“Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”
The landscape of the board gaming hobby hasn’t looked the same since an unknown game by an unknown designer from an unknown publisher burst onto the scene in the autumn of 2005. More significant than any of those unknowns has turned out to be the unknown mechanic that this mysterious game employed. The concept of worker placement may seem like second nature to those who have joined the board gaming hobby sometime during the past three years (as natural as auctions, negotiation, resource management, action points, or area majority), but it’s actually an innovation of the 21st century… perhaps the innovation of the decade in the hobby. Unlike most other mechanics in board gaming, worker placement is much younger and in its infancy, and thus still being explored and put to use in a various ways. More importantly, it’s being put to use by various designers, all of whom have begun to stake their claim to the worker placement universe, each adding their own twist to the concept (for better or worse). As T.S. Eliot may or may not have said, “good poets borrow, great poets steal.” And great designers from far and wide have thankfully “stolen” the worker placement mechanic, unabashedly adding William Attia’s baby to their own games. Gamers everywhere can be thankful for this free flow of ideas and mechanics, as it has given us a wealth of worker placement games to choose from. Then again, it sometimes seems as if all we have to choose from over the past few years has been each designer’s different take on worker placement. But that’s to be expected with such an innovation and its use is certain to drop-off over time as the novelty wears off. In case you haven’t gathered yet, the formerly unknown game is Caylus, the designer is William Attia, and publisher is Ystari. Of course none of them are unknown now.
The ripple effects of that 2005 bombshell innovation have been felt through the succeeding years and do not yet show any signs of fading away. 2006 saw the first child of Caylus born in Pillars of the Earth, co-designed by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler. Pillars of the Earth was greeted with a mixed welcome as many praised it for being a quicker, simpler, and better version of Caylus, but others criticized it both for its lack of uniqueness and for its introduction of randomness to the luckless Caylus formula. Another child of Caylus in 2006 was Leonardo da Vinci by the Italian design team of Flaminia Brasini, Virginio Gigli, Stefano Luperto, and Antonio Tinto, distributed in the U.S. by Mayfair Games. Leonardo da Vinci met with fewer Caylus comparisons than Pillars due to its thematic and mechanic similarity to the older Kramer classic Princes of Florence, but its use of worker placement makes it nonetheless a direct descendent of the Attia revolution. 2007 saw the first grandchildren of Caylus born with the release of Caylus Magna Carta and Age of Empires III. The former was William Attia’s follow-up release to his blockbuster introduction to the world of board game design. Caylus Magna Carta followed in the “venerable” footsteps of San Juan, the Settlers of Catan Card Game, and the Tigris & Euphrates Card Game by cashing in on the Caylus franchise with a slimmed down version of the original. The latter was Glenn Drover’s attempt to merge the mechanics of the dry European-style Caylus with the immense board and plethora of plastic miniatures of American-style games. Finally, 2008 has seen the birth of four great-grandchildren descendants (two of which were released at the end of 2007 in Germany, but neither of which was widely available in the U.S. until well into 2008). These four great-grandchildren of the Caylus patriarch are of course Karl-Heinz Schmiel’s Tribune – Primus Inter Pares, Martin Wallace’s Toledo, the fictitious Michael Tummelhofer’s Stone Age, and last but far from least Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola. With the growth of the worker placement family of games increasing at this rate, one can’t help but wonder how many worker placement games we’ll see in 2009 and what designers we’ll be greeting on this crowded bandwagon next.
Quickly before the next worker placement game release is upon us, it’s high time I get to briefly discussing my thoughts on each of the 9 members of this burgeoning family. I’ll wade through the genealogy chronologically, so let’s take a trip way back to the humble beginnings of worker placement.
