When sitting down to learn a new worker placement game, many of us are just waiting for the answer to one question: how do I get more workers? Since workers are the currency of a worker placement game, getting more workers is the key to getting more of everything else: resources, turn order advantage and so forth. Getting more workers is nearly always part of a winning strategy in any game that allows them.
But it’s not always true that getting more workers is better, and I wanted to explore the mechanisms of games that allow players to obtain more workers without making additional workers a slam-dunk dominant strategy.
In Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia, workers are dice that are more powerful based on how many pips they show, but if the total of pips showing on your available worker pool is too high, one of your workers escapes, leaving your workforce. Managing the timing of when your workers return to your pool and how many you might have at one time is an important part of the gameplay. Simply buying more workers is guaranteed to be a poor investment. What’s really unusual about this mechanism is that it’s a rare example of negative reinforcement, of a mechanism that punishes players by taking something away from them that they’ve already earned. Modern design tends to shy away from these mechanisms that can generate negative experiences for players.
Last Will ties the number of workers and actions you can take to a timing mechanism. Players don’t have a consistent number of workers from turn to turn. Rather, each round, each player claims a slot in the turn order that dictates the types and number of actions they’ll be able to take during the round. Going first means having fewer workers, and going last means having more workers. The most valuable actions are taken early on, leaving the player with more workers fewer good things to do with them.
Some games address this issue by redefining what a worker is. For example, in Spyrium, workers can activate actions, but they also serve as auction claim tokens, price adjusters, and income generators. You might place a worker because you genuinely want to acquire a card or trigger its action, but you might just as well be placing a worker where removing him will give you a lot of money. While workers are absolutely required for the core play engine, the game also offers many substitutes for workers and worker-drive actions, either through cards that automate worker-driven buildings, or scoring engines that don’t require workers to build and run. This often-overlooked design is especially interesting because it is a revisiting of the worker placement mechanism by designer William Attia, whose game Caylus is considered a masterpiece of the genre.
A final word of advice. If you’re playing a worker placement game, and the game enables you to gain more workers, you should probably go do that. It would be deceptive and frustrating for a designer to include the option but to make it bad for you. What designers do work at is to limit this strategy from being dominant at the margins – that is, you shouldn’t ONLY buy workers. In this post I focused on games that tried to limit the benefits of acquiring new workers. Other games embrace the idea that it is very beneficial, but either limit you from acquiring too many, or force you to spend them, or ensure that all players acquire new workers roughly at the same rate. Those are also valid design approaches, and maybe we’ll talk about them in a future post!