Posted on December 15th, 2014
Continuing on from my previous article (My First Worker Placement), I’d like to write about some of the medium-weight Worker Placement games that I own and greatly enjoy (Spyrium and Russian Railroads) and also mention a few others that I have not yet played, but I am interested in as I feel they offer a bit more than just straight-forward worker placement (Alien Frontiers, Viticulture & Tuscany expansion and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar).
Spyrium (by William Attia, published by Asmodee/Ystari Games) is a Steampunk-themed worker placement game with a modular board made up of a 3×3 grid of cards in which Players place their workers between these cards and then remove them to either gain money or purchase one of said cards. Players will purchase various Buildings and Technology Patents to give them more options and build a resource engine, as well as hire the services of different Characters to gain different types of resources. Spyrium supports between 2 and 5 players and lists roughly an hour, putting it on the shorter end of the worker placement game spectrum.
Image originally from https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/2315773/spyrium
Unlike many other worker placement games, Spyrium does not have specific “spots” on a board where players can assign their workers in order to collect a particular resource or take an action, instead any number of workers can be placed between two cards. The beauty of this game comes from the push-your-luck feel that it can take; at any point in the round, a player may choose to stop placing their workers and begin activating them, allowing them to purchase a card, activate a character card or simply retrieve their worker for some cash before anyone else. The mechanics of Spyrium are straightforward, but unlike some other games where there is little to do between turns, you really need to pay attention to what each other player is doing in order to make sure you’ll have sufficient resources to execute a desired action, as each other worker surrounding a card increases the cost to purchase it. Having a second or even third backup plan is recommended, based on my experience, so as not to be caught off-guard when another player unexpectedly adds that one extra worker that pushes a building outside of your budget or buys a technology you’d had your eye on.
I like Spyrium because it doesn’t feel like any other worker placement game I’ve played; the variable setup requires you to always analyze what cards are available and what you can afford while simultaneously keeping tabs on what each other players is trying to do to avoid having your desired card snatched out from under your nose. If I had to list a negative about this game, it would be just that; if you have any players who aren’t paying particularly close attention to what’s going on, it can result in periods of analysis paralysis where they are unable to pursue their original plan and have to figure out what else they can do with the resources they have – typically not the best thing to have happen to you, especially when you’re first learning the game. Overall, however, Spyrium has become one of my favourite games, worker placement or otherwise and I would never hesitate to play given the opportunity.
Compared to Spyrium, Russian Railroads (by Helmut Ohley and Leonhard Orgler, published in North America by Z-Man Games) is about as standard and straight-forward as you can possibly get (and I mean that in the best possible way). It plays between 2 and 4 players and will likely take about 2 hours to play through, less if you’re only playing with 2 and use the modified 2-player side of the board. If I had to pick a term to refer to Russian Railroads other than ‘Worker Placement’, I would have to use ‘Points Salad,’ as virtually everything in this game will award you with some number of points, and the main strategic goal of this game is to choose a particular method of getting points and then throwing everything you’ve got at it.
Image originally from https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/1818802/russian-railroads
Russian Railroads is about as pure a worker placement game as you can get – there’s no randomness in the game aside from the Engineer chits that are placed on the board during setup, nor do players have screens to hide their resources behind, absolutely everything is visible at all points during the game and it is up to each player to parse all of that information and make use of it the best way they can. Each turn will consist of players placing one or more workers onto spots on the board in order to execute the associated action, which typically means moving tracks along on their individual player boards or increasing how far along those tracks you are able to score. There is no direct player interaction in this game, aside from blocking a particularly lucrative spot on the board, however doing so is rarely a valid strategy unless it is also providing you with useful actions that gain you points.
There is a lot of math in Russian Railroads, particularly in the later rounds of the game when players may be scoring upwards of 100 points a turn due to the cumulative nature of the scoring tracks, which is probably the only negative thing I would have to say about the game. Picking one of the 3 rail tracks (or possibly the technology track) and focusing on it gets a lot of the strategy out of the game early, so each turn comes down to quickly determining which spot on the board is going to net you the most points for your investment. I think fans of Power Grid would appreciate this game, not necessarily because of the math involved but rather because as the game goes on, you begin focusing less on your overall strategy and more on how to optimize each of your moves. If you don’t particularly enjoy player interaction or trying to set others back (I’m looking at you, Mandatory Quests from Lords of Waterdeep), I highly recommend checking out Russian Railroads for a slightly longer game, but not one that ever feels like it’s overstayed its welcome.
