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Take This Job and Place It (A Guide to Worker Placement)

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A lot of people dream about being their own boss.  No taking orders from anyone.  Work at your own pace.  Keep all the money.  Problem is most of us are the grunts, performing the day-to-day routines that keep the world running.  Meanwhile, the one who gives the orders garners all the attention.  If you’re one of the multitude who thinks they can manage people smarter, faster, and more productively, then our next game mechanic analysis gives you the chance to prove it.

Worker Placement: How Does it Work?

Broadly defined, the worker placement mechanic involves choosing actions by physically claiming space (placement) with a game piece or token (“worker”).  Players receive one-time direct benefits specifically associated with the space or action they claim, either immediately or upon retrieving their piece.  In some respects, it operates similar to action point allowance and/or role selection, but there are a few technical distinctions.

Perhaps the biggest feature of this genre is the presence of physical pieces representing “workers.”  They are not just intangible actions or make-believe roles, but actual, tactile game bits placed on the board.  The three-dimensional objects can be simple, like tokens or cubes.  More often, newer designs have anthropomorphic pawns, usually called “meeples.”  A sub-category even utilizes dice as workers.  Whatever they are and however they look, these components serve both practical and aesthetic purposes that are central to identifying worker placement games.

Second, worker placement designs provide more than one “worker” per player each turn.  The number of workers available every round can fluctuate based on player choices, perhaps even reducing to one worker for a turn.  Or the rules may give players the option to choose only one action with all of their workers combined.  But the design allows the player flexibility in choosing such limitations, rather than rigidly creating any comparable restrictions.  This is one of the more basic characteristics separating the mechanic from role selection, which typically provides only one action per turn.

It is what it sounds like: placing workers. That is, in a space for a benefit (Kingdom of Solomon).

Of course, other titles employ game pieces related to moving or taking specific actions; and so another facet in defining worker placement is how those components are uniquely played to physical spaces.  The simplest and most common method is to place workers each round, usually in alternating turns with other players, and resolving all actions during the same round.  Some newer titles are tweaking that formula a little by keeping workers in spots for delayed rounds.  Additionally, taking spots in worker placement is not limited by spatial considerations.  In other games, the location of your pawn(s) often influences where you can go, or what you can do, next.  While there may be a resource cost associated with claiming certain spots, there is no geographic, pattern, or connection requirements to placing workers.

A final major element to games using worker placement is that the physical spaces are communally available, although one or more may have certain restraints.  Multiple spaces will often restrict placement to one worker, or one player’s workers, or another specific maximum number that guarantees one or more players will be “left out.”  This often makes turn order critical as players indirectly struggle over limited actions and/or resources.  The chess-like, meta-gaming created by this approach has grown to become one of the more defining hallmarks and connotative pillars of the worker placement genre.

The first published title listed in the Board Game Geek database to utilize worker placement is Merlin (1993).  Here the workers are druids used to control kings and kingdoms and fight off invaders.  Interestingly, each player only has one druid, but places it five different times through the course of a turn.  Multiple claims in one place result in combat.  While perhaps the nascent beginnings of the genre, much of the druids’ movement is spatially restricted and some of the benefits derived from them are random and not routinely consistent.

Keydom (1998) and Way Out West (2000) were the earliest titles to centrally exhibit in a pure form most of the hallmark elements that would soon be considered essential to worker placement.  In Keydom, workers harvest fields that yield different resources and work in locations that allow players to spend resources or mess with others’ harvesting efforts.  The unique twist in Keydom is all workers are placed secretly and then resolved in numerical order as revealed.  In Way Out West, players send cowboys to work various action spots in five different towns to earn money, fight, control the towns, and gain more cowboys – the first title with a mechanic to increase the number of workers.  While certainly solid examples of the mechanic, they were not commercially popular, nor did they leave an indelible impact on the hobby like another historic pair of titles soon would.

Caylus put worker placment on the road to stardom…

When most gamers hear worker placement, two titles that often immediately come to mind are Caylus (2005) and Agricola (2007).  Both are still highly rated, #11 and #2 respectively in the BGG database, and were the first to successfully capitalize on the mechanic’s basics – place workers, retrieve workers to collect resources or spend them, and with only one worker per spot.  Caylus has some spiteful moments, which is interesting considering that the genre it influenced so much is generally known for a lack of direct interaction. Players can increase the cost of placement for others by passing on their turn and can also move a pawn, called the provost, which can prevent their opponents’ workers from being able to actually perform their actions.  Agricola is a bit more staid, though the one-player-per-space can create tension and conflict as everyone fights over the limited available actions.

However, Caylus and Agricola are also deep, rich, and often intimidating games.  Fortunately around the same time, two lighter offerings emerged to critical acclaim that would give broader access to the still nascent mechanic.  Kingsburg (2007) brought worker placement into “gateway” territory as a title very accessible to non-gamers.  Not only that, it introduced an innovation in its own right – the workers used to collect resources are actually dice that players roll and then place to “adviser” boxes of matching value on the board.  Stone Age (2008) built upon the genre’s success wrought from Caylus and Agricola and created a unique experience for medium-weight gamers.  It retained the variety and depth while streamlining game play, and added die rolls to collecting resources for some light, fun randomness.

