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Subject: Ludology Episode 83 - All Work And No Place Make Games A Dull Toy rss

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Geoffrey Engelstein
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Ryan and Geoff do a deep dive into the world of Worker Placement games. What makes them tick? Why would designers use that mechanism? What are the pitfalls to avoid?

Duration: 01:06:39

Available on iTunes or at http://www.ludology.net
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Worker Placement is my favourite action selection mechanic, because it introduces interaction to the simple act of picking what you're going to do.

Euphoria: Build A Better Dystopia manages to be a fun worker placement game where most of the spaces don't get blocked (The resource collection spaces change what they do depending on the number of pips in them, other spaces give your opponant another turn before having to spend a turn pulling workers back (the 'bumping' mechanic, which interacts interestingly with the worker attrition mechanic). There's still player interaction there, but it's more passive than in the standard 'go on to a space and block it off completely' mechanic.

One of my favourite turn order mechanics for worker placement is Dungeon Pets which kind of has a silent auction for turn order - the larger the group of workers you put your imps (and gold, but all groups must have at least one imp) into, the sooner that group goes... But the more you pile up your imps (and maybe gold) like that, the less actions you'll be able to take that turn. A first player exists, and rotates, but purely as a tie-break for if multiple groups of the same size are present.
 
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Looking forward to this episode.

Working on a worker placement prototype and hoping to get some good ideas from Geoff and Ryan!
 
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Asger Harding Granerud
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Hi Geoff and Ryan.

Inside the episode you debate the aspect of games, where turn order can be manipulated, and I have to disagree with both of you.

You criticize games where one player solely determines the turn order, and the other players as a result receive "random" rewards (going 2nd) or penalties (going last). You prefer games with a more granulated approach, allowing one player to grab 1st, another 2nd, etc.

Firstly I see games that apply your granulated approach, without too much thought (IMO). The extra detail comes at a cost, and that cost is rarely weighed against the benefits. The flow of the game gets disrupted, and it dramatically increases the chance of mid game mistakes (even among experienced gamers). These aren't light concerns. I would prefer if all designers ask them self if their game is truly so finely balanced, that adding those costs, are necessary for this game's balance. I would also wager that it is rarely the case.
To me it isn't enough of an argument that it "feels" wrong. There has to be an important balance issue before you tag on extra rules. And correcting 1 mm on a design that clearly has leeway measured in cm otherwise, isn't a valid argument either.

Of course, there is also a debate regarding whether or not it isn't still a skill to analyze who is more likely to pick first player, and thus factor in rewards/penalties to the equation on whether or not you should have picked it yourself. How "random" is it really, just because it seems outside your immediate control.

Summary:
Use it, but use it wisely.
Be aware if the costs outweigh the benefits.
Don't let emotional knee jerk reactions, take control of your design.
Less is more.

Regards
Asger Granerud

PS I haven't played Agricola, Through the ages or Caylus. And I'm still happy whistle
 
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Geoffrey Engelstein
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I think that's a fair point. Designers need to weigh the additional complexity required to address possible balance concerns with the extra load they place on the game. For heavier games this may be more of an issue than lighter fare, where perfect balance isn't necessary, or is hidden in any case by other random factors.

However I think it highlights that turn order is a potential defect in the Worker Placement mechanic. You're basically saying that it may not be worth the cost to correct the defect, but that doesn't mean that it isn't there.
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Asger Harding Granerud
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I agree the defect is present particularly in WP games. Other games also seem to try to address it, with the same "solution". North West Passage is such an example where it has been added unnecessarily. Still my favourite Essen 2014 game!

It isn't just heavy games though. Lighter games light to have a hugger threshhold for adding extra rules.

Regards
Asger Granerud
 
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engelstein wrote:
I think that's a fair point. Designers need to weigh the additional complexity required to address possible balance concerns with the extra load they place on the game. For heavier games this may be more of an issue than lighter fare, where perfect balance isn't necessary, or is hidden in any case by other random factors.

I playtest a lot of games, and I often see a designer have a rule "to make it even" that doesn't make the game more balanced or fair, it just makes something even. I won a game on Saturday, and I'm about to tell the designer I think it was because I went last, and his last equalizing rule favors last place. Evening up a game is not an easy thing to do.

