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.
One of the earliest WP games, Leonardo da Vinci, was a blend of these two approaches to Worker Placement. During placement, players can send multiple workers all at once to locations to determine turn order and priority. Everyone present at a location is allowed to take an action by paying a cost in florins, but having fewer workers than opponents can mean paying significantly more florins for each action.
In Leonardo da Vinci players also have two classes of workers; apprentices and a single master. A master doesn’t have to abide by the strictness of the placement rules, allowing players to drop their master anywhere to improve their position in the turn order of that location.
Variations in Types of Workers
A variety of games since Leonardo da Vinci have continued to question the idea of a single worker type. By incorporating several worker types into a game, designers have the ability to manipulate the exclusivity of action spaces and give players the chance to “unlock” access to new areas of the board.
Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery was another early worker placement game and it allowed players to recruit four varieties of specialist workers, Missionaries, Discoverers, Merchants and Soldiers. Each specialist could fulfill ordinary worker functions, but if sent to certain action spaces, they would generate an additional benefit for the player, typically by counting as multiple workers or generating additional income.
The Manhattan Project, Pillars of the Earth and Belfort each use multiple classes of workers that extend access to new action spaces on the board. Viticulture provides players a grande worker which allows a player to guarantee an action once per round, even if it has already been fully exhausted by other players.
Asara and Keyflower don’t technically have different classes of workers, but workers are differentiated by color. Allocating a certain color to a location or area is in effect like leading a suit in a trick-taking game. Other players must follow the lead color and are restricted to that color in that area.
Variations in Action Space Availability
Worker types may not be the only way to modify player access to action spaces. One approach that can help elongate the strategic planning in Worker Placement games (a mechanic that can occasionally over-emphasize short-term planning) has been to divide spaces into separate menus for players.
Viticulture divides action spaces between seasons, so workers can be placed in action spaces that correspond to summer actions or held over to be placed in winter action spaces.
Fields of Arle uses a similar approach and again splits actions into summer and winter areas. A mechanic exists that allows one worker each season to select actions from the opposite season’s selection matrix. It’s a surprisingly interesting decision because only the first player to do it has the opportunity but it ensures their opponent will go first the following season. The start player normally alternates each round so if you were due to be start player next, this can potentially be a very costly decision.
Some games have shaken up the concept of an action space entirely. In Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, the benefits provided by action spaces gain value with each passing turn. As the gears are rotated, all workers on the board advance to a more beneficial situation.
Tzolk’in reduces the emphasis on the idea that stationary workers already on the board aren’t accumulating additional benefits, so there isn’t the same urgency to get expended workers back as soon as possible. It also allows for interesting timing decisions and encourages fun interim goals in the midst of acquiring resources to generate victory points.
Variations in the Value of Workers
Another area of development has been modifying ideas surrounding the value of a worker. A wooden meeple or worker token often comes across as stable, predictable and perhaps a bit too consistent in performance. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can generate a vibe of “sameyness” that can diminish the perception of replay value in games and is a point of contention for gamers who don’t care for Worker Placement.
Two approaches to shake-up this notion have been games that allow workers to “level-up” or advance over the course of the game and games that use dice to insert variety.
[Progression of Workers]
Lancaster enlists workers as Knights which have ranks from 1 to 4. During the game, players can upgrade their knights and acquire new knights from their available squires. One of the benefits of leveling-up knights is that higher numbered knights can bump lower numbered knights from action spaces.
Dice are used in Praetor to track information rather than to generate randomness. Workers begin at a value (experience) of 1 and as they are placed on various locations, they increase in experience during the game. Once workers reach a value of six, they retire and score points for the player.
Dwarves in Caverna can improve the level of their weapons. On certain action spaces, a dwarf with a higher weapon value is able to select from a greater variety of rewards. It’s an interesting idea that generates some of simple motivations to level-up we traditionally see in Role Playing Games.
[Dice as Workers]
One trend in worker placement games that continues to evolve is the use of dice as workers. The use of a die as a worker allows refreshingly interesting for workers to interact with the gamespace. For example, available actions might be limited by the available pips on the die or dice being placed. In player interaction, sufficient totals on the dice may allow a player to displace the opponent’s workers on the board or take an action that has already been taken. If you think of a placement as a single dimension to what a worker can do, the value on the die can be used to add additional dimensions to that placement.
In Alien Frontiers, players must form certain combinations of dice to be able to complete certain actions, while the results of other actions yield results based on the number used. In some cases, the values on previously placed dice serve as a gateway value for additional placements, asking players to raise the bar in order to take the action. Alien Frontiers is a great example of a game using dice for worker placement, as it explores a multitude of ways to provide new and interesting decisions to the players.
In Kingsburg, all players have a number of dice which are rolled to start a round. Everyone can see what other players have available for action selection. The available actions correspond to every possible total that can be generated by summing 1-3 six-sided dice. Not only are you able to combine dice for larger actions (or keep them separate for multiple smaller actions), but you are able to see the available subset of actions opponents will be able to take and plan against probable scarcity of actions.
In a 2015 Kennerspiel Recommended title, The Voyages of Marco Polo, die values are used to determine rewards for particular action spaces, as well as (in some cases) set the required value for other players to access the space in the current round.
Bora Bora uses dice placement as a method of player interaction. Higher valued dice have greater benefit and utility, but each die placed on an action space must be lower than all the other dice present. This allows lower valued dice to obstruct an opponent’s options while still gaining a benefit during the round.