We didn’t know what we were missing in 2004. We were practically drowning in great releases with the likes of Reef Encounter, Antiquity, Goa, Hansa, Maharaja, Power Grid, No Thanks, Ticket to Ride, In the Shadow of the Emperor, and Ingenious, but unbeknownst to the world, we were still somehow lacking. William Attia fixed that hole with the gift of his brainchild to the world at the Internationale Spieltage in Essen, Germany in October of 2005. As I pointed out in my Reflections on Essen Releases back on October 24 of 2006, most annual Essen game fairs entail the release of numerous games vying for the spotlight, but the Essen game fair in 2005 was singularly defined by Caylus. “Essen was Caylus and Caylus was Essen.” The word “hype” has since been bandied about far too often, but one of the first targets of the hype epithet was certainly Caylus. Pre-ordering board games has a long history, especially wargames which use a pre-order system to determine which games actually get printed, but the concept of pre-ordering eurogames really came into its own with the frenzy that surrounded the release of Caylus. The excitement surrounding the game at the Essen fair was such that the first printing of the game available in the U.S. actually sold out on pre-orders. This may not sound like much to newcomers to the hobby given the recent shortages of games and abundance of “Out of Stock” notices due to massive pre-order runs on the bank, but at the time it was a novelty indeed. The game certainly had buzz and had people talking. It was turning heads and people were taking notice. This excitement could be seen through numerous outlets, but one example is this forum thread started by Mike Chapel on December 12, 2005, called “Facts about Caylus,” in which members of the hobby contributed a resounding 656 hyperbolic posts exaggerating the wonder and their awe for Caylus. The game shot up the BoardGameGeek rankings like no other before, quickly reaching the #2 spot of all-time (and only slowly slipping to its current #7 spot where it still stands firmly among the Top 10). The game has weathered a strong backlash to its rapid ascent and, regardless of your individual gaming tastes, is widely recognized as the most recent founding father of the current post-Settlers Golden Age of board gaming.
Personally, I have to admit that I was very skeptical of Caylus at first. I tend to be interested in games because they are designed by people whose previous games I have enjoyed (e.g., Kramer, Dorn, Knizia, Wallace, Breese) or are published by companies whose previous releases I have liked (e.g., Alea). So this game by an unknown designer and an unknown publisher with only a single game to its credit (i.e., Ys), which was widely regarded as having been an inferior imitation of Richard Breese’s Aladdin’s Dragons, was not a natural fit for my wishlist. I was also skeptical that any game could live up to everything that people were saying about it. I was in the habit of buying tried and true games, and had yet to dabble in the Cult of the New. Despite all that, I decided to add a pre-order of Caylus to an order of genuine Classics. I’ve since played Caylus 42 times, making it my tenth most played game of all-time, and personally I think it’s an absolutely outstanding game. I think it’s a rare blend of short-term tactical decisions and long-term strategy. I think it’s surprisingly elegant and straightforward given its seemingly complex rules. I think it’s extremely replayable, giving players an opportunity to learn new things about the game each time they play it. It’s one of only a handful of completely luckless eurogames (e.g., Through the Desert, Project GIPF, Blokus, Mexica, Hey That’s My Fish), which fills a nice niche. I will say however that I think the publisher did the game a grave disservice by claiming that it works with 2 to 5 players on the box. Obviously I’m quite a stickler for finding the optimum player count for any given game, as seen in my “The More the Merrier?” article, but I truly think the claimed player range for Caylus is ridiculous. I blame the fact that many people trying Caylus for the first time likely played it with a full complement of 5 players as a principal reason why many detractors claim that the game takes too long. I’ve seen people claim that the game takes from 2 to 3 hours, which is insane. Caylus is at its best as a zero-sum two-player game and works decently as a three-player game, but I’d definitely much rather play something else if I was with a group of four or more people. Just like in Hansa (discussed in this previous article), the zero-sum nature of a two-player game of Caylus greatly improves the experience for me, as does the significantly reduced chaos and down-time of only having one person act between your turns. As a two-player game, Caylus can easily be played in 60 minutes or less, making it an extremely meaty and deep game for its length.
