Categorizing mechanics can be a tricky thing as we recently saw in a series of articles about whether or not Settlers of Catan is a worker placement game (Here’s the Point and Counterpoint to get you caught up). Rigid definitions aside, it’s helpful to know what type of games are out there and once you’ve identified what you like there’s a multitude of other games that share similar mechanics. We’ll be picking out some of the most popular mechanics (or at least our favorites) and exploring how they work, what games use them successfully, and why we love them. This week let’s take a look at Tableau Building.
There’s a satisfaction that comes with building something from the ground up and watching it slowly come together. Whether it’s a vast empire that spans across your land or a complex machine that has many parts that have to work together in perfect unison. Tableau Building lets players physically put their pieces into place, building a working engine to accomplish the task ahead.
Tableau Building: How does it work?
Players each have their own area, known as their tableau, in which they can place cards (or tiles or whatever the game uses). These cards provide some sort of mechanical benefit to the owning player as long as they remain in play. This can take many forms such as providing additional actions or boosting an existing action. The benefits will often stack and synergize with each other providing incentive to play cards that work well together.
The interesting thing about Tableau Building is that it often uses another mechanic to drive the action so that your tableau can support that action. Let’s explore the benefits that building up a tableau can provide to a player by looking at some examples from games that use the mechanic.
We’ll start by looking at San Juan, a role selection game that incorporates Tableau Building. Players perform actions during the game by selecting various roles, each role has a unique action associated with it. The cards that are placed on a player’s tableau are buildings which boost a specific role. For example, the Builder role lets players put a building from their hand onto their tableau by paying its cost. The Quarry is a card that boosts the Builder role by providing a discount when building. Multiple different buildings can be played that boost the same role such that a player will get multiple benefits when that role is selected. As players build up their tableau their actions become more and more powerful as they are boosted by all the cards that they have in play.
Next let’s look at Innovation, this one is more of a pure Tableau Builder. Players each represent a civilization that is developing technologies represented by cards that they play in their tableau. At the start of the game players can take a number of basic actions: draw a card from the lowest age deck, play a card to their tableau, and activate a card. Each card provides the player with a unique action that they can take by activating the card. Sometimes these are just more powerful versions of the basic actions such as drawing or playing more cards at once. Other cards provide entirely new actions such as manipulating the cards on the tableau, scoring cards, or stealing from other players. As the game progresses, players will have an ever changing set of actions that they can take based on the cards that they have in play.
A number of other games use popular new mechanics along with Tableau Building. Homesteaders uses an auction mechanic to acquire tiles for your tableau and worker placement to activate them. 7 Wonders uses card drafting as a mechanic to select cards that you play to your tableau. Eminent Domain uses deck building and role selection to allow players to develop their tableau. The Manhattan Project uses worker placement as a means to acquire and activate cards on your tableau. There are many more examples of how Tableau Building is often paired with other mechanics but, as with Innovation, it can stand on it’s own as well.
What’s to love?
One of the things that makes Tableau Building work so well is that it gradually introduces complexity into the game by allowing the players to start from a very basic state (an empty tableau) and build up one card at a time. This is a form of information control, if you need to take in a lot all at once it can be very overwhelming but introducing new information as players bring cards into play presents a much more manageable way to take it in at a more steady pace.
The gradual build up of pieces is often comparable to building an engine. Each new piece that is brought in to play interacts with the previous pieces in a way that makes things easier and more efficient for the player. Developing a tableau creates the impression of becoming more powerful as the game progresses and this often links together with a theme seamlessly. If you’re a civilization advancing through the ages then the cards that you play can represent technologies that mark your progress. If you’re an architect designing a city then the cards can represent your workers, tools, and ultimately the buildings in the city itself.
For some, part of the trouble with these type of games lies in the lower player interaction that is a natural result of each player building up their own area. Not to say that you can’t go over and mess up what another player is doing but the goal is ultimately to build something so that is naturally the emphasis. This can create a multi-player solitaire experience in which players are each hard at work on their own tableau only briefly glancing at the other players’ cards to gauge how well they are doing. How much this is the case will often depend on the other mechanics involved.
A Timeline of Tableau Builders
Here’s a brief timeline of popular Tableau Builders that have come out across the years. This is in no way intended to be a comprehensive list, merely a representation of some games that present a unique take on Tableau building.
Glory To Rome
Race For the Galaxy
What do you think about the Tableau Building mechanic? Do you enjoy building up your own engine or would rather have a shared board where you can interact more with the other players? Are their any Tableau Building games that you love that didn’t make it onto the Timeline?