Do you want to design a worker placement game?

Are you working on a design, but want to make it better? Would you like to get tips from successful designers? If so, grab your meeples, and read on. I’ve broken the process down into 4 steps: Research, Innovate, Build, and Refine. Simply place your meeple in the appropriate space and then take the action indicated. In this installment, I cover the first two stages: Research and Innovate.

See also Part 2 of this series, in which I cover the Build step, and Part 3, in which I cover the Refine step. In Part 4, I discuss The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire.

4 steps to design WP

1. Start with Research

If you want to design worker placement games, you’ll need to do your research. This will include learning about principles of worker placement, playing worker placement games, and learning from the experiences of other designers.

Know Worker Placement

Worker Placement is a game mechanic which involves placing your personal, limited supply of game pieces (workers) onto board spaces to gain resources or trigger effects, often to the exclusion of other players.

Some of the most heated debates on online forums involve definitions. What is a Euro game? What is a medium-heavy game? What constitutes “too much luck.” The definition of worker placement is no exception. For designers, here is what is most important to know:

  • Be aware of which games are widely-accepted as worker placement games.
  • Get to know the characteristics common to worker placement games.
  • Worker placement can be the core mechanic in your game, triggering the vast majority of game effects, or it can play a lesser role, used to augment other mechanics like card drafting, tableau building, or area control.
  • Don’t confuse genre with mechanic. There is absolutely no requirement that a worker placement game has to be a medium-heavy cube-pushing Euro-style game.
  • You are under no obligation to design a game that fits the definition of worker placement. Design the game to be the way you want it to be, and let other people worry about defining it.

Play Worker Placement Games

The most important step in your research is to play worker placement games. You need to be well-versed in both classic and newer innovative implementations of the mechanic. Ultimately, for your design to be successful, either as a kickstarter or to license to a publisher, you need a game that will sell, so you also need to learn some lessons from games that may not seem as innovative, but are still popular. And while this piece is focusing more on the mechanics of worker placement, theme and the feel of the game are, of course, very important.

WHICH GAMES SHOULD I SHOULD PLAY?

Below is a list of 10 worker placement games that was compiled based on a survey of game designers. You should play a breadth of worker placement games. There is no one, single worker placement game to end all others, but there are several that should be on every designer’s radar. Choose at least a few from the following list, but by no means confine your experiences to the games recommended here.

  • Agricola
  • Stone Age
  • Lords of Waterdeep
  • Caylus
  • Tzolk’in
  • Village
  • Pillars of the Earth
  • Manhattan Project
  • Kingsburg
  • Euphoria


Other games to explore: Keyflower, Alien Frontiers, Madeira, Dominant Species, Skagway, Viticulture, and Age of Empires III. Also take a look at the expansions for each of the above, where many innovations appear. See the Geeklist for more ideas and perspectives.

Learn from the Experts

Fortunately, the boardgame design community is very forthcoming with information and advice. Many designers take time to share thoughts about their designs and their processes on blogs and forums like this one. I will include tips from several notable designers in the sections that follow.

“Play a wide variety of published worker-placement games. Play games where you place all of your workers at once or one per turn. Play games where you get the benefit right away or only at the end of the round. Play games where workers are meeples, dice, etc. Pay attention to what works and doesn’t work.” – Jamey Stegmaier

Additional Reading:

4 steps to design WP

2. Innovation Spurs Innovation

It’s not enough to invent a new game. Tabletop gamers and publishers demand innovation. They are looking for a sweet spot of new and exciting themes and mechanics that also have a degree of familiarity. (See my previous post: “You Can’t Overuse a Good Theme.”)

Chances are, you’re a creative designer and you already have tons of ideas for new innovations in worker placement. You just need to figure out how to put all the pieces together. That said, it’s also entirely possible that you and many others are simultaneously working on the same innovations because of the natural progression of the field. (See Tom Jolly’s post which discusses independent invention: “Those Bastards Stole My Game!”)

Designers often describe how playing one game inspired them to contemplate a similar game with another theme, or a slightly different version of an existing mechanic. Once they started to tinker in this new direction, one change led to many others. While interviewing Brandon Tibbetts, designer of The Manhattan Project, he described how his dislike for variable turn order was one the driving factors in his development of the turn-based “place or remove” method of worker placement. This innovation led to others. In turn, other designers (including this author) have been inspired by various aspects of The Manhattan Project.

