This blog is primarily about game design: how and why games work. However, games themselves are only half of the gaming equation. As Satre (almost) said: gaming is other people. In other words, there’s another crucial element of gaming fun that I’ve touched upon here and there, but that too often goes unspoken: community.
Designing a great gaming community can be every bit as hard as designing a game itself — as I was reminded this last Friday, when I learned that Endgame, my most beloved gaming community ever, is shutting down. This announcement is heart-breaking for the numerous gaming groups that have blossomed at Endgame: the roleplayers, the war gamers, the Magic players, and my own boardgamers. And that heartbreak reveals what a great job Endgame did.
To remember what a great gaming community Endgame has been, and why I’ve been a regular attendee there for 14 years, I wanted to talk a little bit this week about what makes a great gaming community. And, it need almost go unsaid: I learned most of these lessons from Endgame itself.
The Gaming Space
To build a great community, you need to start out with an open and welcoming space.
You Need Great Staff.More generally, you could say “great leaders”, but most great public gaming spaces are in commercial businesses, so I’ll go with “great staff”. They need to be people that are truly invested in the idea of creating a gaming community, who place its creation first and foremost. But, they also need to be down there in the trenches, supporting it every single week with a smile: staying late so that people can play and maybe joining in the games. (Endgame clearly had this when they prioritized building a gaming space into their long-time Uptown Oakland retail space, and over 14 years there was always someone there who was willing and happy to stay, so that we could game.)
You Need Great Space.The gaming space can’t be an afterthought, as I’ve frequently seen in stores that squish their gaming tables in between their shelves after hours. Granted, you can still have an OK gaming space like that, if there aren’t fascist employees ready to yell at you if you lean too close to the shelves of games. (Not a made-up example.) But to generate a community, you really need to have a discrete space: to game, to talk, maybe even to store games. (Endgame had that in spades: they built out two mezzanines above the retail-store level, giving them space to have two different sorts of gaming going on at a time. And I always loved the bridge between the two.)
You Need Consistent Availability.You generate a community through regularity: a weekly time works well. You also generate community by not providing too much time. If you have a gaming space that’s always available, no one knows when to show up, but if you have a strongly scheduled weekly time, then you can quickly build critical mass and keep expanding it. (Endgame’s board game night was Wednesdays; other nights of the week were used for other sorts of games.)
You Need an Ungated Environment.This point will be controversial, but I think you need to avoid barriers in the form of required payments to use the gaming space. Because that’ll keep out casual players, it’ll keep out poor players, and it’ll keep out principled players who disagree with the policy. That’ll damage both the diversity and the critical mass of the community. Of course, a gaming space needs to pay for itself one way or another. That means that you need to convince people who use the space to support the store and in a world of internet discounting, that’s very tricky. The best choice is obviously to build a culture where that happens, but absent that I think the most acceptable compromise is to require occasional purchases or to charge fees that are convertible to gift certificates. (Endgame never charged a fee, except for tournaments where they were obviously required, like Magic drafts, but they did figure out other ways to raise funds from players, most notably from their auctions, where players put used games into the auction and then got gift certificates back for the monies raised. Their yearly parties were also good fund raisers.)
It’s a little harder to mold your player base, but modeling and rules can sure help.
You Need a Large Player Base.You want to ensure that whenever people come together to game, they’ll have plenty of opponents (or compatriots in a bold new world of co-op gaming). The best way to ensure that is probably a great gaming space that meets all the criteria listed above. Build it and they will come. However, you also need to make sure your playing space is large and everything about it is welcoming. (Endgame had eight tables laid out for board gaming, and on occasion filled them all and even overflowed into other areas. How’d they do it? Being in the center of the very populous San Francisco East Bay obviously helped, but they also made sure that everything about their space was great.)
You Need Friendly Players.This may be the hardest rule of all; how do you control the behavior of players? Well, you can start out by modeling: having your great staff play in your games and be friendly and nice. If you teach the lessons of the community to your players, they should in turn reflect it. However, you may need not just a carrot, but also a stick: you have to be willing to kick out a bad player; this might seem more difficult if you’re trying to run a business too, but it shouldn’t be. A bad community member is likely to chase away many good communities over the length of his stay. In the end, you want to create a community where members will proactively welcome newcomers to their games and teach them how to play, and where people are nice to each other — even if some of them opt not to play with each other. (Endgame had a great community of great people, and I really have no idea of how they seeded it, unless it was the pure kindness of the store’s founder; this wonderful community is what most of us will miss most.)
Finally, I don’t think a gaming community needs games of their own, but it helps the climb to greatness.
You Can Have Great Access to New Games.A game store can offer good access to new games as long as they stay on top of their ordering. Even a non-commercial gaming club can organize members to order together, to reduce the cost of shipping. Either one will benefit the community by constantly bringing in new games to play. (Endgame traditionally ordered pretty well. Their yearly auctions also did a great job of moving games between community members, offering new people the opportunity play them.)
You Can Have a Great Game Library.You can create a great game library by having the community members chip in (either donating money or games) or by convincing manufacturers to send you demo copies. Either one creates a great source of games to play — as long as someone knows the rules. (Endgame’s only had a great game library in the last several years, but I’ve really seen its benefits. Newbies often come in, walk over to the library, find something to play, and sit down to learn it; I probably go to the library several times a year when my table is looking for something to play that’ll fit a specific time period or player number.)
All communities have challenges, even great gaming communities like Endgame. Obviously, the fact that Endgame is closing reflects some final challenges they faced, in both the rents of an expensive region like the San Francisco Bay Area and in the costs in energy and time from the staff. But, over the years I’ve also seen logistical challenges, the biggest of which has often been the vast quantity of people wanting to play.
But, for the fourteen years I’ve been a member of Endgame’s community, and the eighteen years they’ve been in business, they’ve been a bright light of gaming fellowship in the dark Bay Area night.
May this article help to fan the flame of some other nascent gaming community.
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Meeples Together (which is nearing the end of its funding on Kickstarter) covers a whole spectrum of cooperative games. “True co-ops” are the heart of the book, but it also discusses traitor games, overlord games, and even the more classic style of team games — because they can all offer interesting design lessons.
Between Two Cities is a great partnership game because it goes beyond simple, static partners and instead forces players to “partially” partner up with two different people with varying goals.
This article has been crossposted from the Meeples Together blog, which focuses exclusively on cooperative game design.
Publisher: Stonemaier Games (2015) Cooperative Style: Competitive with Partial Partners Play Style: Card Drafting, Tile Laying
Over several turns of play, each player drafts tiles in order to build the best city possible — or rather, to build the best two cities possible. In Between Two Cities each player is working in cooperation with the two players to either side, and he’ll be scored based on the worst of those two cities, so there’s no shirking either responsibility!
Between Two Cities is ultimately a competitive game: only one player wins, while everyone else loses. However, it forces cooperation through a clever system of partial partnerships where each player has part of their score linked to a joint city created with another player.
any partial partnership games fail because they allow a player to focus on just one of his partnerships, ultimately consigning the partner that he’s ignoring to almost certain loss. Between Two Cities resolves that issue by scoring the worst of a player’s two cities, only using the score for the better city as a tie-breaker. The result is a game where a player does his best to ensure that his two partnerships are doing equally well.
Though the partnerships in Between Two Cities are both constrained and competitive, they still create real cooperation within the game.
That mainly comes through the building of the cities. After each phase of card drafting, each player ends up with two tiles, and he must decide which to place in each of the two cities. Though a player often know what he wants to do, he also engages in freeform negotiation with both of his partners. This results in cooperative conversation about how to build out the cities … but each of those partners is also trying to ensure a tile placement that best benefits them, not the player’s other partner.
Between Two Cities also has a second, more unusual style of cooperation. When a player is drafting tiles, he can choose to pass specific tiles to his partner that he thinks will benefit their shared city. He may even keep a certain tile to play, while also sending a complementary tile to his partner. This sort of unspoken cooperation avoids the problems that open communication can causes in co-op games, while simultaneously allowing for real cooperation.
