The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

What makes worker placement games tick?

I figure we’ve got a fair number of worker placement games to look at: Caylus, Manga Carta, Pillars of the Earth, Stone Age and Agricola. This doesn’t count some minor games that also use the mechanism, and I’ve got a vague feeling I’m missing one or two big games I’ve played.

In any case, while I like the mechanism I’ve been pondering what makes it work and what makes it dangerous. Vague thoughts at this stage.

  1. Each player should have an equal number of workers, or each placement should have a cost. All the games get this right, to a certain extent. Extra actions are powerful. In fact, all of the games suffer slightly from a “one true path” in that getting the resources to support extra workers is the primary key to victory (money in Caylus, family growth in Agricola, etc)
  2. Player order should be tightly constrained. Caylus does this best; Agricola’s “around from the start player” is mildly unsatisfying. Pillars random order makes the game unpalatable, even with decreasing costs for going later. The heart of worker placement games are competition in the action-selection, so players should have choice. (Pillars is the “Roll and Move” of worker placement games). [Incidentally, we just saw the Agricola card that lets someone buy the start player each round (the "taste tester", I think). Powerful, but didn't win so I'm reserving judgement].
  3. The best games manage the number of available places well. Caylus & CMC have the number grow (as players get more money to buy extra workers) and then shrink. Agricola uses the variable setup to add spaces appropriate for the number of players, then adds the one space per round (which roughly covers the offspring). Stone Age is the weakest in this regard.
  4. So far, all of the games seem to have a variety of resources that are all required to do various things. Just happen stance, or required? Is it possible to build a good worker placement game with a single resource (like, money?) I don’t think so. Is it possible to build one with two resources? Perhaps. This says less about worker placement games than my like of complex economic systems.
  5. Are games worse if multiple workers can go in one space? I’m not sure. Stone Age is an outlier because it treats people as variable group sizes, and has size limits on most spaces. I’m tempted to say that multiples can work, assuming the limit is relatively small or costs escalate with each additional worker (an idea that has not been tried yet).

What else have I missed?

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Written by taogaming

September 7, 2008 at 8:53 pm

Posted in Ramblings

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18 Responses

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  1. leonardo da vinci? Doesn’t this one carry extra cost to place extra workers in the same spot as someone else?

    Larry Rice

    September 7, 2008 at 9:58 pm

  2. Aladdin’s Dragons is one other that comes to mind. Cleverly it uses hidden worker value to eliminate the need for tight control over turn order, although that also makes advance planning difficult (certainly inferior to Caylus, but better than Agricola IMO). I really like AD, albeit having some issues with the endgame, and the worker placement system is my favorite part.

    Lou

    September 7, 2008 at 9:59 pm

  3. Depending on how you stretch the definition, you could add a ton of games. But Leonardo DaVinci and Aladdin’s Dragons (and Keydom) are big ones.

    I think another key is that players positions have to be significantly asymmetrical. Caylus loses a lot of its appeal for me because everyone is doing basically the same thing, so it’s really just a competition for the few reasonable activities. Agricola, on the other hand, is very asymmetric with players driven in differing directions, so the importance of evaluation – to me a more interesting thought process – is greater.

    I think the randomness of the worker placement in Pillars is too often maligned without reason. I actually find it surprisingly clever, in that it cleanly mixes elements of worker placement and auction. Sure, you can get hosed from time to time on the draw, but I think it’s a lot less severe than it appears, and the colliding forces it produces make for tough and interesting choices. Plus it feeds back into the money management element of the game nicely. I found the luck in Stone Age, while interesting, to be much more one-dimensional and fundamentally arbitrary than in Pillars. In Stone Age, you roll high, it’s good, roll low, it’s bad, and there is no “systemic feedback”; you just want to roll well. In Pillars, being picked first from the bag is (usually) more complex.

    Chris Farrell

    September 7, 2008 at 11:02 pm

  4. Depending on how you stretch the definition, you could add a ton of games. But Leonardo DaVinci and Aladdin’s Dragons (and Keydom) are big ones.

