If you’re a fan of Eurogames, there’s an excellent chance you have more than a few Worker Placement games in your collection. There’s even a chance that most of your Eurogames are actually based on this mechanism. So, what makes it so popular?
A quick look at the Worker Placement category on BoardGameGeek reveals over 1100 games. When you compare that to the general vastness of games registered on the site (which is well over 80K at this point), it may seem like a relatively small number. However, compare it to other very popular categories like: Hand Management (over 900 games in the category) Set Collection (over 800), Tile Placement (over 400), Card Drafting (over 500), Auctions (over 300) or Area Control (a little under 300), and you’ll get the full picture.
It seems that a new game that “puts a new twist on Worker Placement” pops up on the radar, both in regular publishing, as well as on Kickstarter. Recently, the Worker Placement mechanism reared its head in the fabulously successful Anachrony by Mindclash Games, and we ourselves have more than dipped our toes in the genre by publishing Praetor, and successfully kickstarting Simurgh and Call of the Dragonlord this year.
The obvious reason for the Worker Placement popularity is… its popularity. The more Worker Placement games are published, critically acclaimed and bought by gamers, the bigger the incentive for publishers to make even more Worker Placement games. However, this snowball would not have started rolling in the first place, if it wasn’t for the absolute brilliance and unbelievable effectiveness of the mechanism itself.
The simplicity of the base idea behind Worker Placement may effectively obscure the complexity of rules behind the idea of placing a meeple, a disc, or any other representation of a worker on an action space. If you cannot easily picture it, just try to imagine how large a list of rules you would have to create in order to restrict the number of specific actions used without marking them as used with workers. And this is only the beginning, as not all games follow the Agricola model, in which you simply place a worker and resolve the action thus marked.
Think of games like Snowdonia or Carson City, in which players decide upon their actions first, but only get to resolve them later, and in a specific order. Now take into account the fact that some games, like our own Simurgh, present different types of action spaces for different types and numbers of workers, or introduce different levels of effectiveness, depending on the type of worker used (like, again our own, Praetor). And then add a bit of the idea of taking actions in order to block others from doing something that would benefit them. With all the above, the complex web of interlocking rules would be almost impossible to internalize if not for the invention of the board game worker.
Finally, take a few steps back, look at the tangled mess hidden behind the simple idea of placing a worker, and consider how easily accessible the complex models are thanks to a mechanism based on what seems the most essential idea of gaming: taking a turn to make a move with a pawn and (in most cases at least) immediately profit from your decision.
Worker Placement is not going away soon, and for good reasons. It’s a great engine for lighter and heavier games alike, rooted deeply in the nature of strategic board games. It can also both evolve unexpectedly (as shown years ago by Alien Frontiers), and be a solid foundation upon which games solid, memorable and best-selling games can be built.