Worker Placement Games
on Sep 21, 2016
Here at Miniature Market’s Review Corner, we try to match up our big features with holidays or other special events that are going on. When September rolled around, I put out feelers among our writers for ideas – I was stumped. Our very own Pete Ruth presented with a great idea: let’s venerate the holiday that I always confuse with Memorial Day with a feature on worker placement games. Labor Day was just days away, but I thought this was a great idea to spotlight games even if we did so post facto.
Worker placement mechanics aren’t quite as pervasive as they were just a couple of years ago, having integrated themselves more completely into the larger canon of game design concepts. At its root, the worker placement concept is an action selection device wherein players use a limited resource to indicate what functions that meeple, pawn, cube or whatever is going to perform. There are opportunities in this design space to supply competition by limiting available placements, to create tension by leveraging factors such as turn order, and to generate depth when players must choose between different possible functions or resource conversions that may be enabled with only a single type of piece.
So here we go, our picks for the best in worker placement games – happy belated Labor Day!
Even though it appears to our readers that I’m going first, I actually come in behind everyone else and make my pick last. And I can’t believe no one picked Lords of Waterdeep. This game took everyone by surprise when it came out because not only was it a rock-solid, supremely accessible worker placement design – it was also a Dungeons and Dragons game. Granted, the setting did little more than inform the graphic design and nomenclature, but this was one of the best games in this class. It’s fun, fairly short, and it just whizzes by with little downtime. It’s also fun at a very high narrative level to round up adventuring parties (blocks, mind you) and send them out on various D&D quests to earn points. I especially like this one with the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion, which adds some cool corruption mechanics and a little more skullduggery.
This isn't usually a game that people think of when they think of worker placement, but I can't think of another game that uses the mechanic to such thematic effect. Less an adaptation of Daniel Defoe's novel and more a desert island scenario generator. The players are all survivors of a shipwreck, and they must survive until they are able to fulfill the scenario objectives. The players each have two tokens, representing time spent on various island tasks. You can use both of them on a single task to remove a bit of risk, but if you split your attention across the island you might get more done. Then again you might get attacked by a wild animal or injured by a collapsing shelter.. This is a game where worker placement makes a huge amount of sense, where its part of a game that captures its setting so well, you can usually answer rules questions by deciding what would happen on an actual desert island.
Put down workers, get stuff. Worker placement games are pretty simple when you think about it. That's why the great ones add something a little extra - a little kick to distinguish it from the bland morass of games around it. With Dungeon Lords, it adds a lot extra. First, the theme is amazing. It puts you on the opposite side of the adventurer divide. Normally, you push into the evil dungeon and kill the monsters. But in this game, you're building the dungeon and those pesky adventurers just keep coming in to ruin your day. But it's even better mechanically. Rather than just place workers one at a time, the players first make their choices in secret. And, most spaces are better if you go there second than if you go there first. The result is this semi-bluffing game where you have to analyze what your opponents are likely to take, and then the best order to choose your spaces so that you get the best spots. It's a wonderful twist on standard worker placement and helps make Dungeon Lords the stand-out title it is.
Worker placement is the worst thing ever to happen to gaming. Designers now feel that they can shoehorn the mechanism into any setting, no matter whether or not it makes a lick of sense. And really, it's not all that fun. I build my engine, you build yours, and the most exciting moments are when—gasp!—you took the space I needed, and now I have to pick one that's 15% less effective. Such drama!
Still, there is at least one game that gets it right: Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem. It's like other worker placement games in that I'm trying to get a good combo going, and so are you—only in this one, once you've got your killer engine running smoothly, I can send a bunch of biker dudes over there to slaughter your guys. Or maybe, if you want to avoid bloodshed, you can just kick a little cash my way and I'll let you go about your business, this time anyway. The mechanisms make sense, the game sessions are dynamic and variable, and it's just a whole lot of fun, unlike the vast majority of worker placement snooze-fests.
Here's how it is: This is an eight year old game, and it's still the one game that I always want to play. I play it online, I play it at my house with my family and friends, and I would play it in a box with a fox. I view it as the single best Euro game aside from El Grande, and easily is the best worker placement board game ever invented by God or man. What makes it so is that its random tile draws and snappy play keeps each game fresh, providing you with a multitude of opportunities to develop strategies that aren't the same "go-to" strategies every time. It has dice rolling and randomness, but it's not overly luck-dependent in any way. It's simply a fantastic game and I recommend it to anyone with a pulse, aside from Michael Barnes, because he can't tolerate the freshly-cured leather smell from the dice cup that comes in the box (Editor’s note- yuck).