No Challenge System Elements. Partial Partnerships.
Expansion & Variants
The Capitals (2017) expansion for Between Two Cities increases the challenge of city building by introducing new ways to score points and new geographic obstacles. (The picture at the top of this post shows the expansion in play.)
Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig (2018) is a brand-new game that mixes together the partnership play of Between Two Cities with the more freeform building and higher complexity of Castles of Mad King Ludwig (2014).
Though it’s ultimately a competitive game, Between Two Cities incorporates some great cooperative mechanics by forcing players to work together with two different partners while simultaneously requiring them to make decisions for themselves about both card drafting and tile placement. Between Two Cities also plays very quickly, showing that meaningful cooperation can occur in small, bite-sized bits.
Ben Rosset & Matthew O’Malley
Matthew O’Malley designs games primarily through his own Black Oak Games. Ben Rosset has worked with a number of small publishers. They both are relatively new designers, who got their professional start in 2014. To date, Between Two Cities is their most successful game.
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Last month I posited a model for decision making in games that divides decisions into three parts: action selection, action execution, and action resolution. That article also discussed a variety of popular methods for choosing actions. However, that’s just the start: once you’ve chosen an action, what do you do with it?
Phase 2: Action Execution
The action-selection phase of decision making took a broad view of player actions, asking the question, “What category of actions does the player take?” However, even after a player has selected a type of action, there’s often more choice to make: how exactly does the player implement (“execute”) the action, within the scope of the current game position?
Because Anglo-American games tend to degenerate the action-selection phase, often having just one type of action (move a chess piece; move a war-game unit; play a card; decide whether to buy a property), they tend to place most of their choice in the action-execution phase. In contrast, eurogames might have a fully featured action-execution phase, or they might have a degenerated action-execution phase where there’s no choice once the initial action selection is done. One of the reason that some people don’t like worker-placement games is that the action-execution phase can be degenerated: once you’ve decided to take a specific resource, translate a specific resource, or take some other very specific action, you often don’t make many additional decisions. (But sometimes you do: the build-fences action in Agricola offers a fine example of worker-placement action selection leading to “spatial choice” action execution.)
There are two broad ways to look at action execution: as a simple and abstract choice or as a decision that links the front-end decision mechanic to the back-end game mechanic.
Model 2a: Execution Choices
The core question of an action execution is obviously “How do you apply the category of action that you’ve selected?” Often, there are multiple choices. In Tigris & Euphrates (having chosen to place a tile from your hand) you must decide both which tile to place and where to place it; while in The Settlers of Catan (having chosen to build something from the menu) you must decide both where to place it and how to pay for it.
There are a number of common sorts of execution choice:
Construction Choice.A player can choose one of several things to build. Though these building choices might have been part of the initial action selection, as was the case in The Settlers of Catan, they can also be individual execution choices, such as in Puerto Rico, where you take the Builder role, then decide what to build. This is closely related to Purchase Choice but usually has costs in resources and is themed as literal building.
Exchange Choice.A player can choose one of several things to exchange and/or they can choose one of several things to trade for. A trading game like The Settlers of Catan offers very freeform exchange choices, as player swap` resources in a free-wheeling way. However, exchange choices can also come about as a single player’s choice of what to do with a resource-management engine (such as in Century: Spice Road where players swap one resource for another) or in a formulaic goal-completion game (such as in Splendor or, again, Century: Spice Road, where players must exchange specific resources for victory points).
Expenditure Choice.A player can decide which resources to expend. This can crossover with Token Choice (if they’re expending a token) or Exchange Choice (if they’re swapping the resource for something else) or Purchase Choice or Valuation Choice (if they’re just expending currency).
Obstacle Choice. A player can choose a specific obstacle to try and overcome. For example in Near and Far a spatial choice is often dependent upon an obstacle choice: whether a player is willing to face bandit on the road.
Opponent Choice. A player can choose a specific opponent to attack or duel in some way. This is the most common in take-that games where players directly play cards that affect other opponents or in wargames (though there, the opponent choice is often subsumed by a region choice). Because of the problems that naked aggression can cause, some games like Cosmic Encounter and Epic Spell Wars instead regulate opponent choice through random card draws or dice rolls.
Purchase Choice. A player can choose a specific thing to purchase with their in-game currency. This might be a simple purchase with a currency-themed resources, such as when a player spends Item Points to purchase equipment in D-Day Dice. More frequently, it’s a choice to bid on a specific item in an auction game, which links to a Valuation Choice. When a purchase is instead made with resources and is building-themed, that’s a Construction Choice.
Region Choice. A player can choose a general region on a board. He might move troops into the region in Risk or airdrop majority-control markers in El Grande. Alternatively, he might link a Construction Choice to a Region Choice by deciding where he’s going to build something. This is usually a subcategory of Spatial Choice.
Spatial Choice. A player can choose any space on a board to do something. This is usually more variable than a Region Choice because the options are more open, like deciding where to place a road in The Settlers of Catan or where to build a railroad track in Empire Builder.
Token Choice. A player decides between one of several tokens. This could be closely linked to a Construction Choice as in The Settlers of Catan where a player decides which Tokens (resources) to use in order to build, but it could also be the choice of a card to play, a tile to place, or a resource to expend.
Valuation Choice. A player decides the valuation of something, usually by making a bid for it or offering it for sale at a certain price.
Model 2b: Mechanic Models
Truthfully, though, players and designers don’t often think about execution choices at this granular of a level. That’s because the choices are often predefined by the type of mechanics that are being used in the back end of the game.
These back-end mechanics are the ones at the heart of a game’s design: the cogs and gears that define how actions are executed and what that execution does to the various components of the game. They include mechanics like auctions, majority control, resource management, and adventure elements. Whereas front-end decision-making mechanics like simultaneous selection, deck building, and card drafting are usually abstract and bloodless, back-end mechanics are more likely to be evocative and colorful.
This idea of front-end and back-end mechanics cleanly fits into the model for decision-making: front-end mechanics are focused on action selection, while back-end mechanics are focused on action resolution. Action execution thus forms the interface between the two.
Figure 5. The two sides of mechanics.
Of course, back-end mechanics might be degenerated too, particularly if one of the more advanced systems is used for action selection. Dominion theoretically has a pair of back-end mechanics: card execution (which is pretty simple reading of text) and race-track scoring, but neither is that notable. However deckbuilding wargames like Asgard’s Chosen, A Few Acres of Snow, and Tyrants of the Underdarkall show how games with deckbuilding front-ends can still have fully featured game back-ends — in this case using either area-control or majority-control mechanics. It’s generally possible for a game to have two sets of fully featured mechanics, supporting the beginning and the end of the decision making process.
There are obviously many dozens of different back-end mechanics available in games, but following are some of the most popular eurogame mechanics, with examples of how they link to more abstract execution choices. These links are the most common: a great way to extend an existing mechanical category is to incorporate less common execution choices.
Adventure Games. Roleplaying derived board games can cover a lot of ground, but they tend to be about individual characters questing around some area, fighting adversaries, and recovering loot, in service to some larger goal. Common Execution Choices:Obstacle Choice (what monster to fight), Spatial Choice (where to move); Token Choice (what powers to use).
Area Control. Classic wargames focus on players fighting each other to control territory. Common Execution Choices:Construction Choice (what troops to build); Region Choice (where to move troops).
Auction.The classic eurogame category of auctions is simply about paying some amount to get something. Common Execution Choices: Purchase Choice (what to buy); Valuation Choice (what to pay).
City Building. Although city-building games are often a subset of Resource Management games, they also have unique design elements, focused on building out grids of interconnected neighborhoods. Common Execution Choices:Purchase Choice (what neighborhood to buy); Spatial Choice (where to place a tile); Token Choice (which tile to place).