Brandon Tibbetts offers the following advice to designers: “Don’t feel stuck in the molds of what’s been done already with worker placement. There are a lot of nuances left to be explored. Different worker types. Instant activation/delayed activation (maybe combine both!) Varying degree of exclusivity when it comes to the spaces that are being occupied or activated. Maybe a player’s workers can directly interact somehow with another player’s workers. I don’t think I’ve seen that before. There’s a lot of talk about how worker placement is getting old, but I think there’s still a lot that can be explored with it.”

trobils_game

Asking for Trobils: A Spotlight on Innovation

Christian Strain, a member of the League of Gamemakers, and co-designer Erin McDonald are in the process of putting the finishing touches on an innovative new worker placement game called “Asking for Trobils” which will hit Kickstarter in May of 2014. The game features a playful space theme, lots of orange, and rules that can be mastered in about 10 minutes.

Christian was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on the mechanical innovations in Asking for Trobils: “Asking for Trobils uses a lot of familiar mechanics as other worker-placement games, but one of the mechanics that set it apart from others is our wormhole location.  Starting out, the players get only one ship.  However, the science academy has discovered a wormhole that sends a ship forward in time while at the same time spitting it out the other end.  This means that now there are two of you running around.  A player can go through one more time to have three ships to use instead of just one.  While you can bump other players from a spot, bumping into yourself will cause one of your ships to explode.  The universe doesn’t like it when you meet yourself.”

Playtest for Other Designers

When you have the opportunity to playtest new games by skilled designers, you get a chance to see where innovations are heading, while also getting to hone your own design skills. By volunteering for playtesting sessions at conventions, protospiel events, or by making personal connections with designers, you get the opportunity to make contributions to specific games, but also to the field as a whole. Every contribution you make helps you go back to your own work with more skills, and more awareness of what’s going on in your field.

Members of the League of Gamemakers have been playing and playtesting games designed by Jamey Stegmaier. (See our writeup of Tuscany, the expansion to Viticulture).

Stegmaier advises designers to draw inspiration from the theme: “If you’re going to design a worker-placement game, don’t think about the workers as meeples. Think about them as people. Do they want to do the thing you’ve asked them to do? How much time do they take to do that thing? Do they interact with each other? Are they getting smarter or happier? What does it take for them to get better at their jobs? Are they all the same? Think about workers as people, and it will open you to new aspects of worker placement that are perfect for your game’s theme and will bring something new to the genre.”

Some members of the League are also playtesting Treasure Mountain, a new worker placement game by Dan George, the designer of Road Kill Rally.

Treasure Mountain allows worker dwarves to displace(bump) other players’ dwarves with shorter beards, who then get to take a free turn. This mechanic makes more spaces available on each turn, and makes for a high level of player interaction. In the designers own words: “I feel a good worker placement design takes a compelling theme and wraps it around a mechanic with interesting choices that affect other players’ actions. Worker placement designs that block other players’ actions too much(stonewalling) can be frustrating, while ones with too little interaction are less interesting. The best games find the right balance between the two.”

Steal these Innovations:

I’m a gamer and a game designer. I have nothing to lose from sharing ideas with you in the hopes that great games might be made from them that I will get to play. After all, none of us has the time or the resources to develop all of our ideas. So feel free to steal any of the ideas below, and feel free to share your own!

  • Each turn you place one worker, then remove a different worker.
  • Different worker types can only use certain types of board spaces.
  • Different worker types use the same board spaces differently.
  • Each worker has a “clearance level” that allows it use a certain range of board spaces.
  • Combine worker placement with deck building.
  • Workers are ticking time bombs that explode after a duration.
  • Workers might betray you and change allegiance if treated badly.
  • Some board spaces have effects when workers do NOT occupy them.
  • Board spaces are never completely block-able, but require increasing resources to use depending on how many workers are already there.
  • The benefit of a given space is entirely subject to the positions of other workers.
  • Semi-cooperative traitor worker placement game.
  • At the end of each round, workers do battle based on their locations
  • Feel free to share your own innovation!

If you enjoyed this piece or other articles at the League of Gamemakers, consider voting for us on the “Best Boardgame Sites in the World” list.

If you enjoyed this piece, See Part 2 and Part 3!

Luke Laurie

Game Designer at Luke Laurie Games

Designer of Stones of Fate and The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire
Game designer by night, and middle school science and pre-engineering teacher by day. He lives in Santa Maria California with his amazing wife and two unrealistically well-behaved children.

28 Readers Commented

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  1. Jeff Cornelius on April 18, 2014

    I love the idea of Worker Placement/Deck Builder! I have been batting around ideas for that in my mind for a while now. Someday, I may get it down on paper. But I think there is a lot to explore there as well as in many of the other areas you mention.

