Worker Placement Games: An Introduction
This week we welcome a guest post from Derek Turner, local board game design advocate and game designer. The original full-length article is available here and you can find out more about the Regina Game Forge design group here.
There are over 1,300 entries in the BGG database that feature Worker Placement as a mechanic, including many entries in the upper echelons of the ranks of BGG. WP has emerged as one of the leading mechanics in crowdfunded games as well, and it has become a genre which could easily consume most - or even all - of a player’s time. There’s even a WP game set in an office building entitled “Worker Placement”, which might be the point at which the mechanic unofficially jumped the shark, so suffice to say that it is a very popular genre.
Worker placement is a mechanic in which players use “workers” - which may be meeples, dice, cubes, resources, or other figures - to take actions on their turn. There are many variations on the mechanic, but the core idea that workers go to a space and take an action is always present, or else it’s not a worker placement game. Many WP games include resources that the players gather in order to then take more complex actions, and a hallmark of the genre is that there are many different strategies that players can pursue in order to win.
The variations may occur in many different areas other than the obvious differences in themes and external appearances. There is often - but not always - competition for various spaces that allow the players to take actions. Players can often add workers to their pool to take more actions, whether as a temporary or a permanent measure. Some games feature a track that includes its own progression as the game ensues, whereas others provide a more open “sandbox” feel that leaves the game up to the whims of its players. Even the end game may be varied, as some games have a fixed number of rounds, whereas others tie the end game condition into one of the action spaces, for example.
It should be noted, however, that WP is not an absolute definition, nor is it undisputed. For example, one of my favourite games - the 2014 “bag-builder” Orléans - is not itself listed with WP as a mechanic, though both of its large expansions are. I myself do not see how it can be justified as a WP game, considering how the “workers” function - they are taken from an individual pool from which you draw and assign on your own to spaces on your own board, which lends me to consider that it is correctly labeled on BGG as a “deck / pool building game”, which then makes me think of this…
It’s not hard to understand why WP games are so popular now from either the perspective of the designers or the players. There’s an instant familiarity with the mechanic in merely using the phrase “worker placement”, and that comfort provides an easy access point for new players to learn the game more quickly. It also means that designers can experiment more with different aspects of their designs, as they do not necessarily need to be as concerned about the difficulties that players may have with the basic mechanical concept of their game.
The similarities inherent within WP games do present a problem, however: with so many WP games out there, it can be difficult to set one game apart from the rest. There are three areas in which I see WP games distinguishing themselves: mechanics, theme, and replayability.
Mechanics - The central mechanic of placing workers and taking actions is always present, but the ways in which that happens are widely varied, and the ways in which secondary mechanics are incorporated requires innovation to differentiate the game from the many other WP games. Some games feature a set sequence of events or fixed number of rounds, whereas others are wide open in how the actions can occur and when end game happens. Some games are more directed and deterministic, whereas others remain wide open for a longer time, though both paths can provide a surprising amount of agency for the players.
Theme - Although this might be the most obvious way in which WP games are distinguished, many of them are relatively indistinguishable from one another. Many games start with a description that starts with something like, “So, you’re in a medieval village…”, and would be mostly indistinguishable from each other to the average person. That said, there are a few very unique themes that do stick out and make the games and the experiences memorable, and it’s fun to really get into a game for its theme and not just its mechanics.
Replayability - One thing that can happen in some games is that they become stale with the same setup from game to game; if there is no variation in setup, it is much easier to “solve” the game (or at least to feel like it is solved) and to use a dominant strategy. To combat this possibility and to increase the replayability of the game, most WP games incorporate some element of randomness, but the ways in which they do so - dice, cards, location tiles - vary. The trick is to create a game which is not the same each time, but that is also not too randomly determined so as to thwart the player’s attempts to think ahead.
Of those three, I would say that I prioritize mechanics and replayability much more than theme, as I find that even a dry theme can be enjoyable if the game works; in the same vein, if the game does not work or feels too repetitive, even a great theme cannot save it from itself. At the same time, I should be drawn into the game by its theme - or at least its presentation.
I really enjoy worker placement games, as they provide not only a familiarity within the basic mechanic, but also variation with the many different ways that other elements of theme, mechanic, and replayability are implemented. It is one of my favourite genres of game - if not the most - and I feel as though I have a lot left to explore not only within the genre but within each game.
I am looking forward to playing and replaying many of the games from this list in the near future, and I am particularly excited to see what happens with Charterstone when it is released (hopefully) later this year. I am also interested to see if there are any other innovations that make a difference to the genre, or whether it has reached its peak. My suspicion is that it will increasingly be incorporated as a part of a more complex game (like in Mombasa) and that much of the future innovation will be in that regard.
Or maybe I will have to work on designing the next major innovation in the genre myself - I have an idea with a theme that might work, so it’s just a matter of designing the other three games I have in progress first. Until then - or as that is happening - I will keep on enjoying the genre and exploring its established boundaries, even as new ones are surely already on the way.