Civilization. Civilization games are another pretty big category, but they tend to have four major elements: resource-management, trade, technology advance, and warfare. As such you can look at the Area Control, Resource Management, and Trade categories for some of the numerous choices available in this sort of game, while the technology advancement gameplay has a view execution decisions of its own. Common Execution Choices:Construction Choice (which technology to advance), Expenditure Choice (how to pay for technologies).
Combat.Although many combat games are Area Control, you can also have personal combat games such as Magic: The Gathering or Epic Spell Wars where you’re fighting a more personal war against your opponents. Common Execution Choices: Opponent Choice (who to attack); Token Choice (what power to use).
Connection Games. The train game is the best-known sort of connection game, but the category can include anything where you’re trying to link up things on the board, including pipe games and more abstract classics like Twixt and PÜNCT. Common Execution Choices:Purchase Choice (what connections to buy); Spatial Choice (where to place connections).
Majority Control.The euro-take on Area Control usually involves markers being placed in a region, then ownership being determined by who has the most markers there. Unsurprisingly, its choices are a lot like those in Area Control, except there tends to be less of a concept of troop differentiation. Common Execution Choices: Region Choice (where to place troops).
Resource Management. Perhaps the most popular category of euro-design, resource management involves players generating resources, transforrming them, and ultimately using them to build things that generate special powers, victory points, or both. Common Execution Choices: Construction Choice (what to build); Exchange Choice (what resources to swap); Expenditure Choice (what resources to spend); Spatial Choice (where to build).
Trading. Another classic and simple mechanic, trading simply involves swapping things with other players or the game system. There are games that are entirely trading, such as Res Publica, but more often it’s part of a larger game, such as The Settlers of Catan. Common Expenditure Choices: Exchange Choices (what to swap); Opponent Choice (who to swap with).
There are certainly other ways that you could classify the player choices that occur within action execution and there are certainly other execution options for the mechanical styles listed here. There are so many different options because action execution represents the guts of decision making in games, where there’s the opportunity to have really far-ranging choices.
However, it’s important to remember that action execution is just the middle part of what can potentially be a three-part model for decisions: first, players decide upon a category of action, possibly using a sophisticated front-end choice system; then they execute that action, probably making decisions defined by the needs of a back-end game system. This all leads to the third phase, where the action is actually resolved by that back-end system … which will be touched upon very briefly in the third and final article on this series, before looking at case studies of popular games under the microscope of this model.
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Meeples Together is continuing to crowdfund on Kickstarter. It’s already blown through its first stretch goal, which adds a case study for Matt Leacock’s Forbidden Island to the book. We hope we’ll also be able to talk about his Forbidden Desert too, as our fourth stretch goal.
We wanted to add those two extra case studies to the book because they show the continuing evolution of a specific style of play that Leacock debuted in Pandemic. However, Matt Leacock is the main co-op designer of our time, and that means he’s branched out into other styles of co-op games as well. One of those is Thunderbirds, which we’re happy to discuss here as another bonus case study.
This article has been crossposted from the Meeples Together blog, which focuses exclusively on cooperative game design. There will be some original Mechanics & Meeples content next week (and afterward the Meeples Together and Mechanics & Meeples articles will interweave.)
Publisher: Modiphius Entertainment (2015) Cooperative Style: True Co-Op Play Style: Action Point, Logistical
The players take on the role of Thunderbird agents, who race around the globe in their Thunderbird machines to defeat the schemes of the Hood before it’s too late. However, Thunderbirds agents must deal with ongoing disasters as well! If they don’t, they’ll lose the game!
The challenge system of Thunderbirds comes in two parts, following a standard cooperative pattern that splits threats: disasters must be solved so that the players do not lose, while schemes must be foiled so that the players can win.
A disaster appears nearly every turn, based on the draw of a card. Players have a few turns to solve each of these problems. The longer a disaster is around, the closer it gets to the end of the disaster track; if it reaches the end, the game is lost.
The use of a track for these game-losing disasters is interesting: it’s really no different from any number of games (like Pandemic) that trigger a loss when a certain component runs out (in this case: when the eighth card is placed), but it displays this loss condition in a visceral way while simultaneously providing a visual listing of problems that the players may deal with. It’s a prime example of making choices obvious through great “menu” design.
Schemes in contrast are selected at the start of the game, but only the next one is revealed at any time. Though the players must defeat the schemes to win, they’re not just markers of victory; they can also be dangerous. That’s because the schemes are arranged along a “Hood track”, which the villainous Hood slowly advances along though certain disaster-card draws, certain die rolls, and even player choice — much as Sauron advances in the foundational Lord of the Rings (2000) co-op. If the Hood reaches an unfoiled scheme, the game is (once more) lost.
However, the Hood track does more than just mark another advance of Doom. The Hood track are contains hidden events between the schemes; when the Hood reaches an event, it activates, causing various problems for the players. This is a nice feature, because it interweaves the big problems with small ones. It also introduces uncertainty: though the players can brace themselves for an oncoming event, they’ll always be surprised by its precise (random) result.
Though the Thunderbirds challenge system often feels dangerous — like there’s impending danger that must be overcome — there’s not a lot of decay in it. Things can get temporarily bad if the Hood gets near an unfoiled scheme or if a number of disasters stack up, but there’s never a sudden ramp-up, and if the players overcome the current problems, everything is back to normal.
Despite the cleverness of both the disaster and scheme tracking, Thunderbirds generally has a simpler and more forgiving system than Matt Leacock’s Pandemic games.
Challenge System Elements: Turn, Action & Random Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Interrelated Systems; and Skill Threat.
The challenge systems in Thunderbirds are countered through logistical play. They require getting the right machines and the right characters to the right locations and then either making a die roll (for disasters) or expending resources (for schemes). Logistical requirements of this sort are a natural fit for cooperative games because they tend to focus on divided puzzles — a popular co-op pattern that requires players to figure out how to get resources that are split up among the team to the right places. Thunderbirds’ schemes create even more cooperative depth because they need those resources to be moved to different locations, requiring players to actively working together at different places on the board.
The movement system of Thunderbirds also creates some interesting cooperative puzzles thanks to the Thunderbirds machines. Players can jump from one machine to another over the course of a turn. Because some of the machines can seat two or more characters, this means that a player will frequently be joining with another player, as they move together in a single machine. This creates great tactical opportunities and also gives players the ability to work together for a time before once more branching off.
Leacock’s classic co-op Pandemic (2008) just touched upon the adventure game space through its use of unique character powers. Thunderbirds dramatically expands on that. Each character has a unique power, and each of them can accumulate bonus tokens that given them one-time abilities. Each of their Thunderbird machines has unique characteristics too.
Once again, it’s the machines that really stand out as an innovation. By giving characters two adventuresome characteristics, one of which is permanent (the character power) and one of which can be traded around (the machine powers), Leacock adds orthogonal depth to his adventure play.
By now, Leacock clearly knows what he’s doing when he’s designing co-op games, as Thunderbirds was his six major effort following Pandemic (2008), Forbidden Island (2010), Forbidden Desert (2013), Pandemic: The Cure (2014) and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015). It’s no surprise that Thunderbirds makes good, polished use of some classic mechanics like a bipartite victory-vs-loss threat structure and a card-based challenge system.
However Thunderbirds also has some nice innovations, primarily focused on the famous Thunderbirds machines. They allow for a new sort of movement-based cooperation and also add to the depth of the adventure play. As such, they show how one little addition to a co-op design can add a lot.
“I’ve become more conscious about elements that can make cooperative games better. When I designed Pandemic, I was doing this all instinctively. Now, I actively work different play patterns and mechanism into my designs upfront.” —Matt Leacock, Interview, Mechanics & Meeples (March 2015)
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Meeples Together (which is now being funded on Kickstarter) breaks down the design of cooperative games primarily through the analysis and dissection of existing releases. These discussions form the core of the book, but specific games are also highlighted in individual case studies. Meeples Together contains 14 of these case studies, one per chapter, plus a few bonuses, but there are many othe cooperative games to study. This is one of them: a supplement to the material found in Meeples Together, in the same format as the case studies there.