Rolling to collect resources (Stone Age).

Though relatively recent, worker placement is one of the fastest growing genres – and widely popular.  As such, many designs have borrowed the mechanic and added some unique angle or have folded it in with a mixture of other elements to create an interesting smorgasbord.  One of the earliest variations included separate types of workers that reap different benefits depending on where they’re placed.  Burp (1995) employed “traders,” “fishers,” and “fighters,” each with unique effects in different locations.  The same concept is seen in releases of the last two years in Belfort (elves and dwarves), Deadwood (three ranks of cowboys), and The Manhattan Project (laborers, scientists, and engineers).

The Manhattan Project (2012) has a few surprises for those used to standard worker placement.  Spiteful interaction is high in a race to build the first atomic bomb.  You can launch airstrikes on your opponents.  You can conduct espionage to actually use your opponents’ spaces, rather than your own, capitalizing somewhat on their progress.  Also, turns and placement structure are relatively fluid.  You can either place a worker on the main board, place a worker or more on your personal board, or retrieve all workers from both boards.  Of course, if all of your workers are already out, then your only option is the later.

Hardcore staples of the genre: place workers, get stuff (Agricola).

To be sure, there are numerous other tweaks to the staples, both big and small.  The Egyptian-themed Egizia (2009) locates its action boxes along the Nile where you are prohibited from placing in spaces upriver from those previously claimed by others.  Fresco (2010) includes an interesting time component in which you can use your workers earlier in the day to grab better swag; but if you do it too much, they grow unhappy and inefficient.  The dice-as-workers game, Troyes (2011), lets you pay to use your opponents’ dice.  Many designs have ways to gain new workers, but in the interesting title, Village (2011), your goal is to also see them die off for the family’s honor.  And the unique and thematic Skagway (2012) sees different classes of hired hands work the gold mining boom-town – sometimes twice a turn!  After the initial action resolution, depending on the workers’ characteristics and what progress the town has made, a special, but intuitive, formula sends them all someplace else, in which case they might perform a second action.

Then of course, as is typical with any single mechanic, there are a number of examples in which worker placement is merely one part of a greater whole, folded in among other things.  Mecanisburgo (2008) is an intriguing sort of a war game disguised in worker placement clothing.  Carson City (2009) combines the mechanic with role selection.  Tournay (2011) uses cards as action spaces and mixes in tableau building.  Kingdom of Solomon (2012) includes an element of area control as your workers can earn extra resources if they successfully enclose regions.  And other titles mash it up with a ton of other elements to create particularly unique experiences, as is the case with last year’s Archipelago and Mercante.

The genre and its variations continue to grow in scope, influence, and popularity.  According to the BGG database, there are already at least thirty new, legitimate, stand-alone worker placement titles published or slated to release in 2013.  Considering that it has only really impacted the hobby since Caylus’ release eight years ago, it’s meteoric rise is one of the industry’s bigger stories.

Dice as workers? You know employees in life are just as unpredictable (Kingsburg).

What’s to Love?

While worker placement is a relatively recent and fast growing mechanic, it has its roots in action point allowance.  As with its antecedent, it is a popular design choice because it gives players a set of clear-cut choices.  This helps to separate the wheat from the chaff, reducing confusion and cumbersome rules.  You have ‘x’ amount of workers and ‘x’ number of spaces to place them.  It is generally intuitive and easy to teach.  That makes the mechanic an appropriate choice for “gateway” games to introduce the hobby to non-gamers.

But while the mechanic is simple and intuitive for newcomers, it can still provide some depth for serious gamers, as well.  There can be difficult choices to make between varied options and, often times, different actions will synergize well if you’re able to pull off the best combinations.  The mechanic is also ideal for creating the prized “different paths to victory” label by creating multiple ways to score points.

Turns in worker placement titles are also generally well-structured in an alternating “I go, you go” format.  This eliminates a great deal of downtime, forcing players to stay attuned as there will be little delay between turns.  Some games have simultaneous, or near-simultaneous, action resolution.  Even if they don’t, most spaces in this style of game are resolved quickly, usually as easily as collecting a resource, or placing a tile, or earning a victory point, and etc., keeping players constantly involved.

Claiming spaces before others can (Manhattan Project).

Finally, worker placement is a popular means of implementing player interaction without being overly aggressive or abrasive.  There are certainly examples of actions that directly attack another player, but it is far more common for confrontation to take the form of beating others to a particular spot.  The term within gaming parlance to identify this passive-aggressive behavior is blocking: denying an action or space to an opponent by claiming it first, especially if you cannot benefit from it yourself.  Still, such conflict does not take away previously earned resources and is seemingly less mean-spirited.  However…

What’s the Downside?

