Design Pattern: I’ll Rates You!

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After last week’s post about worker placement games that dont’ favor buying a lot of workers, a lot of readers brought up some additional examples. By far the most common one was one of my favorite and most-played games of all time, Through the Ages. Thing is, TTA isn’t a worker-placement game. It’s a tableau-building, action point allowance, card-drafting, civilization game. Ok, so it’s not just one thing. But one thing it’s not is Worker Placement.

People can argue about definitions, but for my purposes, a worker placement game is a type of action drafting game, in which players draft actions for themselves and limit other players from taking the same actions. Players interact by using a limited number of workers to claim actions. Through the Ages doesn’t have any of that. In TTA, your workers allow you to build buildings that produce benefits for you, and the buildings themselves are acquired from a market row for a cost in action points. Morever, once workers are assigned, they never come back to you for reassignment, which is pretty different from any other worker placement game I can think of.

That said,  Through the Ages sill has workers, and still addresses the issue of managing the runaway effect that additional workers can have in some interesting ways. First, new workers are expensive, and they become more expensive the more workers you have, scaling in cost from a single food to seven food! Secondly, the more workers you have, the more it costs to feed them every turn. As your civilization’s population grows, you must pay a food cost each turn to feed them. Third, in another kind of maintenance cost, workers need to be kept happy. Different kinds of buildings, wonders and even leaders generate happiness, and the larger your worker population the more happiness you need to generate to pacify them. Finally, workers can only work in buildings, and the ability to build buildings in which they can work is limited by your resource-generation engine, your innovation engine, and your action budget.

The first method of limiting workers, by making them more expensive, limits the speed at which you can acquire workers. This reduces their lifetime value.

The second and third methods, which are upkeep-based, fold back in on themselves, in that you need to use some of your workers to generate the food and happiness that feeds workers. You can think of this as a kind of tax on worker productivity, or a decline in the marginal value of a new worker – you don’t really get the value of a whole additional worker, because some fraction of that worker’s productivity goes to generate the resources that feed all the workers.

The fourth method, which limits the utility of workers by requiring a building be built for them creates a sequencing challenge. You can buy the worker prior to having a place to put them, but you can’t actually benefit from the worker until you’ve saved enough resources and actions to actually acquire, discover, and build the building. However, interestingly, it also doesn’t make sense to delay buying workers because the game punishes you for letting resources pile up. All of these different kinds of limits redefine the question of should you buy another worker entirely. The question instead is which resource should you increase production of so that when you can afford a new worker it will line up with when you can afford the building that you want to deploy the worker onto.

Without going into too much detail, the game throttles your ability to have useful places to employ your workers. To a great extent, Through the Ages is a game about creating optimal rates of production and advancement in many interlocking subsystems. If any system overheats, your civilization stalls and you waste resources or actions waiting for other systems to catch up. Rate management sounds boring, but in the context of building a civilization and competing with others, it’s one of the most entertaining and deepest challenges in gaming.

Hey, you know what’s also great? There are two different digital implementations of Through the Ages. You can get the gorgeous new version for about $10 on Android, iOS, or Steam. You can also play online for free at Boardgaming-Online. Either way, come play with me! I’m KindFortress on the pretty app, or ender7 on the 90s-looking webpage, and I’m always up to play an async game.


  1. Dusty November 15, 2017 11:57 pm Reply

    My friend and I have been playing the app since it came out, but before that we got a lot of use out of a digital implementation you didn’t mention- on . It’s pretty nice and also free.

    • Isaac Shalev November 16, 2017 4:24 am Reply

      Thanks for sharing that one. I’ve never played there. I’ll check it out!

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