Lord of the Rings is one the three foundational games for the co-op industry, alongside Arkham Horror and Pandemic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in print when we finalized the text for Meeples Together. Thus, rather than including details on a game that players couldn’t currently buy, we instead substituted discussion of a game that was more readily available (Robinson Crusoe, as it happens). However, we wanted to make sure that Lord of the Rings was the first game we talked about outside of the book itself.
This article has been crossposted from the Meeples Together blog, which focuses exclusively on cooperative game design.
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games (2000) Cooperative Style: True Cooperative Play Style: Racing, Resource Management
The players take on the role of hobbits who are trying to deliver the One Ring to Mount Doom. To do so they must advance through four scenarios boards. Along the way, they need to collect sufficient life markers to avoid being corrupted, and they must resolve other threats.
On a player’s turn, he either collects cards (resources) or advances the group’s shared tokens along four to five race tracks. One of the tracks marks the group’s progress toward completing the current scenario board, while the other tracks give players life markers or resources or else complete subsidiary goals.
The challenge system in Lord of the Rings is triggered through the revelation of Event tiles; a player flips up one or more of them at the start of his turn. These tiles can have a variety of bad consequences such as corrupting the hobbits, stealing resources, or advancing Sauron. The tiles can also cause the scenario board’s next event to occur, which tends to be bad as well.
The hobbits’ corruption and the events’ status are both measured on individual tracks, each of which is an additional gear in the challenge machinery:
The corruption track is a linear path, with the hobbits advancing from the left and Sauron from the right. As the hobbits become corrupt they move toward Sauron, who in turn may be moving toward them. This is the most obvious threat in the game, as hobbits are eliminated when they reach Sauron.
The corruption track tends to work well for a number of reasons. First, it’s an obvious and central focus of the game. It’s always sitting in the middle of the table, with large plastic figures calling attention to it, and so players never forget about the impending threat. Second, there are several optional ways to gain corruption — including the Ring Bearer using the One Ring, players choosing to move to “die roll” spaces, and players opting not to collect life markers. Thus, corruption becomes a resource that players must manage.
The corruption track’s largest failing is that it’s entirely binary: hobbits are either eliminated or not. Thus, any growing sense of doom is psychological; there are no decaying game effects that advance the feeling of a darkening world.
The event track is somewhat subtler than the corruption track. Each space on the event track tends to require something from the players. They might have to turn in certain resources, or they might need to have reached certain spaces on the board. If the players meet the requirements something good (sometimes) happens, and if they don’t then something bad (usually) happens.
The best element of the event track’s design is that it sends players running in a lot of different directions, as they try to simultaneously meet the criteria laid out by upcoming events while not sabotaging their own efforts to advance along the game’s central race track. This causes information overload in the game, as players try to remember too many things — which is ultimately to the benefit of a challenge system.
Overall, the complex and interrelated challenge machinery of Lord of the Rings works because players must simultaneously consider a number of different goals (avoiding corruption, preparing for events, and moving on the race track), some of which might be in conflict with each other — and they must do so without having enough resources for everything. The random draw of the event tiles makes it that much harder to plan precisely, as players never know which of these game elements may be the most important in the near future.
The challenge system’s biggest flaw may be that it’s too random. When a player draws event tiles at the start of his turn, he keeps going until he gets a “good” one. This means that bad results can be largely unbounded, and that a game that was going well can suddenly turn bad in one turn. Threat-focused games certainly want some swinginess of this sort, but it may be overstated in Lord of the Rings.
Challenge System Elements: Turn & Movement Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Random Cascade; Decay; Removal Consequence; and Death Threat.
Cooperation in Lord of the Rings comes mainly through the players deciding how to advance on the various race tracks; they must determine whether it’s important to finish the current scenario, collect life markers, collect resources, or finish goals required by upcoming events. Since the tokens moving along these tracks are shared, what one player does will directly affect the next player’s turn. This cooperation through manipulation of abstract game markers is pretty unique, even today — though Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012) offers a more recent variant on the idea and The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017) demonstrates a different way to cooperatively interact with a somewhat abstract playing field.
Beyond the shared movement of these tokens, there’s little explicit cooperation in Lord of the Rings. There is minimal ability to share resources, and there is minimal ability to help other players — except by leaving them opportunities on the shared movement tracks.
On the flip side, Lord of the Rings doesn’t do a lot to control communication. Players can freely discuss their cards, but may not display them to each other. Communication is more subtly obscured by the preponderance of information in the game, which makes it’s easy to forget something (usually an upcoming event), but that’s minor in the scope of things. In general, this open communication can trend the game toward controlling players and perfect cooperation, both of which are a real danger to Lords of the Rings. The fact that individual characters have little physical presence on the board probably makes the problem worse, as it lessens each player’s buy-in to the game.
Overall, Lord of the Rings has some intriguing cooperative elements, but also feels like a first-generation cooperative game (which it is). If designed at a later time it might have put more focus on enabling individual players by giving them more individual presence and by limiting their communication.
Among heavily themed co-ops, Lord of the Rings is somewhat notable for its lack of particularly individualized characters. Though each player’s character has a special power, they don’t necessarily come up a lot. Players also have no individual physical presence on the board, and their one-use cards don’t feel like equipment: though some of the cards are named for items, collecting them doesn’t really improve a “character”.
This lack of individualization is somewhat balanced by the existence of existential threats to the individual characters: hobbits each gain corruption and will need life markers to survive. This might cause players to strive for their own survival even when it’s against the best interest of the group. This support for individual greed can help to stave off the problem of controlling players, as it highlights a way that players might diverge from the group consensus.
Expansions & Variants
Lord of the Rings has a few major expansions that vary the game. Friends & Foes (2001) and Battlefields (2006) both add variability and new threats that must be dealt with — adding to the informational overload that’s at the heart of the game. Sauron (2002) is the most notable expansion, as it turns Lord of the Rings into an overlord game.
Though modern co-op games tend to focus more on cooperative mechanics, Lord of the Rings still works quite well as a cooperative game. It’s also a milestone in the genre because it introduced eurogame elements like fast play, resource management, and abstraction to the cooperative field.
Lord of the Rings’ euro-mechanics, its cooperative elements, and its challenge systems have been widely copied with one exception: its shared movement tracks remain a distinct and unusual cooperative element — one which also bears consideration by modern designers.
About the Author: Reiner Knizia
Reiner Knizia is one of the best-known German eurogame designers. As a doctor in mathematics, he tends to create games with a clean, mathematical basis. Some feel somewhat abstract, but others like Lord of the Rings (2000) are saturated with evocative color.
Knizia has been a full-time game designer since 1997 and has produced over 500 titles total, making him one of the most prolific game designers ever. His most prestigious games are Lord of the Rings, which won a Spiel des Jahres special award for best use of literature, and Keltis (2008), which won the main Spiel des Jahres award. The authors of this book worked with Knizia to adapt four of his games to iOS: High Society (1995), Kingdoms (1994), Masters Gallery (2009), and Money! (1999).
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As usual, my New to Me reviews cover games that I’ve never played before, whether they’re new to the world or not. (They mostly were this time around.) And, as usual, they’re rated by how I personally like them, as a midweight eurogamer.
The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)
Terraforming Mars: Expansions.I’ve now played through all the Terraforming Mars expansions, and I’d generally recommend them, with some qualms about one of them.
Hellas & Elysium (2017).This is a double-sided map that provides two different playing surfaces for the game: the south pole and the other side of Mars. Changing what the terrain looks like provides very valuable variety, but is of limited interest. However, Fryxelius took the next step and also included different milestones and awards on each map. This makes a huge difference, because it changes what you’re competing for in each game, and makes this supplement highly recommended.
