Mechanic Monday – Worker Placement

Worker placement; a mechanic that I have been referencing all year… or at least the two Wednesdays we have had thus far in 2015, and yet I haven’t dedicated a Mechanic Monday to it yet; that is what we in the biz call an oversight… or clever planning for the sake of building anticipation… I’ll go with the latter…

Today we shall delve into this mechanic to the full. What is worker placement? How does it work out in game? Why does it it work, or why may it not work? Thus far I have looked at two games that use this mechanic Caverna and Lords of Waterdeep. Both blogs are, in my biased opinion, worth taking a look at.

Let us first define the mechanic of worker placement. Keydom is the game most people credit with the creation, or at least modernization, of the mechanic, after racking my brain for a short while I have been unable to come up with an earlier example (if you can let me know!) Keydom, for those who are as young as me or aren’t veteran gamers, is a 1998 Richard Breese design. In Keydom players are attempting acquire all the aspects of the regalia and take them to the throne room so as to be crowned king and victor; check out the games BGG page for more information, but according to BGG the game sold all 300 copies from the initial print run in just hours at Essen so it may be hard to find – you can, however, try and pick up Aladdin’s Dragons, which is a rethemed version of the game.

The way Keydom and the games following it work; players take turns claiming actions traditionally in the form of set locations on a board. When a player places a worker on a location they claim that action for themselves typically making that action/location closed to other players. Some games allow multiple players to take actions in the form of a set amount of workers per location (stone age) multiple spots at a location offering the same or similar options (Cliffwatch Inn spots in Lords of Waterdeep), or other various minor alterations.

Most worker placement games provide players with a set number of workers; they may then allocate those workers across the available options gaining rewards at either an automatic response rate; place the worker then take the action/resource immediately, or a delayed response rate; place the workers until all players are out of workers then resolve the location based actions. Often an option given to players is to increase their worker count; either by way of spending workers now to get more workers later; or spending resources gained from your workers to hire additional workers.

Most of these games factor with the end goal of point allocation; whoever has the most points wins. As the game progresses players acquire points through actions but often these points are subsidized with points at the end of the game gathered through secret missions such as the Lord bonuses in Waterdeep, or the bonuses for workers, huts, etc in Stone Age.

I have found that the mechanic of worker placement is one that often is not partnered with other mechanics as often as I would expect. With mechanics such as card drafting, deckbuilding, action point allocation it is common to see a variety of partnered mechanics; with worker placement, however, it is rare to see it partnered with a mechanic outside of hidden information. I have not personally experimented with merging this mechanic with many others, but now the idea is a tempting one that I may try.

Worker placement is a mechanic that can be used to fit into a wide variety of themes, though it seems most often used with the idea of resource gathering and community building. The mechanic works well with that theme as the workers can easily be envisioned as working the fields, gathering wood, cutting stone, and the like. When used with other themes, however, it is often nice and refreshing to find oneself recruiting soldiers, wizards, and rogues as opposed to stone, carrots, and wheat.

By limiting the number of workers that can be placed on a location the mechanic serves as providing directly indirect conflict (I’ll let you think about that for awhile). As players block others taking the space they know the other player wants, it can raise good conflict between players, this is often partnered with a rotating starting player that enables each player to play where they want and cut off other players; or a claimable starting player, in which a player allocated a worker that rather than gather new resources grants the player the ability to be first in the next round.

There are times the mechanic doesn’t work so well and there are aspects of Worker placement that drive some players to the verge of insanity (I’m looking at you feeding the workers) yet often these are elements that if left out would reduce the game’s complexity and strategy; making it a necessary insanity as players are forced to go shy in one area so as to be sufficient in another; if you want to build that hut your people are going to have to go hungry, or you can claim that quest but then you can’t go first next round.

As it stands worker placement is a mechanic that I spent my first few years as a gamer avoiding, partially due to the lack of themes I loved (I can’t think of any worker placement sci-fi, fantasy or zombie games; and I didn’t think of farming as a good theme for board games [note Waterdeep is fantasy and it is the game that got me into WP]). upon dipping my toe into the pool that is worker placement I found the water was great. Themes I once thought lame and dry I have found shockingly fun; yes even farming is a grand experience in gaming.

To players looking to take their first steps into the mechanic I would recommend wading carefully into the waters. I would start with games such as Stone Age, Lords of Waterdeep, or Russian Railroads before I took a new player into Agricola or Caverna.

What are your favorite worker placement games? Which games do you think use the mechanic to its fullest? Are there any that use it poorly? Let us know on social media!

Come back Tomorrow as we look at a game that is a classic within the Bremner family; Rook! Until then you can find us on social media!
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