These numbers are completely made up: 1st 25%, 2nd 22%, 3rd 27%, 4th 26%. Based on my experience, I believe that is the chance of winning Alien Frontiers based on starting position. Is that fair? To paraphrase Krusty, it's not just fair, it's fair enough.
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Tim Koppang
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A few games worth considering regarding worker placement are Keyflower, Lancaster, and Glen More. The first combines auction with worker placement -- and toys with the idea of what happens to your workers after you place them depending on the action space they are on. Lancaster does something similar, but also feels a bit like area control. Finally, I think Glen More is really interesting. I usually think of it as an open drafting game more than worker placement. You choose a tile to add to your tableau by placing a worker on that tile around a circular track. However, once you select a tile, you can only select tiles in the future if they are further along the track. In this way, Glen More bares some similarities to Egizia; however, it differs in that players only get one worker and there aren't really rounds. In other words, it's in the same ballpark as worker placement, but slightly different. A variation on the theme.
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Chad
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I'm going to upset a lot of people with this post, but that's just the way it is.

As I was listening to the podcast this morning, I was practically screaming in my car. One of the premises stated was that worker placement games are fun because the game goes Boom-Boom-Boom, especially as the game progress and options become more limited. In my group at least (and I'm sure I'm not the only one) this is never the case. In a group that has at least one member prone to Analysis Paralysis, worker placement games can be a slow and painful dirge. If you get 2...well let's just say that I've been in 4+ hour games of Caylus that seemed even longer. I have yet to be in a game using worker placement that didn't drag on (and on...and on) because someone at the table had a severe case of AP.

Of course, this causes delays in any game, but this appears to be magnified in worker placement games, probably due to the enormous number of possibilities offered and how plans need to constantly evolve based on choices from other players. As a result, there are very few worker placement games that I can stand. Caylus,Agricola, Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery, and others have all fallen to the side as they seem to sap all the fun of what should be a "game". The only worker placement game I can stand and even partially enjoy is Eclipse, but by the standards listed in the podcast it may not fully qualify as worker placement as the available actions are not table limited as they are in most other wp games.

I'm still willing to try just about any game at least once, but any worker placement game has a long fight ahead of it with me. I've been bitten too many times by a bad AP scenario and these games amplify the problem.
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Tim Koppang
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Chad,

I don't think there's anything particularly controversial in what you're saying -- but I'm glad you were able to get it off your chest! Perhaps it's just your particular group and worker placement games. However, wouldn't you agree that AP prone players will stall the experience in any sufficiently complex game with long-term planning?

Yes, in a worst case scenario, with a game like, say, Alien Frontiers, the AP-prone player can bring a game to a near standstill. He's faced with the task of assigning as many as 6 or 7 workers among 9 stations. However, in many (most?) worker placement games, where you have to assign a single worker to one of maybe a dozen stations each turn, the choice is more straightforward. It's certainly quicker/easier than in a game like Alien Frontiers.

On the other hand, I think what worker placement games do well is force the players into a mindset where they are thinking a few moves ahead. They need to make a plan, prioritize their actions according to their needs and the needs of the other players, and then carry out that plan from turn to turn -- adapting as stations fill up. So in this way, worker placement games can exacerbate the AP-prone player's tendency to take forever. The more permutations they have to think through, the longer they take.

But this tendency to plan ahead, and therefore take forever each turn, isn't exclusive or even necessarily more common with worker placement games. Any game that allows for long-term strategy is going to trigger the AP-prone's desire to think, think, think. The list of games that require multi-turn strategy is quite long and filled with games outside of the worker placement family.

What do you think? How does your group handle games other than worker placement games that require multi-turn plans?
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Ryan Sturm
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Chad,

Garfield and Elias come up with a great term in their book, Agential. Agential elements are those that are dependent upon the particular people playing a game.

It sounds like you have a much varied experience of these games because of your particular players. Yes these games can go this way but it is far from the "norm." I have played an almost 3 hour long game of Caylus and that seemed ridiculous and excruciating, 4 seems unfathomable.

I think you need to play these great games with people who are able to play the games closer to the intended pace, if your group takes that long to play worker placement it seems like they are the wrong audience for those games.

