Saturday, December 12, 2015

Worker Placement Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game on!

Saturday, December 5, 2015


I just finished reading an excellent article. It's about empathy: what it is, why it's important, how we came to have it, why it's declining in modern culture, how to cultivate it, and how it will improve your life.

It's kind of long, but I think it's well worth the read. The highlights:

  • Humans are empathic creatures. We evolved in a social environment, and we need that social interaction to feel happy and complete.
  • Empathy is declining. With the rise of technology, we are getting our social interaction more through our phones and computers than face-to-face, and this is reducing our ability to be empathic.
  • Empathy is important. The article suggests some ideas on how to improve your sense of empathy.

I won't rehash the whole article. You really should go read it. It has some videos embedded in it. They're good videos. Watch them too.

You may be wondering why I'm talking about social issues in a blog about games. There are two reasons:

  1. I believe strongly in the importance of equality for all people. I've been on the short end of the social power stick before, and I know how much it sucks to feel like that; to feel like you're not wanted, you're not accepted, you have no worth and no value, and the world would not care at all if you just didn't exist. I am aware that I had it so much better than many other people; I was not a minority (ethnically, gender-wise, religiously, etc). If I felt that badly being excluded, how must others feel in worse settings? So I feel it is important to work to end bigotry, discrimination, and exclusion.
  2. Games can help in improving empathy.

Let me be absolutely clear: I'm talking about what have been described as 'analogue games.' Not computer games. Games in which you're sitting at an actual physical table around which are seated other human beings. It doesn't matter if it's a board game, a card game, a roleplaying game, a miniatures-based war game, or any other type of in-person not-on-a-computer game (unless it's something like the original You Don't Know Jack, in which you're still playing with other people present in the room with you). These sorts of games promote the interaction that leads to empathy. Having a computer between you and the other player (that is, playing over a network, like XBox Live) doesn't help; you're not truly interacting with another person when all you have is his voice and a computer-generated character on a screen.

I talked about social issues a little bit back in my post about social bias in gaming. And this topic ties in very strongly with that. Direct physical in-person interaction will lead to a greater understanding of other people's points of view even more surely than playing different genders, orientations, ethnicities, etc. Especially when you're playing with people of different genders, orientations, ethnicities, etc.

This is a timely issue for me, as the Loot and XP board game cafe is set to open here in just a couple of weeks. Soon, people from around the city and even all over the central area of my current home state will be able to come together to play games with one another in a friendly, relaxed setting.

Sorry for the digression. Obvious plug is obvious.

Anyway, my point is this: playing games makes the world a better place, as long as you're doing it in a way that promotes empathy (which means stupid debates like gamergate are harmful to the end goal of improving the world; don't do it). So go play more games.

Really. Play more games.

And with that, I bid you

Game on!