Posts Tagged ‘ Worker Placement ’

Bora Bora (Game Review)

Bora Bora box

Bora Bora

Bora Bora is another complex game from Stefan Feld. If you’re familiar with Trajan and Castles of Burgundy, you have an idea what that means: A “point salad” game with more ways to score than any one person can handle. The different strategies are well balanced, and the winner will be the player who sees the best mix of opportunities based on the way the dice landed or cards came out. The central mechanic is some sort of creative action selection, and, of course, the theme has nothing to do with the gameplay.

Speaking as a huge fan of Feld, I think that this is his best game yet. It’s an especially tight version of his “too little time to do what you need” approach, with a lot more player interaction than most games that are this balanced and strategic. That interaction also helps the game to grow with your group as you get more experienced. In the early games, struggling to do your best is challenge enough. Once the basic strategies are under control, and players start looking around for opportunities to block each other, then the game grows new dimensions. And even the very first game is fairly accessible considering how much is going on. Everyone has their own “task tiles” and must complete one every round, so newbies have goals to direct them through the many choices they have to make.

Bora Bora play

The easiest way to describe this is “Trajan meets Macao with a new take on worker placement”. It’s like Trajan in that there are several actions to select, and they refer to areas of the board where you can score or gain resources in different ways. But the different areas here are more tightly interrelated than Trajan’s are. You’ll focus on one or two areas per game, but need to put some effort into all of them.

I’m reminded of Macao because that game has cards that keep piling up to be completed. Bora Bora’s task tiles are a more refined version of that, partly because they require you to accomplish things instead of just collecting resources. But also, you must “complete” one every round, possibly for zero points if you haven’t met the requirement. And the challenge scales well as you gain in strength throughout the game: Everyone starts with two standard tasks and one simple one. The simple one is like to be the only one possible to score in one round. You’ll start working towards the others right away, and choose new tasks that synergize with what you already have. By late in the game, that may finally start to get easy. But you’ll end the game with three tasks still in front of you, and you get one last chance to score all of them if possible! It’s a constant race to stay one step ahead of the game’s clock.

The new take on worker placement is very clever, and ages much better than Trajan’s central action. Your “workers” are dice that get rolled each round. Each action can be taken multiple times, but the die placed must have a lower value than any already on the action. High numbers can do more powerful actions, if you can get them out on time. Worker placement is typically about figuring out which actions need to be taken right away, and which are safe to leave until later. This is even more nerve-wracking, since playing an action isn’t always the same as blocking others. Also, you only have three dice per round in which to prepare for four end-of-round evaluations, including that task tile. There’s no way to to do it all.

The dice-based action selection and task tiles are both excellent mechanics, and the variety of things to do is among Feld’s best. I do think this has a little more randomness than his other complex games, since a couple sets of tiles are mixed up at the start of the game, and a few more (very important) sets are drawn before each round. But that still feels fair, and the game definitely rewards skill and planning. While I fully expect Feld to keep improving, Bora Bora currently stands as his masterpiece.

Grade: A

 

Tzolk’in (Game Review)

Tzolk'in box

Tzolk’in

Some board games are complicated because of the ways you can block your opponents. Others are complicated because simply figuring out your own moves takes careful planning. Daniele Tascini’s Tzolk’in is in the latter category.

It is a worker placement game with an eye-grabbing set of interlocking gears. On each turn, a player either places workers on cogs of the gear or removes them. The gears advance after each time around the table, moving workers up to new, and generally stronger, actions. The action is triggered when the workers are removed, not placed. That gear mechanism is very cool and distinctive, and is a rare case of a production gimmick that is also vital to the gameplay.

It’s also easy to make mistakes, and hard to play as efficiently as possible. You can place or remove multiple workers in one turn, so you’ll need to set up big turns to get the most out of your actions. But corn is needed to place workers, and the cost rises quickly as more are used. Placing workers directly on higher spots on the wheel also costs corn. It can be easy to get stuck because you ran out of resources, or because your workers didn’t all reach the proper actions at the right time.