One of the highlights of worker placement, for those that enjoy it, is the feature of making a lot of rapid fire interesting decisions. If those decisions are each taking place in ponderous slow motion, well yes, that will suck all the fun out of these games. I have been in and seen a few of these games. I once saw a group play Agricola for 5 hours, I pitied them, I really did.
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I think worker placement is an interesting mechanism, but the vast vast vast majority use WP as the engine for a resource conversion game, which I generally find kind of boring. I'm much more interested in how it's used in Robinson Crusoe to power a threat management game, or in dominant species to power an area majority game. I'm not saying we won't see WP go further within the resource conversion genre, but I think it's future innovations are within other types of games.
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Chad
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tckoppang wrote:
Chad,

I don't think there's anything particularly controversial in what you're saying -- but I'm glad you were able to get it off your chest! Perhaps it's just your particular group and worker placement games. However, wouldn't you agree that AP prone players will stall the experience in any sufficiently complex game with long-term planning?

Yes, in a worst case scenario, with a game like, say, Alien Frontiers, the AP-prone player can bring a game to a near standstill. He's faced with the task of assigning as many as 6 or 7 workers among 9 stations. However, in many (most?) worker placement games, where you have to assign a single worker to one of maybe a dozen stations each turn, the choice is more straightforward. It's certainly quicker/easier than in a game like Alien Frontiers.

On the other hand, I think what worker placement games do well is force the players into a mindset where they are thinking a few moves ahead. They need to make a plan, prioritize their actions according to their needs and the needs of the other players, and then carry out that plan from turn to turn -- adapting as stations fill up. So in this way, worker placement games can exacerbate the AP-prone player's tendency to take forever. The more permutations they have to think through, the longer they take.

But this tendency to plan ahead, and therefore take forever each turn, isn't exclusive or even necessarily more common with worker placement games. Any game that allows for long-term strategy is going to trigger the AP-prone's desire to think, think, think. The list of games that require multi-turn strategy is quite long and filled with games outside of the worker placement family.

What do you think? How does your group handle games other than worker placement games that require multi-turn plans?


I do think that AP-prone players will cause slowdowns in any game, but they are much more prone to it in worker placement games for the exact same reason that many people like them: the choices. Yes, many games feature multi-turn strategy, but not many where the choices are so varied and dependent on each play of every other player. In other cases, the decisions necessary are segmented within the game, forcing the player to focus on one piece of the strategy at a time. Let's take a game like Power Grid. This requires a long-term strategy interrupted by other player's plays as well (He went into my planned city or she outbid me on that power plant). An AP-prone isn't normally reformulating his whole strategy at each stage. Yes, what he wins in an auction is going to affect his resource management, but during an auction his decision is very focused: Do I bid on this power plant? Do they still slow down...of course. But it is not nearly as bad as in a worker placement game where they are faced with almost every choice in the game at every opportunity they have to make a play. This is what slows them down and, while not unique to worker placement games, is one of the things that makes it a worker placement game.

RyanSturm wrote:
Chad,

Garfield and Elias come up with a great term in their book, Agential. Agential elements are those that are dependent upon the particular people playing a game.

It sounds like you have a much varied experience of these games because of your particular players. Yes these games can go this way but it is far from the "norm." I have played an almost 3 hour long game of Caylus and that seemed ridiculous and excruciating, 4 seems unfathomable.

I think you need to play these great games with people who are able to play the games closer to the intended pace, if your group takes that long to play worker placement it seems like they are the wrong audience for those games.

One of the highlights of worker placement, for those that enjoy it, is the feature of making a lot of rapid fire interesting decisions. If those decisions are each taking place in ponderous slow motion, well yes, that will suck all the fun out of these games. I have been in and seen a few of these games. I once saw a group play Agricola for 5 hours, I pitied them, I really did.


It's funny that you say this is the wrong audience for these games. In the case of my group at least, the ironic fact is that the AP-prone player(s) are the ones who LOVE worker placement games and are the primary owners. They enjoy mulling over the various possibilities...and re-mulling over and over...even if it slows the game to a crawl.

Like I said, I'm still willing to try any game at least once. But, if someone mentions worker placement my heart sinks a little bit because at this point my view of them is that they are just "exercises" in making a few decisions and then waiting...and waiting...and waiting some more.
 
