Where worker placement started—and why it’s still so popular

Worker placement is one of the most popular mechanics in eurogames today—big titles like CaylusStone AgeLords of Waterdeep, and Agricola place a strong emphasis on carefully placing your workers where you’ll get the most advantage. It’s a pretty simple idea, yet it can be used in creating some very complex and strategic games.

waterdeep-meeples

But where did worker placement come from? What was the first worker placement game? And why is this mechanic so popular? What is it that appeals to us about using resources in this way? I thought I’d do some digging.

The first worker placement game

For a mechanic that’s so popular, I was very surprised to find out that worker placement really hasn’t been around that long. The game generally given the title—Richard Breese’s Keydom—came out in 1998, making this mechanic less than 20 years old.

keydom-box

Even if you’re not familiar with Keydom, you’ve probably heard of a number of the other games in the Key series, like Keythedral, Key HarvestKeyflower, and forthcoming Key to the City – London, all of which focus heavily on worker placement.

Breese talked to TabletopTogether earlier this year, and he had this to say about his inspiration for creating the mechanic:

[T]he worker placement idea in Keydom originated from playing Klaus Teuber’s seminal game Settlers of Catan. I enjoyed Settlers, but was not over fond of the luck factor inherent in the dice rolling. I wanted to achieve the same effect but without the dice, just by direct placement of the workers on the board.

If you’ve ever been on the wrong end of seven or eight consecutive rolls in Catan, you know exactly what he’s talking about. (And, interestingly, Settlers continues to show its influence in the gaming scene; the importance of Teuber’s masterpiece just can’t be overstated.)

BoardGameGeek states that Bus and Way Out West were also early worker placement games, though they came out one and two years after Keydom. Another Breese title, Aladdin’s Dragons, was published in 2000. It wasn’t until 2005, though, that the mechanic really took off.

pillars

That year saw the release of Caylus and The Pillars of the Earth, and within the next three years, players had AgricolaStone Age, and Le Havre, all of which are still quite popular.

And the release of worker placement games hasn’t slowed down. Lords of WaterdeepViticultureCrisisTerra Mystica, and Tzolk’in have all been released within the last four years or so, and there are plenty of worker placement games on the docket for the rest of 2016 and 2017. It’s clear that this mechanic is here to stay.

Why are we drawn to worker placement games?

So why are worker placement games so popular? What is it that keeps us coming back to this mechanic? One of the obvious answers is that it’s very flexible. For example, Keyflower has four different colors of workers, and that brings along with it special rules. Alien Frontiers and a few other games use dice as workers. Agricola and Stone Age require upkeep of your workers. Viticulture and Fields of Arle limit the available spaces by season.

There are tons of other examples of worker placement being used in creative ways—it’s a simple mechanic, and designers can use that to their advantage by coming up with new games that fit the definition of worker placement but still have something new to show us.

That innovation is one of the things that keeps us coming back to worker placement, too; it’s a familiar mechanic by now, but designers can continue to use new and creative methods to attract our attention. We’re familiar with the basic idea, making it easy to pick up new games, but there’s often a tweak or two that differentiates new titles from our tried-and-true favorites.

viticulture-workers.png

The strategic element of worker placement is another factor that appeals to a lot of players; there are limited resources, and to win a worker placement game, you’ll need to maximize the return on every placement you make. In Viticulture, if you’re putting a worker on the cart to gain one lira, you’re not getting much of a return . . . but sometimes it’s the best option.

In Empires: Age of Discovery, you can put any worker on any space, but by sending the right worker, you’ll earn yourself a bonus. Planning ahead and trying to anticipate your opponent’s placements is crucial for a winning strategy. Stone Age lets you recruit new workers, but only by sacrificing two workers for an entire turn first. Is it worth it? You have to think about how much momentum you can earn back with an additional worker after losing a lot of value in a single turn.

But I think that strategic element hints at something that appeals to us on an even deeper level. It’s not just taking on the role of a stone-age village leader, a winemaker, or a conquering emperor. It’s seeing that those people—whoever, wherever, and whenever they are—have to deal with the exact same problems we do.

Every day, you make decisions about how to allocate your resources.Your time, your effort, your mental energy, your money, your attention; you have a limited supply of all of these things, and you’re surrounded by people, situations, websites, and ideas that are clamoring for them. It’s stressful, and it’s hard.

However, with the proper allocation of resources, you can get a lot done with what you have. You can meet your goals, improve yourself, be productive . . . all of the things you’re trying to accomplish. It takes some foresight, planning, and at least some idea of what the people around you are going to be doing.

In short, worker placement is a lot like life. Even when you’re placing workers in medieval times, a space station, feudal Japan, or somewhere and somewhen else you’ve never been, there’s something familiar about it, because you do it every day. And while a lot of other games might reflect how you feel about a particular situation—playing Twilight Struggle might be a lot like dealing with commenters on the internet—there’s nothing else that quite reflects life in the same way as worker placement.

Image credit: Farley Santos via flickr.

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