A close-up of a few gears. The large center one is used to turn everything in unison. (And it looks cool.)

A close-up of a few gears. The large center one is used to turn everything in unison. (And it looks cool.)

The first time or two you play this game, it will take all your efforts just to take care of basic needs. Reserve extra corn for the feeding phases, figure out how to get other resources, and suddenly realize at the halfway point of the game that you hadn’t even done anything to earn points yet! After a few games, you’ll be able to make plans, and maybe follow through on them. My second game was against someone who had played over a dozen times, and he had an incredible engine going before I’d even figured out how to provide basic food for my workers.

Just because the personal choices are complex doesn’t mean there’s no player interaction. There are plenty of opportunities to predict others’ moves and get in their ways. Workers must always be played on the lowest available spot on a wheel, so placing one may either help or hurt your opponents, depending on how quickly they need to get to the top actions and whether they can afford the cost of the higher space. Players can also race to be the one who builds a point-scoring monument, or fight to move to the top of temple influence tracks. There are even actions that let you advance the wheel two spaces instead of one, which can really mess up someone else’s plans!

It’s a good thing that Tzolk’in has all that going on, because the ways to score points aren’t very interesting. There are a few distinct paths, such as those temple or monument points, or getting the expensive Crystal Skull resources and dropping them off on spaces of the religious track. (Yes this game comes with Crystal Skull tokens!) But there are only a few, they don’t have a lot of synergy with each other, and the only one that really changes from game to game is which monuments are available. Those are important, since they give you points for doing different actions, therefore putting the focus on different paths to victory in each game, but it’s very easy to choose a strategy that doesn’t use monuments at all.

Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Tzolk’in, though. It’s a great experience, both mind-blowing solitaire and intense competition at the same time. It’s definitely an advanced game. I’ve played slightly more complicated ones in the past year, but never one so punishing if you mistime your moves. But if you’re used to board games, this one takes worker placement to the next level. Like Targi, your workers’ actions aren’t decided directly by where you place them, but indirectly due to the timing of multiple decisions.

Grade: B+

 

New Game Watch: Essen 2013

Though Origins is my annual gaming highlight, last weekend was Essen Spiel, the biggest event for the world in general. Given that, I thought I’d take a look at what new and upcoming games are the most interesting right now.

This is definitely not a thorough list. It’s just the games that I have my eye on after skimming through various news sites and blogs. And since most of those sites were mainly posting pictures and discussing the new convention hall, I turned to the two community ratings charts: BGG Geekbuzz and Fairplay. You can see the Fairplay results at Opinionated Gamers, but I’m not sure if you can find a history on the GeekBuzz page, or just see the latest convention’s results. So for posterity, here are the top ten in each:

GeekBuzz Fairplay
1. Amerigo Russian Railroads
2. Bruxelles 1893 Concordia
3. Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends Glass Road
4. Twin Tin Bots Bruxelles 1893
5. Romolo o Remo? Kashgar
6. Love Letter Rokoko
7. Serpent’s Tongue Spyrium
8. Hanabi Madeira
9. Steam Park Love Letter
10. Glass Road UGO!

It’s a little frustrating to try to make sense of this list from the other side of the world. It’s dominated by worker placement games, and I can find very little information about most of them online. (The rules are often available, but it can be difficult to get much from those alone, especially when you’re trying to catch up on so many.) I haven’t found much in the way of reviews or commentary to tell me how one new worker placement game differs from the next. But as I already mentioned, everyone is talking at length about the Essen convention hall set-up.

I’m sure that a year from now, I’ll have opinions about most of these games. But for now, all I can do is make a note of the most popular ones and try to guess at the best ones.

My initial guesses are below.

Continue reading

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.

Targi (Game Review)

Targi

Targi

Targi is Andreas Steiger’s first board game, but it marks an excellent “standing on the shoulders of giants” leap in game design. It features worker placement, but your most important workers are placed as the result of other actions rather than being directly controlled. Every round, each player places five total markers: three on the outside of a grid, and then two more at the places that the chosen rows and columns intersect. You can’t use a row or column already claimed by your opponent (not even the card at the opposite end), so you may not be able to get to the center cards you intended on.