    Great Post!

    • John Clair on April 19, 2014

      Take a look at “Study in Emerald” and “Copycat”. Both have Worker Placement and Deckbuilding.

      • Tyler D on May 14, 2014

        Also Rococco has a very slick deck building component that decides what actions you are able to take on a turn, and in what order. It’s a very slimmed down version, but cleverly used as a way to get bonus points, or set yourself up for power turns by remembering what cards in your deck you’re going to pull the following turn. It’s much easier to do since you only get less than a dozen cards.

    • Nicholas Yu on April 23, 2014

      There’s a lot of design space here. I submitted a combination worker placement and deck builder game to a publisher a couple of months ago that was a pretty straightforward take on the two genres, but I’ve thought of many variations since. I think the concepts go together pretty well!

  2. Luke Laurie on April 18, 2014

    Thank you! I really enjoyed writing this piece and having conversations with so many designers.

  3. Steve DeBaun on April 18, 2014

    So I thought I’d try to play with some WP mechanics in one of my in-development titles. After finally coming up with something that works, I’m now not so sure that it qualifies as “Worker Placement”. Having not played a lot of this abysmal type of game, because I find it approximately as fun as chewing broken glass, I thought I’d ask all you glass-chewers if you think my new design qualifies.

    Players have a limited pool of two-sided “workers”, each with a strength that can be hidden when placed face-down. Players place individual workers on areas on the board, one at a time. At turn-end, all worker strengths are revealed. Scoring then happens based on who won which areas.

    I’m totally happy with the mechanics so far, but I’m curious — is this “Worker Placement”?

    • David Brain on April 18, 2014

      That sounds like a variation on one of the earliest worker placement games, Keydom (1999) – better known now as Aladdin’s Dragons – essentially that game is blind bidding for action spots using a limited fixed pool (which is why it definitely qualifies as “worker placement”.) There was another game called Maya (2003) which used a similar idea.
      I don’t think either of them kept the “workers” on the board though (it’s been far too long since I played either of them!)

  4. Luke Laurie Author on April 18, 2014

    @Stephen – do players gain any benefit based on the location space they are placed, other than their value relative to the pieces placed by other players?

    • Steve DeBaun on April 18, 2014

      Hmm… sort of? Depending on how you’re scoping “benefit”?

      The ultimate benefit is in scoring — different areas are scoring every turn.

      There is also a secondary benefit, that winning an area gives you a intrinsic strength in that area that helps you hold it and support adjacent areas on future turns.

      • Ben Rosset on April 19, 2014

        Stephen, that sounds more like area control to me than worker placement.

        • David Brain on April 19, 2014

          For me, the definition of Worker Placement is when you have a limited number of pieces (which are indeed usually workers) that are placed in different spaces, and the main decision point of the game is how you use that limited pool effectively. Leaving them on the spaces as future support would indeed probably be a form of area control but, as the article argues, it’s combining known approaches that leads to innovation.

  5. Norv Brooks on April 18, 2014

    “Workers are ticking time bombs that explode after a duration.” In our new game design which is well along in play testing which is called “Breaking News – Through the Generations” the player builds a new media empire founded by a Media Mogul such as Randolph Hurst. In each of the Generations, Print, Television & Digital Media, there are 3 Turns an starts each Generation with a set number of news workers. A Turn Step which occurs before Worker Placement allows the player to hire an additional Worker for the Turn, the whole Generation or the current Generation & the following Generation at different costs. It seems to work well.

  6. Luke Laurie Author on April 18, 2014

    In part 2, when I get to the “Build” section, I’ll include more discussion on current projects by League members. Lots of innovative worker placement creations going on!

  7. Isaac Shalev on April 18, 2014

    Thinking of workers like actual workers is one path, but I really like the alternative path. WP works just as well if you try to think about it from the ‘building’s’ perspective. If Workers are actually influence, then buildings can stop being resource-production factories, and can start being things like social institutions, eg churches or parts of government or whatever. There’s a lot of room for innovation around the buildings themselves, I feel.

  8. Luke Laurie on April 18, 2014

    Great insight Isaac!

  9. Ben Rosset on April 19, 2014

    Luke thanks for the article. Looking forward to part 2. I think you hit the money with “research”. I researched the heck out of the craft brewing process before designing Brew Crafters. Worker placement fit the theme best, and the worker placement innovation I chose was for thematic reasons also. The worker placement in Brew Crafters is split into 2 phases. In the first phase, you compete with other brewers in the market using your workers. In the second phase, you do work inside your own brewery, and other players cannot block your actions there. This makes thematic sense–actions you choose inside your own brewery shouldn’t directly prohibit me from taking the same actions in mine. Best, Ben

  10. Luke Laurie Author on April 19, 2014

    You’ve got a great point Ben Rosset – that the research should extend outside of the game world into the real world so that the theme can inspire the mechanics. I backed Brew Crafters and am really looking forward to that game this summer. The theme is great, and I like how your mechanics bring the theme to life.

