Exploring Games Top 10 (or 12... how about 17) Worker Placement Games
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I've been a pretty huge fan of Worker Placement games from around the time I first got into the hobby 8 years ago. And in my most recent episode of Exploring Games with GamerChris, I spent a lot of time defining the mechanic, talking about what role it plays in the hobby, and discussing the history of how these games have changed and developed over time.

The last thing I did was to list my Top "10" Worker Placement games, which really turned into a Top 12 with 5 Honorable Mentions. So it's really more a Top 17 list I guess.

But anyway, here we go...



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1. Board Game: Caylus [Average Rating:7.80 Overall Rank:52]
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Honorable Mention

I couldn't have a list like this without including the game that basically started it all. It may not have technically been the very first Worker Placement game, but it certainly popularized both the mechanic and the term, and it was the one that set off the torrent of games to follow.

And as this was basically the first, it also defined many of the elements that formed the "default" conditions for Worker Placement:
- Integrated placement of workers
- Separate placement and resolution phases
- Resolution taking place along a track in a defined order
- Player-driven expansion of the placement spots (buildings)
- Player-controlled turn order

Caylus didn't make my official top 12, however, because in the end, it feels a little too one-dimensional and is a bit too long for what I get out of it. It's still solid, but I feel there are other games that just do worker placement better and have more interesting themes.
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2. Board Game: Alien Frontiers [Average Rating:7.44 Overall Rank:192]
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Honorable Mention

Alien Frontiers brought a lot of innovation to the Worker Placement family, most obviously with the inclusion of dice as the workers. The area-majority scoring, special actions from controlling regions, and the options available through the Alien tech cards also make this a pretty cool and unique experience.

It didn't make the top 12 mostly because of the downtime that having non-integrated turns (where players roll and place all their dice on their turn) brings, and because another dice-placement game (Euphoria) has eclipsed it for me.
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3. Board Game: Lords of Waterdeep [Average Rating:7.76 Overall Rank:54]
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Honorable Mention

Clearly, Lords of Waterdeep is a hugely popular, entry-level Worker Placement game that does a lot right. In many ways, it draws from the model established by Caylus, but is notably shorter and more approachable, especially for those crossing over from other geekly hobbies.

And to me, it also brings enough new and different elements to the table (like the player interaction of the Intrigue cards) to escape from the "Caylus-lite" label that some have attached to it. It didn't quite make my top 12, though, mostly because it is probably a little bit too shallow for me to find a whole lot of satisfaction with it in the long term.
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4. Board Game: Vasco da Gama [Average Rating:7.27 Overall Rank:526]
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Honorable Mention

This was a pretty solid but mostly forgettable game overall, but it warrants a mention from me almost exclusively because of its incredibly unique resolution-order mechanic. When you place your workers, you also choose a numbered disc to place with it that determine when the action will be resolved. But if an action comes before a semi-randomly-determined value, its controller has to pay to take the action, which can be rough since money is hard to come by.
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5. Board Game: Ora et Labora [Average Rating:7.71 Overall Rank:109]
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Honorable Mention

Ora et Labora is a pretty fascinating game to me, and if I had played it more, it could easily have made it higher on this list. It takes the idea of player-controlled buildings to the extreme, introduces a real spatial element to how you place those buildings, and then also brings in a totally unique element of being able to pay other players to place their workers and give you the benefit.
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6. Board Game: Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery [Average Rating:7.55 Overall Rank:182]
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Number 12

Age of Empires III (now called Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery) makes my top 12 list mostly due to the level of innovation it brought to worker placement. It was actually released in May/June of 2007, some 5 or so months before Agricola, even, and it did as many new and cool things as did that powerhouse.

While it still stuck with the placement/resolution phase separation from Caylus, it first introduced the ability to expand your workforce (getting more than the standard 5 colonists each turn) as well as having specialized workers that had special benefits when used for particular actions. And in addition to expanding how the actual worker placement mechanic was used, it also did more than almost any other game has done before or since to combine worker placement with a number of other mechanics and systems in the game, such as area majority (for scoring), an auction using the workers (for claiming the Merchant ship), tableau/engine-building (with the Capital buildings), resource management, and even combat (since colonists and soldiers in the New World can actually fight against each other).