Some more details: This is a two-player card game, with the actions represented by a five-by-five grid of cards. There are twelve outside actions (with the four corners unusable) that are always the same. The nine inner actions are removed after use and replaced the following round. Half of those cards give you resources, and the other half are “Tribe” cards which you spend resources to build. The Tribe cards give points and special abilities, and must be positioned in the player’s personal three-by-four tableau after being built. On a typical round, every row and column will be claimed, leading to a tight competition in which one or two of your five actions every round will be sub-optimal if not wasted.

Targi play

The resources and tribe cards are solidly designed, but, frankly, unremarkable. They are balanced, and lead to minor differences between players’ positions, so that you have to consider what both of you want when jockeying for cards each round. But don’t expect an interesting engine, or real changes from one game to the next. The theme (the Tuareg desert tribe) is pasted on, and many of the gameplay aspects are arbitrary: You get bonus points for matching symbols on the Tribe cards, the game’s twelve rounds are tracked by a “Robber” token that blocks one of the outside action cards each round, and every three rounds (when the Robber hits a corner card), players need to pay certain goods to avoid losing points. But there’s no flow to any of that. Other than the first round, when the Robber blocks a card that wouldn’t be usable at the start of the game, there’s no meaning behind the order that cards are taken, and those penalties every three rounds are minor and barely need to be planned for.

The system of resources and Tribe cards is good enough to support the game, though. And the mechanics truly do shine. It’s tense, with plenty of trade-offs and interesting decisions, and just enough luck to keep things interesting. There are a lot of small actions to be made, enough so that it seems a little surprising that it fits into an hour. And even if Targi doesn’t offer much theme or engine-building, it it still fun, original, and worth replaying.

Grade: B

 

Village (Game Review)

Village box

Village

In Inka and Markus Brand’s board game Village, you place family members in various buildings to improve your reputation score. However, the people age and die throughout the game. Success is a matter of adapting to the tempo of the generations so that you get the most benefit out of each family member’s life. This theme of death sounds morbid, but the game treats it abstractly and arguably as part of the natural cycle of things.

Let’s get this out of the way to begin with: Village is not a worker placement game. Everyone thinks it is (even the BGG page lists that as its sole mechanic), but “worker placement” has always been about more than literally placing workers. The term really refers to selecting actions and blocking them from the other players. Here, though the workers gain abilities (“professions”), they don’t return to your supply to eventually free up the space, but they also don’t block other meeples from joining them. Calling this a worker placement game does nothing to actually describe what it’s like.

The main board

The main board

Strangely, though, there is action drafting similar to what the term “worker placement” entails. It’s just separate from the worker figures: At the start of each round, colored cubes are spread around the available action spaces, and on your turn you choose your action by taking an available cube. The cubes are required to pay for certain actions, so you will sometimes pick an action for the cube you need instead of the action itself.

Personal board, with the time tracker, resources, and family members working the "farm".

Personal board, with the time tracker, resources, and family members working the “farm”.

Some cubes are black instead, which bring a “plague” advancing a time marker. Powerful actions also take time. All the meeples have numbered “generations”, and every time a player’s time tracker completes a circle, one of their lowest-generation meeples must be removed. You’ll need the powerful actions to win, but not so many that all your people die.

These family members do various things, either producing goods or providing points by increasing the family’s reputation. Keep in mind that when you train someone to produce a certain good, they won’t be around to do it forever. Also, some of the point-scoring areas are only counted at the end of the game, so there’s no reason to fight for them in the first generation. On the other hand, the “village chronicle” tracks the founders who passed on, which basically brings a benefit for early deaths.

