We have fed you all, for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the worker’s dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full.
—”We Have Fed You All For a Thousand Years,” by an unknown proletarian
The modern world is built on the labors of faceless workers. From the ancient pyramids at Giza, to the Industrial Revolution, to modern cities, there have been millions of unappreciated workers upon whose backs we’ve created the life we know today. And still they go unappreciated.
No longer! Today I take a stand for the faceless worker. I want to thank every anonymous laborer that has been plunked down onto a game board to help us build our empires, amass our wealth, and kick the assess of our foes.
Thank you, worker meeples.
In all seriousness, I think it’s unfortunate that the workers in worker placement games are so often completely anonymous. It seems like a huge missed opportunity. In Lords of Waterdeep, for example, how cool would it be to have a set of agents that differed from each other, instead of just being ordered around and recruiting adventurers for your quests?
Or in Stone Age, wouldn’t it be more interesting if you had some workers that were especially talented in hunting or panning for gold? You’d have an extra strategic decision to make; do you send them where they’re most needed, or where they’re most effective? Worker placement is essentially management simulation; you’re in charge of a number of people, and you have to manage their time and tasks to meet your goals.
In the real world, not every worker is the same, and forgetting that can have consequences. Why isn’t that the case in more board games?
Anonymity in dystopia
Not too long ago, I got to play Stonemaier’s Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia. The concept is absolutely fantastic: you’re a would-be dictator in a post-apocalyptic world, trying to take advantage of your unknowing workers to establish dominance over the other aspiring despots across four different regions: the city of Euphoria, the outlying Wasteland, the underground Subterra, and the flying territory of Icarus.
Instead of placing a meeple or a pawn, however, you place dice. And every time a die is put back into a player’s supply, it’s rolled. The result represents those workers’ knowledge. If the rolled total plus the value on the Knowledge track is over sixteen, the worker with the most knowledge (the highest roll) is removed from the supply, and the player will need to use the recruit action to get another one.
I was really excited to play this one because I’ve loved other Stonemaier games and because of the great theme—I love dystopian fiction. The images on the board, dilemma cards, and the hilarious space names all contribute to a tongue-in-cheek dystopian theme (I especially like the “Free Press of Harsh Reality”). You’ll need to manage the morale and knowledge of your workers to make sure they’re effective without realizing that they’re living in a dystopia.
Players send their workers out to gather resources, dig tunnels, build markets, and recruit more workers, and the number showing on the dice affects what happens when they’re placed. You also have recruit cards that give you bonuses, and a secret recruit card that you can flip up once certain conditions have been met. Doing all of these things earns you victory points, and the first to ten wins. The game has solid mechanics. Dice placement is a fun twist on standard worker placement.
But it felt like Euphoria was missing something. And after some thought, I realized that the faceless dystopian workers would have made a more thematic contribution if they hadn’t been quite so anonymous. Why must they toil in obscurity, doomed to forever be unappreciated for their uniqueness?
Here’s what I thought: each worker should be represented by a card that has an illustration of that worker (similar to the recruit cards in the game), along with a small bonus and a small penalty. Whenever that worker is placed, the player gets a bonus. For example, when the worker is placed with another worker, you can choose the number to display on the dice. Or when it’s deployed to the Generator, you get an extra energy. Something like that.
If that worker gains too much knowledge and leaves, though, that worker turns against you and begins working with the resistance. Their insurgency would be represented by the penalty, which applies for the rest of the game. Your Generator placements earn one less energy. Or if you’re about to collect your fifth food, you lose two water.
A mechanic like this would give each worker a personality, and require each aspiring dystopian leader to manage his or her workers based on their expertise and affiliations. Sure, you could just order people around, but wouldn’t your dystopia be more effective if you took advantage of your subjects’ specific skills? (I also like the idea of being able to increase your opponents’ workers’ knowledge with propaganda campaigns, but that’s another story.)
Obviously this would require a lot more design and playtesting. And in the end, there’s a good chance that it just wouldn’t work out. It might introduce too much decision-making for each turn. Or the penalties would pile up and make it too hard to win. But I think it’s a sound idea in principle.
Don’t get me wrong—Euphoria is a fun game. I enjoyed it, and I will definitely be playing again. I just think that the faceless worker was done a disservice in this title, and that’s what keeps it at “good” instead of rising to “great.” Still, though, for $45 on Amazon, it’s worth picking up if you’re a fan of dice placement (or beautiful board games; as in all Stonemaier games, the board is gorgeous, and the components are fantastic).
Of course, there are some games that give each worker specific traits. The only one that I’ve played is Three Kingdoms Redux, where your various generals get bonuses on specific tasks. When I asked about this mechanic on Twitter, followers mentioned Argent: The Consortium, Empires: Age of Discovery, Archon: Glory and Machination. So there are games out there that do this.
But I think the idea of individual workers is under-utilized. Sure, it’s going to take a lot more work to design and mean a more complicated game. But I think games would see some pretty big thematic benefits. It’s rare in life that you get to assign workers who you don’t know anything about and are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same.
And no, board games don’t always aim for realism or familiarity. But I believe that this added touch of real-world individuality would draw players further into the game, and that’s always good.
If you think this is a good—or bad—idea, let me know about it in the comments or on Twitter. And if you have recommendations for this type of game, I’d love to hear about them! I haven’t played many, so I can’t speak from much experience here.
And so ends my ode to the faceless worker. Know that you are not forgotten, and that we are fighting for you! Some day you will be free from the tyranny of obscurity, and allowed to express yourself as an individual on the board. Your personality will not remain forgotten.