Venus Next (2018).This is the biggest expansion for Terraforming Mars, adding a lot of player cards, some corporations, and a small new playing board that delineates a fourth terraforming objective (Venus). From the gameplay point of view, it’s a strong addition because that fourth major way to gain terraforming points allows players to differentiate more and each seek their own strategy — making it less likely that they get into an unhelpful competition with someone else. The rules additions are also relatively minor, related to that one new terraforming track. With that said, it’s enough new rules that it’ll make the game harder to explain to newcomers, and there’s no way to easily pull it out once you put it in, and those are the factors than can poison a game. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a good expansion as is, but it makes me very hesitant to expand the game any more.
Prelude (2018). The newest expansion is quite small. It contains new corporations and a few player cards, but the main expansion is a new set of “prelude” cards, which you choose at the start of the game, then play on a pre-round of play to give yourself some slightly notable advantages. Despite the fact that it’s small and doesn’t change the game a lot, I think this is a great little expansion. From the game design point of view, it helps players get a little bit ahead at the start of the game. This eliminates a less-fun round of play when you’re trying to find your footing, gives you better direction from the start, and also helps to warn other players off of competing in your play space. I think it’s all around a benefit, in much the same way that Leaders (2011) for 7 Wonders (2010) was. Even better, if you decide the complexity is too high for a specific game, you just don’t use the prelude cards.
Broken Token Organizer(2017?). I’ve come to love organizers for my most-played and most-loved games, and Broken Token is my favorite creator. Their organizer nicely fits everything except the Hellas & Elysium boards and keeps everything organized both in the box and in play. I personally like the heft, feel, and smell of the wooden boards, though I know some of my players prefer the plastic boards produced by other publishers because you can slide the original cardstock player mats into those. (I thought they looked cheap, but have to agree that there are advantages to having the original player mats as opposed to wood with the rules for how to use the various resources burned in.)
Carson City: The Card Game (2018).The new Carson City product is a pretty standard blind-bidding auction: each player has a set of nine cards, numbered 1-9 and they’ll use one each turn in a series of nine auctions, then they’ll do the same for another series of nine auctions. Easy: no muss, no fuss. I always enjoy this sort of auction where every player has the same resources.
The joy of this game comes in what you’re bidding for. There’s always a special-power character that you can get, but the rest of the auction items are little square cards that are each broken into four parts, showing four different things that you can build in your Carson City. There are ranches and empty lands, mines and mountains, and houses and any number of special town buildings. The cards can be put fully or partially on top of each other in certain circumstances, and you actually want to arrange them pretty carefully, because you get lots of points from what’s next to each other. The result is a really open feeling and creative game that likely develops differently every time you play.
Near & Far: Amber Mines (2017). Near and Far is a delightful euro-adventure game that I first played last spring. It combines character-based adventuring with tight resource management and evocative storytelling. Amber Mines is a small supplement for the game that does pretty much everything that you want a supplement to do. First, it better balances town by revamping two of the less popular locales (the General Store and the Mystic Shop). Second it adds just a bit of variability to the game by creating a new subgame in the Mines (now the Amber Mines). Third, it plays to the game’s strengths: two new adventures reuse old maps but provide totally new text for the quests. The only downside of this supplement is that it makes a complex setup even more complex by increasing the number of components in the game. Still, I think it’s a must-have for any Near & Far gamer.
Sprawlopolis (2018).This is one of the wallet games from Button Shy. I’ve never played any before, but this caught my eye because it was a teeny little co-op. Physically, these are neat games. This one is eighteen cards and it comes in a little fold-over wallet. You can literally keep it in your pocket.
The gameplay is surprisingly like Carson City: The Card Game. Players play city cards with four sectors, and they can be placed mostly or partially on top of each other. You’re trying to form large regions of each of the four city districts, you’re trying to form long, contiguous roads, and you’re trying to meet the victory conditions of three of the cards. Together this creates enough chaos and complexity that you won’t be able to do anything well.
As the co-op design guy, I found the cooperation of this disappointing. It’s undeveloped. There are also potential problems with AP and the scoring is really opaque. Despite those issues this is a tight, fun little filler that’s pretty unique.
The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)
Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017).Image Pandemic where the diseases are actually water that is quickly flooding the country. It’s a good conversion, but it’s more than that because Pandemic: Rising Tide goes further than previous Survival Seriesentrant Pandemic: Iberia (2016) in creating a game that’s pretty different from the original but still recognizably Pandemic.
That’s largely based on the simulation system, which is expanded quite a bit. You now have water that naturally flows from space to space, and you also have dikes that can hold it back. This adds both complexity to the simulation and better player control. It also can create pretty great cascades: a single dropped dike can do a lot of damage if you can’t resolve it.
As you’d expect, there are lots of new characters too, and the new characters tend to focus their special abilities on other new elements of the game, including the pumps (which automatically drain water) and the ports (which allow rapid movement. These all work well, and provide more variation from Pandemic.
My first game of Rising Tide was played at the easy difficult, and it was too easy, which is always disappointing in a co-op. My rating could easily go up with future plays, especially if I particularly like the alternative-objectives variant, which I haven’t used yet.
Abandon Planet (2017).This game’s main selling point is that it’s by Don Eskridge, who designed The Resistance (2009) and nothing else since except spin-offs and expansions. Abandon Planet is the game that proves that he’s not a one-shot wonder.
Abandon Planet is a simultaneous-selection game where you’re trying to collect the right resources to build a rocket to get off a doomed planet. There’s some interactivity that comes from the selection: you can steal resources from someone who selected the same locale as you. You also might get hit by a falling meteor if you don’t choose the one safe place. Those fallen meteors also add color and complexity to the game, because they create spaces with special powers as the game goes on.
However, the true joy of the game, what makes it both interesting and innovative, is that it’s a team game. Sort of. The thing is, you can’t abandon the planet (and win) alone. You have to do so with one partner, who you select from a specific set of players in the game. That takes the game to a whole other level where there’s some hidden info that you’re sharing with some people. And you want to do right by your potential partners while simultaneously punishing their potential allies who aren’t you. It’s what I called a “partial partnership” game, with Whitewater (2012) and Between Two Cities (2015) being other examples, but this is a very interesting take.
I always rate the games in these “New to Me” articles based on how much I like them. Frankly, there’s too much human interaction in this game for my liking, and I never deal well with the backstabbing that’s a requirement of this gameplay. I still think it’s a strong, innovative game, and I think people who liked that sort of play would easily rate it Very Good or even Great.
The Ninth World (2018).This is a full-fledged auction game (something that you don’t see a lot of anymore) from the folks at Loneshark Games. It’s a five-currency auction, where the different currencies (“skills”) are used in different types of auctions, but can also be used at a minimal value “out of suit”. The various auctions allow players to: scout out future cards; buy action cards; buy mission cards; kill monsters (possibly with repercussions); and improve auction cards.
The “skillbuilding” of the game is definitely one of its strong points: players get their auction currency back every turn, and they can also improve it in the final category of auction. This gives players the opportunity to really mold their strategy and to try and take advantage of the openings left by other players. The other strength of the game is its wide-ranging set of special powers and special missions. They give players lots to think about beyond the auctions themselves.
Unfortunately, the game is held back by two factors. First, the components don’t have great usability. There are several different factors (color choice, small print, insufficient use of icons, a zig-zag scoreboard) where the game becomes harder to play than it should. Second, it’s too long. Though the game claims 60 minutes, I don’t see how anyone could manage 45 auctions in that time, especially not when there are an equal number of bid-increase rounds and lots of fiddly card use. There is a short version of the game, but I think it in turn wouldn’t offer enough time to really “build” the skill sets. So this is a rare auction game where I’d say play it with a lower number than the max (3 or 4).
The Meh (“I Would Prefer Not to Play This”)
Artifacts, Inc. (2015).This dice game has a simple enough mechanic. You roll a handful of dice and you use them to apply various abilities. You find artifacts, you sell artifacts, you buy cards, and you dive for artifacts. The points in the game tend to come from the cards and diving, with some majority control at the end.