I like the game quite a bit, but its strength is probably also its biggest weakness, because while its "kitchen sink" design is pretty thematic and interesting, it's also quite complicated and takes a long time to play. With 3 players, it's play time is still pretty reasonable, but the interaction is lessened. But with 4 or 5 (and God forbid 6 using the expansion), it's just too much of a slog without enough of a payout to be any higher on my list.
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7. Board Game: Russian Railroads [Average Rating:7.79 Overall Rank:71]
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Number 11

Russian Railroads is another game that could possibly be higher on my list if I had played it more. So far, I've only been able to play 2 or 3 times with my wife (and never yet with my game group... mostly because they're just torturing me at this point), and both of us have had a great time with it. It's definitely a polished and efficient game that still has a ton of neat little shenanigans you can pull off by combining effects from the different "tracks" that you can advance.

The only quibble I have with it so far is that while there is definitely some room for deciding what sort of strategy you'll use each game, it seems to me that there are basically two "primary" tracks (the Trans-Siberian railroad and the Industry track) and two "support" tracks (the Moskow-Kiev and Moskow-St. Petersburg lines). So most of the time, you'll probably hit one of the primary tracks hard and dabble in 1-3 of the others, but I can't see you making one of the support tracks as you primary goal for the game. Maybe I'm just wrong and inexperienced with it, but right now, it seems like the overall true depth of the game is a little more limited that it would seem at first blush.

But still, it's a really fun, middle-weight worker-placement game that has been pretty universally enjoyed, so it definitely deserves a place here on this list.
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8. Board Game: Spyrium [Average Rating:7.10 Overall Rank:583]
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Number 10

I just reviewed Spyrium on my last podcast (the one about worker-placement games), so I don't need to go into all that much detail here. But the main reason it made this list is due to the freaking brilliant way that its market mechanic used worker placement in a really new and fresh way.

Basically, you put workers between cards in a 3x3 array. Then when you decide to switch over to the Activation phase and remove a worker, you can use/build/buy one of the two cards, but its cost will be increased by the number of other workers still around it. However, you can also choose to not use/build/buy the card and instead take money equal to the number of other workers there.

The rest of the game is still pretty solid, but with the amazing market mechanic and being fun enough overall, I'm more than happy to give it my #10 spot.
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9. Board Game: Carson City [Average Rating:7.26 Overall Rank:393]
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Number 9

It's been way too long since I've actually played Carson City, so I'm a little uncomfortable putting it on this list. But from what I remember, it was always a lot of fun. And possibly more than that, I wanted to have it on this list because of how it, probably more than any other worker placement game that I can think of, brought some real direct player interaction into the mix.

Basically, the worker placement part of the game is very much like that of Caylus, where you place on a linear track that then resolves in order. But what makes it different is that you are never restricted from placing where another worker already is. Instead, during the resolution phase, players sharing an action space can duel over it using their firepower (their unused cowboys plus their guns) plus the roll of a die.

It's incredibly thematic and a lot of fun, but it can also be a little on the devastating side to lose a duel for a critical action, especially since the game is played over only 4 turns. Like I said, it's been a while since I've played, but I actually traded for a copy not too long ago, so maybe I can give it some more play sometime soon.
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10. Board Game: Agricola [Average Rating:7.98 Overall Rank:27]
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Number 8

I'm sure that I neither need to explain nor justify Agricola's spot here on this list. In addition to its incredible popularity, it also did a lot to bring a whole other approach to worker placement in changing a number of the core elements established by Caylus.

First of all, for the first time I'm aware of, Agricola gave the results of the placement immediately, rather than having a separate resolution phase after all the workers were placed. Although Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery had technically had the ability to expand the number of workers available just a few months earlier, Agricola was certainly the first game to include the much-maligned "feeding" mechanic to balance out the benefit of having more actions each turn. It also changed the way that the options for placement developed throughout the game, because rather than having players "build" new spots, the game uses a semi-programmed order for new actions to appear each turn. And finally, there was also a lot of innovation involved in the decks of Profession and Minor Improvements that players could use to change the way that they interacted with the game.