That’s a tough act to follow. The children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have quite a parent to live up to in my mind, and few have managed to proudly carry that torch and honor its legacy. The first descendant was Michael Rieneck’s and Stefan Stadler’s Pillars of the Earth, nominally based on the Ken Follett novel of the same name, but based in much greater degree on the William Attia game of a different name. Pillars of the Earth was widely referred to as “Caylus Lite” (at least until Caylus Magna Carta was later released), an appellation that I think is very fitting. Pillars was widely expected to win the 2007 Spiel des Jahres award, but it turned out to not even be nominated, only receiving a “lowly recommendation,” with the ultimate prize going to Michael Schacht’s panda-covered Zooloretto (a shoe-in in hindsight). However, Pillars of the Earth did win the 2007 Deutscher Spiele Preis, which is generally known as the “gamers’ game award” (and is actually one of the awards that my preferences correlate best with) and the Game of Year from Games Magazine. Despite all of this, I don’t see myself ever wanting to play Pillars of the Earth again, especially given the alternative game (i.e., Caylus) that could be played instead. This might be surprising given how much Pillars had going for it, those things being the features that it borrows from Caylus and that make it unbelievably reminiscent of its parent, not only the unique worker placement but also the more traditional engine-building concept of converting resource cubes into victory points. Despite all this, or maybe because of it, Pillars pales in comparison to Caylus for me because the blind draw of the master builders from the bag ruined this game. Unlike Caylus where workers are placed consecutively, the workers are randomly drawn from a bag in Pillars, with the first workers drawn being exceedingly expensive to place, such that those players end up passing and having to place last after all the good spots are taken. The luck of the worker draw (along with the randomness of the cards) results in a game that takes most of the concepts of Caylus out of a game that involves no luck and puts them into a game that involves a large amount of luck. This may be just what others were hoping for and enjoy most, but it’s definitely not something I personally enjoy at all. This is not to say that I dislike luck in all games, just look at how much I enjoy Nexus Ops, Kreta, and Tigris & Euphrates, but rather that luck has its place, and needs to fit into the game for me. Perhaps its just that I never felt the need for a “Caylus Lite,” so I was prejudiced against a slimmed down version of the game, but Pillars of the Earth was the first in a long line of embarrassing children in this potentially illustrious family. The second child of Caylus was Leonardo da Vinci, which I cannot speak to further as of yet as I have not had a chance to play it, but I look forward to trying it at some point to see where it fits among this disparate family tree.
Before I go any further, I should take a moment to attempt to define the concept of worker placement, and perhaps should have done so much sooner. In the spirit of the quotation that led this article, I will borrow very heavily from a “Worker Placement Games” GeekList by Jeroen van der Valk. First, players are competing for limited locations to place their workers. Second, placement of workers on a location gives you some sort of resource or ability. Third, all of the workers are generally removed at the end of each turn. Fourth, each player has multiple workers to place. It’s a difficult concept to define in the abstract, but one that makes perfect sense once you begin to play any of the numerous worker placement games. It’s surprisingly unique and clearly contoured in practice, with noticeably less debate over what fits the mold than with many other board game genres.
As with any family, the children of Caylus eventually gave rise to the grandchildren. 2007 saw the release of William Attia’s Caylus Magna Carta and Glenn Drover’s Age of Empires III. First, William Attia’s homage to the long tradition of releasing card game versions of successful board games was Caylus Magna Carta, the true “Caylus Lite,” which stripped Pillars of the Earth of that (dis)honorary title in many people’s minds. To be perfectly honest, I don't really understand the appeal of card game versions of board games. I guess I'm not the target audience because I don't find games like Caylus, Puerto Rico, or Tigris & Euphrates too long or complicated. And thus I don't feel the need to own or play the shorter and simpler card game versions. I gave Caylus Magna Carta a try and it certainly wasn't bad, but I just don't see the point. It’s not that much shorter than Caylus, maybe saving you 15 to 30 minutes. But in saving that time you're losing the favor track and adding in a fair amount of luck with the card draw. I just don't see any reason for games like this to exist except to capitalize on the predecessor game’s success. The favor track in Caylus was one of its principal virtues, injecting a good deal of long-term strategic decision-making into an otherwise principally short-term tactical game, distinguishing it from the masses of overly tactical eurogames. Removing the favor track was like removing the soul of the game, leaving you with the body of the game, but no heart, and nothing compelling to draw you into the game.