Agricola is my go-to worker placement game. With so many cards and combos, it never gets old. However, don't let its cute farming theme fool you. This game is not only about swooping in to grab a coveted spot before someone else, but also about setting yourself up for success. You need to make sure you're sowing fields, planting crops, building fences, raising animals, making babies (both animal and human!), and, to top if all off, feeding your family members at the end of each harvest, which isn't exactly easy. You're in the 17th century; there's no frozen lasagna and a microwave to take care of your dirty work. Remember: you didn't choose the farming life; the farming life chose you and now you have to make tense decisions about whether or not you're going to eat your pet cow or let your children starve (i.e., lose points at the end of the game). So it's for all these reasons that, despite being a somewhat older title, Agricola is still one of the most satisfying worker placement games out there.
Forget the dorky name. Really, don't worry about it. All you need to know is that Argent is the most bananas worker placement game out there. For one thing, it's all about seizing control of this magical university, right? Well, where some games introduce these far-flung ideas without packing the mechanics to back up all that big-fella talk, Argent knows how to stand and deliver. Starting with your workers — gifted students who you've somehow persuaded to follow your orders, no matter how suicidal — every little thing you do is going to have some sort of crazy effect. So nature mages have bark skin and don't get hurt, while fire mages blast everybody. Those are the simple ones. Then there are the guys who phase into an alternate dimension, meaning they can merrily complete the task you've assigned them even though somebody in the prime universe is also doing it. That's when this game starts to come into focus. Want to hoard magic items? Engage in secret alliances with the faculty? Spy on the consortium voters so you'll have an edge in getting appointed king of the university? Or hey, better yet, want to learn massive spells that let you explode entire rooms at once, or rewind time, or break the game in a dozen other ways? That's what Argent is about. It's fab.
Trickerion rises above its genre for two reasons. One, its setting, a city overrun by backstabbing stage magicians, is surprisingly unique. Two, its workers have personality. In most worker placement games, your workers are anonymous, interchangeable drones, barely more than hungry, person-shaped action points. Not so with Trickerion. Here, your workers represent your illusionist's crew, including apprentices, stagehands, and El Fantasmo himself. The trick (heh) is that each action requires action points, generated by the worker you've chosen and your arrival order at that spot. If you can't afford the action cost, you may need to spend a Trickerion shard, rare commodities that are better hoarded for end-game scoring or used to fuel your magician's special powers...or you might go home empty-handed. Even better, there's a programming element where you'll hand out the day's assignments at the start of each round, leading to an intense amount of bluff, doublethink, and contingency planning before a single worker gets placed. "The Prestige" references aside, it's a smart, mentally taxing evolution of a cornerstone genre.
While its steampunk time-traveling setting hardly informs play, Steam Time’s twist on worker placement does draw interesting thematic parallels in ways we think about the concept of time. With only fifteen actions to choose during the game, there’s never enough of it. That requires you to manage your time efficiently, yet in a sense you can buy more of it in upgrading your ship and keeping it powered to boost your swag when taking your limited actions. Selection also mimics time’s linear and cyclical natures. Action boards are stacked like rungs on a ladder – you can never choose a space below one you’ve already selected and the boards rotate every round. Finally, like time, turns can unfortunately drag. There’s so much information to process and plenty of options to take advantage of that some are overwhelmed. But that means there’s a lot to explore. Experienced gamers who like freeform and optimization need to carve out some time for this unique worker placement design.
Dice worker placement is one of my favorite game mechanisms. It offers the strategy of effectively using workers to gain resources with an injection of randomness and luck by adding some dice-chucking. Several games do this particularly elegantly, but my favorite among them is Euphoria. Set in a futuristic society where each caste produces its own distinct resources, each of which players want to gather and use to complete objectives, the game offers rewards for gathering "ancient" artifacts like teddy bears and baseball bats. Workers can manipulate various areas of the board to construct markets, produce more workers, and even dig secret passages to allow the various castes to steal from each other. Innovative to Euphoria is your workers' ability to collectively become too smart and realize they are being overworked. Certain actions, or lack of actions like feeding your spent workers, increase your laborers' intelligence--and combined dice results lower than this intelligence score can cause your workers to flee your dystopian iron grip when you attempt to retrieve them for another round of work!