As I was thinking my thoughts the other day, something occurred to me regarding the game Settlers of Catan: that some of its mechanisms are remarkably similar to “worker placement,” a common genre of board game mechanisms, even though it isn’t technically considered a “worker placement game.”
I posited this thought on Twitter the other day with this tweet: “The thought occurred to me the other day. Settlers of Catan is a worker placement game.” This garnered a series of responses from multiple people, resulting in an engaging discussion that got me thinking. How do you define “worker placement” accurately, is Catan really a worker placement game or is it not, and why does it matter? Well, let’s tackle this subject.
In an interesting twist, my good man GeekInsight over at Giant Fire Breathing Robot is taking on this topic as well. Read my thoughts, and hit the link at the end of the article to see what he has to say about it.
To quickly generalize what a Worker Placement game is, there are a few common themes we can start with. In general, WP games have a central tableau with different placements. Each placement provides some sort of resource or action when a player’s “worker” token is placed there. (Hence, Worker Placement.) Also in general, players have multiple “workers” to place throughout the course of the game in order to advance their goals and score points.
So, here is my supposition: if you think of Settlements as “workers” (and Cities as improved workers), the grid of tiles as the central tableau, and the corner intersections of tiles as the placements, what you have is a Worker Placement game. There are a few twists to expectations – for example, you don’t immediately get the resources when you place a worker, you have to wait for a placement to be “activated” by the dice rolls. And you don’t get your worker back the whole game, once it’s out it stays out. But these are minor creative twists to the establishment.
The first question I want to tackle is, why does this matter? Who cares if Catan is a Worker Placement or a Resource Management or a Network Building game or what have you?
Well, as someone who constantly teaches new games to players of all different levels of skill and experience, I do. I care.
When a game has a defined mechanical genre, it reasonably gives potential players an expectation of what the game will be like. I know that Ascending Empires, a lite 4x game (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) is going to be a vastly different experience from Race for the Galaxy, a tableau-building card game, despite the fact that both games feature space and the expansion of a galactic empire. It gives me some context when looking at games I want to try or to buy and helps me make wise purchasing decisions. Even more importantly, though, it gives a sense of familiarity when encountering games with similar mechanisms.
When I first started teaching games to my non-gaming family, I had very little to go on. So I started with the basics. Kill Dr. Lucky is kind of like Clue – you move around a mansion, there is a non-player character central to the purpose of the game, and rooms have a simple but necessary purpose. Sure, the mechanisms in this case are pretty wildly different, but the theme and the locale of the game brought in some familiarity. Instead of looking at the game board and seeing an overwhelming number of graphics and icons, the players see…. a mansion, with rooms. I’ve compared Carcassonne to Dominoes, Ticket to Ride to Rummi-kub, and many more I can’t even think of right now. Familiarity allowed me to bring these people into the game world.
The nice thing is, the more games people learn, the easier it is to teach them new games. Though I started with Clue as my launching point, I now have dozens of games to draw comparisons from when explaining a new game. Whereas before the term “Deckbuilding game” would have brought me blank stares, it’s now a helpful reference.
Settlers of Catan is one of the more popular “gateway” games out there. It’s been around for a very long time now, enough to seep its way into the culture of America. Most people have heard of it, even if they’ve never played it. And a LOT of people have played it. But a lot of those people have stopped there. Catan is miles beyond anything they’d known before in terms of quality, though it cleverly used some very familiar mechanisms – rolling of dice, building “houses” which can later be upgraded, a sense of geography on the board – to ease the transition. But they stop there – perhaps assuming that Catan is the only game to break the mass-market mold, or that other hobby games are simply too complicated. As we all know, this is not true; games can be found in all manner of complexity and variety.
However, many mechanical genres are much more unfamiliar than Catan may have seemed. Worker Placement games commonly have no dice whatsoever; no sense of location or direction; and certainly a large number of overwhelming graphics and icons to take in. Even a straightforward WP game could be too overwhelming to a new player. But what if you could use Catan to bridge the gap? That’s the point of a gateway game – to introduce new people to new boardgame concepts in a simple but fun way, so as to remain accessible but open the doors to more complex and fun hobby games. While Catan certainly doesn’t define the Worker Placement genre, if concepts of WP can be attributed to Catan, new players might be encouraged to explore more games and expand on what they know and have experienced.
This applies to more than Catan – you can apply unexpected genres of mechanisms to many games to help breed familiarity and expand the minds of new and potential gamers.
So, what exactly is a Worker Placement game?
The most interesting thing about my twitter conversation the other day was how difficult it was to truly define Worker Placement. Many ideas were tossed around to argue against why Catan was NOT a WP game; it didn’t follow such-and-such rule, it didn’t fit into such-and-such box. And yet many of these so-called “rules” are not really defining elements of the WP genre. For every few games that followed the rule, there was another that ignored it. If you get too specific, you end up excluding creative takes on any genre, which makes the definition meaningless. However, if you pull back and define it too generally, it encompasses everything and once again becomes meaningless. So you have to separate the rules that make a game a WP game from the overly-specific conditions that only define certain games, not the genre itself. This can be more difficult than it would seem.
So here’s how I would like to try and define the Worker Placement genre.
- Each player has a limited set (but more than 1) of “workers” represented by pawns or tokens
- During the course of the game, these “workers” are placed, individually, on different locations on the board
- These placements directly result in specific benefits tied to the game, such as gaining resources or allowing certain actions to be performed that are unique from other placements?
I think something important to remember is that there are few “pure” genre games out there. Most games use elements of various mechanisms, putting them together in unique ways to create a different experience. that means that if a game (like Catan) has other elements that don’t necessarily fit into common staples of the genre, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t partially use that genre.
So, under my definition, is Catan a worker placement game?
- Does each player have a limited set of workers (but more than 1) represented by pawns or tokens? Yes, it has settlements/cities, a limited number of each, but more than 1.
- During the course of the game, are these workers placed, individually, on different locations on the board? Yes. Settlements are placed in specific locations
- Do these placements result in specific benefits? Yes, resources are gained that are directly tied to these placements. Each placement provides different resources and at different times, making them unique to other placements.
To further test this definition, let us compare it to another game that we know is not worker-placement. How about the classic game of Small World. Does Small World become a worker placement game when these rules are the defining qualities?
- Does each player have a limited set of workers? In some sense, yes – each race has a limited set of tokens, however given that during the course of the game tokens are lost and then gained again by choosing a new race, the set is essentially unlimited
- Are these workers placed, individually, on different locations of the board? No. They certainly are placed, but not individually. In fact, tall stacks of tokens are sometimes needed to take a specific location
- Do these placements result in specific benefits? In a sense, yes. However, the focus is more on controlling more areas, so the specific placements aren’t necessarily unique from each other.
Phew! We’ve shown that a game that might be considered close to a WP game – a game that clearly involves placing tokens on a board – does not fit into WP following my 3 rules.
Whatever elements Catan may contain – resource collection, network building, negotiation – it’s certain that Catan has elements of worker placement within its legendary city walls.
Now you can head on over to GeekInsight’s take on the same subject over at Giant Fire Breathing Robot. And leave a comment below to add your thoughts, or let us know who you think is right!
Edit: Read the follow-up to this article here