Note: Originally written for my FLGS, The Comic Hunter – http://comichunter.net/?p=1899
My First Worker Placement
Generally speaking, “worker placement” games refer to the genre of board game where players take turns placing their workers on a board in order to take one of several different actions. Worker placement games typically run anywhere from 2 to 6 players, have playtimes running in the 1-to-3 hour range and they usually end after a set number of rounds has been played, with the winner being that player who has accumulated the most Victory Points.
With the basic definition out of the way, why are worker placement games so popular when it comes to modern board games right now? While there isn’t one simple answer, I personally believe it has a lot to do with having a high number of interesting, strategic decisions that players get to make every time they place a worker, which makes most worker placement games real brain-burners. If you’re new to board games, or are interested in getting into the worker placement genre, I’d like to write about two great introductory games; Lords of Waterdeep by Peter Lee & Rodney Thompson and Stone Age by Bernd Brunnhofer.
Lords of Waterdeep
Lords of Waterdeep is a 2-5 player (a 6th can be played with the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion) game, designed by Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson that was released in 2012 by Wizards of the Coast and plays in about an hour, although the first few games will likely take longer. Players represent different powerful Lords of the Forgotten Realms city of Waterdeep, who vie to gain the most influence in the city by having their Agents perform acts of Intrigue, construct fantastic buildings and send some poor, hapless adventurers on mighty quests that they will likely never return from.
Ultimately, Lords of Waterdeep is one of the more basic worker placement games available at this time; players take turns placing their Agents onto different spots on the board, collecting the resources or taking the actions for the space in question. Once all Agents are placed, the round ends, the Agents are retrieved and the next round begins. The main way of getting Victory Points in the game is through completing Quest cards, each of which require a certain combination of money and/or resources, which are represented as different types of Adventurers; orange cubes are Fighters, black are Rogues, purple are Wizards and white are Clerics. Once you have accumulated the required number of Adventurers, Quests can be completed by returning the Adventurers to the supply and then gaining the appropriate number of Victory Points, along with any other rewards the quest may provide.
In addition to accumulating adventurers and completing quests, there are two other types of actions; purchasing a Building or playing an Intrigue card. Buildings add new spots on the board that players can visit, opening up new ways to gain resources, albeit ways that just so happen to give the owner resources of their own when used. Intrigue cards are the primary way that players interact with each other in the game. Some Intrigue cards are malevolent and will steal resources from other players or even force them to complete “mandatory” quests that reward only a few victory points, but make the victim waste resources to get them out of the way before they can complete any other quests. Others are beneficial, netting one player a certain type of resources, but requiring they select another player to gain a smaller amount.
All-in-all, this combination of mechanics makes for a game that is relatively easy to pick up and learn and usually pretty easy to get to the table. The short playing time as well as the relatively low interaction makes for a mostly strategic game where players can focus on figuring out the best way to get the resources they need with a limited number of moves, rather than racking their brain trying to plan 3 full rounds ahead. The Intrigue cards add some interesting options to the game, however they are rarely so powerful as to dramatically hinder an opponent, so you will rarely ever feel picked on or forced into any sort of a situation where there are no viable options. The hidden nature of the Lord cards keeps the actual state of the game rather hidden until the very last round, even if it can be easy to guess what Lord other players have by paying attention to the different types of quests they pick up.
Lastly, Lords of Waterdeep has what may be one of the best expansions to have been released for a board game in Scoundrels of Skullport, and aside from the first 5 or 10 games I think it’s almost necessary. The expansion takes what is a fairly straightforward game and cranks all the best parts up to 11 – the new locations add a lot just by themselves as there are now several ways to get additional resources, albeit at a cost in the form of the “Corruption tokens” which are worth an ever-increasing amount of negative Victory Points at the end of the game. While the expansion does tend to tack a bit of extra playtime, I thoroughly think it’s worth it as the additional choices really enhance what is already a great base game.
Stone Age is a 2-4 player (a 5th player can be added using the Style is the Goal expansion) game, designed by Bernd Brunnhofer and (most recently) published by Z-Man Games. It plays in about an hour, although I feel that game time increases with the number of players. In the game, players represent different tribes of villagers in the Stone Age that are trying to simply survive by feeding themselves, harvesting resources and discovering new elements of civilization.
Unlike Lords of Waterdeep, rounds are broken up into two phases, the first where players place their workers on available board spots and the second where they actually recover those workers and activate the abilities of the different board spots. When using any of the resource-gathering spots, players may choose to play any number of their available workers, and when retrieving them, a number of dice are rolled equal to the number of workers used with the total value of the dice being added together and then divided by the value of the resource to get the actual amount harvested. This may sound somewhat confusing, but it’s pretty straightforward; Bill wants to harvest wood, which has the value of 3, and he chooses to assign 4 of his workers to the Forest spot on the board. When it comes time to harvest, he rolls 4 dice and gets 1, 1, 4 and 6 for a total of 12, which is then divided by 3, so he gets a total of 4 wood. I’m not normally a huge fan of randomness in games like this, but in Stone Age it just plain works. Players are also able to acquire Tools throughout the game, which can be used to increase the results of individual dice, adding another layer of interesting play.
Other than the collecting of resources, Players can use workers to increase their Food production, increase their number of workers, create or upgrade tools, purchase different huts or acquire different civilization cards. The food production track automatically produces a number of food that the player will need at the end of the round (players who can not feed each of their workers lose 10 Victory Points), so this spot always seems to be the first one to go every round. Both the buildings and Civilization cards are the only sources of Victory Points, and unlike Lords of Waterdeep, the game doesn’t end until either a full stack of buildings is depleted, or the reserve of Civilization cards is used up – there is not a set number of turns. The buildings, in particular, have an interesting mechanic whereby some of them can be purchased using any resource that the player may have handy, however the points value increases based on the quality of the resources used to pay for it.
Another major point worth mentioning regarding Stone Age is that there is no direct player interaction, so I feel that it feels much more like a race than Lords of Waterdeep does. The dice add a very interesting dimension to the game (particularly in the early game before the Tools become a factor) and do a good job to keep it feeling fresh between plays without adding too many complex mechanics. Between the two, I would pick Stone Age as a better family game for these reasons above, there’s not much to have hard feelings about at the end of a game, even if the dice decided to only roll low for you.
What it boils down to for me is that Stone Age is a great game to introduce board games to new players, as I find it much easier to teach than Lords of Waterdeep. That being said, I personally prefer Lords of Waterdeep due to the variable setup and especially for how much better it is with the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion; both are fantastic games, but I prefer the heavier side of the board game spectrum. If you’ve played either game and are looking for something slightly heavier, but still not too heavy, I highly recommend Russian Railroads by Z-Man Games and Spyrium by Asmodee as two of my current favorites. If you want heavier still, Agricola and Le Havre (both designed by Uwe Rosenberg and published by Z-Man Games) as well as Caylus by Rio Grande Games may make you feel like you’ve been put through the wringer afterward, but only in the best possible way.
Have any other worker placement games to suggest? Feel free to leave a comment below to share with others! If you’re in or around Charlottetown on a Monday night (from about 6:30 PM through to close) and want to play a game, get in touch either in the comments below or through twitter (I’m @funeral0polis) and I’ll be happy to oblige!