I am known to dislike worker placement and deck building games, a view many people do not understand, so I’m going to try to explain why. I should say that any discussion of mechanics is especially prone to devolve into semantics and misunderstanding and pointlessness. But we’ll give it a go.
My fundamental problem with “pure” worker placement and with deck building is that neither (and especially the latter) appears to have anything to do with reality. I make games that to a greater or lesser extent model some “real” situation, even if that’s a fictional situation. If I’m doing things in the game that I cannot associate with doing something in a real world (note I didn’t say the real world), then the game had better be purely abstract. Purely abstract games are games with one or a few simple mechanics that present interesting problems.
Deck building is an epitome of that sort of game, highly abstract but not as simple as it could be. Deck building can also be a way to enable players to have some control over what cards they have in their hand, and that’s not bad in itself, but it takes a lot of time before you can then use that deck to play the actual game. Being of an older generation, I’m used to the idea of a game player being more like a coach of a team than a general manager. The general manager’s job is to acquire the players; the coach’s job is to enable the players he has to play the game as well as possible, to win the game. Deck building is much like a time-consuming general manager’s job. I am more likely to say “suck it up and deal with it” than are contemporaries, that is, I take the coaching job as more challenging and more interesting.
Worker placement is often used as a blocking mechanism (what I called the “pure” version), although worker placement can vary across a spectrum. At one end you allocate a worker and no one else can do in that turn what that worker is going to do: that almost never happens in the real world. (Don’t bother giving me examples where it does; “almost never.” Further, I’m educated as an historian, and I’ve heard all kinds of bullpucky explanations for why something or other corresponds to the real world, that are nonsense.) At the other end of the spectrum, worker placement is a form of tracking action points, where allocation of workers is the equivalent of deciding what to do with your action points. That’s okay with me, and can directly relate to the real world, though I like to find different ways to express it because of the taint from the other extreme. Action points is a fine way to “put the player on the horns of a dilemma”, a fine way to make people make choices when they want to do more than they can do.
What really disturbs me is that these mechanics are used almost as an end in themselves rather than as a means. In other words, worker placement and deck building seem to dominate the game, and that’s not what mechanics are for. Yes, you can help people understand your game by saying it’s a worker placement game or deck building game, but that’s not what you should talk about first. You should talk about what the game is about, that is, what it models, or should talk about how it’s a simple abstract game, or that it’s a puzzle-game (which is what most of these wp/db games really) with some atmosphere/decoration “theme” attached. I have recommended that when a designer describes his game to a publisher, do not talk about mechanics first. I hope the publisher, and certainly I, want to know “what is the player going to Do.” Secondly they want to know what story is going to sell the game, because even the tacked-on stories seem to work with a considerable audience. Serious players want to know what they’re going to do, not what mechanic dominates your game. If all the player is going to do is worker placement or deck building, then it’s not much of a game.
When I hear someone begin talking about a game by saying “it’s a worker placement game” then 1) that doesn’t really tell me anything about the game, and 2) I think to myself “OMG, yet another in a myriad of worker placement games.” I hear someone in the audience say, ‘but you can start out by saying it’s a wargame’”. Yes, but wargame is a genre not a mechanic (people sometimes confuse the two), so it does tell you a lot about what the game is like. I’m not entirely thrilled when someone who is designing wargames starts out by saying “it’s a card driven game” (card driven is a well-known mechanic in wargames). And you can say that a particular wargame is, say, “Britannia -like”, but that’s a system, a collection of mechanics toward a particular end, not just one mechanic.
So I suppose we ought to differentiate between system and mechanic. In wargames it’s common to use the same modeling system for several different games. For example a system that models Napoleonic battles can be used for games about many of the individual battles. The system is a collection of mechanics that is meant to model the situation. Wargamers are not in search of new mechanics generally, they are in search of good models of warfare. This is a big contrast with some players of Eurostyle games who are interested in mechanics they have not seen before because they’re tired of playing the same old mechanics again and again (such as worker placement and deck building!). Wargame designers tend to design separate games, Eurostyle designers tend to design multiple expansions to a game rather than use the system for another game. (Video game people do both, with sequels (which sometimes don’t even change the setting) and with DLC.)
When wargamers think about mechanics, they typically are thinking about how well or how poorly a mechanic models a real situation. When Eurostyle players think about mechanics, they’re typically thinking about how clever or unusual the mechanic is. So praise for a wargame mechanic is “it models this well” while praise for a Euro mechanic is “that’s clever” - abstract once again.