To begin with the games that I don’t yet have (but are on my wishlist), Alien Frontiers (by Tory Niemann, plays 2-4 players in roughly 90 minutes, published by CleverMojo Games) is particularly interesting due to the fact that your workers are actually dice, making it one of the more random worker placement games out there right now. Each turn, players take all of their dice, roll them and then assign them to various spots on the board to take the different actions available, with the goal being to place all of your Colony tokens before other players in order to earn the most victory points.
Image originally from https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/1861173/alien-frontiers
Compared to many other worker placement games, Alien Frontiers has a high amount of player interaction as well as an aspect of area control with regard to the placement of Colonies onto the planet. It should also be noted that unlike many other worker placement games, there is not a fixed number of rounds, but rather until a player is able to place all of their Colonies, making the randomness of the dice and Alien Technology cards a factor in the length of the game.
Although I’m partial to less randomness in games, Alien Frontiers appeals to me not because of the randomness, but rather because of how the game allows players to deal with that randomness, either through the various board spaces or via the Alien Technology cards. Alien Frontiers strikes me as a great game to bring to game night to get other people playing, or to introduce Euro-style games and mechanics to predominantly American-style gamers.
Viticulture & Tuscany Expansion
I want to preface talking about this particular game by mentioning that I am including the Tuscany expansion mainly because it offers something unique to worker placement; a number of small expansions that are unlocked over repeated plays, somewhat similar to Risk: Legacy. I also have to mention that the Tuscany expansion is not widely available at the time of this writing, it was the result of a Kickstarter campaign and should be available to the general public in the near future.
Image originally from https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/1694706/viticulture
The main game of Viticulture (by Jamey Stagmaier and Alan Stone, 2-6 players in roughly 90 minutes, published by Stonemaier Games) is a somewhat standard worker placement game about running a vinyard, and while the expansion does not change that, it adds the modular expansions which I think are fascinating, particularly if you are able to get the same group together for repeated plays. As the various mini-expansions are unlocked, asymmetric extra resources are added to the setup of the game and additional cards are made available as well as expanded game boards, offering interesting additions and changes to the base game. Of the three games that I don’t yet have, I think Viticulture is at the top of the list – it may not be a game I would consider bringing to game night, but a solid base game that’s improved by the expansion is of great interest to me.
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
Lastly, I’d like to mention one of the few board games (let alone worker placement) featuring moving parts – Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (by Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini, 2-4 players at roughly 90 minutes, published by Czech Games Edition/Rio Grande Games) which features some large spinning gears that drive one of the central mechanics of the game: time as a resource. Each turn, players have the option to place their workers on different spots on the board, each of which is located on one of the large gears. As the game progresses, these gears turn and the workers are moved into progressively more and more lucrative spots, where they can then be removed to acquire various types of goods.
Image originally from https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/1456628/tzolk-mayan-calendar
Tzolk’in is an interesting game even discounting the gears, however the addition of them and the time mechanic adds a lot of interesting decisions to each turn of the game; do I retrieve one worker slightly early and get fewer resources or do I place my last worker and then become forced to retrieve them next turn? Many games offer a similar number of resources and ways to acquire victory points, but (to the best of my knowledge) the gears and aspect of using time as a resource are still relatively uncommon, at least compared to more “standard” worker placement games such as the others I’ve written about above.
In the near future I plan to write the final part of this series, covering the heavier end of the spectrum with the great granddaddies of worker placement; Agricola, Caylus and Le Havre. More than any other style of game, worker placement is far and away my favorite, not necessarily due to the mechanic itself so much as because of the huge variety of different interpretations of the mechanic itself. Worker placement games are enjoyable to me because whether I sit down to a game of Spyrium, Agricola or Lords of Waterdeep, the mechanic of “put a worker somewhere to get/do something” is constant, so I can spend the game enjoying the different strategies of how to best place my workers and get a different, yet still comfortable and familiar experience. Very rarely do I enjoy games where a bad dice roll or poor card draw can affect my ability to win, and worker placement (for the mostpart) does away with that; if I win it’s because I had a good strategy and that’s what appeals to me about board gaming.