Board Game Terminology 101 | Worker Placement Games

The term Worker Placement Games might seem boring if you don’t know what it means. But I firmly believe this core mechanic is 10x more fun and challenging than the roll and move or roll and attack that you’re used to!

This post explains worker placement games perfectly! But wait...THERE'S MORE! It also gives 3 suggestions for games that give variations on the core worker placement mechanic.

Hey guess what!! This post about worker placement games has affiliate links in it. These links never influence my opinions about a product or service. Why is this important? You can find the answer by reading my full disclosure policy here.

Board game terminology can be daunting. If you wander into a game night as people choose the game for the evening you can quickly feel like you are in a foreign country.

People will throw around phrases like:

  • Deck Building
  • Take That
  • Area Control
  • Action Point System
  • Engine Building
  • Card Drafting

…and that is just a very tiny portion of the gamers lexicon. While you’ll understand the individual words, for some reason strung together they can sound like an alien language.

I promise you, none of these terms are hard to understand. Even without coming here you will certainly start picking up on what they mean as you get involved in the hobby. But don’t leave! Because I’m gonna give you a jump start.

Here’s the deal, I’m going to stick with the super basic terms in this series. Specifically, the terms that define the mechanics of a game.

Shoot…I just used a word that might not make sense if you’re new to gaming…Mechanics.

Simply put, mechanics are the actions, often paired with physical objects, that make a game work. For example – the mechanic of everyone’s favorite game, Monopoly, is called “roll and move.” Seems pretty self explanatory. On your turn you roll…and then you move. Now I hear you, yes there is more to Monopoly than rolling and moving (barely), but “roll and move” is the core mechanic. It’s what you do on every single turn.

Buy Monopoly on Amazon (Seriously...don't)

Sorry for the super long intro. Ready to dive in? Let’s do it!

Worker Placement Games Defined

Worker placement games are one of my all time favorite styles of board games. Let me give you a quick definition:

Worker Placement: In order to complete the action(s) on their turn, players select from a group of actions that are available to everyone. This is generally done by placing a token or marker on a space that represents that specific action on the game board. Usually, once a space on the board is occupied, no other player is allowed to take that action until the players token is removed. Sometimes this mechanic is also referred to as Action Drafting.

Ok… There’s the basic Art of Boardgaming definition, but let’s break it down a little bit further.

I’m going to use Tiny Epic Kingdoms from Gamelyn Games as an example because it is Worker Placement Game in the simplest form.

Tiny Epic Kingsdoms Area Control Cards

In Tiny Epic Kingdoms there is a card placed in the center of the table that has the list of available actions (see below). Like most worker placement games, some of the actions are free while others will have some cost associated with them. Most importantly, at the beginning of the round, all the actions are available.

Beside the action card are 5 shield tokens.

Note: I’m not going to go into detail on what the actions are, because you can understand how worker placement works without learning how to play Tiny Epic Kingdoms. If you’d like to learn more about this specific game you can check out my Tiny Epic Kingdoms Review.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms - Action Selection Board

In this particular worker placement game, players must claim and preform one action on their turn. To do so, they take one of the shield markers, place it on the section of the card that has the action they would like to use, and then they do that action. This continues until no shields are available. Then the shields are removed from the card, and play resumes where it left off.

If you’re with me so far, you can see that turn order can be a huge advantage in worker placement games! Having someone steal the action that you wanted to do before you get a chance to can be incredibly frustrating. However, good worker placement games always have a way to mitigate this advantage.

For example, in Tiny Epic Kingdoms there are more shields than there are players (Max player count of 4). This means that in a 4 player game, the first player to place a shield, is also the last player to place a shield when the board has the fewest options available. Then the action board is cleared and play continues with the NEXT player having the advantage of being first. Round after round this evens out who get’s the advantage of being the 1st player.

Buy Tiny Epic Kingdoms on Amazon

Worker Placement Game Variations

You will quickly discover most games take a core mechanics and put their own spin, or variations, on it. In my opinion, this is one of the things that makes games awesome!

If you just took a mechanic and pasted a new theme on it, without tweaking or combining it with another mechanic, gaming would be boring. Instead, it can be the subtle changes on a mechanic that you are familiar with that make you fall in love with a new game.

There really isn’t a way to label all of the variations, and it would be nearly impossible for me to create an exhaustive list. So instead I’m going to show you 3 more games that take the Worker Placement core system that I talked about above, and add to or tweak it.

1. Viticulture

This game falls pretty classically into the worker placement category, but there are some variations in Viticulture from Tiny Epic Kingdoms that you will find in other worker placement games.

Variation #1: Players Have Their Own “Worker” Pools

Instead of having a common pool of shields, (Like Tiny Epic Kingdoms) each player starts with 3-4 worker pieces, and can grow their pool up to as many as 6! This is strategic! If you don’t play your workers right it’s possible for you to have 3 actions, and another player to have 6 in the later rounds of the game. It’s all about what actions you choose, and when.

Viticulture on Tabletopia - Worker Pool

Why is the picture look different? Well…I don’t own a physical copy of Viticulture. But it’s a favorite with the group that I play with on Tabletopia. And it’s such a fantastic example of worker placement games that I just couldn’t leave it off this post!