    I think another key is that players positions have to be significantly asymmetrical. Caylus loses a lot of its appeal for me because everyone is doing basically the same thing, so it’s really just a competition for the few reasonable activities. Agricola, on the other hand, is very asymmetric with players driven in differing directions, so the importance of evaluation – to me a more interesting thought process – is greater.

    I think the randomness of the worker placement in Pillars is too often maligned without reason. I actually find it surprisingly clever, in that it cleanly mixes elements of worker placement and auction. Sure, you can get hosed from time to time on the draw, but I think it’s a lot less severe than it appears, and the colliding forces it produces make for tough and interesting choices. Plus it feeds back into the money management element of the game nicely. I found the luck in Stone Age, while interesting, to be much more one-dimensional and fundamentally arbitrary than in Pillars. In Stone Age, you roll high, it’s good, roll low, it’s bad, and there is no “systemic feedback”; you just want to roll well. In Pillars, being picked first from the bag is (usually) more complex.

    Chris Farrell

    September 7, 2008 at 11:02 pm

  5. I should add that for me personally, “worker placement” is a fundamentally boring game system. It’s got downtime issues, and it requires very precise game-balance to work well. Games that use the worker placement element for me are fun to the extent that the other things in the game are the real drivers: cash and resource management and the pseudo-auction in Pillars, the bluffing in Aladdin’s Dragons, the cards in Agricola. Games where the worker placement is the key thing – Caylus, Stone Age, Kingsburg – don’t work for me at all. While I thought there was a card management element to CMC, it worked for me; when it became clear there wasn’t, it stopped working.

    Chris Farrell

    September 7, 2008 at 11:11 pm

  6. Re:#3, I don’t find Stone Age to be weak as a worker placement game – determining just how many workers to allocate to each space, knowing what you might roll, and knowing what tools you have, I find to be a really fun and agonizing decision. I’ve spread my worker around just right in the last round to steal the game, and also lost that last gold bar by one pip to end up short and lose…I’m sure that random aspect drives some people crazy but I like it. :) I do wonder though, can a WP game ever be balanced to the point where NOT increasing your workers is a viable strategy? I’ve heard some people can win Stone Age with the original number of workers, but it seems a bit of a stretch…(I’ve only played Stone Age, Agricola, Magna Carta, and Pillars in the list)

    Scott Pease

    September 7, 2008 at 11:37 pm

  7. Are games worse if multiple workers can go in one space?

    I can think of some good Worker Placement games where multiple workers and multiple players can go in spaces. In Splotter’s Bus (the first Worker Placement game in my opinion—I don’t consider Aladdin’s Dragons to be WP, although that seems to be a minority opinion), some spaces permit multiple workers and I think it’s a fine game. The same is true in Wallace’s Way Out West and the WP part of it is excellent—it’s the cowboy combat that lets the game down. The other Larry already mentioned Leonardo Da Vinci. I think it can work; the drama of the “one and done” spaces seems easier to work with, but with good design work, the other kind of game is feasible as well.

    Larry Levy

    September 8, 2008 at 12:04 am

  8. I found Tribune to be a very interesting take on the WP mechanism, by making what you get more “fungible” (cards) and less “this specific power or that different one”. This reduces the downtime problem since one can easily size up and prioritize several desirable alternatives along one’s strategic goals instead of having to play at a mostly tactical level.

    Caylus has this to some extent, since — at times — a player is often interested in just getting cubes, without much regard to which type of cubes they are.

    Tom_Lehmann

    September 8, 2008 at 12:20 am

  9. I found Tribune to be a very interesting take on the WP mechanism, by making what you get more “fungible” (cards) and less “this specific power or that different one”. This reduces the downtime problem since one can easily size up and prioritize several desirable alternatives along one’s strategic goals instead of having to play at a mostly tactical level.