Before you begin to think that I’m going to bash all of the descendants of Caylus, let me move right along to Age of Empires III, which I think is one of the best worker placement games (actually contending with Agricola for the title of second best worker placement game in my mind). The worker placement genre is certainly a crowded field these days with every other game seemingly using that mechanic since Caylus was released 3 years ago. However, Glenn Drover’s contribution is a worthwhile member of the family. The components were definitely over the top, especially the merchant ships, and the plastic miniatures were actually harder to distinguish than simpler components would have been, not to mention the enormous board which is very much unnecessarily large, but despite all that, I found myself enjoying this one and the interesting and engaging decisions that it presented. Age of Empires III actually merges the mechanics of worker placement and area majority (a la El Grande, Louis XIV, Kreta, In the Shadow of the Emperor). Combining worker placement and area majority is Drover’s twist on Attia’s brainchild and a wonderful twist at that, especially given my love of the classic area majority games. You place your workers on various spaces just like in Caylus, but some of those spaces allow you to send your workers to the other half of the board where they will compete to be the majority presence in various regions of the New World. Drover also contributed another major twist to the mechanic by allowing players to earn special workers with special abilities, so that all of the workers are no longer fungible. For example, one special type of worker allows you to earn extra money and another allows you to attack your fellow players to reduce their number of workers when competing for area majority in the New World. I’ve played Age of Empires III a couple times so far and am looking forward to playing it more and further exploring its depths. It was the first descendant of Caylus to make a worthwhile contribution to the genre and it stands out among its peers as one of the premiere family members.
Finally, we get to the four great-grandchildren of Father Caylus, which were birthed in 2008. The first two – Agricola and Tribune – were actually released at the 2007 Essen game fair, but did not see worldwide availability until well into 2008, so I have taken the liberty of grouping them as great-grandchildren, although they are certainly a borderline generation. However, I’ll start with Martin Wallace’s Toledo because it is actually the second member of this genre (and last out of all nine of them) that I have not had a chance to play yet. Toledo is a surprisingly light release by Martin Wallace with a paltry 60-minute playing time. It bears not only a resemblance to Caylus in terms of its worker placement mechanic, but also in terms of its re-use of the road or path visual from its forefather. The theme is one of players trying to forge swords by using workers to acquire steel and jewels. I look forward to trying out Wallace’s contribution to the genre, especially given my enjoyment of many other Martin Wallace designs, but as of yet I have nothing else to say about it for the time being. I’ll get the next (and last) round of harsh criticism out of the way by moving on to Stone Age next. This is the fictitious Michael Tummelhofer’s contribution to the worker placement line of games. Michael Tummelhofer’s only previous design credit is Saint Petersburg, and the men behind the name are actually Michael Bruinsma, Jay Tummelson, and Bernd Brunnhofer. Despite the clever amalgamation of names, I didn’t like Saint Petersburg, and I actually dislike Stone Age even more. I simply don't see any reason for this game to exist. I understand that every designer wants to try his or her hand at the worker placement genre, and some manage to distinguish themselves sufficiently to make their contribution worthwhile, but more often than not they simply end up paling in comparison to the original and greatest worker placement game – Caylus. Just like Pillars of the Earth which came before it, Stone Age is another worker placement, resource collection, and turn resources into victory points game that I can't see ever wanting to play when I could just as well be playing Caylus. The added randomness of Stone Age is a downside in my mind, as is the scoring of the artifact cards (reminiscent of the aristocrats in St. Petersburg and markets in Hacienda). I didn’t like that scoring progression in those games and don't like it in Stone Age either. I simply don't understand why games like this and Pillars of the Earth exist or would ever be played. I must be missing something since, just like Pillars before it, Stone Age was also widely expected to contend for the 2008 Spiel des Jahres award, and unlike Pillars, it actually managed to snag a Nomination (falling short of top honors, which went to the long overdue Reinier Knizia for his re-design of Lost Cities – Keltis). Then again, my interests have been diverging significantly from those of the Spiel des Jahres jury over the past few years, particularly with recent winners such as Thurn & Taxis and Niagara.