The various things to do aren’t that interesting: Pay time and cubes to generate goods, possibly also training a family member in that skill for a future discount. Sell goods in a market, the place that seems disproportionately responsible for most of the points. Travel through distant lands, which is expensive but pays off well if you can visit all of them by the end of the game. Advance through the ranks of the town hall, gaining abilities that could give you goods, points, or the starting position every round. (Note for action-drafting purists: This game has a simple turn order, so if someone pays to go first, the person to their left gets the benefit of going second without paying anything.) And so on. Thematically, there is a lot of variety, with different levels of competition at different areas. Practically, though, I never felt very driven. You can make a plan (get certain colored cubes or goods for a specific action), but it’s never a long-term plan, and there’s rarely much tension in whether you’ll complete it.

After I played this game a couple times, I figured that I would rate it a B-. It’s got some clever ideas, but with nothing especially interesting about the implementation. It’s worth checking out, but there’s not much reason to stick with it once you’ve played a couple times and gotten used to it. But I’m starting to realize that we’ve recently seen a major increase in the quality of new games. My Origins report had more high ratings than I’ve ever given, and I’m excited about many of the games that I’m currently playing and haven’t reviewed yet. I don’t feel like there’s still much reason to recommend a game just because it adds a few twists to existing ones. Village came out in 2011 or 2012 (depending on your country), and I understand the design philosophy that led to it. But this is 2013, an exciting year flooded with excellent games that provide a more complete experience. It’s time to raise my standards. You won’t regret trying Village, but you certainly won’t miss it if you don’t.

Grade: C+

 

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small (Game Review)

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small box

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

Although Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola is a great game, I wasn’t at all interested in trying Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small. Two-player versions of games don’t seem very exciting when the original is already perfectly fine with two players. As for the idea that All Creatures is simpler, Agricola already comes with “Family” if that’s needed. I was wrong, though: It turns out that instead of calling All Creatures “simpler”, it would be more accurate to describe it as “streamlined”. In only twenty minutes, it captures the essence of a two-hour game.

All Creatures is still a worker placement game about building your 17th Century farm, but it strips out most of the thematic elements that seem vital to the original. You don’t expand your house or add family members, there are no fields and crops, and it doesn’t even have the “Harvest” phases that provide the main tension in the original. Now, you get some points for filling up space and adding new buildings (each with a cost and special power), but most of the points come from the number of animals you can obtain. Your enclosures and buildings can only hold so many creatures each, and two or more  of the same type will breed a new animal after every round of the game.

A player board at game's end

A player board at game’s end

In principle, the game feels a little friendlier: The punishing deadlines of the Harvest are gone, along with most of the sources of negative points in Agricola. But now you are constantly one or two steps away from running out of space to hold all your animals, and if you don’t want those points to just wander away, you need to constantly rush to add on to your domain. At three moves per round and only eight rounds, it’s significantly shorter than Agricola’s fifteen rounds (and up to five moves each by the end). However, it drops you right into the point where time is slipping by, and every type of animal that doesn’t reproduce at the end of each round feels like a missed opportunity. In other words, the seven rounds of Agricola that are dropped from All Creatures are those initial ones that start the game out so slowly.

Agricola: More Buildings Big and Small box

Agricola: More Buildings Big and Small

All Creatures’ great flaw is its repetition, though. Players have no hidden cards or agendas, and every game is set up the same. Much like the original’s Family game, you deal with the same situation every time. On its own, it would feel pretty limited after a few plays. Fortunately, there’s an expansion called More Buildings Big and Small that adds several new building tiles, each one with a different ability. Only a few random ones are to be used every game, so each game becomes unique. It’s far from perfect: These buildings play a much smaller role than the cards did in Agricola, and when the price of this is added on to All Creatures’, they cost almost as much as that original game. It’s fun, and feels very meaty for a filler, but it still seems like it should be priced a little closer to the filler side of things.

Those caveats aside, though, the Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small family is a great idea. Agricola is just a little too long and polarizing to make it to the table very often. A fast, two-player alternative that actually fills that same niche is much easier to get to.

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small: C+

Base Game with Agricola: More Buildings Big and Small: B

(Images above from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the original and photographer credit.)