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Grandfather of Worker Placement

October 18, 2008

It seems my Attia Family Tree article from last month may present an incomplete picture of the worker placement genealogy. I discussed William Attia’s Caylus as the father of this innovative game mechanic and the numerous children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that make up this family that seems to be reproducing like rabbits. However, I left out any mention of the game and its designer who may very well be the grandfather of worker placement. Richard Breese’s well-known Key Series of games has given us five games and one expansion over the course of the past 13 years, and hopefully more to come in future years. I’ve only had the pleasure of playing two of those games and the one expansion, but would be happy to try the other three games in the series if given the opportunity. Although all three are currently extremely rare and sell for something in the neighborhood of $200 to $400, which prices me out of the market unfortunately, so it’ll have to be someone else’s copy (and no beverages or snacks anywhere near the game table I presume). Thankfully one of those three games has since been re-implemented in a much easier to acquire game, which is actually the principal subject of this article and I’ll get to later.

Richard Breese’s well-known Key Series of games began in 1995 with the publication of Keywood, followed by Keydom in 1998, and Keytown in 2000. Those are the three Key games that I have not played. The ones that I have had the pleasure of playing are Keythedral from 2002, the Keytheral Expansion from 2004, and Key Harvest from 2007 (known as Demetra for the QWG publication and originally known as Key Market when it was previewed for play testing at Essen in 2006).

Keydom is the subject of this article and is the one of the first three Key games that is actually readily available because it was re-implemented as Aladdin’s Dragons (known as Morgenland in Germany). I own a copy of Morgenland, but haven’t had a chance to play it yet, which explains why I made no mention of Richard Breese or Keydom/Aladdin’s Dragons/Morgenland in my article on the Attia Family Tree. Thankfully Richard Breese wrote to point out my omission and I will reprint here his comments on my worker placement article:

“Firstly, let me say that I think Caylus is an excellent game and deserves it top ten placing on the Geek. However the thrust of your [Attia Family Tree] article seemed to be based on ‘the unknown mechanic’ of ‘worker placement’ that Caylus uses, which you go on to define as:

  1. Players are competing for limited locations to place their workers.
  2. Placement of workers on a location gives you some sort of resource or ability.
  3. All of the workers are generally removed at the end of each turn.
  4. Each player has multiple workers to place.

You also refer to the “Worker Placement Games” geeklist. The list contains a number of games that preceded Caylus. I would argue that the oldest game on the list, the wargame The Russian Campaign is probably not relevant to your article as it does not appear to meet your criteria 1 and 3. The second oldest game is Schoko & Co. This probably fits your definition but I can see that this business game’s mechanics and theme are somewhat removed from the type of game that is Caylus that you are championing.

So my query is, why would you not at least give a mention to Keydom, the next oldest game on the list, which I believe is the first worker placement game of its type, where the workers are ‘dispatched to the fields,’ and which would appear to fit your definition?

Later in your article you quote Uwe Rosenberg’s ‘The Agricola Advent Calendar’ (entry 3) mentioning that ‘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 recognize absolutely that Caylus was a major influence in the design of the highest rated game we currently have. However Uwe does go on to say (entry 7) that: ‘Both Agricola and I have a lot for which to thank William Attia, not only the game's basic mechanism, which is based on ideas by Richard Breese (Keydom, R&D Games, 1998 and Morgenland, Hans im Glück, 2000) and which was also further developed (at the same time as by William) by Stefan Stadler and Michael Rieneck (Die Säulen der Erde, Kosmos, 2006).’

I’m not sure if you get Counter magazine. But [in] Stuart Dagger’s review of Caylus (Issue 31, page 34), you will see the first few paragraphs make references to both Keydom and Keythedral. I could add quite a few other references, but you will get the flavor.

Maybe a small foot note referring to Keydom as the first of this type of worker placement games would be appropriate to complete your article? Keydom has long been referred to as being the first of its type.”

The relevant portion of Stuart Dagger’s review of Caylus in Counter magazine (PDF link) is as follows:

“Ystari first came to our attention a year ago with Ys, a well received game whose core mechanisms reminded people of those in Richard Breese’s game Keydom (the game later published in a revamped version as Morgenland in Germany and as Aladdin’s Dragons in the States). Caylus is their new offering and it has again been well received, topping the Essen rankings list generated by the readers of the German magazine Fairplay. And it too has core mechanisms reminiscent of those in Keydom. To an outsider it looks as though one half of the Breese game provided the initial spark for Ys, while the other half did the same for Caylus. Only this time there is a flavoring of Keythedral in there as well. If the Ystari people don’t have a small shrine to Richard in a corner of their office, it is about time they did. However, these observations are not intended as strictures. There is a world of difference between wholesale lifting of someone else’s work and the use of a good idea that someone else has had as the inspiration to create something new of one’s own, and the two Ystari games are comfortable at the honorable end of the spectrum. Richard can feel flattered, but he has no real cause to feel aggrieved.”

There you have it. Richard Breese and Stuart Dagger have made some very good points to fill in the gaps in my earlier article. I hope to have a chance to try Aladdin’s Dragons sometime soon so I can come to my own decision on the matter, but in the meantime I’m happy to add Keydom/Aladdin’s Dragons/Morgenland as the tenth and oldest entry into the worker placement family tree.

While I’m updating my previous article on worker placement, it seems as good a time as any to discuss a few more updated.