With the use of rolled dice as workers, die manipulation becomes a factor. Rather than allow the game to be a game of chance, designers allow for manipulation of dice so that players may still carefully plan and mitigate poor die rolls. The ability to mitigate die rolls tends to come with the opportunity cost of other actions.
A player in Discoveries may sacrifice one die to choose the faces on two other dice. Alien Frontiers has cards to allow die manipulation. In The Voyages of Marco Polo, a player may trade camels to adjust or re-roll dice. Kingsburg allows players to earn discardable tokens which can be used to change totals. The ability to manipulate dice provides players with additional decision points throughout the game.
In Euphoria, dice serve a couple of interesting purposes. Totals for dice in some areas will improve the payout for using that space. What’s more – the totals are cumulative for all dice previously placed and remaining in the area, not just those placed by the active player. Secondly, where most worker placement games encourage the player to earn more workers to use for additional actions each round, Euphoria utilizes a “knowledge check” to limit the player. If a player exceeds a total of 16 for all retrieved/unused worker dice, one of them is lost to the reserve (but can be regained later).
The first mechanic adds some level of interaction between workers placed for similar tasks, while the second mechanic challenges players to think about how they attack the normal script that almost requires them to “get more workers first”.
Avoiding Dominant Strategies – “Get More Workers”
In any game with limited actions there exists a natural motivation to simply “get more actions”. This is unavoidable in Worker Placement games where the number of workers can vary between players throughout the game. Some games should just as well include “On turn one you should try to get more workers” in their instruction manual because it is such an effective opening strategy and attempting to explore anything else is entirely a mistake.
The obvious solution to a problem in game design is to just make it go away. The obstruction there, however, is that increasing the worker count is a satisfying progression and a way to allow players to feel more in control. The ability to increase my proportion of the total number of actions in a game is a great source of competition. The ability to get more workers is such a common action, its more likely to exist in a worker placement game than not. Finally, adding more workers to the game can often accelerate the pace of the game if it entails the collective group of players to collect more resources per round. Here is a condensed list of how games have handled it in the past.
As seen in quite a few games since Agricola and Stone Age, players must provide for periodic and impactful levels of resources (often food) for each worker, so acquiring more workers may mean the ability to put more food on the table, but it also means more mouths to feed.
It’s an interesting approach that was carried over from older Eurogames, but one that can be surprisingly irritating under the wrong circumstances. On one hand it can motivate players by establishing a manageable short-term goal, on the other paying upkeep is about as much fun as doing your taxes, and let’s be honest, how eager are you to fill out tax forms right now?
Appropriate in the world of human resources and appropriate in the mechanic of Worker Placement. What if not every worker you gained was a permanent advantage? Just like the real world labor force, workers can come and go.
As we mentioned above, worker dice in Euphoria can be lost as they become aware of their situation.
In Village, workers expire over the course of the game, hopefully to be added to the village chronicle which is an obituary that provides players points at the end of the game. This approach isn’t perfectly in line with my intention of this section, but its an innovative idea none-the-less and it has the additional benefit of opening up action spaces during the game at interesting intervals.
In Asgard and Lewis & Clark, worker pieces are effectively sacrificed or contributed during the game. By losing the worker, players receive resource or scoring benefits and there might be multiple reasons why you would want to permanently allocate a worker (in the case of Lewis & Clark, it can slow down the speed of your expedition).
As we mentioned about Praetor above, workers age and retire during the game. While retired workers do score points for the player and remove the worker from available allocation, players must still pay upkeep for retired workers. The retirement benefits of Ancient Rome are pretty impressive.
Finally, Snowdonia starts players with laborors, but players also can move around pub workers which are sort of a temporary worker benefit. Single turn benefits and one-time effects are traditional action choices present in plenty of games, but its an interesting approach in a genre that so often treats workers as permanent additions.
[Specialized Workers – Design Theory]
Here is another application of an idea we tackled earlier in this article; if workers have specialized types, not all workers are universally helpful. This is an idea that ties directly into internal balance in games; if worker Type A can’t be placed in locations B or C, gaining a new Type A worker doesn’t equate to gaining a full worker advantage over other players.
In this approach, acquiring more workers doesn’t inherently lead to superior output but rather a marginally increased output. It’s a minor design theory concept that is a bit tricky to explain concisely, but one that typically relies on the fluctuating scarcity of resources between example locations A, B & C. Getting worker Type A might reduce my resource need from location A, but it might also render my Type A workers ineffective as my needs have transitioned to locations B & C (where I don’t have enough workers Type B & C).
We’ve had a great time taking a closer look at the popular mechanic of Worker Placement over the last month and we’re thrilled at how many of you joined us in the comment or reached out to us to start a conversation.
Despite the seemingly ubiquitous popularity of Worker Placement games today, there are still countless areas of innovation that haven’t been published. For starters, Worker Placement is a versatile secondary mechanic and there are a large number of unexplored possibilities in game design even if it isn’t the core mechanism of a game. Worker Placement games have only begun to explore spatial proximity or multi-faceted decisions that can increase both the depth and complexity of a design.
From time to time we publish extended thoughts on topics and we certainly weren’t able to get to everything in three articles on Worker Placement. I’m going to email out our extended thoughts at the end of the month. This bonus content will cover methods of avoiding dissatisfaction in WP, notes on various approaches used to innovate on action-blocking in WP and a few opportunities for the future of Worker Placement in board game design. If we can share these thoughts with you, please feel free to subscribe via email (on our sidebar) or support us on Patreon.