The third great-grandchild is the illustrious Karl-Heinz Schmiel’s entry into the arena of worker placement. Schmiel is best known for his classic 1986 design – Die Macher. When word got out that he was designing a new meaty board game, which the world had not seen in quite some time, anticipation ran high. It was certainly a must-buy for me given my enjoyment of both Die Macher and Extrablatt. After four plays of Tribune – Primus Inter Pares, I have to say that it is definitely the worker placement game that I am most ambivalent about. Obviously I have strong feelings about the worker placements games that I think add nothing to the family (i.e., Pillars of the Earth, Caylus Magna Carta, Stone Age), and there are three worker placement games that I think are genuinely good games (i.e., Caylus, Age of Empires III, Agricola), which leaves me with only one game that I’m undecided about (given that I haven’t had a chance to play the other two out of nine games – Leonardo da Vinci and Toledo), and that game is clearly Tribune. I’ve tried Tribune twice with two players, once with three players, once with four players, and have yet to try it with five players, and all I can say for sure is that I don’t think it works with only two players. Interestingly it’s not a game of accumulating victory points, but rather a game of satisfying varying victory conditions. However, in the two-player game you must generally satisfy 5 out of 6 possible conditions, whereas you need only satisfy 4 out of 6 conditions in the three-player game, and 3 out of 6 conditions in the four-player game. The advantage of this system in a game with four players is that each person has the opportunity to choose his or her own path, customizing it to their liking by selecting which conditions to pursue and which to ignore. The problem inherent in the two-player version of Tribune is that both players end up having to go for almost exactly the same thing and neither of the players has the choice to customize their approach very much. This seems to result in an exceedingly close end result with an overabundance of tied games because the luck is minimal and balances out, and the paths are nearly identical if not perfectly identical. Yet I have enjoyed the game with more players and think it may bring enough to the table to make it a marginally innovative worker placement game. On the other hand, in my limited experience, the game has actually seemed to end too quickly, regardless of the number of players, such that you almost don’t have enough turns, and the game seems to end just as it is getting interesting. It’s rare that I reserve judgment, but I think my ambivalence about Tribune will have to win out in this case and I’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach before determining where I think it fits into the family tree. Tribune shows a lot of potential, such as the innovative use of cards as the resources you collect with your workers instead of resource cubes, and of course the innovative use of victory conditions rather than victory points, but it will take more plays to get a better grasp of this Schmiel design.
Lastly, Uwe Rosenberg finally broke out of the rut of Bohnanza expansions and spin-offs when he made a huge splash at the Essen fair in October of 2007 with the release of Agricola, the likes of which had not been seen since Caylus itself burst onto the scene. Agricola rocketed up the ever-dubious Fairplay rankings and grabbed everyone’s attention, stealing it away from the games that people had anticipated being the darlings of the show (e.g., Amyitis, Hamburgum, Race for the Galaxy, Cuba, 1960: The Making of the President, In the Year of the Dragon). Agricola also rocketed up the BoardGameGeek rankings, eventually finding its way to the top, where it currently sits at #1 after displacing the long-reigning champ – Puerto Rico. After a long (and widely lamented) delay, Agricola finally made it to U.S. shores in the summer of 2008 with an English release by Z-Man Games with the immense translation work of Melissa Rogerson (which she provides an interesting elaboration on in these blog posts). Agricola may be heralded as the best thing since sliced bread, but that doesn’t mean it got there all on its own. It begs, borrows, and steals from predecessor games just as much, if not more, than all of the other board games that it rocketed past on its rapid ascent to the top. The designer Uwe Rosenberg actually acknowledged the roots of Agricola’s design in this Advent Calendar (which incidentally I highly recommend reading as it’s a great peek into the mind of a game designer and the process of designing a board game). As you can see in the Advent Calendar, Uwe acknowledges that Agricola draws on many games that came before it, such as Antiquity and Magic: The Gathering, but first and foremost (and most relevant to the topic at hand), he makes clear that the granddaddy of all worker placement games – Caylus – was indeed the inspiration for Agricola. As Uwe explains: “Agricola’s month of birth is December 2005, while November 2005 is the ‘month of pregnancy.’ Caylus, by William Attia, was the most popular new release of that autumn. I was so drawn into that game that I played it every evening for two weeks. During these days, however, I mused over the design of my own game. In Caylus, players take turns in placing exactly one worker each on ready-made action spaces, such as ‘Take 1 Wood’ or ‘Erect a building.’ Each round, new action spaces and thus new possibilities become available, but sadly the number of workers never changes. This bothered me. I tried to think of a theme which would justify the restricted and controlled increase in the number of people that I wanted. Hiring workers rather falls within the scope of unlimited possibilities of growth. Fathering offspring as a couple, however, has a temporal limitation to it. Definitely.” As this quote makes clear, William Attia and Caylus were definitely the muse for Agricola, making Uwe yet another in a long line of game designers to take T.S. Eliot’s philosophy to heart. This quote also makes clear one of the most significant twists that Rosenberg brought to the worker placement table, which is the fact that the number of workers that each player has is not fixed in Agricola, but rather has the potential to increase over the course of the game. You begin Agricola with two family members, and thus can only take two actions per turn, but have the opportunity to have up to three children over the course of the game, increasing your actions up to a maximum of five actions per turn by the end of the game. This gives the game a definite snowballing feel as the game progresses. The other significant twist that you’ll find in Agricola is the massive number of cards in the game with lots of text on them detailing innumerable special abilities. This trait is taken from popular collectible card games, such as Magic: The Gathering, and is generally touted as giving the game far more replayability and variability than its worker placement brethren.
As far as my feelings on Agricola, I’ve already said that I think it is tied for the second best worker placement with Age of Empires III (albeit a distant second behind Caylus). I first tried a pasted up German copy of Agricola back in December of 2007 and was not particularly impressed. I really wanted to like the game. Everything I had read going in sounded so good, but after a couple plays I was disappointed. The game itself was all well and good, but the initial deal of the cards is what bothered me the most. The cards and card combinations are clearly not balanced, which is fine (and I love Twilight Struggle despite the cards obviously being unbalanced), but unlike Twilight Struggle where you are dealt a new different hand of cards each turn, you are stuck with your one hand of cards for the entire game of Agricola, essentially sealing your fate for the next 2 hours in the first 2 minutes of playing. That's an overstatement since a bad player can of course screw up a great hand and a good player can do something with poor cards, but among players of approximate equal skill and with the rules as written, it seems silly to play for 2 hours when some players have great cards and card combinations, and others do not. I should note that I'm not bothered by this because I did especially poorly or especially great, but rather because I did both. In my two games, I scored something like 19 and 49, due primarily to the cards I was dealt, and I saw my opponents' scores vary wildly depending on their hand of cards. That being said, I did love the angst in this game of wanting to do 5 actions and having to pick just 1, and I enjoyed the integration of theme with the mechanics, as well as the likely high degree of replayability due to the vast number of cards. Fortunately, I was still willing to try the game a few more times, and the only thing I could think to try next was a draft where each player is dealt 7 occupation and 7 minor improvement cards, keeps 1 of each, and passes the remaining 12 clockwise, and so on. The problem of course is that this draft adds about 10 to 15 minutes to the length of the game, but unlike others who see this as delaying the game, I actually see it as adding to the game since the draft is simply another fun element of the game itself rather than a delay until the game begins. After trying the game again in June of 2008, I found myself thinking about the game more when I wasn’t playing it and eventually caved and pre-ordered a copy of the game. After its arrival in August, I ended up playing it 7 more times in August and so far 4 times in September, for a grand total of 14 plays thus far. I’ve covered the spectrum, having played it five times as a solitaire game, twice with 2-players, twice with 3-players, three times with 4-players, and twice with 5-players. I think it’s a decent solitaire experience and has too much downtime with 5 players, but works fairly well with the other player counts, making it a rare game like Goa and Tigris & Euphrates in its ability to scale to accommodate various numbers of players. My opinion of the game has gone up somewhat since those first plays almost a year ago now not only because of drafting the opening hands, but also because of the variety that the Interactive and Complex decks allow. The sheer plethora and diversity of cards is indeed impressive. However, while my opinion has risen steadily with more plays, I don’t expect it to continue going up. It’s a very good game, but I can easily think of 20 games I like more, so while it’s very good, it’s not quite great in my mind. I do hope to continue drafting the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards in the future though because I think that variant adds a lot to the game. As a side note, I have to take a moment to say that I’m very perplexed by the people who label this "multi-player solitaire." This game is extremely interactive, such that when I played back-to-back, I think changing the seating order definitely affected the game. Players are choosing actions just like in Caylus, so each action can only be taken once, which clearly forces you to think about what your opponents are doing so you can plan and prioritize accordingly. If you’re simply placing your worker on the space that you want most without regard for the fact that this space may not be similarly desirable to others and that your second-most desired space will definitely be unavailable when your next turn comes then you are guaranteed to do poorly. The amount of interaction seems very significant in this type of game, but then again, I’m someone who will staunchly defend the interaction in Princes of Florence, which is even more maligned as “multi-player solitaire.”
