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Good games include tough choices

by Evan | Jul 31, 2017
Public domain image by Eric Adamshick via flickr

Some people, including the author's wife, buy wooden animals, crops and people to enhance verisimilitude in their Agricola board game experience

When you were a kid playing Candyland, you salivated over the illustrations of candies and pastries and imagined you could eat them all forever. You didn't, however, actually do much of anything in the game. You drew a card and moved your pawn to the next space of the right color. Then your sister did then same thing. No choices. No decisions. 

It kind of reflected your life. Go where your parents said to go. Do what the teacher said to do. You might get to watch TV, which meant you weren't really doing anything except salivating over advertised toys your parents wouldn't let you have.

Now you are an adult, an independent agent, making life decisions by the hour. You are competing for money and esteem. Maybe you're even one of those uber adults who tell other people what to do. Or you wish you were. Either way, you are ready for real board games.

One of the most popular ideas in the 21st century board game hobby has been "worker placement" games. "Workers" can be imagined as stand ins for employees, resources or time -- all those things we have only so much of in real life and have to decide how best to use.

Variations abound, but the basic idea is that you have a few "meeples" you can place on the board and a lot of places where you might place them. Some games let you make most decisions on your own board without bumping elbows with the other players too much, but other games force you do decide which action you really need right now because you know your opponents will choose the other ones before you get another chance. 

A good early example -- with a literary heritage -- is The Pillars of the Earth, designed by Michael Rienick and Stefan Stadler and based on the hit novel by Ken Follett. We play to build a cathedral, and if you use one of your workers to take the stone this turn, then I'll take the wood -- or maybe I'll take the card that will reward me for my wood more than you will get for your stone. 

I said in a recent post that sexual activity doesn't show up much in these modern "adult" games, but there's a bit of an exception in a popular one called Stone Age by Bernd Brunhoffer. If you put two of your workers in the hut together, by the end of that turn -- voila! -- you have a new worker. If you have rabbit ancestry, by the end of the game you can have twice as many workers as you had when you started.  

Those two games are relatively simple, but in some games the worker placement decisions are agonizing. The toughest one I know is Uwe Rosenberg's true classic, Agricola. You have to think long and hard about which cards to use and which placements to make, or else your little pre-industrial German farm will fail while your opponents are flourishing. And if your family members can't eat, well, that pretty much defines losing the real game of life, doesn't it?

My favorite worker games include Le Havre, where players race to evolve from simple French fishing folk to industrial ship builders; Dominant Species, where my arachnids compete for survival with your amphibians before the glaciers overwhelm us all, and; Tzolk'in, where you must plan many turns in advance where to place your Aztec workers on the ever-revolving wheels of time. 

Decisions, decisions. I'm actually a mediocre-to-bad player at all these games, but I always have fun. 

Did I leave any of your favorites off the list?

EvanEvan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.
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