…it is still interaction.  In fact, some gamers decry the art of spiteful blocking as worse than even direct interaction – particularly when the blocker cannot benefit from the space that they’re denying their opponent.  To some, the thought of taking an action that is of no use solely to thwart another is the height of spite.  And really, the passive-aggressive style of interaction came in later designs, with some of the first worker placement titles exhibiting some abrupt, in-your-face confrontation.  But regardless of one’s views on the level of nastiness, still other gamers simply don’t like any interaction, period.  Designs that limit available options to less than the full complement of players, therefore, can be a turn-off to some.

Also, despite the ease of rules and turn structure, worker placement games can present a learning curve in identifying how actions work together towards the overall benefit of reaching the game’s end-goal.  Generally speaking, the options are not always overly complicated, but they may require some familiarity before fully understanding which ones work to your best advantage at specific points.  In a similar vein, the more options a game provides, the greater likelihood you will encounter analysis paralysis while trying to decide where to put your finite number of workers.  That can be good if it creates tension, but it may drag game play.

Gunfights in the street! Worker Placement with thematic interaction (Skagway).

Recommended Titles

These are just a few titles that we here at iSlaytheDragon recommend in this category, along with a brief note as to why you might want to check them out.

Caylus, while not the first worker placement game, is arguably the genre’s flagship.  Not for the timid, it is a meaty, interactive staple with all of the mechanic’s hallmarks.

Pillars of the Earth breaks the traditional flow of worker placement by having the workers randomly drawn out of a bag to determine the order in which they are placed.  If your worker is selected earlier you have to pay more to place them, but you get first crack at the available actions.  The uncertainty of when you’ll get to place your workers and how much it will cost you makes the game a very tactical experience.

Agricola is another standard-bearer and more accessible than Caylus, but only slightly so.  As the #2 rated title on Board Game Geek, it’s pedigree and staying power alone beckon gamers of all stripes to experience it…at least once.

Kingsburg was the first worker placement to utilize dice as workers, introducing an interesting random element every turn that determined where you could place to collect resources.  This innovative design is extremely elegant and intuitive, influenced a number of games that followed, and is one of the mechanic’s better gateway games.

Caylus Magna Carta is relatively portable and quick for a worker placement game. It simplifies a few mechanics from its meatier forebear, but this game is fun in its own right.  If you play this, we highly recommend printing player aids from BGG – they are a tremendous help.

Stone Age is one of the, if not the most accessible pure worker placement game.  Everyone we’ve introduced it to has loved it.  The components kick this one up a notch.  The title provides interesting ways to randomize play with dice, but includes elements to mitigate bad rolls.  We enjoy it quite a bit.

Dungeon Lords is a zany, worker placement game about building the most deadly dungeon to kill invading adventurers.  It is humorous, but certainly not frivolous, and it includes a push-your-luck element to make worker placement more exciting – you secretly choose “orders” which determine your placements, which are then resolved in player order.  Each placement has three slots, and claiming a placement too early means you get it at some disadvantage to later claims, while claiming it too late might mean you don’t get to place at all.

The Manhattan Project has much to offer – including a wonderful thematic flavor – but what sets this game apart is the placement/retrieve mechanism.  There are no rounds of placement.  Instead, players may either place one or more workers or retrieve them.  It creates tense situations as it’s better to capitalize on another player’s retrieval, yet you have to retrieve your workers if you need to use them again.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar is a recent design with a unique twist…literally!  Placing workers on gears that frequently spin.  These large gears are aesthetically eye-catching and mechanically original.  When retrieving a worker, the action resolved depends upon where it is located on the gear – which will be different than where you originally placed it. Leaving a worker on the gears longer nets better stuff, but if you place all your workers, you’ll have to pick somebody up.

A Timeline

Here’s a brief timeline of titles using worker placement.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, merely a representation of some popular, unique and/or significant games utilizing the mechanic.

1993
Merlin

1995
Burp

1998
Keydom

1999
Bus

2000
Way Out West

2002
Keythedral

2005
Caylus
Manila

2006
Pillars of the Earth

2007
Agricola
Glenn Drover’s Empires: Age of Discovery
Kingsburg
Maoi

2008
Le Havre
Mecanisburgo
Stone Age

2009
Alea Iacta Est
Carson City
Colonia
Dungeon Lords
Egizia

2010
Alien Frontiers
Dominant Species
Fresco
Key Market
Troyes

2011
Belfort
Deadwood
Lancaster
Tournay
Village

2012
Archipelago
Kingdom of Solomon
Lords of Waterdeep
Mercante
Skagway
The Manhattan Project
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calander

What do you think about the worker placement mechanic?  Do you have other thoughts about its benefits or drawbacks?  Perhaps you have a favorite title that’s not on our recommend list or the timeline?

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion7 Comments

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  2. Fantastic overview of worker-placement games! Agricola got me into this genre, but it’s quite a heavy game for non-gamers to learn. So I’m going to pick up Stone Age and maybe Lords of Waterdeep and see how it fares with gamers and non-gamers (wifes/girlfriends). Either way, I’m very much a fan now and can’t wait to try more.

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