Note: Originally written for my FLGS – comichunter.net
Ok, so you’ve become the most powerful Lord in Lords of Waterdeep, fed your tribe and brought them to prominence in Stone Age, then build the best railroad between Moscow and Kiev in Russian Railroads and managed the most successful vineyard in Viticulture, but now you want more. You’re in luck, as the biggest and heaviest worker placement games are still to come; feed your family and grow your small farm in Agricola, construct buildings and work on the castle to impress King Philip the Fair in Caylus or become the richest and most successful shipping magnate in Le Havre. Today, I’ll be talking about the heaviest of the heavy (so far anyway!) worker placement games.
Before getting any further in, I should note that these games are not going to be for everyone; they are all quite long (over 2 hours should be expected), have extremely nuanced rules and are best enjoyed with a group of like-minded people who are willing to put in the time and effort to learn and play these games. That being said, one could argue that these games offer the biggest and best experience, as you can often feel you’re playing against the rules as much as you are playing against your opponents, although it ultimately depends on the people playing. For what it’s worth, I love this style of game where your hand is not held toward obvious goals and making mistakes can severely impact your ability to win – if you have the desire and are given the opportunity to try, I highly recommend them.
Along with Caylus, Agricola is arguably one of the two defining games in the Worker Placement genre. Players represent families on a farm in a medieval countryside where they have little more than a plot of land, a simple wooden house and lots of possibilities. The game takes place over 14 rounds split into 6 stages, and at the end of each stage is a Harvest where players must come up with 2 food for each of their family members or take a Begging card, which is worth -3 points at the end of the game. In a game where scores around 40 are typically pretty good, -3 hurts a lot more than you may think, so it becomes very important to try and find a way to establish a “Food Engine” as early as possible.
(Image by BGG user jefflai – https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/2336934/agricola)
Agricola is often jokingly referred to as “Misery Farm” by both fans and detractors of the game due to the extremely punishing nature of the gameplay and the constant feeling of not being able to do everything that you want. More spaces open up as the game progresses, however each space may only be used by one player on a given round, so choice spaces go very quickly and players must then figure out another action to take that will still move them forward in some way.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is that even the milestones and accomplishments feel like they’re hurting you; adding to your family increases your food requirements come Harvest time, which requires you to use more of your animals or crops as food, which then cuts into your points come the end of the game. In a game where almost everything is worth points at the end of the game (either positive or negative amounts), it’s very difficult to be able to get the right amounts of everything that you need in the limited number of turns available.
Possibly one of the biggest reasons that Agricola has stood the test of time are the various Occupation and Minor Improvement cards that are available. Separated into various decks, the base game coming with 3 versions; Basic, Intermediate and Complex. The rules offer a few different ways to handle how these cards are distributed at the start of the game and the designer has released numerous expansion decks that dramatically change how the game is played, allowing for near-unlimited replayability. While these cards still depend on Players being able to take particular action spots on the board, they often break the rules of the game in different ways, either granting the player additional goods when they take certain actions, bonus points at the end of the game and some even function as additional action spots that can be used.
Overall, Agricola is an extremely tense but also extremely rewarding game to play. If you like playing against the rules of the game as much as you do the other players, this game may be for you. On the other hand, if you don’t like the idea of keeping track of so many resources and trying to maintain balance all the way through as you play, Agricola may just be too frustrating and demoralizing, but that’s okay as there are still a few other choices you may enjoy.
Although it may not get quite as much praise as Agricola does these days, Caylus has most certainly left its mark on the worker placement genre. Players represent Master Builders who are fighting for the favour of King Philip the Fair who has begun construction on a massive castle. By careful use of their workers, they will add buildings to the surrounding area and use those buildings to process goods which they can then donate toward the construction of the castle, earning victory points and Favour tokens. Setting it apart from many of its contemporaries, Caylus adds the Provost, a token that can be manipulated by players to stop action spaces from actually activating, thereby rendering their turns useless and costing them money for no return. Among the 3 games included in this article, Caylus is probably the most mean game; there’s no engine building here, careful manipulation of the Provost and knowing how to punish your opponents are some of the keys to success.
(Image by BGG user ultreia – https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/2051324/caylus)
As mentioned above, the Provost is one of the more interesting and strategic mechanics in Caylus. Instead of there being a fixed number of rounds in the game, instead there is an additional piece, the Bailiff, who will either move forward one space on the board at the end of each round, or he will move to wherever the Provost is, giving the players a measure of control over how long the game lasts. As the Bailiff reaches certain indicated spots on the board, the phases of the game progress, which allows players to begin constructing additional buildings as well as donate batches of goods to the construction of the castle, which can then be used for bonuses of various types.
The worker placement mechanic of Caylus is mostly straight-forward – players place their worker tokens on an available locations, paying $1 to the supply as a cost for their employment. As players choose to pass, however, it becomes more and more expensive for the remaining players to place their workers, adding yet another “take that” mechanic to the game. Once all players have passed, the actions begin to resolve in order of the various action spaces along the board, starting at the castle gate and moving down the road. There are several fixed spaces from the gate onward, allowing a number of always-available actions, including the Bridge which is used not only to determine turn order, but also to manipulate the Provost; pay $1 to move the Provost one space either forward or back on the road, which can be done up to 3 times per player, per turn. After the Bridge are the buildings constructed by players, which typically grant a number of goods or convert goods into other types, into money or into victory points. After the Provost has been reached, players may then choose to send a batch (which consists of 3 different types of resources, one of which must be Food) to the castle, to fill one of the available construction spots, with the player contributing the most earning a special Favour from the King.