    Caylus has this to some extent, since — at times — a player is often interested in just getting cubes, without much regard to which type of cubes they are.

    Tom_Lehmann

    September 8, 2008 at 12:20 am

  10. I do wonder though, can a WP game ever be balanced to the point where NOT increasing your workers is a viable strategy?

    It’s been a while since I played, but I think in Aladdin’s Dragons, you weren’t able to increase your workers at all. But I never considered it to be a WP game until reading this article.

    kungfugeek

    September 8, 2008 at 8:51 am

  11. I personally would add:

    6. Worker Placement games tend to work better with fewer players. Most of them add little to the experience by adding more players, while increasing downtime and variability with more people acting before your next turn. I’d say Caylus and Agricola are much better games 2 or 3 than 4 or 5.

    There are two exceptions to this that I know of. Tribune keeps the game short by reducing the goals required with more players, although the chaos still increases. Leonardo does play longer with more players, but it balances out turn order issues by allowing larger commitments in the same location. In fact there’s a mild last player advantage.

    frunk

    September 8, 2008 at 9:35 am

  12. I personally would add:

    6. Worker Placement games tend to work better with fewer players. Most of them add little to the experience by adding more players, while increasing downtime and variability with more people acting before your next turn. I’d say Caylus and Agricola are much better games 2 or 3 than 4 or 5.

    There are two exceptions to this that I know of. Tribune keeps the game short by reducing the goals required with more players, although the chaos still increases. Leonardo does play longer with more players, but it balances out turn order issues by allowing larger commitments in the same location. In fact there’s a mild last player advantage.

    frunk

    September 8, 2008 at 9:35 am

  13. I would add Age of Empires III to this list of games. In some instances, workers can go in the same space in AOE III.

    Mark M

    September 8, 2008 at 12:23 pm

  14. Good thing about SA is that while its good to have more man, its not as necessary as in other games, since there are other paths to victory (tools). So I find it more balanced.
    And I have to agree with Chris: From an authors perspective worker placement is a good idea, because you add tension and variability to the gme. From a gamers perspective I find them turning a game often into a piece of work.

    Peer

    September 8, 2008 at 12:58 pm

  15. Age of Empires uses worker placement smoothly and I especially like the fact that there are different types of workers to place (i.e. merchants, captains, etc). As the tech tree branches out, some players will different types of workers and these workers specialize in different areas. I haven’t played all of the games you mentioned, but I do think this “specialty” feature makes AofE unique.

    My reservation with “worker placement” as a mechanic is that it feels the same from game to game. So I know I won’t be collecting many more of these worker placement-type games. But Constantinopole has really gotten my attention.

    jacob

    September 8, 2008 at 11:52 pm

  16. Well, I disagree entirely with your second point; Pillars is just one of two games (along with Keydom) from the group I’ve found has held up for me. And, in fact, I find it far easier to describe what I _don’t_ like about most worker placement games than the things that make them work.

    (FWIW, the biggest problem I have with the games is the player frustration – most of the games have some number of significantly limited but vital resources. Caylus, for me, is the least enjoyable of the group, in that there’s the significantly added annoyance of not knowing whether or not the action will actually get to be performed combined with the frequent need to carry out multiple actions on the same turn in order to accomplish a particular goal.)

    Joe Huber

    September 9, 2008 at 9:47 pm

  17. I think worker placement is great. The concept hasn’t quite been exhausted to me. The new generation of worker placement games like Stone Age and Agricola make me never want to play the older ones like Caylus again. Both of these games show pretty convincingly that a little randomness is good. The newer games are far more accessible to less experienced board gamers. A quality I value highly that Caylus really missed the ball on.

    Something about Caylus just ends up boring me silly by the time the end of the game apporoaches. I think it just has too many actions in a turn. The game just takes too long. That said, Stone Age and Agricola also run a bit long and it never seems like they are taking that much time. Also the screw factor is astronomically high in the higher number of player games of Caylus. I blame this on poor scaling mostly. A factor that Stone Age and Agricola seem to have intelligently taken into account.

