These games see you use ‘workers’ to claim spaces that in turn grant you actions you then use; the key being that most or all of these action spaces are contested between all players and so have limited availability each turn. This makes placement order important, as well as considering denial of certain spots to others.
It has proved a fertile space for design, with many variations on the original basic concepts in everything from theme to mechanics; such as specialist workers and individual player boards. But there have also been many interesting cross overs with other popular mechanisms such as hand management, dice manipulation and area control.
If you’re new to this genre and looking for a gentler way in, I would suggest one of two games that aren’t on this list: Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep. I think Stone Age is both the better game and the better gateway, but if you really like D&D and/or the fantasy genre above all else then Waterdeep is a solid enough choice. Stone Age would’ve made my top 10 a year or so ago, but I simply feel I’ve outgrown it (hark at me!).
Also just missing my list were Targi, Sail to India and Crisis. Targi is a great small box two-player game that condenses what makes worker placement great into a small package – no mean feat (and for me it does it better than Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small). Sail to India is a fantastic example of putting a big box experience into a micro game, but sadly it can fall flat on occasion. I haven’t played Crisis enough yet to justify putting it on here – but I have high hopes and it’s worth checking out.
Honourable mentions also need to go to Terra Mystica, Keyflower and Mombasa – three of my favourite games that include a worker placement element, but that probably aren’t worker placement-y enough to fairly include on this list. I’ll also talk about some games that other people rate (but I don’t) at the end, but for now here’s…
My Top 10 worker placement games
Something of an overlooked gem, this Egyptian-themed game pushes all my buttons: worker and resource management, variable actions available each round, some hidden scoring, and the chance to mess with your opponents. Another nice touch is that the actions are spread out along the Nile and once you move past an action space, you can’t go back to it. This creates some delicious decisions as you try and work out just how juicy those later actions are – as you may have to miss out on some others to ensure you grab it. This is exacerbated by the fact you have eight workers available, and there are 26 action spaces, so if you move too far ahead you may end up wasting some of those workers (there isn’t a cop-out catch-all space where you can place spare/unused workers). Available to play online at Yucata.
Originally titled Age of Empires III, this classic was finally re-released in 2015 – but sadly in a beautiful yet unrealistically priced edition. As much as I’ve loved the game, I’m not willing to pay £75 for what should also have a £40 price point. However, that gripe doesn’t get away from how great a game this is. The main focuses here are having several different types of worker that can achieve different tasks; area control; and the order in which you place your workers. The game has quite a high level of conflict, so by placing your workers in spots that give away your plans early risks telegraphing your plans to others – but there are limited spaces in the more significant action spaces, so leave it too late and you may not get to do it at all! Definitely better with more players (five or six), this one isn’t overly complex but can be pretty brutal.
The last game in this Top 10 that I don’t own, I’d only buy Fields of Arle if I was lucky enough to find myself a new girlfriend that loved board games; the reason being it is custom made for the two-player experience. As you’d expect from Uwe Rosenberg, this is very much a resource management/conversion game – and like most of his more recent games it is more forgiving, prefer to let you score points for everything and rewarding good planning, rather than punishing poor play. There’s little innovation here, but I do like how he has split the actions into two ‘seasons’ – with very limited scope to access actions from the season you’re not currently on. There are also multiple routes to victory, which pay out at various speeds and levels of commitments, giving it a sandbox feel. But the fact it’s specifically designed for two means you always feel the pressure for action spaces.
7. Bora Bora (2013)
2-4 players, 90 minutes
One of my favourite games, Bora Bora is only so low on the list because it’s the one game here some would argue isn’t a ‘pure’ worker placement game. Personally, I don’t see why. Sure, your ‘workers’ are dice – but they are placed to choose actions and your choices are limited in scope depending on other players’ selections. That’s worker placement to me. As you’d expect from a Feld game there are multiple paths to victory and everything you do is going to score you points – plus the tropical theme is pasted on (but pretty) and everything can be heavily mitigated. But the important thing is all your decisions are agonising and there’s just enough of being able to mess with other players (by accident or design) to keep things interesting each play. There’s a varying number of actions, depending on player count, meaning it plays well across the board – and while placing high-numbered dice gives you better actions, placing lower ones restricts the availability of that action for other players.
For many this is the original worker placement game – and even if it wasn’t, it was certainly the game that brought the mechanism to the eyes of the general gaming populace. But more importantly it still holds its weight today, with some random elements and potential nastiness keeping it constantly replayable. The evil charm of Caylus is while you choose what actions you do before you get to do any of them, other players can then move the goal posts so that you can’t do some of those actions. You can of course play safe, but the best actions are (of course) the riskier ones. There is also keen competition to gain kings favours (which can give sizeable bonuses), while you’re constantly looking to build new action spaces. But these are then available to all – although as the builder, you’re going to profit from others if they use it. But then you want to use it too… So much to think about, such a great game – and one I need to play more.