Variation #2: You Can Place a Worker on a “Blocked” Space

Viticulture gives players an option that few other worker placement games provide. Each player has one “Grande” worker that has the ability to be placed on any spot, even if that spot is already taken by another worker. I LOVE THIS! Essentially, this means that as long as you haven’t used your Grande Worker yet in the current round, all the actions on the board are available to you, even if someone else has already taken them.

Variation #3: Unique Action Availability

Viticulture puts another spin on worker placement that may exist elsewhere, but I haven’t yet played a game that does it. In each round of Viticulture, placing workers is set up into 2 “seasons.” Summer, and Winter.

Viticulture board on Tabletopia - Summer and Winter Seasons

In the Summer, only the actions on the yellow side of the board are available to you, and in the Winter only the actions on the blue side are available to you. However, you don’t get any of your workers back until after the winter season. Ergo, any workers you place in the summer, won’t be available to you in the winter.

While this may not seem all that tricky, managing your workers and deciding whether you should save some of your workers for winter, spend them all in the summer, or vice-versa, is more challenging than you might think.

Buy Viticulture on Amazon

2. Manhattan Project

This game is worker placement…to the tenth degree. It doesn’t just tweak the mechanic… it blows it up. (see what I did there? Manhattan project…bombs….blows it up…please laugh.)

Again – I’m not going to teach you the game here, I’m just going to discuss some of the ways it tweaks the Worker Placement mechanic. If you want more info about the game, head over and check out my Review of The Manhattan Project.

Variation #1: Semi-Exclusive Actions

In The Manhattan Project there is a board with a bunch of actions that are available to everyone, but you also have a player board that you can populate with cards that have actions that are almost exclusive to you. I say almost because there is one space on the group board that when used, allows players to place workers on your player cards…so you have to watch out for that.

This is super cool because in The Manhattan Project you get to take…

Variation #2: Multiple Actions Per Turn

In all the games I’ve discussed so far, you get to place one worker, preform that action, then the next player places one worker, preforms that action, etc until everyone passes or is out of available workers. The Manhattan Project is…um…not like that.

The Manhattan Project action selection board

On your turn you can take one space on the main board, and then you may place as many of your available workers as you wish on the actions available on your player board (assuming you don’t have any workers on them already), and preform those actions. And the crazy thing is…you can have as many as 12 of your own workers! Seems like it would be crazy, and you certainly can have some swingy turns, but you’ll find that often times it’s not a good idea to go all out and spend all your workers on 1 turn because…

Variation #3: You Have to Spend a Turn to Retrieve Your Workers

That’s right. In The Manhattan Project there is no “first turn” advantage each round. This is because instead of removing all the workers and cleaning up the board being “free,” players must literally spend one of their turns every-time they want/need to get their workers back. The strategic decisions that go into this sometimes feel immense because you know that every other player is going to get a shot at those action spaces you’ve freed up on the board when you retrieve your workers.

Variation #4: Unique Workers

Workers Scientists, and Engineers - The Manhattan Project Review

The last way that The Manhattan Project blows up the Worker Placement Mechanic is that you have not 1, not 2, but 3 different “Types” of workers. Certain actions can use any type of worker, but some require engineers, and even others require scientist. Not only that, but most of the locations require more than one worker! Suddenly those 12 workers you can have don’t give you as many actions as you thought they would.Buy The Manhattan Project on Amazon

3. Tzolkin

Tzolkin was the first game that showed me just how far creative minds can take a concept in a board game, and innovate it to the point where it is almost something completely different. The designers of Tzolkin took the worker placement model, and almost literally turned it upside down.

Variation #1: Action Spaces MOVE

Ok, in practically every worker placement game, the action spaces are a fixed point on the board. Tzolkin is very different. There are many available action spaces…on literal plastic gears which advance one space each round!

3 player Tzolkin game with Workers Placed

With this innovation, instead of placing a worker and immediately taking the action of that space…

Variation #2: Workers Are Placed For Future Actions

As you’ve seen, most worker placement games go along the lines of “Place a worker & preform the action.” But in Tzolkin after placing your workers, you take no actions. Instead play moves on to the next player.

After everyone at the table has gone, all the gears are physically turned one space forward, moving your workers to a presumably better action space!

Now you are faced with a decision, put more workers on (if you have them), or take any number of your workers off the board, and gain the resources or abilities of each space where you removed a worker!

Workers on the gears of Tzolkin

(and many others) call this “Reverse Worker Placement” because you are getting the actions when you remove as opposed to when you put the worker on. It’s a really brain burnery because it forces players to plan 3-4 moves ahead since you need actions that are further around the gear. This of course means that players workers will sometimes have to sit on a gear for multiple rounds before they can take it off.

Buy Tzolkin on Amazon

Worker Placement Wrap Up

If you came into this post thinking that Worker Placement Games were guaranteed to be identical, repetitive, or just boring I hope that these examples have shown you that is simply not the case! And if you came here because Joe Smith said “Worker Placement” at yesterdays board game night and you didn’t know what in the world he was talking about – I hope I didn’t confuse you too much. 🙂

What Worker Placement Game Have You Tried?

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Disclosure: Some of the links in this post about Worker Placement Games are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. Read my full disclosure policy here.


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