Worker Placement Games

Worker Placement is a game mechanic used mostly in medium to heavy strategy games. Players start the game with one more workers, and a turn in the game is taken by placing a worker on an action space on the game board and taking the action corresponding to that space. Worker Placement is a type of Action Selection, but is distinct from other Action Selection mechanics by the workers staying in their assigned spaces, thus blocking them for other players. The action space is unavailable until the worker is removed, which commonly happens either at the end of a game round or when the worker’s owner takes a special action to retrieve his workers. It is a common tactic in worker placement games to use an action that you don’t need at the time only to prevent another player from picking that action. It is very common in worker placement games that players can hire more workers during the game, giving them more actions per game round or before they have to spend an action to retrieve their workers.

Most worker placement games involve resource management of some kind. In a very common pattern, the available actions are roughly tiered into basic actions that produce resources, advanced actions that refine these resources in some way and point actions that use resources to generate victory points. Next to the tiers leading to victory points, you generally find what you might call utility actions, for instance to hire additional workers. Especially in newer games with this mechanic, it is common that workers have a maintenance cost in the form of a salary to be paid or food for their nutrition. This cost balances the advantages of having a large army of workers at your disposal.

While there are some earlier games listed with the mechanic on BoardGameGeek, it is mostly agreed that the first game to make Worker Placement a popular and widespread mechanic was William Attia’s Caylus in 2005. The game received a number of awards in the 2005/2006 period and received the first ever Spiel des Jahres special award “Complex Game”in 2006. Unlike many other games, in Caylus players do not take an action when they place the workers but only at the end of a round and the game employs mechanics beyond worker placement to control which workers will activate and which will be wasted. This makes Caylus one of the more complex worker placement games, but has undoubtedly contributed to its continued reputation as a great example of the mechanic almost ten years later. (For more details about Caylus, you can check our review.)

Caylus is also an example of one common subtype of worker placement games where players can expand the actions available. In Caylus, this is done by placing new buildings that can themselves take a worker from the next round. In other games, the available actions are unchanging, Agricola being the best known example.

Since the worker placement mechanic has been around for a pretty long time and is still just as popular in new games, it’s does not come as a big surprise that many different ways have been found to  implement it in a new way. Some games simply combine worker placement with other popular mechanics, like Friedemann Friese’s Copycat does with deck-building or Sebastian Bleasdale and Richard Breese do in Keyflower with an auction mechanic that very cleverly ties into the worker placement. Others go much further, Tzolk’in for instance has you place workers on large gears that are turned once per round, adding an intense element of timing and coordination to the mix. Using different types of workers has also been done, with a special case of that being worker dice like Stefan Feld uses in Bora Bora. The actions are more effective when your worker die shows a higher number, but at the same time they are easier to block. Even cooperative games are not incompatible with the mechanic, as proven by Ignacy Trzewiczek’s Robinson Crusoe.

Worker Placement has turned out to be a very durable mechanic. New mechanics are commonly jumped upon and exploited in boardgames and then abandoned as “burned out” not much later. Not so Worker Placement, after almost ten years the stream of new games with the mechanic is still coming, and still there are new and exciting ideas that no one has tried before. I wonder if William Attia anticipated that when he made Caylus.

And now you know about Worker Placement games. Is there something in games that you always wondered about and would like to see explained in the Meeplepedia? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see what we can do!

 

  • Lee Ambolt

    Nice. But Agricola wouldn’t be my choice as best example of unchanging actions, since the actions come out in a different order each time, and (some) are available only as the game progresses. In that way, it’s reminiscent of Caylus but the actions (round cards) in each harvest are known, but come out in a random order, and can’t be selected until that round occurs. Astounding that in a genre that’s been literally mimicked to death, the two key features of Caylus, namely the action of the provost in denying taken actions, and the fact that the players themselves control the action choices ( by building new action spaces effectively), are the two features that have failed to be included in almost all of the subsequent games in the genre. Probably another reason why Caylus remains relevant even today. Off the top of my head I can think of Vasco da Gama that employed a provost-like structure where taking actions close to the denoted cost could become more costly (or cheaper) but there a random tile draw determined the shift rather than player action. Some games have also used a costing or usurping mechanic where you can place a worker on top of someone else’s at a higher cost either to bump out the former worker or just get the same result. I have no idea why so few games have experimented with the genre given the blatant copying, but maybe it’s just become a popular and easy way to knock out a game with this tried and trusted actions, resources, conversions, points cycle. There’s no good reason for example why a WP game couldn’t be made to work where the spaces are not exclusive, or are designers terrified that this leaves the possibility that one player could just mimic another (firstly, there could be other items in the game that stop this, unique cards etc, secondly, if someone is going to just place workers shadowing someone else’s then you’ve got bigger problems around your game table in any case.), also I don’t recall seeing many games where you upgrade workers so they get a better reward from an action space, or games where the workers are differentiated – I’ve often thought there might be a decent game idea in having different types of workers that are placed in some kind of order, and get a better return from a space, but the spaces they get a bonus on are valued in the other order (for example imagine a game where stone is better than clay is better than wood, but having workers as carpenters, potters and masons where they go in that order – the carpenter gets a better return from the poorer wood space, but then you are leaving the better spaces for the next player, with the correct worker to take advantage, so do you put your carpenter to work in the quarry, getting relatively less stone, but getting the better resource etc. It would have to be well designed – rather than the trite example I described here, but you get the drift)

  • Kai

    Thanks for this great, well-written comment. You’re right about Agricola, it’s not a great example. Since writing this article, I have played a lot of Russian Railroads, that is a much better example. Only the engineer actions change, everything else is the same every round.
    And I agree with your larger point as well: many new worker placement games are just clones of the easiest possible game of place worker, take action. The only reason I can see why they don’t use something like the provost, or some new interesting mechanic, is that it would make the game more complex and potentially less viable for the mass market. I think that’s a bad reason, for me doing something new and more complex would make a game much more attractive, not less, but it’s the only reason I can think of. But one thing that is beautiful about boardgames is that you always get innovation, eventually. On a small scale, the afforementioned Russian Railroads has the special worker with better results. It’s only the single black worker that builds black rails more efficiently, but it’s something. I also seem to remember a game where you have two sizes of meeple for workers, the larger one getting a better result from every job. But for the life of me, I can’t think what it is now. Anyway, I think there is innovation in WP games, it’s just painfully slow. Even deck-building games evolved faster since they started with Dominion.
    P.S.: If I ever get around to designing my own game, I might pick up your idea for different types of workers, it sounds very cool ;-)