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    Good Lord, never has an episode of Ludology ever so clearly delineated why I hate a game mechanic as this one. Each time Ryan mentioned why he looooooved something about it I just couldn't have disagreed more. I certainly don't make a secret about not liking Worker Placement and I darn near deleted this episode without listening, but I mean jeeze, thank you for so lucidly describing all of the uglies of worker placement so that I can fully understand why the games bother me so much.

             S.


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When there are disagreements, I tend to find myself on Team Geoff a bit more often than Team Ryan, but this episode I agreed with Ryan almost top to bottom. Perhaps it is just because I also looooove, loooooove, loooooove Caylus so see worker placements games through a very similar lens to Ryan.

I especially agreed with Ryan on the crappy/overrated ones. I played Russian Railroads once when it first came out and am now in the middle of my first yucata.de game of it. IMO the problem with this game is that it is way too easy to do what you want to do. Some spots are clearly better than others, but there is almost no tension in this game. Bland game.

The one place where I might not have agreed is that I find Dominant Species to be a thoroughly meh game. It suffers from one of the same main problems as Power Grid, where the game is mostly just setting yourself up for the correct position for the end game. What you do along the way matters very little unless you royally screw things up. And it is a painfully long game for it do depend so heavily on the end game.

I also have a half-formed thought in my head related to Tzolkin and how that game is much more about timing your own operations than the tension of people taking the spots you need. I am not a very good Tzolkin player (6-8 plays total), but it feels to me that it is much more you against the system than it is you outmaneuvering your opponents (where Caylus is clearly about outmaneuvering your opponents).

Fun episode overall. When Caylus came out, worker placement felt revolutionary, but I agree with Geoff that it is much more evolutionary than revolutionary.
 
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Really enjoyed the episode, Ryan & Geoff. Great discussion of a mechanism that I too love in games.

Following on from your mention of Village and how it is one of the only (or perhaps THE only) games where meeple age & die, and how the actions they take differ depending on their age: Are there any WP games where meeple tire out as they are moved about, and have to be taken back to 'recuperate' their strength? Possibly also affecting what actions they can do, or how 'much' of an action they can perform, depending on how tired they are? I think that would make a very interesting game...
 
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njshaw2 wrote:
Following on from your mention of Village and how it is one of the only (or perhaps THE only) games where meeple age & die, and how the actions they take differ depending on their age: Are there any WP games where meeple tire out as they are moved about, and have to be taken back to 'recuperate' their strength? Possibly also affecting what actions they can do, or how 'much' of an action they can perform, depending on how tired they are? I think that would make a very interesting game...
Magnum Sal has workers that tire out. It is a salt mining game and whenever you extract salt from the mines you have to lay all of your miners on their side. To get them ready to work again you either have to take an entire turn to rest all of your workers or use an item (bread) to get two of them ready to go.
But none of your other questions apply. It is a binary thing. They are either ready to go and can extract salt or tired and can't do anything.
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This discussion of Village made me think that there are two conceptions of WP games at work here: one is based on action drafting (as in the BGG's page on this mechanic), according to which El Grande is definitely a WP game and Village is not - at least not with its meeples (it's rather a worker displacement game, where the workers are the cubes and actions are drafted by displacing them from the board). The other is more of thematic definition, which sees Village as an elaboration of the WP mechanic, but would exclude El Grande.

I also disagree that without one space being obviously better there is no tension in WP, the tension can come from various ways in which different strategies interact. I've written about both these things here.

Great episode!
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njshaw2 wrote:
Really enjoyed the episode, Ryan & Geoff. Great discussion of a mechanism that I too love in games.

Following on from your mention of Village and how it is one of the only (or perhaps THE only) games where meeple age & die, and how the actions they take differ depending on their age: Are there any WP games where meeple tire out as they are moved about, and have to be taken back to 'recuperate' their strength? Possibly also affecting what actions they can do, or how 'much' of an action they can perform, depending on how tired they are? I think that would make a very interesting game...


Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia has them run away if they get too smart, but I don't think that's quite the same thing, since that's a push your luck mechanic that thematically balances the benefits to having more workers in a more interesting way than feeding them...