Between the different buildings, the Provost and fixed spaces on the board, there is a tremendous amount of gameplay to go through in Caylus. Despite having no randomness in the game whatsoever, players can focus on different aspects of the game and feel like they are getting completely different experiences. Unlike many other worker placement games, there is also a very competitive aspect to Caylus that may catch newer players off guard. If you enjoy the aspect of purchasing buildings in Lords of Waterdeep but wish it had a bit more, or if you liked Russian Railroads but wish you were able to disrupt your opponents, then Caylus may be worth checking out. On the other hand, if you don’t enjoy games where other players are able to maliciously affect you, then you may wish to skip this one.
Le Havre (BGG)
Of the three games I’ve written about here, Le Havre is probably my favourite, but also the one that I play the least. Everything about Le Havre intrigues me, from the limitations of only having 1 worker to the speed at which the game ramps up to the number of actions available to you in the later stages of the game. The actual gameplay is simple enough on paper; each turn your ship moves to the first available space in the canal and whichever goods are indicated get placed on the available Offer spots on the board. After this, the active player gets to take a single action: collect all of the goods available on one of the Offer spaces or place their single worker on any one constructed Building (paying the entry costs as appropriate) in order to take the action provided. Sounds pretty simple, but the buildings are what makes Le Havre such a special game.
(Image by BGG user Sentieiro – https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/492134/le-havre)
Each building in the game has a good deal of information on them:
- Cost (either in Francs or building materials)
- Entry fee
- Sorting value
- Special icon(s)
- Value (in Francs)
As an action on their turn, Players may place their worker onto an available building and take the building’s action. Some will provide resources of particular types, others will convert basic resources into their upgraded versions (usually at the cost of some Energy), others will allow players to build new buildings from the Building Proposal area and others will allow for some end-game actions, such as Shipping goods. The interplay between many of these buildings provides the “meat” of the game and typically contribute the most points toward winning, while the order in which they become available (either via Players or the Town purchasing them) also acts as a gating mechanism for different advanced actions during the game.
Similar to Agricola, several rounds in the game end with an Harvest phase, where players must meet an increasing food requirement. Unlike Agricola, however, players who are unable to pay their Food costs during a Harvest do not have to take Begging cards, but instead have to take out a Loan, which instantly grants them 4 Francs, but costs 5 Francs to pay off or they are worth -7 Francs at the end of the game. Adding to the deep levels of strategy, taking early Loans is actually a valid strategy, as it grants a boon of money that is often not otherwise available early on in the game, but can often be easy to pay off later on.
Another important aspect of Le Havre are the Ships that can be purchased once the Wharf building has been constructed. Ships serve two purposes; they grant an automatic amount of food for every Harvest, and they open up the ability for players to take the Shipping action once the Shipping Line building has been constructed. The Shipping action allows players to convert large numbers of various goods into Francs, directly contributing towards their total score at the end of the game. All of the different goods in the game have a value associated with shipping them, ranging from 1 to 8 Francs, making it an attractive way to make a large amount of points toward the end of the game.
So, that all being said, why do I like Le Havre so much? As much as I enjoy Agricola, it feels like a constant struggle just to survive, whereas in Le Havre, every choice is a case of figuring out which action is going to be able to get you the most Francs, either immediately or at the end of the game. There are very few poor decisions in Le Havre, instead you’re constantly faced with good choices and need to weed out what is going to be a great choice, which is not always obvious at first glance. I think players who can best balance long-term strategic planning with short term tactical moves will enjoy this game, however players who either suffer from analysis paralysis or those who don’t enjoy trying to plan out 2 or 3 possible moves ahead will likely not find much enjoyment. Another issue with the game is finding a group of similarly-skilled players to play with, as a little experience can lead into a sizeable advantage over newer players. If this still sounds appealing to you
please come play with me! then Le Havre may be well worth your time and attention.
While Agricola, Caylus and Le Havre are three of the heavier worker placement games, by no means are they the only ones out there. Recently, Uwe Rosenberg (the designer of both Agricola and Le Havre) has released Caverna: The Cave Farmers (BGG), a spiritual successor or re-imagining of Agricola. The main differences between the two games are considerably less focus on feeding your workers, the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards in Agricola are replaced by an always-available selection of buildings to be constructed, as well as an interesting Quest mechanic whereby players in Caverna can equip their workers with weapons of different strength and then send them off to retrieve their choice of resources. Frequently cited as being slightly more complex overall (due to the whopping 48 buildings to choose from), but less stressful, Caverna has quickly risen up the BGG ranks and is one of the highest rated games available at this time.
Additionally, there are two games in the “Dungeon” series of worker placement games that are also highly strategic; Dungeon Lords (BGG) and Dungeon Petz (BGG). Designer Vlaada Chvátil has created two different games where players represent evil Dungeon Lords who either fill their dungeons with traps and monsters to kill off treasure-seeking heroes (Dungeon Lords), or breed and raise monsters from eggs to sell off to the highest evil bidder (Dungeon Petz).
Last, but not least, Stronghold Games recently released Kanban: Automotive Revolution (BGG), where players represent managers who are responsible for different departments on an automobile assembly line who must use their time efficiently in order to be the most impressive to the board of directors when they present at weekly meetings. Kanban has several very interesting mechanics, particularly the Manger, who will either be nice or mean depending on the level of challenge players are interested in.