  11. Mario López on April 20, 2014

    Very interesting Luke!
    Firstly, I have to say that I bought a copy of your ‘Stones of Fate’: seemed really smart and fun. Having seen that design, I guess you really can share some ideas about the topic…

    These articles are really useful for new, ‘amateur’ designers as I am. Knowing how the mechanic is used in previous games, and being able to distinguish it from similar things that are not exactly WP is great in order to start thinking in our own way and developing innovations with a solid base. I’m really looking forward to Part 2 to have a complete overview of the mechanic. Thanks!

  12. Luke Laurie Author on April 20, 2014

    Thank you very much Mario! I’m glad you like Stones of Fate, and I’m really glad you got something out of the piece. I hope many amateur designers like yourself discover our writings on the League and benefit from our contributions to the field.

  13. Frank Zazanis on August 27, 2014

    This article series has inspired me to take a few of my WP ideas off the shelf and start working on them again. One of the ideas i’m toying with is using a mechanic where several board spaces are hard to place on, requiring resource payment to go there in order to gain the benefit of that space, however the more times you personally place there, the easier it becomes to place there for you.

    • Luke Laurie on August 27, 2014

      I love it! Great concept Frank. Hope you can implement it!

    • Peter Vaughan on August 27, 2014

      I’d play that game! Awesome idea, Frank – can you whip that up by Friday’s con? :)

      • Frank Zazanis on August 27, 2014

        Got a super rough phase 1 prototype done already, still has a lot of work ahead of it, I’ll bring it Friday :-)

  14. Frank Zazanis on August 27, 2014

    another idea for a different wp mechanic I have not seen. I do not have a game idea to support it yet but WP where after you place your worker it has to walk back to you before you collect the resource/benefit from it as a part of a bigger game…? feel free to use that idea

  15. Carl Frodge on May 8, 2015

    Some more ideas to steal:
    -Simultaneous Action Selection to place workers (Everyone has a hand of cards with the locations on them and everyone chooses one, then they reveal them at the same time. There would be some kind of initiative to determine who goes to each space first)
    -Players can always place their worker on the same space as another worker, but they get a smaller benefit (First person at the location gets 3 gold, second gets 2, third and further get 1, etc.)
    -Once all players workers are on the board, they can never leave, but they can move around.

  16. Dave Armstrong on June 28, 2015

    I’m late to this post, but I’ve been struggling mechanics in Spielmacher where players are board game designers/publishers. Initially I wanted a pure worker placement, but it didn’t offer the interaction and stretched the theme to the breaking point. Combining both worker placement and deck building action cards fit perfectly. Because most designers collaborate with colleagues from all over the globe, it didn’t seem fitting to have one city with action locations. This did not reflect the nomadic nature of the industry. Travel and events are a large part of the process. What I ultimately came up with is a set of base action cards buffed with pro gamer cards that often require worker placement. For instance: In round 3 the event of the quarter is ‘Game It Forward Charity Con’. Playing your EVENT action card allows you to attend by sending meeples to the convention. The type and amount of workers you send will determine the benefits you get. John sends 1 designer(large) meeple and two volunteer(mini) meeple to the convention where he earns 2 reputation and 1 karma. Only a designer can earn karma for the design studio and it takes 2 volunteers to generate 1 reputation. Bonus reputation points are awarded for the players that send the most workers.

    But John had the ‘JR Honeycutt’ pro gamer card that he paired with the EVENT action card giving him a bonus of 2 karma. So John earned 3 karma and 2 reputation for that action. The volunteers are then ‘used’ and returned to the available volunteer pool.

    I’m taking suggestions BTW.

    • Charalampos Tsakiris on October 20, 2015

      Great insight guys… I come a little too late, is there a chance to upgrave the article with newer game suggestions or more games to get an example ?

  17. Bernardo on December 23, 2015

    Thank Google (or God, whichever you believe in) I found this website. Excellent post, specially sharing your ideas for new “tweaks” in WP, such as combining it with deck building. Few people like to share their ideas, fearing they will be “betrayed” by someone “copying” it. I am currently working on my first attempt to design a game and I’m considering a WP approach, this post is very helpful!
    Bravo!

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