Posted Friday, 17-Jul-2015
Despite its ubiquity, worker placement is a relatively recent addition to the arsenal of game designers and publishers.
Also known as action drafting, Worker Placement games are about deciding how to use a limited number of actions. It adds conflict and tension to what might otherwise be fairly placid games, and has become a staple of Eurogames.
So why are worker placement games so popular?
The 1991 game Silverton by Dori and Phillip John Smith doesn’t have all the features of modern worker placement games, but it helped to pave the way for them. Set in 19th century Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, players spread rail lines and prospectors across a map board, aiming to make your fortune through the rail networks and speculation on precious metals.
Silverton proved so popular that it was reprinted by Mayfair for wider distribution.
The limited run Keydom by Richard Breese is regarded by some as the first proper worker placement game. Released in a limited run of 300 copies in 1998, it’s not a game you’ll find on the shelves any more. But its influence was soon felt far more widely, with a surge of such games from the late 1990s onwards, from the ancient setting of Bernd Bronnhofer’s Stone Age to the far more modern Bus.
The key feature of worker placement games is that you have to think carefully about your choices.
Equipped with a limited number of workers and all sorts of tasks for them to achieve, you have to decide where to send them. The order that you do this in matters, as each option can usually only be used a limited number of times, and if you don’t leap on it quickly then another player may.
This is where the game element known as ‘blocking’ comes in. The actions each player takes block others from using those actions. This can be coincidence, because you both wanted to do the same thing, or it can be deliberate, taking an action not because it’s brilliant for you but because you want to stop your opponent using it.
Imagine that you’re playing Agricola, one of the most successful games in the worker placement genre. You want the two cows that are available for your farm, but without fences you can only keep one of them. Do you build the fences first, and risk another player grabbing the precious cattle before you? Or do you grab them now and accept losing one of the breeding pair?
This adds conflict to a game on two levels. First, there’s the obvious one, with you and your opponents competing for opportunities such as going on a big exploratory mission in cave-based game Caverna. Then there’s the internal conflict, as you struggle with your own competing impulses, the many different things that you want to do first.
Blocking turns what might otherwise be dull games of collection and construction into hotbeds of tension and excitement.
Part of the appeal of worker placement games is that they so perfectly match the experience of modern life. In the modern western world we face overwhelming choice over what to do with our time, with the internet and consumer culture bombarding us with so many appealing options that we can never do them all. We struggle every day to choose between those options, knowing that every positive choice is also a missed opportunity to do something else. Worker placement games reflect and perhaps train us to face those choices.
It has been argued that the overwhelming mass of choices and distractions place a psychological strain on us all.
Worker placement lets board games address that strain, and shows that gaming, like any art form, can shine a light on important parts of our lives.
If fantasy epic Game of Thrones can address our cynicism about politics, then fantasy board game Lords of Waterdeep can address the challenge of everyday choices, even if it involves sending adventurers on quests.
Let’s face it, we don’t play worker placement games to train us for life. We play them because they’re enjoyable. By forcing us to plan ahead and giving us a way to control the direction of a game, worker placement creates an intellectual challenge that’s fun, satisfying and filled with excitement.
Published by BoardGamePrices.com