    I want to talk about my randomness statement above a little. It’s a really bad word for most Euro players. I think it’s a failing of a lot of German boardgames though that they don’t make the player adapt their strategy enough. My favorite games almost always involve moves that change value. It’s a key skill tester and it’s also lot more fun. Games with preset strategies are only fun until you figure out that strategy. This is why I find Stone Age to be almost a perfect game. There is so much player guided randomness and values for nearly everything stay mutable the entire game.

    The biggest strength for a game to me is it’s ability to appeal to players. Let’s face it, they aren’t that fun to play by yourself. Stone Age and Agricola have both been total home runs in this department. I’ve gotten so many non-gamers into Stone Age that for a while I was wondering if it was the new Settlers of Catan. The process of playing the game is just so fun for most people. To the point that they don’t even seem to care if they win. The flavor and appearance definitely has a lot of appeal too. I enjoy explaining how the two cavemen go into the hut and write out a letter to their friend in the next village to come and help them.

    Agricola is also really surprising me. It’s the first board game that I’ve gotten my girlfriend to actually enjoy playing. (which is pretty much the best thing I could ask for from a game) She summed it up after the first game she played of it. “I didn’t win, but I still have this really cool farm!” Then she destroyed me in the first two player game we played.

    Maybe I should have just posted this as an article somewhere. The subject got me thinking quite a bit about what makes a game good and why I’ve been enjoying Agricola and Stone Age so much lately. Especially when I quickly dubbed Caylus as overrated and avoided playing it except in competitive tournaments.

    bkowal23

    September 21, 2008 at 12:36 pm

  18. I think worker placement is great. The concept hasn’t quite been exhausted to me. The new generation of worker placement games like Stone Age and Agricola make me never want to play the older ones like Caylus again. Both of these games show pretty convincingly that a little randomness is good. The newer games are far more accessible to less experienced board gamers. A quality I value highly that Caylus really missed the ball on.

    Something about Caylus just ends up boring me silly by the time the end of the game apporoaches. I think it just has too many actions in a turn. The game just takes too long. That said, Stone Age and Agricola also run a bit long and it never seems like they are taking that much time. Also the screw factor is astronomically high in the higher number of player games of Caylus. I blame this on poor scaling mostly. A factor that Stone Age and Agricola seem to have intelligently taken into account.

    I want to talk about my randomness statement above a little. It’s a really bad word for most Euro players. I think it’s a failing of a lot of German boardgames though that they don’t make the player adapt their strategy enough. My favorite games almost always involve moves that change value. It’s a key skill tester and it’s also lot more fun. Games with preset strategies are only fun until you figure out that strategy. This is why I find Stone Age to be almost a perfect game. There is so much player guided randomness and values for nearly everything stay mutable the entire game.

    The biggest strength for a game to me is it’s ability to appeal to players. Let’s face it, they aren’t that fun to play by yourself. Stone Age and Agricola have both been total home runs in this department. I’ve gotten so many non-gamers into Stone Age that for a while I was wondering if it was the new Settlers of Catan. The process of playing the game is just so fun for most people. To the point that they don’t even seem to care if they win. The flavor and appearance definitely has a lot of appeal too. I enjoy explaining how the two cavemen go into the hut and write out a letter to their friend in the next village to come and help them.

    Agricola is also really surprising me. It’s the first board game that I’ve gotten my girlfriend to actually enjoy playing. (which is pretty much the best thing I could ask for from a game) She summed it up after the first game she played of it. “I didn’t win, but I still have this really cool farm!” Then she destroyed me in the first two player game we played.

    Maybe I should have just posted this as an article somewhere. The subject got me thinking quite a bit about what makes a game good and why I’ve been enjoying Agricola and Stone Age so much lately. Especially when I quickly dubbed Caylus as overrated and avoided playing it except in competitive tournaments.

    bkowal23

    September 21, 2008 at 12:36 pm


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