset that we’re planning to cover in our third and final article on Worker Placement. I’m not familiar with either Raiders of the North or The King’s Abbey, so thank you for mentioning and bringing them to my attention.

  4. Ethan

    Worker placement is one of my favorites and I was expecting to be offended with a title like that. Great read as always.

    1. Alex Harkey

      Thanks Ethan, question for you and everyone else: What is it about Worker Placement that draws you in? It’s something I want to understand better.

      Is it the general positivity surrounding the mechanic? Is it because it has a generally uplifting vibe, something we talked about in our resources topic: you start with a small quantity of workers and play out a rags-to-riches story.

      1. Ethan

        For me, it is really all about what can I get to the table. My group learned gateway worker placement games like Stone Age first, so building on that knowledge is important if I want to teach them new games. It also makes it easier on me to teach. To respond to your comment: the idea that the games are uplifting isn’t always true, but definitely a nice benefit when it is.

      2. WillMakesGames

        Very nice read, I was anticipating theme to come up as a negative and I wouldn’t have thought of a few of the others. I’d be curious what the other strengths and weaknesses you found are.

        I think the reason why I don’t like worker placement is that it just doesn’t add any flavor to most games. It is a means to an end and it has become so widely used it I’m almost always more interested in games that don’t use it.

        1. Alex Harkey

          Interesting points Will, thank you. Worker Placement really does have an identity problem and to be fair the passionate board game audience is probably just as critical as movie critics in judging a production because of its genre.

      3. Sébastien Tromp (@sebastientromp)

        > Is it because it has a generally uplifting vibe, something we talked about in our resources topic: you start with a small quantity of workers and play out a rags-to-riches story.

        That’s definitely true, but I don’t think it is specific to worker placement. I think any game where you build something (TTA / Civilization, Eclipse, Dungeon Lords, Cité, even games like Dominion) brings this kind of feeling.

        The indirect competition is definitely a nice touch, as well as the ability to visually make plans about what you’re going to do.

        Also, placing your worker is a kind of effort, and I think the reward is more gratifying when you make a physical action (put your worker on the 3 Woods space) than simply when you say that you will do it (“I take 3 woods”). A bit like when it can be satisfying when clicking on a button produces a nice sound.

        1. Alex Harkey

          Excellent points Sébastien. I really love that last point about the physical effort to place on the wood space rather than just choosing 3 wood. It also comes across as more decisive and makes your choice (subconsciously perhaps) a greater commitment. A player still might regret taking an action space in hindsight, but it eliminates the “What if I got 2 wood and a brick that turn” -type of combinations that can drive the AP prone crazy. Thanks for commenting!

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