This is a post I’ve been trying to get written for about 8 months, inspired by a post over on the Hyperbole Games blog, in which Grant discusses how important blocking is to make a worker placement game operate well. That struck me as odd, because I didn’t see it as a very firm requirement in a worker placement game. But it got me thinking about what makes a game “Worker Placement”. Worker Placement (WP) is one of those standard Euro Game mechanics that everyone seems to mostly agree on, but everybody has their own criteria. What some people see as excluding a game from being WP, others see it as the “twist” that makes it stand out. I consider my game New Bedford a WP game, but others likely disagree. So I want to try and establish what makes a game cont as WP.
A poll on BoardGameGeek asks people what elements are required for a game to be WP. Far from a consensus, only a few of the elements listed are considered requirements by over 50% of the people. One commenter points out that the list of elements is more like a list of ways to give it a twist. And that may be closest to the truth. Agricola is often used as an example of WP, but there are so many ways to go outside the normal ruleset that you can start to find counterarguments to most of the rules proposed. The elements most people agree with in the poll are that there are a limited number of workers that must be distributed to actions in some kind of order, and the actions have a limited use. Let’s start with that.
But first, we have to set up some base definitions. We must assume a priori that there are a limited number of things you can do in the game, otherwise there would be no end of the game. It might be a limit on the number of points, so there is a race, or there is an overall turn limit, or there are only a fixed number of actions available, and once they are all taken, the game ends. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. A “worker” is, minimally, something that marks how many actions you can perform. Another a priori assumption is that these “actions” are the primary mode of interaction with the game. (If WP is used as one element of a larger game, it raises the question of which elements of the game are part of the WP mechanic. Taking the mechanic in isolation, in order to define it is equivalent to examining it as the primary game mechanic). Now we can continue to the actual definition.
Limited number of workers: This controls the speed of the game. With a limited game, you can’t progress faster than the number of workers you have. With unlimited workers, the game speed is independent of the worker placement mechanic, which violates the assumption that worker placement is the main mode of interaction. This does not exclude the possibility of gaining more workers (perhaps unlimitedly) throughout the game, but at any given time, you have a finite number.
Distributed in order: This adds up to the concept of a turn. Interestingly, it does not fix the number of workers, or exclude performing other actions as part of a turn. But it is done non-simultaneously, which means that players have the benefit of seeing others’ actions, meaning there is a lot of feedback between players’ choices and the actions. This is usually cited as the main interaction between players in WP games. Aside from direct interaction (which may be a part of the game) you have indirect interaction in the form of information and exchange of control. If the order of play is not important, then actions could be selected independently. That type of mechanic is often termed “action selection”. We define the difference between WP and action selection to be that in WP, other players’ choices affect the actions available when an action is chosen, while in action selection, other players choices change the effect of the action only when it is performed. This can be considered a differentiation based on time or information. This also makes WP a sub-type of action selection, with the stipulation that you know the current effect of a choice when you make it.
Now we can introduce the concept of a Round, which is complete when all players have used their available workers. New workers may become available, or old workers may return. If there are no more chances to place workers, it is the end of the game. But if there are more chances to place workers, it is only the end of the round. And in some cases, Rounds may not occur, if recalling workers to be used again is a possible action to take. In the limit, a game has one round which is complete when all opportunities to place workers are used.
Actions have a limited use: The definition begins to get more contentious. The term “action drafting” is often used to describe the process of choosing the action(s) in a turn. But drafting requires that some option is taken away from another player. Actions can typically only be used once per round, but a WP game may also have a “last resort” action that can always be used, or there may be multiple similar or identical actions that can be used. However, this is a rather arbitrary distinction. In theory, an “unlimited” action is the same as having identical spaces equal to the number of workers, with each having a 1-use limit. In New Bedford, the basic actions are partially unlimited. Some actions can be used exactly once per round. Other actions can be used multiple times per round, but the first time the action is used, it is more powerful. This is equivalent to a single unlimited “last resort” action that allows the player to take any basic action. It is also similar to including multiple wood spaces in Agricola, where players can gain different amounts of wood, depending on their order of placement.
Now, in a game that includes unlimited actions, the ratio required for the game to be WP is somewhere between 0 and ½. Clearly, if there are no limited actions, the game is either action selection or action point distribution, and if the majority are limited, the game is WP. The exact ratio may vary depending on the game, but we define the cutoff as the number required to make the drafting meaningful. If your selection does not influence others choices, actions could be selected simultaneously. This suggests a limit of n-1 limited actions, where n is the number of players. I.E. the last player may not have a meaningful choice, but each other player should. So the drafting element is important. and requires that options change depending on which actions are used.
Looking at this from the other direction, all actions start unlimited, but change over time. In the case of single-use actions, the action changes to become unusable after one player selects it. This leads to a more precise definition that in WP, actions behave differently depending on how many times they have been used.
“Action drafting” then, should be considered a sub-type of WP, because it describes the process of taking a turn, more than the overall game. It is the limit case of having 1 worker per turn and per round, and excludes the possibility of gaining more workers per turn. (It does not exclude the possibility of being able to take multiple turns in a row, which is, perhaps, a pedantic difference, but actions are selected one-at-a-time.)
To sum up the definition, in a worker placement game, players performing a finite number of actions, by placing tokens on spaces that behave differently depending on how many players have already selected them. This is a set of minimal requirements that we have chosen to be the definition. Breaking any of these requirements violates the basic definitions we started with, or are too vague to be useful.
Other definitions of WP include additional restrictions. Left out of this are the physical description of how actions are selected, timing of actions, and any mention of theme. To me, those are details of execution, but they strongly influence the entire category. For additional reading, islaythedragon has an excellent history of Worker Placement games, and the League of Gamemakers breaks down some of the important steps in developing a Worker Placement design, starting with this list of some of the genre defining WP games.