Sunday, August 19, 2018

Worker Learning progress -- what makes Worker Placement tick?

Worker Learning Progress

I haven't posted much about some of my latest game ideas here. In the case of my Worker Learning game, I've only made these two posts in this blog. I had written elsewhere about it, in a Slack channel, but unfortunately it was an unpaid channel, and the general chatter in that Slack drowned my posts about this game... they allegedly still exist, but someone would have to pay to access them at this point.

My previous posts are not very descriptive of the game, just the main "Worker Learning" mechanism which I described as a sort of cross between my own Deck Learning mechanism from Eminent Domain, and the basic card leveling mechanism in Solforge. So before I go on, here's a brief description of the game I'm working on (which could use a good title, leave your suggestions in the comments below!):

Similar to the theme of Lords of Waterdeep, in this game you will send adventurers out to prepare for, and then go on, adventures. Unlike Lords of Waterdeep however, your adventurers aren't just a resource you collect and spend. Rather they are workers you will place round after round, and after each adventure, they will level up and get better at their job.

You see, you'll have workers in different types, corresponding to typical character classes in the fantasy role playing genre (fighter, cleric, mage, and thief). My current thought is that you'll have two of each type of worker, one starting at level 1, and the other starting at level 2. You will send these workers to various action spaces on the board to collect resources they will need to go on an adventure. Like The Manhattan Project, instead of placing a worker on your turn, you'll have the option of recalling your workers, at which time they will go on their adventures (and side quests), and increase in level.

The various worker spaces will behave differently depending on the type of worker you send, or their level. Higher level workers will be able to go to occupied spaces, so long as they're the highest level worker at that space. Certain spaces may be inaccessible unless the worker is at least a certain level.

I feel like this worker learning mechanism has a good chance to produce a nice dichotomy between trying to slowly level your entire work force evenly, and quickly increasing just a few of your workers to the maximum level. I very much like the idea of his mechanism, but I was running out of impetus to fill out data details and construct a prototype to try, so the game has been on the back burner for a while. Recently I was chatting with my old friend Rick from the Board Game Designers Forum. Rick has a couple of published titles under his belt, and I've seen a few of his other promising prototypes as well. I asked Rick if he'd be interested in jumping in on this project with me, and with his help, the game has finally been making some progress! Watch this space for more info if and when the game progresses any further.

What Makes Worker Placement Games Tick?

Now that I've been thinking more about this game, I've been wondering what it is that makes for a good Worker Placement game. What keeps them from being a dry, "collect resources, turn in resources" exercise.

I asked my friend and fellow TMG developer Andy Van Zandt what he thought made WP games good:

I think most good Worker Placement games have something that causes tension on top of the math. Growing/shrinking resource pools, inbound tragedies, combos that are particularly dangerous if someone else completes them, etc. Basically stuff that makes people have to re-evaluate the perceived tactical benefits of placement spaces regularly. It's usually not the resource conversion that's interesting, it's balancing resource conversion with the changing environment.

Stone Age is a great Worker Placement game, and it features an uncertainty with each worker placed to gather resources. Sending 3 workers to get clay doesn't mean you get 3 clay. In fact, you might not get ANY clay, or you might get as many as 4 clay. In addition to the actions of the other players, you need to contend with the uncertainty of how many resources you'll get with each placement.

Lords of Waterdeep is another solid Worker Placement game, and very accessible. One complaint that can be levied at it is that it's a little bit "flat" (as Andy puts it), the resource collection and conversion is too straightforward and calculable. I don't want my game to suffer from that. I don't know if the leveling up of workers will give the game enough texture. So... how do we ensure that Worker Learning isn't "too flat?" That's the question, isn't it!

An example of something that might help in that regard might be this idea. Rick suggested that the adventures could reward you with a special "spoils" resource. This resource would be worth 1 point each at the end of the game, or you could use a certain worker space on the board to have an audience with the King, turning in your spoils for extra points.

Rick's idea was that there could be some tension between cashing in your spoils early, while you've got the chance, and doing it later, after collecting more, for a bigger score (the reward might be triangular with number of spoils). This might add texture because while you can calculate how many spoils you'll have, it might be uncertain whether or not you'll have access to that worker space to cash them in.

I'm not sure that goes quite far enough, but it made me think of something else that might help. It reminded me of the shields in Louis XIV, which come in 8 different suits, and which you draw at random. Each shield in that game is worth 1 point, and there's a bonus point awarded to the player with the most shields in each suit. Imagine if the spoils worked like that... after each adventure, you draw the indicated number of Spoils tokens from a bag, and they come in multiple types. At the King's Court worker space you could cash in sets of one type for triangular points. That would raise questions like "do I cash in now, or wait and see if my next adventure earns me more matching spoils?"

Either way, later in the game, the space is likely more valuable for everyone, and more hotly contested. With the Louie XIV version, you'd have more reason to go to that space more than once, as you could easily collect a few each of 2 or 3 types of spoils, and you'd want to be able to turn in more than one set.

Will that sort of thing help keep the game from being flat? I'm not sure, but it sounds like it has potential. It might be too fiddly. And this is just 1 action space... might the other, more standard action spaces need to be more uncertain?

Let me know what specific feature you like best about your favorite Worker Placement games in the comments below.

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