5. The Manhattan Project (2012)
2-5 players, 2 hours
The Manhattan Project was a real breath of fresh worker placement air on its release, introducing a range of clever ideas to the genre – not to mention its unique theme are wonderful art style. More importantly the theme really plays into the game’s mechanisms: you never quite know when the game will end, lending proceedings a nice air or paranoia; while you can build up your own tableau of usable actions (in this case factories/power plants etc) – only to find your opponents blowing them up or, worse, sneaking in and using them, blocking them for your own use. To further confound it introduced the concept of either placing workers or ‘bringing them home’ on your turn, meaning you could block spaces for as long as you were happy to leave your workers on the board. This is an absolute ‘must play’ for anyone keen on worker placement s it really does add a lot of interesting ideas to the genre.
4. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012), 2-4 players, 90 minutes
While some initially labelled the cogs on the Tzolk’in board a gimmick nothing could be further from the truth: instead they enable the simple implementation of what would otherwise be an unfeasibly fiddly mechanism – but what a mechanism. Workers are either placed or removed from cogs each round (players choose to do one or the other); with those that stay on the cogs moving to a stronger space at the end of each round. Waiting for later rounds is clearly beneficial, but balancing your need for immediate results versus extra value makes every round deliciously brain-teasing. The game is also gorgeous, interactive/competitive and variable, while really rewarding repeated plays.
3. Copycat (2012)
2-4 players, 90 minutes
The only game on this list outside the BGG top 300, Copycat is ranked a lowly 904 (June 2016) – but it’s one of my favourites all the same. It is seen by some as a bit of a gimmick, unashamedly ‘stealing’ mechanisms from classic games such as Agricola (worker placement), Through the Ages (card buying) and Dominion (deck building). But when combined these elements come together as a beautifully simple and coherent worker placement game. Sure there aren’t a wealth of routes to victory, but the cagey nature of play and deck-building elements make up for it in spades. I do think it’s a game you can overplay, and I’d dearly love an expansion to add some variety; but as a game to play and enjoy three or four times a year I find it an absolute blast. And the humour in the theme and art really compliment the experience.
Uwe Rosenberg is the master of the worker placement art, so it seems fitting he’s the only designer with two titles on the list. I could easily have added Agricola to the list too, but I thought the two too similar for individual entries – and I prefer Caverna (just). The real difference between the two is that Agricola limits your options early by way of a card draft/deal and is very unforgiving; where Caverna is much more open. I also see Caverna as a 2-4 player game, as the solo game is weak (Agricola is much better for this) and more than four makes it restrictively long. What makes these games stand out is the mix of worker placement with tableau building and resource management. There are so many ways to win and the key is often getting out of sync with the other players so as to get the best out of action spaces (many of which improve on turns they’re not used). A fantastic challenge every time.
1. Snowdonia (2012)
1-5 players, 1-2 hours
2012 was clearly the year of the worker placement game (there are four in this top 10 list alone), so it seems fitting it also provides my number one ranked game in the genre. Snowdonia offers all the usual tropes of a worker placement game but brings two excellent innovations of its own: weather and the-game-as-player. Weather changes every round and has a big effect on the power and availability of certain key actions (you can plan and mitigate for it enough to keep it interesting without being too random). But better still is the mechanism in which the game essentially plays itself: each turn a certain amount of resources are drawn from a bag – and if certain cubes come out, the game itself moves the game forward by taking an action the players usually have to take themselves. The power of this action is also affected by the weather, meaning the game’s length can vary considerably – but this can also be mitigated a little, as the less resource cubes you ‘use’ (ie, put back in the bag) the more chance there is of the game taking actions. Additionally the game is supported by a large array of expansion tracks, each adding extra nuances to the base rules and adding a near endless level of replayability.
The ‘best of the rest’ that missed the list
Of the others, Dominant Species (30) is probably my favourite – a brutal and complex area control game that I simply haven’t played enough of to include on my list (but it is brilliant).
Le Havre (21) is also great, but personally it opens up too big a decision space and I lose the mental capacity to enjoy it near the end (I’d definitely class it as a ‘heavy’ euro game).
I’ve had a couple of plays of The Voyages of Marco Polo (37) but it hasn’t gripped me enough to trouble my top 10 – solid, but no more. However, I didn’t care much for Russian Railroads (50). I found it quite fun on my first play but was already getting bored of it half way through the second; but I’m clearly in the minority on that one. It just seemed to have too few interesting paths to victory to hold my interest.