Friday, March 02, 2007

Age of Empires III and the Workers of Fun

I noticed that the rules for Age of Empires III were posted recently on the Geek, and so this week I downloaded them. Age of Empires III is a board game version of the famous computer game franchise. The board game version was developed for Eagle Games by Glenn Drover. When Eagle Games went out of business many wondered if this game would ever appear on the shelves (or the websites of online retailers). But apparently Mr. Drover’s new company will be publishing the game, and I hope it will appear this summer.

I was especially interested in this title because of the positive reports that came out of Origins last year when Mr. Drover was showing around a prototype. After reading the rules, I can see why people were excited about this title. Although Age of Empires III may not have a single original mechanism, it seems to be a fine synthesis of many elements of popular Euro-games. It’s like a greatest hits album of modern board game mechanisms: worker placement, area majority, set collection, special ability tiles, multiple ways to score, bid for turn order—it’s all there.

Also this week, I downloaded and read the rules for The Pillars of the Earth, another anticipated title from Mayfair Games that should be available in a month or two. And when I saw that this game also uses the worker placement mechanism, I knew I had the subject for this week’s blog.

I first encountered the worker placement mechanism in Caylus (there may be another name for this design element, but if there is I haven’t heard it). In Caylus players have a half dozen worker tokens and they take turns placing them on areas of the game board. Each area usually has it’s own special ability, and usually only one worker placed there gets to use the ability of that area. After all workers are placed, the abilities of each area are executed one by one. Players collect resources, convert resources into special ability buildings, and acquire the victory points provided by each area until every area has been executed.

The fun and agony of this mechanism is that it forces hard choices upon players. The game board usually provides a menu of attractive areas, and players know that if they place a worker to claim one area, many of the other areas will be captured by other players before they have a chance to place a second worker. Players must cope with unexpected developments; other players may surprisingly leave a particularly valuable area unclaimed, or they may grab the one space on the board that you need to move your plans forward. Often one of the spaces on the board indicates turn order; if you first place a worker there, you can be assured of going first next turn and having first choice of the next turn’s pickings.

This is a fine mechanism in its plain vanilla flavor, but we are now seeing different varieties of worker placement showing up.

First, there are differing kinds of placement areas. In Caylus, most of the placement areas hold only one worker, and it’s winner take all. But many of these games have area majority mechanisms. Ys and Aladdin’s Dragons both feature placement mechanisms that are purely area majority; the players with the highest value tokens in the area get the benefit of it. Age of Empires III features both kinds of placement areas. The merchant ship area on the board is an area majority space, but the special buildings area offers a menu of buildings that go to the first player who puts a token on them. Age of Empires and The Pillars of the Earth also feature areas without limitations. The Discovery area on the Age of Empires board holds as many units as players want to place there, and every player can execute one or more voyages every turn.

Secondly, in some games workers are all of equal value, but in other games workers have differing values and abilities. Caylus is an example of the first kind of game; every worker is worth the same as any other worker. But in Leonardo Da Vinci every player has a big worker who is more important than an ordinary worker. In Ys and Aladdin’s Dragons, worker tokens have a whole range of values which may be kept secret from other players when they are placed. Part of the challenge of these games is trying to grab area majority when you don’t know how powerful your competition in any area really is. In Age of Empires, players start with workers who all have a standard value. But players soon can obtain specialist workers (captains, merchants, soldiers) who have extra value when placed in certain areas.

A third variety of the mechanism concerns the cost of placing workers. In some games like Ys and Aladdin’s Dragons, placing workers is free. In Caylus, placing workers has a uniform cost, and money management is important only in that you need to have enough to pay for all the workers you want to place. But The Pillars of the Earth has a new twist on the placement mechanism: workers are chosen randomly, but workers placed first have a higher cost than later workers. The workers I’m thinking of are actually called Master Builders in The Pillars of the Earth, and they are placed in a bag each turn and drawn out in a random order. The player who owns the first Master Builder drawn from the bag has the option of placing the token by paying the highest cost. If he decides not to pay the high price, this Master Builder is set aside until all other tokens have been placed. The price for placing subsequent Master Builders goes down with every builder drawn.

The worker placement mechanism, like area majority, is a solid gaming design element that can be used in a wide variety of games without getting stale. Age of Empires III and The Pillars of the Earth are two upcoming games that provide new and welcome twists on this mechanism. I’m looking forward to both of them.

1 comment:

huzonfirst said...

Kris, the first games I can think of that used the "worker placement" mechanic are Splotter's Bus (1999) and Martin Wallace's Way Out West (2000). In neither case are the tokens labeled "workers" and in some cases more than one token can be put on a space. But in both games, you program your actions for the turn by placing tokens one at a time on spaces which give you abilities and the population of each space is limited. Not quite the same thing, but awfully close and definite precursors, IMO.