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The Current Maturity and Bright Future of Worker Placement Games

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
With the exception of perhaps hand management, worker placement is my favorite board game mechanic. The analysis required to determine the best series of action to take and how your opponent’s choices will impact what you can do is very appealing. Agricola was my introduction to the genre, though Stone Age was the first game of this type that I played, and I have greatly enjoyed playing a wide variety of worker placement games since then. As my preferences for length and meatiness have changed my preferences in worker placement games have similarly shifted and I have found most of the worker placement games since Agricola to be interesting only for as long as it takes to figure out how they work. Le Havre, in 2008, and Dominant Species, in 2010, are exceptions to this, but were fairly lonely until the past few months when the number of meaty worker placement options positively exploded.

Dungeon Petz, The Manhattan Project, MIL (1049), and Ora et Labora all push and prod the standards of worker placement in interesting directions, changing the standard structure of a worker placement game in unique ways while still being likely to be interesting even with in-depth play. I find it noteworthy that we got four of these games in such a short period of time considering that it almost doubles the number of total worker placements game that I like (previous examples being Agricola, Caylus, Dominant Species, Key Market, and Le Havre). I am not quite sure if there is anything specific that is causing this spate of good worker placement games, but the maturity of these designs leaves me hopeful that this is the start of a trend rather than being a unique data point.

The first, and greatest of these new designs is Ora et Labora, which followers of my blog should know that I have written extensively about in my review as well as my Best Games of the Year entry. While a lot of its excellence comes from small innovations and improvements over its cousin, Le Havre, the worker placement mechanism in of itself is very interesting and drives a lot of the tension of the game. The bonus action provided by the prior and the fact that you do not get your workers back until the beginning of a round after all three of them have been placed, results in a plethora of interesting little decisions. For example if you cut wood or peat, you get some valuable resources, but it slows down your ability to get your workers back, since taking these resources, rather than the others, does not sped up how quickly you get back the prior. It also forces you to be careful about paying other people to use their workers; it is possible to help another player as much as you are helping yourself by giving them access to your prior earlier. These are considerations you do not typically have to account for in a worker placement game, and it shows a rather refined understanding in both worker placement games and resource conversion games.

Dungeon Petz, which I have not yet decided if I am going to review, is Vlaada Chvatil’s latest attempt at a worker placement game. I like it quite a bit more than Dungeon Lords, as its rules overhead seems much more in line with the game’s overall depth. The worker placement in this game combines elements of blind bidding with the typical worker placement mechanic, where players have imps and money that they form into groups that are functionally identical to workers. These groups are revealed simultaneously, with the order of placement being based on the overall size of the groups. There is a relatively small number of locations on the board, and the value of individual spots is different enough that this leads to an interesting level of tension as the typical worker placement angst of choosing what spots to place is amplified by not knowing what the actual order of placements is going to be until after players reveal their groups. Looking also at Dungeon Lords it appears that Chvatil is most interested in making players to look more deeply into what decisions other players are likely to make in placement, forcing them to decide how to expend their worker resources in the face of potentially ambiguous player motives. I find the manner in which Chvatil implemented this to be more compelling in Dungeon Petz then it was in Dungeon Lords and hope that he has some more ideas of ways to explore this ambiguity in future releases.

Of these games I am least certain that MIL (1049) will hold up to extensive play thanks to the fact that I have only played it once, but despite this uncertainty I think its worker placement mechanic is fascinating, and worth noting. At the beginning of a round, MIL’s worker placement spots are unavailable, and can only be taken once a player starts to accumulate time tokens. Each time one of these tokens is selected it opens up a potential worker placement spot, but these spots cannot be taken without some level of sacrifice. Once you start placing your workers you are no longer able to take the actions that cause you to collect time tokens. This forces the action phase into an interesting game of chicken; the longer you wait the less likely you are to get the actions you want but the more resources you will be able to gain. While this particular worker placement mechanic is not what I consider to be the defining feature of the game, it is innovative and fun providing additional dimensions to what appears to be an already deep game.

The Manhattan Project is the last of these new games, and one that I have been playing a lot recently in preparation for a review. After reading the rules, I was interested enough in The Manhattan Project’s design to Kickstart it, and so far it has not disappointed me. At its basic level, The Manhattan Project is a pretty basic resource to VP conversion game, but the structure of the worker placement and recovery, and how the players interfere with these placements creates a fun dynamic. On a player’s turn they can place one worker on the central board and as many workers as they like on buildings on their own board or they can recover all of their workers. This could be a pretty solitaire experience, but main board actions allow for players to each other use other player’s buildings, and thus prevent that player from being able to take that action, or to attack them directly eliminating their aerial defenses before damaging buildings, making them unusable, until they are repaired. These two items help turn what would otherwise be a simple efficiency exercise into a game where constant attention to other’s action and choices is required in order to monitor the balance of power and help identify who most needs to be interfered with in order to win.

While all of these are strong designs, I consider Dungeon Petz and Ora et Labora to be the most interesting of these from a game design perspective. In each case they are the latest releases of a very experienced game designer who is apparently taking ideas that they implemented in previous designs, Agricola and Le Havre for Uwe Rosenberg and Dungeon Lords for Vlaada Chvatil, refining them and implementing them in new ways that I think are both ultimately superior to previous worker placement designs and show a greater understanding of how to effectively bring out the best in what worker placement has to offer.

As an optimist, I can’t help but think that perhaps these other designs, and Dominant Species from 2010, are signs of things to come. The last few months a very impressive one for fans of worker placement games and while it is possible that the sudden arrival of four good to great worker placement games in such a short period of time is an anomaly, I cannot help but hope that this is merely a sign of some really excellent future designs down the road.
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