As for AP in WP games... Yeah, it can happen, and it can happen pretty badly. But usually when the AP dust settles, that's the entire round, maybe the next round as well, of moves that if not decided you roughly know what you're going to do on now that you've worked out how the heck to start. Maybe not the exact moves, but the broad picture that you can adjust on the fly to what your opponents are doing.
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Late listener to the podcast. I have a few comments:

1) Tzolk'in doesn't give extra resources to players who are not going first. Do you think that's an issue with the game? Did it compensate for it some other way?

2) I don't really consider Village to be a worker placement game. The family members don't block anyone. They only enable you to perform some actions, and once you allocate a worker somewhere, you're slightly invested in that action. The main mechanism is the action drafting of cubes, which is a bit interesting since both the location and color of the cube you draft matter.

3) Similarly with Troyes - IMO not a worker placement according to the loose definition you provided. You draft dice from a shared pool - the actions you take with those dice don't really prevent others from taking the same actions - dice go off the board once used. The meeples you do place on activities and in the "houses" are more like ownership markers.
 
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njshaw2 wrote:
Really enjoyed the episode, Ryan & Geoff. Great discussion of a mechanism that I too love in games.

Following on from your mention of Village and how it is one of the only (or perhaps THE only) games where meeple age & die, and how the actions they take differ depending on their age: Are there any WP games where meeple tire out as they are moved about, and have to be taken back to 'recuperate' their strength? Possibly also affecting what actions they can do, or how 'much' of an action they can perform, depending on how tired they are? I think that would make a very interesting game...


In Praetor your workers (unrolled dice) can 'level up' and become more powerful, but once they reach level 6 they have to retire (though I think can be brought out of retirement)

Brian
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N9IWP wrote:
njshaw2 wrote:
Really enjoyed the episode, Ryan & Geoff. Great discussion of a mechanism that I too love in games.

Following on from your mention of Village and how it is one of the only (or perhaps THE only) games where meeple age & die, and how the actions they take differ depending on their age: Are there any WP games where meeple tire out as they are moved about, and have to be taken back to 'recuperate' their strength? Possibly also affecting what actions they can do, or how 'much' of an action they can perform, depending on how tired they are? I think that would make a very interesting game...


In Praetor your workers (unrolled dice) can 'level up' and become more powerful, but once they reach level 6 they have to retire (though I think can be brought out of retirement)

Brian


Thanks for the comment; good thought.

There's also The Ancient World in which your armies require more and more money to pay them to fight each time you send them out, and it's often more cost effective to retire them to help train new, cheaper, armies. Not exactly "workers", but a similar style 'ageing' mechanism.
 
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SaltyHorse wrote:
Late listener to the podcast. I have a few comments:

2) I don't really consider Village to be a worker placement game. The family members don't block anyone. They only enable you to perform some actions, and once you allocate a worker somewhere, you're slightly invested in that action. The main mechanism is the action drafting of cubes, which is a bit interesting since both the location and color of the cube you draft matter.



As I wrote elsewhere, Village is more of a worker displacement with regard the cubes: the actual workers (the family members) are not very similar at all to WP. But the removal of cubes is very much a WP mechanism - some spaces allow multiple, though, limited, 'workers' (that is, displacement of cubes). Which is why it's a very low interaction WP where there is relatively little you can do to mess with your opponent (and actually the main way to influence your opponent's strategy is in terms of the speed of the game, which is outside the WP).
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Perrytom wrote:
As I wrote elsewhere, Village is more of a worker displacement with regard the cubes: the actual workers (the family members) are not very similar at all to WP. But the removal of cubes is very much a WP mechanism - some spaces allow multiple, though, limited, 'workers' (that is, displacement of cubes). Which is why it's a very low interaction WP where there is relatively little you can do to mess with your opponent (and actually the main way to influence your opponent's strategy is in terms of the speed of the game, which is outside the WP).

I noticed your article above and will read it soon. Thanks

I ranted about this in a BGG suggestion thread, where I called for the Worker Placement category to be renamed "Worker Placement / Action Drafting".
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Of course I've been up all night! Not because of caffeine, it was insomnia. I couldn't stop thinking about coffee.
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SaltyHorse wrote:
1) Tzolk'in doesn't give extra resources to players who are not going first. Do you think that's an issue with the game? Did it compensate for it some other way?


Those who play later can access the better actions sooner. If you're late in turn order you value early corn higher for this reason.
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