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Worker Placement and Deck-Building

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.


Neither "modeling well" nor

Neither "modeling well" nor "clever" guarantees fun experience. Players aren't tired of the mechanism if its implemented well and fits the game. Great western trail (one of the last years hits) uses deckbuilding element. Tyrants of the underdark was well received as well.
No single mechanism will make or break the game on its own.

Thanks for explaining

I totally understand what you are getting at now (I think) and I respect your position. I agree with the reasons you dislike the way these mechanisms are used (overused), I just don't dislike the mechanisms themselves and think there can be great ways to use them.

From what you wrote I get the feeling that what you truly dislike about these things is the human nature element as it relates to "the cult of the new" and "the desire for simple and easy".

Those are some of the reasons we see these mechanisms used as "the whole game" over and over again. Once a cool new mechanic is understood and familiar people don't need to do as much work to have fun with any "new" game that uses it.

People want new and simple... That means designers will continue to have a hard time putting out board games that can truly do more. People as a whole don't want to invest the time and effort into anything more complex.

Designers must fight against the way people are resistant to change and don't want to "work" at anything "fun". Learning new rules and mechanisms flies in the face of human laziness and that is why most people learn games from a person teaching them the rules (rather than reading the rules for themselves).

As these mechanisms become more familiar to people at large, I think we will see them become smaller and smaller parts of larger and better games (this is already starting to happen).

The trend of having a well made "how to play" video for every new board game will become the "norm" in the next few years.

But I think at this point we are stuck with the way worker placement is use for both limiting action selection and action point allowance systems.

I do agree with what you have said, but the pragmatist in me just knows I don't have the power to directly change human nature. All we can do is make good games, share what we have learned with other designers and hope it will influence the way games are made in the future.


Slightly off topic

I would like to comment on a few things here.
The wargame is the original eurogame, but was pure simulation. I tend to think in terms of amerigame vs eurogame. No matter the mechanics, they tend to be-
eurogame- random happens, then you make a decision
amerigame- you make a decision, then random happens
I look at it as a difference in how we live, are raised, and how old our cultures and histories are.
Here in the US, we are a young country that has not faltered much on the world stage, has not been invaded, has not had to fight to keep our culture. Therefore, we have been big adoptees of randomness; we want to see what we can do when faced with a random obstacle.
Europeans tend to like 'order' and they should, it is how they are raised, for the most part. Standing in line in europe is much different than standing in line in the US.

"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."

I do like when someone says "it's a card driven game", because I don't care for card driven games and it tells me enough.
When someone says a game is brittania-like, it can mean many things, especially to that person. This happens a lot with video games. You may walk into a shop and say 'I am looking for something COD-like', and get handed a copy of Battlefield. You go home and play it, and return to the store the next day and say 'I wanted something COD-like', and there are many replies you could get, but most likely will get 'It's FPS, lots of guns, and killing'. They are completely different, but that person sees the base gameplay and not the rest of the game.

With changes to societies I think we will see a shift of sorts over the next few years. I think europeans will be producing more random-run games and we will produce more mechanic driven games. As more chaos enters the lives of the young, they will produce more randomness; here, the youth will be craving more 'order' and produce more eurostyle games.
Games are coping mechanisms themselves, and in ways explain our cultures and how we tend to live.

"praise for a Euro mechanic is “that’s clever” - abstract"
I don't see it as abstract, I see it as out of context. There are a lot of reasons someone would say that, and the first thing I think of is that they had never thought of that mechanic as doing that task.
If you create a dungeon crawler that functions off a deck of playing cards (2-ace), many will say it is clever since they never thought someone could do it, and it never occurred to them to try.

As far as worker placement goes, I am not a fan of it myself, but see it's uses and benefits, just as with deck builders. (I played a mmo that once you hit a certain 'level' the game became heavily worker placement, and that is when I left.)

Ultimately we are going to describe things as they make sense to us first, the other person second. When a game is described as *mechanic driven*, it satisfies a portion of people who can at that point decide if they want to invest the time or not. Some will walk away, some will look into it more, some will be all in.

I can also see why it is upsetting(?) to you in particular. You look at games in a way not too many others really do, or talk about. You may know "too much" in this area to see things the way others do (simply).

I was like that when I was big into video games. "No, those two games are not similar, here is a laundry list of differences." But to the other person, run-n-gun is run-n-gun.

From OP: "What really

From OP: "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."

Couldn't agree more! IMO, games should be designed for the experience they offer players, not for the mechanics they offer players!

For me, part of the experience is that the elements and mechanics of a game should also makes sense with the theme, because that adds to my overall experience. I've never played Manhattan Project, and I might have a fun overall experience, but I think it would still bother me a bit that I send bombers around to other players, and yet we share certain buildings where we send workers. Things like that certainly would not flat out "ruin" my experience, but I think it would prevent me from being fully immersed in the theme. And I could be wrong - I would still be happy to give it a try :)

"cleverness" vs. originality

It is my understanding that what Dr. Lew is saying is that he is "unimpressed" with the "cleverness" of a mechanic such as "Deck-Building". (And I only want to comment on Deck-Building - because I have never designed as Worker-Placement game or used that mechanic in one of my designs...)

We all agree "Dominion" was the original Deck-Builder. And many designers say that the "theme" of the game was "Pasted on-top of a more or less ABSTRACT mechanic..."

While this argument is TRUE, we could talk about any other CARD GAME and say "Texas Hold'em" would have it's own card mechanics to control how cards are dealt and used... This could be more of a "system" than a pure mechanic - never the less... it too is very "clever".

One difference I would like to highlight about DECK-BUILDERS is most of them are NOT ORIGINAL (Because it was Dominion who came first) and second of all, they are NOT CLEVER either. They usually use the mechanic pretty much as it was designed.

Where my game is "clever" is that cards are USED for some purpose OTHER than just building a deck. Moreover, designers who have played the game - also explain how the usage of cards applies in deck thinning, something that is a PROBLEM in Deck-Building games. You can specialize a deck, but as it gets bigger, it becomes harder to get the cards you WANT as opposed to getting cards randomly.

So I think it's great to use a "mechanic" but can you use it in a "clever" manner. Or are you just using the mechanic AS-IS ... without any additional nuances to make the experience DIFFERENT. And what I would like to compare this to, is POKER. "Texas Hold'em" is different than "Five Card Draw" and we should AIM to create NEW and INTERESTING "systems" using older mechanics such that our designs are "fresh" and "innovative".


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blog | by Dr. Radut