The big problem with Artifacts, Inc. is a soul-crushing amount of downtime. Oh, I’ve played games with much worse downtime (I’m looking at you, Java), but the sitting around and waiting for other people to roll their dice and figure out what to do with them in Artifacts, Inc. is so far out of whack with the enjoyment you get of rolling your own dice and trying to figure out what to do with them, that by the two-thirds point I just wanted the game to end.
Beyond that, I felt like the game was poorly developed. There was a first turn that was entirely set because everyone needed to grab the extra-dice cards before they were gone, then the individual turns had fiddly finances and fiddly decisions. And lastly, I felt like the need to push forward and earn points as quickly as possible (preferably every turn) was sufficient that the game ended up being more stressful than enjoyable. Obviously, YMMV.
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Two weeks ago I wrote an article defining worker placement in response to some rather loose use of the term. I thought I might get some disagreement on my definition, but instead I got disagreement on the use of the mechanic itself. Some people apparently hate worker placement because they feel that it restricts their choices and has made previously complex games simple. I disagree, because I think the comments reflected a somewhat superficial understanding of how decisions are actually made in games. Though it’s quite possible that some worker-placement games have fewer meaningful choices than some pre-worker-placement games, I don’t believe that it’s endemic in the category of play, and I’m certain that it’s not a requirement. That’s because worker placement only affects one phase of the decision making process — and not the one that leads to the most voluminous set of options. Hence, this article, the first of three. It’s not about worker placement specifically, but rather about the whole spectrum of decision making in games (and how worker placement fits into that).
When you make a decision in a game, it comes in three parts: what you are doing; how you are doing it; and what the results are. The first two parts of that formula represent an ever-branching tree of options, while the last part involves the mechanics of the game system churning out the results.
Figure 1. The three parts of decision making.
You can also look at these three parts of a decision from a more game-centric point of view. Since games tend to be about actions, the decision points translate to action phases. Together, they comprise the frontend of a game, the player-focused portion.
Figure 2. The three phases of game decisions.
Though every game has these three phases, often one or two phases will be degenerated. Perhaps there’s only one action you can do in a game; perhaps there are no additional choices after you choose your action; and perhaps the results of an action automatically occur. However, a designer should still consider all three phases because they represent the full panoply of game-decision choices. (Spoiler: worker placement is only an element of the first phase; and spoiler: it may often have degenerated second and third phases.)
Phase 1: Action Selection
Action selection is perhaps the driest part of the decision-making process. It’s a level removed from the theme and the backend mechanics of the game and simply involves a player choosing which of several type of actions he wants to take. Thus, it’s pretty impressive that several types of games (action-point games, simultaneous-selection games, card-drafting games, deckbuilding games, and of course worker-placement games) are defined primarily by their action-selection method.
Generally, eurogames have focused the most on the action-selection element of game design. Traditional games and Anglo-American games are more likely to incorporate a degenerated action-selection phase that supports only one action.
The following lists the major types of action selection. Most games are defined by one or more of these action-selection methods.
Option 1a: Basic Action Selection
Basic action selection defines the most traditional elements of action selection. These are the mechanics that are likely to be found in any game, no matter what its heritage, and which are the foundation stones for more complex (usually limited) action selection.
Figure 3. Elements of basic action selection.
The most basic differentiation for action selection defines whether players get to actually select actions or not.
Singular Selection. A degenerated type of action selection, where players have no choice of action type: there’s just a singular option. Examples include Monopoly (roll the dice), Chess (move a piece), and Memoir ’44 (play a card). Obviously, that singular choice then branches out in action execution, but players do not decide among different classes of actions before that.
Rules Selection.The traditional, unsophisticated methodology for action selection. The rules list out several major types of actions that players can take, and players have to remember them. Perhaps the game offers a minor aid, such as a player screen, but it’s not well centralized. Tigris & Euphrates offers a typical example. Players can place a civilization tile; place a catastrophe tile; move, withdraw, or place a leader; or refresh their hands. Call it four actions or six if you differentiate all the leader possibilities. Tigris & Euphrates’ options are listed on player screens that players mostly ignore.
Some games not only allow action selection, but also support the selection of multiple actions every turn.
Action Points. Players are given a set number of action points each turn and can divide them up between multiple actions. In a simple action point system such as Pandemic all actions have the same cost. In a more complex action system such as Tikal (and the rest of Kramer & Kiesling’s Masks series) or Tinners’ Trail different actions have different action-point costs.
Action Resources. Players have a theoretically unlimited number of actions, but they are effectively bounded by the resources that they must spend to take those actions. If some actions don’t cost resources, then they must be explicitly limited. The Settlers of Catan is the classic example of Action Resources: players trade or build until they no longer have resources to do anything useful. Terraforming Mars is a more recent example of an Action Resources game: players play cards and build standard projects by spending money (and sometimes other resources), and also enact blue-card actions, which are limited to once per round (generation).
Finally, basic action selection can be made intuitive.
Menu Selection (or sometimes just: Action Selection).This is just rules selection with a better marketing team. The possible actions have been moved to a player aid or to the board itself, to make sure that they’re always visible. Icons are typically used to make the options even more obvious and accessible. The game aids in Settlers of Catan are a fine example of rules selection made graphical, while the original version of Tinners’ Trail places its options right on the board itself.
The ability to take different sorts of actions and beyond that different numbers of actions is exciting and a big expansion over a game that just requires the same action turn after turn. It’s a large-scale change from classic games without any sort of action selection and a foundational building stone of These Games of Ours.
Option 1b: Limited Action Selection
Basic action selection allows a player to choose what they’re going to do and do it. No muss, no fuss. But over the last few decades clever designers have come up with various ways to ensure that players can’t always do what they wanted to do. This takes the usually staid action-selection phase of the game and turns it into something strategic. Thus far, limited action selection has largely fallen into three categories: hidden action selection, constrained action selection, and conflicted action selection.
Figure 4. Options for limited action selection.
Hidden action selection means that players don’t know what their opponents are doing when they make their choice.
Simultaneous Selection. Players all secretly make an action choice and then simultaneously reveal them, before taking those actions in some set order. Many games introduce conflict into simultaneous selection by punishing players if they make the same choice as someone else, but this isn’t a strict requirement. Basari is an example of a traditional simultaneous-selection game where players only get to take their action freely if they don’t match someone else (and otherwise have to negotiate to see who pays whom for the action). Diplomacy,Wallenstein/Shogun, and Roborally are all examples of Programmed Move simultaneous-selection games, where the limitations come mainly from the surprising interactions of the moves.
Constrained action selection take actions out of the traditional menu and places them on some other component, which in some way limits action choices.
Rondels.The rondel is a mechanism used almost (but not entirely) exclusively by Mac Gerdts. Actions are placed in the slices of a pie chart, and a player moves a few places clockwise on that chart each turn to select an action. This usually gives a player an option of 1-3 actions on a turn and limits most actions to being taken only every two or three turns. Gerdts’ Antike is a prime example of his simple style of roundel. Examples by other designers include Wolfgang Sentker & Ralf zur Linde’s Finca (which has a variable rondel, and which uses game state to determine distance moved) and Stefan Feld’s Trajan (which uses a Mancala mechanic for rondel movement). This is a very game-y mechanic that has little linkage to game theme, but it nicely constrains choices and introduces tactical and strategic consideration.
Deck Management. Effectively a rondel system with different components and slightly different constraints. Here, each player has a personal deck of action cards. They play through them one a turn and at some point can spend a turn to get back all their action-cards. Like the roundel, this prevents players from taking the same actions in close proximity to each other, but offers a different sort of player control, as the player can choose when to “waste” a turn, just to get their cards back. Gerdts proved how similar roundels and deck management are by turning to the latter mechanic starting with Concordia. Other examples include Kreta and Assault of the Giants.
