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Worker Placement Mechanic

Worker Placement Sketch

Within business programs, colleges usually dedicate multiple classes and even full departments to logistics. Many successful real-life businesses are even built around logistics and organizing resources. Logistics plays a role in many industries, but as board and card game players we have a special term for logistics. We call it worker placement.

Worker placement is all about logistics. Planning what things need to be done in what order, and deploying sufficient resources to accomplish those tasks are all key components of worker placement as a board and card game mechanic.

Let’s take a closer look at worker placement and how it relates to designing and playing great tabletop games of any type.

Overview of Worker Placement

For our discussion here, worker placement is defined as using physical components of some sort to select, reserve, or take an action within the game. Some games thematically call these components workers, while others merely use the components as they are to incorporate the mechanic into the game. Either way, worker placement is a great way to engage players in the game, and can tie into many different themes to make the game mechanics easier to grasp.

A good example of thematic worker placement is in Bruxelles 1897, where each player has a set of architect cards of varying strength and cost, which they place as they obtain items (represented by other cards) at the world fair. Placing specific architect cards is a balance between maximizing the strength of the cards (to adequately compete for majorities) while minimizing the cost. Regardless of strength, architect cards can also be played to the Brussels area to claim free actions, but an increasing number of architect cards must be played each time.

A more abstract utilization of the mechanic is seen in Pentago and Azul, where the workers are simply marbles or tiles that don’t represent anything in particular, and placing workers in specific locations to create the right patterns is the key function of the game.

As the above examples illustrate, there are many methods for implementing worker placement into a game. Workers may all be the same, or may be unique; and each worker placed may trigger an action or ability or control a location.

Important Considerations with Worker Placement

Some common characteristics of worker placement include the following items:

  • Scarcity of Workers, Actions, or Locations: Most frequently either the available workers, actions, or locations, or some combination of them all are limited in quantity or availability. This necessitates strategy in deciding which and how many workers to place, which actions to claim first, and which locations to occupy. For example, in Carcasonne a player must sometimes choose between multiple open locations, and blocks the chosen location from other players’ workers. In Alhambra, on the other hand, each tile is unique and must be placed with care to avoid blocking future actions for oneself.
  • Increasing Cost of Actions or Locations: Rather than strictly limiting the availability of actions or locations, another common implementation of worker placement involves increasing the cost of taking an action as time passes or the more times the action is used. This means that more workers or more valuable workers will be required to continue to take an action, and players will be encouraged to be among the first to take that action to best minimize their cost. One example of this is in Bruxelles 1897 when using the Brussels area.
  • Resetting Workers or Long-term Placement: Many games implement a condition that when met, resets workers so that they can be rearranged and placed in a different order or combination; often, new rounds are used as this resetting condition. In other games, workers once placed remain for a long time, even for the whole game such as the buildings in Settlers of Catan.
  • Moving or Upgrading Workers: Sometimes workers, once placed, can be moved to new locations or upgraded to change the affect they have on the game. For example, the settlers in Catan Histories: Settlers of America – Trails to Rails once placed can be moved around the board and later upgraded to establish settlements. In Falconry, any card that is placed to claim a location may be later moved to claim a new area.
  • Continued Worker Engagement: Usually the placement of a worker continues to trigger actions and affects play long into the game and over multiple turns, such as with placing tents in Trekking the National Parks. In some cases, however, placing workers triggers one-time effects and claiming an action again requires placing another worker, such as in Wingspan, where cubes are placed once per turn and a one-time action is triggered.

Cautions and Tips for Using Worker Placement

When utilizing worker placement as a game mechanic, care must be taken to neither oversimplify nor overcomplicate the decision making process. Too simple of a mechanic might make placing workers feel like a mindless, meaningless decision, while too complicated of a mechanic structure might make turns take much longer than they should as players try to analyze every outcome.

The games Kingdomino and Bruxelles 1897 both use worker placement well, but they might each border an opposing line without crossing it altogether.

On one hand, Kingdomino risks including too simple of worker placement as players place workers to select a single tile, but it mitigates that risk by having the tile chosen affect the order of play and contain multiple elements that effect your personal kingdom grid.

On the other side of the coin, Bruxelles 1897 risks overcomplicating decisions as players placing their architects must consider several different action types, number of surrounding architects, strength of surrounding architects, and other game elements; however, it does a good job of providing all the available information and minimizing ambiguity so that players have some of the guesswork removed and are able to move forward with their turns.

However you implement worker placement into your game, take time to consider these elements and playtest with others to ensure that player decisions are neither too simple, nor too complex. You’ll do great!

What are some interesting ways you have seen worker placement be used as a part of a game? What are other ways that worker placement can be utilized that haven’t been addressed in the post above? Please comment below with your thoughts!

Worker placement is using physical components of some sort to select, reserve, or take an action within the game. Some games thematically call these components workers, while others merely use the components as they are to incorporate the mechanic into the game. Worker placement is a great way to engage players in the game, and…

Worker Placement Sketch

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Other Tabletop Game Mechanics to Explore

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