Matt Thrower returns to the site and talks his top five favourite worker placement games! Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below…
Worker placement. The mechanic that ruined gaming for a generation. Sure, it’s a fun idea in principle but somehow it mutated into a hideous monster that ate almost all of strategy gaming. There’s only so many bone-dry, heavy, multi-player solitaire behemoths the hobby can stand before crying “enough!” and starting a revolution.
Well, we stabbed it with our steely knives but we couldn’t quite kill the beast. And, in fairness, it’s probably a good job too. Because at the core of the concept there is something interesting to shape and play with. Something much clever people than me have hammered into a handful of genuinely interesting and innovative games. The best of which are listed below.
After compiling this list, I was struck by the absence of any games from the more chaotic end of the spectrum. Titles like Bootleggers and Sons of Anarchy have sought to bring fistfuls of dice and simulated violence into the genre, but they don’t quite work for me. The heavy strategy underpinning the mechanic just doesn’t play nicely with too much entropy. The chasm is too wide for anyone to have successfully crossed it so far.
Maybe there is something to be said for just enjoying the strategy angle after all.
So, if fistfuls of dice don’t work in worker placement, how about worming them in by using them as workers instead? That’s the concept behind Alien Frontiers, and it’s a doozy. Instead of offering players free rein in assigning pieces to tasks, your options are limited by what you roll.
At a stroke this adds the excitement that’s missing in far too many games of this ilk. Yet the game is designed so that whatever numbers come up, you’ll still have plenty of options. In this way, randomness actually adds to the strategy instead of detracting from it. You need to roll with the punches, work with what you have. It rewards thinking on your feet instead of sticking with tried and tested plans.
To ice the extra-terrestrial cake there’s a surprising amount of player interaction too. You can block other players like you can in every worker placement game. But you can also assign dice to raids that steal their resources, or too picking up technology cards some of which offer further opportunities to bully your opponents. It’s a beguiling mix that, sadly, seems to have fallen off a lot of radars nowadays.
As a genre, worker placement games decided to evolve by shoving more and more resources to juggle into the mix until everyone’s head exploded. Archipelago looked at the resulting mess and decided that what the genre really, really needed was an even bigger mess.
So in went more stuff. A modular board with exploration elements. An entire stock market subsystem. A co-operative balancing act where the players were all competing but could all lose collectively if they didn’t keep an eye on the game state. Plus, of course, an expanded and updated worker placement mechanic featuring a dizzying array of options on an action wheel.
It’s a wonder anyone finished a game alive. Yet all these options worked: they lead to a game that was full of thrills and tension and inter-player rivalry yet was, at its core, still a deep game of heavy strategy. Except, this being Archipelago, the potential for a secret traitor role who could win by collapsing the game soured it for a lot of number-crunchers. Ignore them: it’s spectacular.
I’m not sure I’ve often been more wrong about a board game as I have about Agricola. My first few plays left me unimpressed. It seemed prone to using and abusing the same old strategies over and over. And it had the same weight and interaction issues as many of its bedfellows. I sold my copy.
Years and many games later, I’ve had to revise that opinion. This truly is the best in class for the traditional heavy worker placement game. The secret to its success are the various card decks that come with the game. Far from being a predictable game, their variety ensures that no two games are ever quite the same. Plus, they let players tailor the game more to their liking. There are even decks to increase the interaction and excitement in the game.
Plus, the theme fits. While many worker placement games could effectively be about anything at all, Agricola is about farming, the oldest worker placement game in civilization. There’s a real sense of accomplishment to watching your house and fields grow. And a real sense of ickiness as you watch your animals multiply and start to keep a pig in your bedroom.
This deserves a double accolade for being my absolutely favourite game in my two most-hated genres. Not only does it struggle under the millstone of worker placement, it also carries the dead weight of being entirely co-operative. If there was ever a recipe for an utterly drab, lifeless time, that’s it. Yet Robinson Crusoe defied all my expectations.
It did so by providing a dizzying array of innovations. Even the core worker placement where you allocate effort to different tasks messes with the formula by granting players an element of risk management. Invest enough and you succeed automatically, or save effort and tempt fate by leaving it down to a dice roll? At a stroke, this not only flushes the game with excitement, but helps the co-operative aspects with a grand source of arguments and recrimination.
There’s so much more to love. The exploration aspect. The events that get re-shuffled into the deck and come back to haunt the players when they least want it. The scenarios, from desert island survival to burning out villages full of cannibals. Every game is a unique story that demands real co-operation and still, incredibly, has a beating heart of heavy strategy.
I lent my copy of Lords of Waterdeep to a friend who was about to go on holiday with his family. For kicks, I also passed him a copy of the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion. When they returned, a week later, none of them were talking to each other. Or to me. That’s Lords of Waterdeep in a nutshell.
Oh, it looks all sweetness and light on the surface. That beguiling Dungeons and Dragons theme, supplemented by art from that game’s vast vault. Those simple rules which offer a surprising amount of depth for those that want to dwell on it. The stack of custom buildings for players to choose from, ensuring variety on every play. It sounds like the perfect recipe for a family-friendly game with the potential to satisfy both hardcore gamers and more casual fans.
Don’t trust any of it. The inclusion of “mandatory quests” which you can pick up and assign to other players, forcing them to divert precious resources from their own pet projects directly to your greedy cuckoo transforms this into the most brutal worker placement game on the block. And the most fun. You shouldn’t trust it, but you should damn well play it.
euro in for a good time, Worker Placement