Deck Building. A second take on action constraints based on cards. This time, the players purchase their own action-cards turn by turn, using the resources on their cards. This means that sometimes cards are played as non-actions: for their currency. But sometimes they’re also played to have specific effects. It shows have action representatives (such as cards) can actually have multiple effects. Dominion introduced this trend, and there have been a billion games since.
Card Drafting.A third take on action constraints based on cards. Here, the players are given a random set of actions on cards and each take one and pass the rest on the next player, who takes one … Card Drafting is often not lumped in with other action-selection mechanisms because there tends to be a disconnect: the card drafting and the card play tend to be different phases, whereas most action selection is an atomic action. However, when you put the card drafting and play together you definitely have a full-fledged action-selection phase. 7 Wonders is a card drafting game that only feels marginally like action selection because its cards tend to give you resources and points and feel less like actions, but Midgard and its successor Blood Rage more obviously show how card drafting is fundamentally actions selection, because the drafting gives players actions that they later use.
Card Drafting also introduces conflict to action selection, because when one player takes an action-card, the other players can’t. This is the whole basis for the last category of limited-style action-selection methods.
Role Selection.Card drafting wasn’t in much use in the eurogame industry when role selection first appeared. Nonetheless, the two categories of play look almost identical when you consider their core mechanics, especially when you look at one of the foundational role-selection games, Citadels. There, one action-card is removed from a collection of eight static cards, then the rest are given to the players who draft them around the table. The main difference between this and regular card drafting is that the actions are all known and regularized, not a random set of cards. However, in most role-selection games, role cards are set out on the table, then taken one by one, as was the case with Verräter and Meuterer.
Phase Selection.A very common variant of role selection that gives everyone the option to participate in a role action when it’s selected. In fact, this is so common that many consider it part of role selection’s core definition. (I remain agnostic, other than pointing out that the earliest role-selection games didn’t include this element.) In games like Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy, everyone gets to use a slightly lesser version of the action; while in Glory to Rome they participate only if they have a matching action card already available on their board, and in Eminent Domain they do so only if they have a matching action card in their hand.
Worker Placement.And finally, there’s the ever-popular (or not!) mechanic of worker-placement, which is a lot like role selection (or card drafting), but where the actions are instead printed on the board, where they cost a resource to take, and where the set of actions might grow over time. Caylus and Agricola are the two founders of this particular boardgaming dynasty, and there have probably been hundreds since.
Other mechanics such as Auctions can also be used for action-selection, but even moreso than Card Drafting and Deckbuilding, that tends to be a minor element in the overall usage of a backend “core mechanic”. Actions can also be determined by the random draw of cards or tiles or the random roll of dice. There are really countless possibilities. The above listing is simply some of the most common and most explicit ways to choose actions in a decision-making system.
Having not just multiple actions and multiple types of actions but actions with strategic nuance is another foundational building block for eurogames, placed right atop the possibility for basic action selection. By hiding player actions, limiting player actions, or conflicting player actions, a game design can introduce interesting gameplay into the very choice of action, which once upon a time was a simple decision.
It’s no surprise that this style of mechanic, in its many variations, has been a constant obsession of eurogames, starting with simultaneous selection, then moving through role selection, rondels, card drafting, deck building, and deck management until it hit the worker placement that has taken over today’s industry. There will probably be a next mechanic and a next mechanic that also limit actions in different ways.
Action selection is just the beginning. After a player chooses an action, they then have to make choices about how to apply that action in the action execution phase. Sometimes, those choices might be very big, as in Tigris & Euphrates, where players realistically have dozens of choices for where to place each tile or marker. Sometimes, those choices are degenerated to the point of choicelessness: in Agricola, if a player takes a resource from a resource action-space, he usually has no additional option.
However, a particular action-selection method does not require a particular action-execution method. It’s likely that if one is wide, the other will be narrow, to avoid overwhelming the players, but even that isn’t requirement. Four menu choices could have no execution choices or a million execution choices; a dozen worker-placement spaces could similarly lead to no execution choices or a million of them.
In the next article, I’ll more briefly look at the options of action execution and action resolution, before talking about how this ties in to the core mechanics of a game’s backend. Then I’ll finish up this series in a third article with a number of case studies, to take the theory out for a test spin. I’ll see you back here for that (after my usual article on the last quarter’s games played, as the top of October).
The little graphical icons that accompany this article’s figures are borrowed from a comprehensive set of icons that artist Keith Curtis designed for myself and Christopher Allen to help illustrate our upcoming book on cooperative design, Meeples Together. Except the roundel icon. There apparently aren’t rondel-based co-op games (yet!).
You’ll also see some bonus articles about co-op design here starting next month, when we put Meeples Together out for Kickstarter. You can sign up now for a one-time email when we go live with that Kickstarter.
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Would worker placement by any other name smell as sweet? Perhaps. But there’s power in names: they allow us to develop a common vocabulary, so that we know what other people mean, permitting us to set our own expectations.
That means that a big kerfluffle about naming conventions is significant, such as when a notable board game show says that a non-worker-placement game is one of the top games in that category of play. Because it muddles our meanings, it impairs our communication, and it sets incorrect expectations: if you loved worker-placement games and picked up the game in question based on a recommendation, you might well be disappointed (or not: it’s a great game otherwise).
So this week I wanted to give my own definitions of worker placement, starting with a look at its history.
A History of Worker Placement
The worker-placement mechanic grew out of an older mechanic, role selection, which I previously wrote about while discussing “role civilization” games. It started with Verrater (1998) and continued on through Meuterer (2000) before it gained mainstream success with Citadels (2000) and Puerto Rico (2002).
Basically, role selection turned the even older mechanic of action selection on its head by transforming those actions into a limited resource. Players no longer got to freely determine what they would do. Instead, they had to contend for actions with their opponents. It innovated gaming by creating tension and uncertainty in what previous players would have considered a pretty essential element of gaming: whether a player got to do the action he wanted! It also dramatically ramped up interactivity: a player might now select an action not just because he wanted it, but also to deny it to his opponents; and players now kept careful watch over their opponents’ turns, as they fearfully waited to see if they’d lose the action they wanted to take.
The selectable actions tended to take the physical form of cards (or their equivalent, tiles). These were nice components because they offered a visual reminder of whether an action was available or not, and they could also be used to list out what could be done with the action. Various games offered variants on this core play: most supported open selection, but some such as Citadels instead allowed hidden selection; and most permitted singular actions, but some such as Puerto Rico instead caused a player to open up a new “phase” of play in which everyone took part.
Enter Caylus (2005), the game that created the genre of worker placement. (Was it the first worker-selection game? Probably not, but many of the claims for earlier “firsts” are spurious.) Worker placement started with the core of role selection: creating contention for player actions. But it moved the actions from a set of “role” cards to spaces on the board, and it moved the selection from free selection to a choice that was linked to a player resources: meeples. These two changes allowed the classic role-selection mechanic to expand within a game: not only could the number of actions easily grow, but the acquisition of resources for use in the worker placement became yet another subgame. Worker placement also managed to create a much more coherent and evocative play system than role selection by the simple fact that all the action spaces were integrated into a playing surface, rather than scattered about on cards, which is in my opinion why it succeeded.
Though Caylus (2005) wasn’t the first game to use worker-placement-like mechanics, it defined and popularized the category. (And what does it say that my only photograph of Caylus shows an empty board?)
Caylus was a phenomenon in the year or two after its release. I personally thought that it had fundamental flaws largely related to a play length that could telescope by a factor of two dependent solely on player choice. I only played it four times and quickly fired it when the better polished Caylus Magna Carta (2007) card game came out. But, I also spent those two years dodging Caylus games. The game was very popular, in spite of its flaws, and that was largely due to the popularity of the worker-placement mechanic, which took the simple idea of a player choosing an action, and turned that into a multi-leveled, competitive set of game systems … before you even got to the resource-management systems that defined the core of Caylus’ play.
