12 December 2015

Worker Placement Games

Last night was the Backer Party for the Loot & XP Board Game Cafe. It was a blast! I had so much fun hanging out with awesome people, playing great games, and even making some new friends and reconnecting with some that I haven't seen in years!

In addition to playing Sushi Go and The Red Dragon Inn, I also ended up playing a game called Alchemists. I may do a proper review of that game later, but I just wanted to share a few thoughts I had as a result of playing that game last night.

I described the game to a spectator as a worker placement game with elements of Clue and just a soup├žon of Compounded. I stand by that description. The core element of the game is a deck of eight alchemical ingredients (including toads, mandrake root, and raven's claws), each with specific alchemical properties. The exact properties are randomised by an app on your phone, and you have to spend a large portion of the game combining ingredients to see what potions result from them, and then using that information to deduce the alchemical properties of the ingredients.

But the main game mechanic is worker placement. You have a (ridiculously small) number of action cubes, and you use these to determine which actions you will take in each round. Available actions include: forage for ingredients, transmute ingredients, sell potions, buy artefacts, publish or debunk theories, and test potions (either on yourself or a hapless student of the alchemical arts).

This is not the first worker placement game I've played; Coal Baron and Lords of Waterdeep are pretty much straight worker placement games, although games such as Aquasphere and Dominant Species have mechanics that are closely related to worker placement. Puerto Rico is a variation on worker placement, but rather than placing a single 'worker' to claim your action, you need two (in most circumstances) to produce goods: one to harvest the raw materials, and another in a factory to process them.

I was thinking about it this morning, and I think I've begun to be able to express what it is I don't like about worker placement games.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying I dislike all worker placement games, nor that I won't play them. Especially if it's an interesting variation on the core theme (as seen in Dominant Species and Puerto Rico), it's entirely possible that I will really enjoy and want to play worker placement games.

I'm just saying that there's an inherent disadvantage to many games that use this as a core mechanic.

The inherent disadvantage is this: it can be very difficult to remember the complexities of each of the different possible actions. In most games (to pick one example pretty much at random: Betrayal at House on the Hill), even if there are a fair number of possible actions available to a player on any given turn (using the example of Betrayal at House on the Hill, you can move, attack, explore, drop or pick up items, and depending on which scenario you're playing, take other actions to try to meet the objectives of the current game), each of those actions is pretty straightforward. It requires a couple of paragraphs, at most, to describe how that action works.

But in many worker placement games, each different action can be quite complicated. For example, in Alchemists, it took two pages in the rulebook to explain the 'Sell Potions' action. Not every action was this complex; the 'Transmute Elements' action only took a single column on one page. But several of them were (especially the 'Publish Theories' action; that is almost a game unto itself!).

This can be problematic when trying to teach the game to new players (or, even worse, when you're trying to read the rules for the first time and then explain how the game works to other players who've also never played before, as I was doing last night!). Even once you've played the game once or twice, many of the details can still take some work to understand. I was rereading the rules this morning, and several times, I've said, 'Oh, that's how that was supposed to work!'

Things only get more complicated when actions are superficially similar but vastly different on closer inspection. For example, in Alchemists, the 'Test Potions' actions (whether you're testing on a student or on yourself) are nearly identical, and the 'Sell Potions' action is in most ways very similar to the 'Test Potions' action but is just different enough in the small details that it can be a lot to get your head around.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking this morning. Again, I'm not saying I dislike worker placement games, or that I won't ever play them. I'm just saying that in a lot of them, there's that inherent disadvantage of having too many rules to keep track of in too many different situations.

I think that'll be all for now. I'm not sure if I'll post next week or not; I know I won't the week after next, as it's Boxing Day. But until I do post again, I bid you a fond

Game on!

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