The State of Worker Placement Games

My last couple game reviews both briefly talked about aspects of worker placement design. I want to talk about that in a little more depth.

It’s interesting that Village is considered original for being a “worker placement” game in which you put workers on the board (which don’t actually claim actions for you) who eventually die of old age. That description perfectly matches the 2004 game In the Shadow of the Emperor. “What?”, I can hear my audience shouting. (Well, all three of the people who remember that old game, at least.) “That wasn’t a worker placement game! Even its Board Game Geek page doesn’t list worker placement as one of its mechanics!” That’s right, it doesn’t. But that’s my point.

Emperor is a “card drafting” game, because players take turns choosing actions by taking the card that represents that action. Once the card is taken, no one else can use it for the round. It’s a confusing game, because the card designs are busy and people tend to put them back in a different order after each round, so players have to stare for a long time to figure out what is available. It would be a better game if actions were printed on a board, and people placed markers as they were claimed. In other words, the game would be cleaner, more understandable, and still have exactly the same gameplay if it used worker placement. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a worker placement game.

(I did consider making a board to play the game with worker placement, but after re-reading the rules I decided it wasn’t worth it. That would make the game feel like it was from 2006 instead of 2004, but it still wouldn’t hold up well by today’s standards.)

My point is that what we call “worker placement” is fundamentally the same as “action drafting”. Everyone seems to recognize that that’s a necessary part of the definition – I’ve never seen anyone call Carcassonne worker placement, even though you literally do place workers in it. And that’s fine. The community has a habit of naming game mechanics after the way they’re usually implemented thematically. For example, “train games” are about building connections on a map, with the goal of making or using specific routes. Jet Set is universally considered a train game, even though it’s about making routes for airways. But Mystery Express, which is set on a train, isn’t considered to be a train game at all.

I’m wondering if the term “worker placement” is getting in the way of discussing action drafting games. It worked great for the first several years that we were using it, as most games used pretty straightforward action drafting. The twists they added, such as taking back workers at different times or needing special types of workers for certain actions, still worked with the basic system of blocking off actions with your worker pieces. The first one I saw to really mix up the fundamentals of action selection was Dungeon Lords, in which players choose the general category for their workers before they learn what specific action slot they will get. Targi also uses that sort of indirect action selection, since some of your choices are at intersections of a grid, and after first choosing a specific row or column, you don’t know what other columns or rows your opponent will leave for you.

But Village is an example of an action-drafting game that would be awkward with a worker placement system. Players select their action by taking a colored cube from a certain area of the board, and the cube can be spent later as a resource. It’s important to the game that the cubes be randomly distributed every round. Simply grabbing them, without placing any worker tokens, is the natural way to do that. Bora Bora also pushes the limit of what traditional worker bits can handle, since its “workers” are dice that take on different values each turn.

Are we reaching a point where worker placement can’t handle the complexities of our action drafting games? I’m not sure. It’s been the most natural fit for years, so much so that it’s obvious when a game (like In the Shadow of the Emperor) predates it. I’m sure it will always have a place. But as our tastes keep growing more complicated, it looks like we may start to have more games like Village, which are undeniably action drafting but don’t necessarily use worker placement.

    • Derek
    • September 16th, 2013

    I think worker placement should be defined as action selection with area control.

    • Interesting. Do you think area control always plays a role in worker placement games? Usually one one meeple is placed on an action, that “area” is blocked off, so I don’t think of it as traditional area control.

        • Derek
        • September 16th, 2013

        Personally, I believe worker placement should be a sub-genre of area control. On BGG’s official definition of area control, it is defined as giving rewards (actions/resources) to players by having the most units or influence (workers) on that area that everyone has access to, given they meet requirements to do so.

        Which is why I do not believe Archipelago is a worker placement, because even though you do place workers on specific spaces to perform actions, they are NOT blocked off; ANYONE can take it. It is no different from, what you mentioned in your op-ed, action drafting.

        Similarly, I do not believe Carcassonne is a worker placement in its current definition. Referring to the definition of area control, that area you want to control (road, city, church or field) must be accessible to all players. In Carcassonne, only the tile-layer is allowed to place their worker on that area, thus defying the definition of area control.

        However, I do agree on your point on the meaning of worker placement losing its literal meaning. Carcassonne should technically be a worker placement, since you… place workers. While Dominant Species technically should not, since those action tokens not thematically workers. However due to the popularity of its current definition, I welcomed it and I now define it as a game where you put stuff on stuff to do stuff to stuff other people’s stuff up. To me, Dominant Species is a worker placement; Carcassonne is not. 🙂

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