The player controls a limited resource (workers) that she must commit to activate or improve different mechanisms in the game.
A set of mechanisms create a complex and dynamic core of the game. The player must choose how to distribute a limited resource (workers) to activate these mechanisms. The limited number requires the player to change the distribution of the workers to operate the game mechanisms most effectively.
Use worker placement when:
- You want to introduce constant micromanagement as a player task.
- You want to encourage players to adapt to changing circumstances.
- You want to introduce timing as a crucial factor in successful strategies.
- You want to create a subtle mechanism for indirect conflict.
- The core mechanisms, usually a complex structure combining multiple mechanisms
- Multiple stations that activate or improve the core engine
- A workers resource that can be allocated to different stations
- An optional worker pool where uncommitted workers are gathered
Workers are placed at different stations to activate or improve the core mechanisms; the workers operate the core mechanisms. Workers can be moved between stations relatively easily, making it possible to quickly change the core mechanism’s behavior.
Worker placement requires that players spend time moving their workers between stations. The pace of the game should allow for this, and the player should be able to prepare for game events that require her to change the distribution.
Worker placement makes the most sense when the behavior of the core mechanisms that the workers operate needs to be changed from time to time. This means that it is best used in complex games that create different gameplay phases.
Worker placement usually requires the player to constantly manage her workers, and as a result it can easily dominate a game’s economy.
When implementing worker placement, it is important to balance the number of workers with the number of stations. When the number of workers remains the same for the duration of the game, this balance can make the difference between constant changes to the worker distribution and players settling into a fixed distribution. Relatively low numbers of workers require the player to adapt more often, whereas with high numbers the need to adapt is reduced.
When the number of workers is high or when players can produce extra workers in the game, you have to be careful not to create a situation in which all the stations are manned and there is no longer any reason to change worker distribution. One way to prevent this is to allow multiple workers to be placed at a single spot in order to improve their effect further. In the structure diagram, this is the case for the middle station.
Many games that implement worker placement have the players competing for the same stations. For example, players need to place workers in the same gold mine to produce gold for their economy. When players are competing for the same stations, it is important to include a mechanism that forces workers to be removed from their stations. This could be as simple as returning all workers to the pool automatically after each turn or a more direct action that allows players to remove their opponents’ workers. Competition for stations creates a subtle and indirect competition between players where they can block each other’s plans by blocking vital stations.
Worker placement creates many opportunities to add dynamic friction to the system. Dynamic friction is created when placing workers consumes resources or when the placement of a worker at a station costs a constant upkeep. In both cases, placing more workers will consume more resources, countering the benefits of having more workers in play. At the same time, when placing consumes resources (and there is no upkeep), changing worker distribution is penalized. This creates a version of worker placement that is less adaptive and rewards forward planning.
In StarCraft, the workers are space construction vehicle (SCV) units that can be assigned different tasks: They can harvest minerals or gas, the game’s two main resources, or they can build and repair buildings for the player base. The player can build as many SCV units as he sees fit and often can assign many SCV units to the same (or similar) tasks. In StarCraft there is some competition for stations because all players can harvest resources from the same locations on the map. This is an important feature in some levels, but in most levels the player starts with relatively safe and exclusive access to some resources.
In the board game Agricola, players build and operate a farm in the eighteenth century. The player starts with a family of two. Her family members are her workers. They can be assigned to different tasks, such as sowing crops, building fences, gathering wood and other resources, and so on. Every turn she must assign workers to new tasks. An important task is to collect enough food to feed the growing family. In Agricola, players compete for the same stations; only one worker can be assigned to each of the tasks. If no player performs a particular task in a turn, the resources it generates build up (for example, wood piles up when nobody collects it). Because this can happen, the relative benefits of each task shift constantly.
- Worker placement can elaborate almost any other pattern, in particular the Converter Engine, Engine Building, Attrition, and Arms Race patterns.
- Dynamic Friction initiated by the number of workers or by placing workers is a
good way to apply negative feedback to a worker placement pattern.