That’s the world of worker placement in a nutshell, a fairly sizeable nutshell I suppose. As it is with poets, so it is with game designers. We should all be grateful that so many game designers strive not only to be good and borrow, but to be great and outright steal the innovative mechanics that their peers come up with. This free flow of ideas has given the hobby a wealth of worker placement games to choose from, with more and more descendants of William Attia’s Caylus hitting the market each year. I find it interesting that the formerly unknown publisher Ystari has followed up its breakout game with a number of highly anticipated games, none of which panned out particularly well in my mind, and certainly none of which lived up to the legacy of Caylus. Those were Mykerinos and Yspahan in 2006, Caylus Magna Carta and Amyitis in 2007, Metropolys in 2008, and next Sylla later in 2008. Then again, Ystari did snag itself a Spiel des Jahres nomination for Yspahan and recommendation for Metropolys, and many speculate that Yspahan might have taken home the grand prize if the jury believed that Ystari had the capacity to pump out sufficient quantities of the game to satisfy the overwhelming demand of German families that follows the awards announcement. With its disappointing releases every year, my interest in Ystari has begun to wane, but my interest in Caylus has persisted. Perhaps its unfair to judge a publisher by its prior success since it sets the bar impossibly high for later releases, just as Mammoth Hunters and Fifth Avenue were almost guaranteed to flop after Alea set an insurmountable bar with Puerto Rico in 2002. Thankfully we have worker placement games coming not only from countless designers, but also from every possibly publisher, so there’s probably something for just about everyone if you go digging through the genealogy. Personally, I’d set the hierarchy for the family as follows: Caylus, Age of Empires III and Agricola (tied), Tribune: Primus Inter Pares (ambivalent), Leonardo da Vinci and Toledo (haven’t tried yet, which still puts them ahead of what comes next), and lastly Stone Age, Caylus Magna Carta, and Pillars of the Earth (tied for a distant last). I’d had it in my head that I was a curmudgeon when it came to “Caylus clones,” but then again, a 33% success rate for the family isn’t too shabby with 3 out of the 9 games being definitely worthwhile in my mind. I’ll say that all of the designers have strived to implement their own novel twist on the worker placement mechanic (to varying degrees of success), and I very much look forward to seeing what twists and turns in the long and winding road of worker placement the designers will throw at us next. It’s been a bumpy ride so far, but a fun three-year rollercoaster nonetheless, and you never know what might be coming next just on the horizon. All I can say for sure is that we haven’t seen the last of the “great poets” and it's an immutable fact of life that after great-grandchildren necessarily come the great-great-grandchildren.
It turns out 6,181 words wasn't enough to fully discuss worker placement, so I had to write a 2,448-word addendum to supplement the article above. The Attia Family Tree presents an incomplete picture of the worker placement geneaology. I encourage you to read the Grandfather of Worker Placement supplement, if you can take a bit more discussion of the worker placement mechanic.