First, I’ve since had the opportunity to try Leonardo da Vinci (one of the two games that I had not played out of the nine mentioned in my previous article), but have still not played Martin Wallace’s Toledo (which I gather some dispute as being a legitimate member of the worker placement family and those disputing its membership may be completely correct since I have not played Toledo). I enjoyed my one playing of Leonardo da Vinci although I’m ambivalent about it and will lump it in with Tribune as one of the middle-of-the-pack worker placement games. Not as bad as Stone Age, Pillars of the Earth, or Caylus Magna Carta, but not as good as Caylus, Age of Empires III, or Agricola. I can confirm that it feels like a cross between the theme of Princes of Florence and the mechanics of Caylus. This is generally a good thing because of how good both of those games are, but is also a bad thing because both of those games are so good that they may obviate any need to play Leonardo da Vinci. If I’m looking to play a game that feels like Leonardo da Vinci, I may just opt to play Caylus or Princes of Florence instead unless I can find a way in which Leonardo distinguishes itself. I didn’t spot any distinguishing features in my first play, but it didn’t turn me off the same way some worker placement games have, so I’d be happy to try Leonardo a couple more times before passing final judgment. In the same vein, I played Stone Age four more times since writing The Attia Family Tree, and have definitely confirmed my negative feelings about the game. I think five plays has been enough and I’ll move on from Stone Age now.

Second, it has been brought to my attention that Keydom may not have been the only oversight in my article. Kingsburg, designed by Andrea Chiarvesio and Luca Iennaco, was published in 2007 and may therefore be a third grandchild of Caylus (or great-grandchild of Keydom if we’re adjusting the genealogy). Dave Seidner pointed out that Kingsburg may be the 11th member of the worker placement family tree and he had the following to say about the game:

"I think Kingsburg has a variation of the worker placement mechanism. In Kingsburg, there are 18 action spaces on the board. 16 represent advisors to the King, also one Queen space and one King space. Each space is represented by a number from 1 to 18. At the beginning of certain turns within a ‘year’ (game is played over 5 years), each player rolls three dice. The player who rolls the lowest goes first and turn order is lowest roll to highest roll respectively. Each player gets to place 1, 2 or all 3 of the dice rolled on a space, which is the total of the dice you are playing. (Example: I roll a 1, 4, and 6 - I can either place the 1 on the 1 space, the 4 on the 4 space, the 6 on the 6 space or the 1 and 4 on the 5 space, the 1 and 6 on the 7 space, the 4 and 6 on the 10 space or all three on the 11 space) Generally, once a space is chosen it blocks other players from choosing that space. After each player places their dice once, it goes around again and if you have any dice left (you didn't place all three on one space) you get to continue to place until all players have placed all three dice or they're blocked and can't place any more dice that turn. After all the dice are placed, you go through each space from 1 to 18 and give each player the action or resources that that particular space provides (either resources, victory points, soldiers or some other action). There are also dice modifiers and special abilities that allows a player to play a space that already has dice on it, but I think what I've described here paints a picture of ‘worker placement,’ only with dice instead of tokens or meeples."

I’ve never played Kingsburg before, but this description of the game’s core mechanic definitely piques my interest and makes me want to give the game a try sometime. For your reference, Dave Seidner’s point comes from an interesting larger discussion of the worker placement mechanic more generally, which discussion can be found at this forum thread.

Third and finally, I conducted a series of polls shortly after writing The Attia Family Tree in order to gauge the public opinion regarding a few worker placement issues. For all of the questions, I listed the nine worker placement games discussed in my original article and an “Other” option. The first question asked people: “What is your favorite worker placement game?” Unsurprisingly, 42% of respondents picked the new flavor of the month – Agricola. Coming in a distant second place was Caylus with 16% of the vote, followed closely by Stone Age with 15% and Age of Empires III with 14%. The other six games were all far behind. The second question asked people: “How many times have you played each of the following worker placement games?” Agricola also looks to be the most played game, with 35% of respondents having played it more than 10 times, and Caylus once again in second place with almost 25% of respondents having played it more than 10 times. Four of the games had never been played by a majority of respondents, including Leonardo da Vinci (never played by 59%), Caylus Magna Carta (58%), Tribune (69%), and Toledo (85%). The third question asked: “Which of the following worker placement games do you own?” Yet again and unsurprisingly, Agricola came out on top with 74% of people owning it, and Caylus got silver of course with 51% of people owning it. When asked, “Which of the following best describes your feeling about the possibility of future worker placement games being designed and published,” people opted for “Slightly in favor. Looking forward slightly to see what designers do next with worker placement. Potentially interested, but hesitant due to possible overuse of the mechanic.” Finally, when asked to rank a wide variety of game mechanics, people chose worker placement as their favorite, with area majority, auction, and tile placement close behind. This last question may have been biased by the fact that people had worker placement on the brain since the question came in the midst of a series of questions all about worker placement.

There you have it. Turns out that 6,181 words wasn’t enough to fully discuss worker placement, so I just had to write this 2,448-word addendum to supplement my previous article (although many of the words in this addendum are obviously not my own as they are quoted from Richard Breese, Stuart Dagger, and Dave Seidner). With all that being said, I think it’s fair to say that worker placement has definitively joined the ranks of the older traditional game mechanics as a full-fledged mechanic in its own right. I look forward with great anticipation (and some trepidation) to find out what we’ll see next in this burgeoning field of game design.