In the next few years, the one-two punch of Agricola (2007) and Stone Age (2008) locked in worker-placement as a major eurogame mechanic. Since then, worker placement has probably become the most-common mechanic in eurogames, displacing the auction and majority-control mechanics that were commonplace in the genre’s youngest days and standing up to the deckbuilding that soon followed. It’s so popular that it may even appear in a majority of new eurogames.
Popular latter-day worker-placement games include Caverna (2013), A Feast for Odin (2016), Le Havre (2008), Lords of Waterdeep (2012), Tzolk’in (2012), and Viticulture (2015).
What Worker Placement Is
So what is a worker-placement game? I generally believe that it’s an action-selection game, which focuses on players choosing what they’ll do on a turn from a menu of possibilities, where that choice also has four additional characteristics:
Actions Are Shared. The actions that are the heart of the game need to be publicly available, to be used by any of the players — like the building spaces in Caylus or the action spaces in Agricola or Viticulture.
Actions Are Limited.Each action can only be taken a limited number of times. Most often, that means that an action can only be taken once in a round, but there might be multiple spaces for the same action, or it might be possible to take an action multiple times. As long as the limitations are meaningful and cause tension (and anguish!) during the game, you’ve still got worker placement. Some designs such as Stone Age have specific rules for how many workers can be placed on each space. Other designs are more far-flung, such as Keyflower (2012), which allows multiple players to take the same action, but at ever increasing costs, with a hard limit of three.
Actions Are in Contention.This is the critical point where those other two characteristics come together: those shared and limited actions are in contention, so that when one player grabs one, it’s not available to his opponents. This is almost the defining characteristic of worker-placement games. Without it, you have some sort of standard action selection: with it, you have the tense and constrained gameplay that grew out of role-selection games.
Selection is Limited by Resources.However, as the term “worker placement” suggests, there’s one more critical element: the workers. Players don’t just choose their limited, shared actions willy nilly, they have to use limited resources to grab them. Usually, these resources take the form of workers placed on worker-placement spaces. Sometimes, players must also pay additional costs. Generally, one could imagine many sorts of resources being expended and still having a game that’s a lot like worker placement.
A few other characteristics are optional, but are ubiquitous enough that they’re found in many worker-placement games.
(Optional, but common) Actions Expand Over Time.One of Caylus’ big innovations was that it slowly expanded its available actions, increasing complexity as the game went on. Agricola and others followed this same formula, but there are some worker-placement games such as Viticulture that don’t do this. Not using this option largely removes the ability for players to ramp-up their workers, and so removes an orthogonal way to advance in the game — but if you’ve got a game such as Viticulture that’s quite multi-faceted already, that’s not a problem.
(Optional, but rare) Actions Can Be Player Owned. This was Caylus’ other big innovation that hasn’t become mandatory for worker-placement games. In fact, it’s pretty rare. But some games such as Keyflower do allow players to own some or most of the worker-placement spaces. This creates another orthogonal strategic question: do you aid your opponents by using their spaces or not?
Does a worker-placement game need to all all four of the “mandatory” points in my description? I would say yes, but there’s a lot of possibility for variation, such as in The Manhattan Project (2012), which uses worker placement as part of a larger whole. But, if you get far enough away, you might have moved entirely out of the category of play.
The Manhattan Project (2012) is a little outside of the norm because it combines pure worker placement with personal action selection, and uses the same worker-meeples for both.
As with so many things in life, you’ll know worker-placement when you see it (as long as you have a strong definition, like the one herein), but generally you should see something that focuses heavily on these four or more points.
What Worker Placement Is Not
Worker placement is sometimes confused with a few other categories of play:
Action Selection.As with worker placement, action selection depends on players deciding what they’re going to do based on some menu of possibilities. Unlike worker placement, actions in action selection aren’t shared and they aren’t in contention. I’d generally define worker placement as a subset (or an advancement) of the action-selection mechanic.
Area Control.This sort of play uses tokens to gain control of regions in a game through warfare: new markers come in, and old markers are either destroyed or move out. Perhaps those regions later produce resources or allow some special action, but players don’t actually use their area-control meeples to select the action (nor is that action available to others in any meaningful way).
Auction.Here, players bid resources to win prizes. They could theoretically be bidding on actions, which puts auctions into the realm of worker-placement games. However, bidding on an auction is a totally different mechanic from simply placing a meeple: it has uncertainty, the possibility of loss, and generally requires a different type of strategy. You could perhaps make the argument that worker placement is a subset of auctions where everyone bids “1” and the first “1” wins, but you could perhaps make the argument that for most mechanics, so I think it’s specious.
Majority Control.This category of play is very similar to area control, except that control of a region is determined by who has the most meeples in a territory, not by who last player to drive their opponents out. The rest of the discussion applies.
Village (2012) is hard to categorize. It definitely has shared action spaces, and you’re definitely placing limited resources on them, and they’re definitely in contention … but that contention is defined by the resource cubes that you remove from the regions, not by the number of meeples placed there. I’d call it worker-placement, but an usual variant.
Role Selection.The history section of this article already covered the difference between role selection and worker placement, but in short, worker placement built on the action contention of role selection, but integrated it more tightly into a central board and introduced the need to expend resources to use those actions.
Some Controversial Games
So, finally, we come to those games that people claim are worker selection, but where I’d argue otherwise. I’ve listed five of the most popular here, with my argument for why they’re not worker placement.
Carcassonne (2000). You place meeples on territories, and if you have the majority of meeples in the territory when it scores, then you earn the points. In other words, the meeples, even though they have worker-like names such as “farmer”, “knight”, “monk”, and “thief” are majority-control markers. They do not select actions of any sort; instead, they contend for points. Majority Control.
Keydom (1998) / Aladdin’s Dragons (2000). This is a game that some claim was the first worker-placement game, and it’s not, in large part due to its absence of discrete workers and the uncertainty of its action selection. In fact, it’s really a bidding game (call it auction or majority control, as you prefer). Players place tokens in action spaces, and then when they’re tallied up, they determine who gets to take the actions. It’s still a pretty unique action-selection auction that I’d love to see available in a new “key” edition from Richard Breese. Auction.
Orléans (2015).Players draw characters from bags and combine them into formulas to take actions. The fact that actions are activated through the combination of multiple “worker” pieces would probably disqualify this game from being worker selection on its own. But, the actions also aren’t shared, so there’s no contention. Action Selection.
Robinson Crusoe (2012).There’s a set of shared actions in this co-op, all plainly visible on the main board. Players take them by putting one or more of their action discs on the space. It’s not worker placement because there’s no particular contention: players can stack their “workers” wherever they want. In fact, it’s been pretty hard to marry co-op games and worker placement because the contention at the heart of worker placement runs exactly at odds with cooperative design. Action Selection.
Scythe (2016).And finally, this is the game that got the argument started, when a popular video show claimed it was a top worker-placement game. Many of us thought that the reviewer was talking about Scythe’s action-selection mechanic, where players choose their actions from their personal player boards, which of course has no contention (though it creates some clever limitations based upon its pairing of actions, where those pairs always have to be done together). However, in retrospect, it looks like the argument was weaker than that: Scythe calls its some of its meeples “workers”, and that seems to be the reason for the claim that Scythe is a worker-placement game. But, a name does not make it so. The “workers” are area-control units, and though they do generate resources, they have no part in the action-selection cycle of the game. Action Selection, Area Control.
Scythe (2016). Play this fun and innovative game, but please don’t call it worker placement. That’s a simple action-selection board shown above.
Worker placement depends on an action selection system where (i) the actions are shared, (ii) the actions are limited, (iii) the actions are in contention, and (iv) the actions require limited resources to activate. It is not area control, auction, or majority control. A game isn’t worker placement just because it calls one of its tokens a “worker” and you at some point place it somewhere.
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