The only question then if why is Agricola so low on the list? And the answer is pretty simple, really... I just don't have as much fun playing it as I do the other games higher on the list.

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11. Board Game: Kingdom of Solomon [Average Rating:6.94 Overall Rank:2531]
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Number 7

Kingdom of Solomon may be a slightly less well-known title, but I include it here for a few reasons:

1) It brings one really cool innovation to the actual worker placement mechanic, the inclusion of extra-powerful Bonus spaces. These spaces provide an ability that is clearly better and more powerful than the "regular" spots, but to claim them, you must use all of your remaining workers. So the real decision then becomes more about at what point does the benefit of that one space outweigh the benefit of multiple other spaces, along with the added element of playing "chicken" with your opponents about who will jump into the space first. It's not an earth-shattering difference from most other worker placement games, but it does add another interesting wrinkle in your evaluation of how to budget your workers.

2) There is a really cool, player-driven market that adds in another way both to use and to acquire your resources that really enhances the game.

3) The Biblical history setting is pretty unique and attractive to me personally.

And of course, it's just a lot of fun as well. And for more information about it, you can always check out my full review.
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12. Board Game: The Pillars of the Earth [Average Rating:7.30 Overall Rank:258]
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Number 6

The Pillars of the Earth was the very first worker placement game I ever played, and especially with the addition of the expansion that came out a few years later, it continues to be one that I enjoy quite a bit.

It was, I guess, the first "Caylus-lite" game, especially since it shared such a similar theme. And while it didn't have very many real innovations from its parent game, what it mostly did was to present worker placement in a much more user-friendly package.

In some ways, it actually has a double-worker-placement mechanic, since you have one phase for claiming resource cards and placing your "workers" in those areas (as well as claiming Craftsman cards to convert resources to VP,) and then another phase for placing your "Master Builders" on the action spots.

And on top of that, it used a truly unique system of determining the order for placement of the Master Builders that involved pulling them randomly from a bag. However, the penalty for getting pulled out first is having to pay a lot of gold, with each successive pawn pulled having to pay less.

So again, while it's not necessarily the most influential game for future design, The Pillars of the Earth certainly did a lot to popularize worker placement and to bring it more to the family/casual side of the hobby.
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13. Board Game: Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar [Average Rating:7.92 Overall Rank:38]
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Number 5

2012 was a really good year for worker placement, and Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar was a huge part of that with the unique approach that it took to the mechanic. While it wasn't the first game that required players to take a turn to remove workers from the board (The Manhattan Project did that about 7 months earlier), Tzolk'in added the twist that the benefit of the space was gained during this retrieval of the worker rather than related to its placement. And of course, the real brilliance of the game was that this benefit increased over time if you left the worker on that spot to be carried along by the physical cog components on the board.

Tzolk'in seems to have sort of a "love it or hate it" reputation, and unfortunately, a lot of my group fell into the latter category, so my chances to play haven't been as numerous as I'd like. But it's still a game that fascinates me a lot, and I'm glad to have it this high on my list.
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14. Board Game: Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia [Average Rating:7.28 Overall Rank:345]
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Number 4

I feel like I've been talking a lot about Euphoria lately (including a complete review on my last podcast), so I'll keep this pretty brief.

As a worker-placement game, Euphoria is just chocked-full of innovation. Obviously, it's a dice-placement game that builds on and improves from what was done in Alien Frontiers, while also using the "worker take-ment" element from Tzolk'in and The Manhattan Project, so it's got a lot of really cool timing elements going on with it.

But the most brilliant element of the game is the "Knowledge Check" mechanic where the values of unplaced dice can add together with a Knowledge value for the player, and if it's 16 or more, the player loses their highest-value die. This alone does so much to change all the basic assumptions about growing and using your workers/dice, and it does so much more elegantly than the traditional "feed your meeples" upkeep mechanic. It also complicates the decision of when to retrieve your dice even more by the fact that you may want to leave workers behind either due to some effect they can continue to have (such as participating in the construction of a market), because you don't want to risk the knowledge check, and/or because you plan on "bumping" them with other dice later on to get them back that way.

And then on top of that, I also feel like there are a lot of both strategic and tactical choices that players have to make about how they will gain their Authority to win the game. Some are definitely informed by the Recruits you are dealt at the beginning of the game, but a lot are still pretty much open to any player.

I know it's pretty new in the timeline of worker placement games, but Euphoria has already become one of my favorites.

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15. Board Game: Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island [Average Rating:7.89 Overall Rank:44]
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Number 3

Robinson Crusoe brings together two of my favorite things in games, worker placement and cooperative play. And on top of that, the coolest mechanic in the game is how you can guarantee success with an action by placing two "workers" there, or you can take a risk at failure (and other things happening) by just placing one. For a survival-themed game especially, it's just brilliant.

From a thematic cooperative perspective, it's also really cool that in addition to the core mechanics, a lot of each game is guided by the specifics of the scenario. So you can get a notably different experience from the game from play to play based on which scenario you're trying to win.

Still, though, sometimes I feel like I'm more in love with the idea of this game than with the actual game itself, since I really haven't played it nearly as much as I would like to have done.
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16. Board Game: Tribune: Primus Inter Pares [Average Rating:7.23 Overall Rank:544]
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Number 2

Since I first played it in late 2008, Tribune has been one of my go-to worker placement favorites. Being such an early game in the genre, there's really not a lot special about the actual worker placement mechanic. It's got integrated placement with a separate resolution phase, but have any of the other innovations that other games from 2007 had, such as getting more workers or having specialized workers, and it doesn't even have an expanding number of actions spots throughout the game.

But a few things really make Tribune stand out to me as a game that I've come back to over and over again:

1) Players use their pool of workers both to collect the resources in the game (the cards) and to initiate a bid to take over the factions (where you use sets of these cards). So rather than tacking on another, separate mechanic for this other system (like a lot of other games do), it integrates the systems together.

2) The whole idea of using "victory conditions" rather than a more granular victory point system is really cool and unique. But if two players tie for both achieving the required number of conditions on the same turn, each condition has a VP value for breaking the tie, so you have to balance the need for getting easier condition more quickly versus the weight of getting more valuable conditions should you tie.

3) And even with all this cool stuff going on, the game in incredibly efficient and quick, usually running well under an hour for an experienced group.

After playing a few weeks ago, this almost pushed its way into my top spot, but couldn't quite edge out my #1...
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17. Board Game: The Manhattan Project [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:257]
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Number 1

And finally, The Manhattan Project (my 2012 Game of the Year) tops my list of favorite Worker Placement games!

The Manhattan Project brought so many cool innovations to the worker placement scene. It has specialized workers (engineers and scientists) that are required for certain actions. It was the first game where players did not automatically get back their workers, but instead had to take an entire "retrieval" turn instead. This alone revolutionized the timing of the game and added in a whole other aspect to consider as you planned out your turns and interacted with your opponents.

On top of that, the split of having the public actions on the main board and your personal buildings on your own board is so cool. And then dropping the limit of just one worker per turn on your own buildings really changes the tempo and arc of the game. So that usually, during the early game, most of the action takes place on the shared board, and the goal is to take as few retrieval turns as you can to be more efficient. But near the end, when you've built your "engine" of buildings, you're probably alternating placement and retrieval turns one after the other as you run the engine.

It also includes a lot more player interaction than your typical worker placement, both in the Espionage track (where you can use other players' buildings) and the ability to bomb opponents' buildings (using your planes in the Airstrike action) is really unique.

And then to top it off, The Manhattan Project has such a cool theme and looks so amazing, and it's just a ton of fun to actually play. I could go on about it, but considering that I've already written a full review as well.
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Chris Norwood
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Come visit me at GamerChris.com for all sorts of chewy, gamery goodness!
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Again, if you want to listen to the entire podcast that this came out of, or if you want to see some of the resources that I developed in preparing for the episode (the timeline and list of worker-placement elements), here is the thread on my guild where you can find that sort of thing.
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