“Worker placement game” sounds so dull. “Worker” is, at best, a generic word. It’s also from a word that means the opposite of fun. It’s a word about Mondays. “Placement” isn’t doing the phrase any favors. Placement is one of the least active things you can do, hardly a notch above loitering. It’s what you do when you set the table before a dinner. Placement. “Worker placement” is basically job assigning. Depositing labor. Task designation. Clerk putting. Office management, really. Even “human resources” sounds better, because if you screw up your perception just so, you can imagine it’s about using people to make soylent green. “Worker placement” is as prosaic a phrase as “peon management”, and like peon management, you’d never know it can be the cornerstone of often awesome gameplay.
So I suggest we call games like Stone Age — now ported to the iOS — not “worker placement” games, but “I steal from you the thing I know you wanted to do and now you have to react or pretend you didn’t want to do it” games. Or — you know you’re thinking it — “cockblock” games.
After the jump, I promise I’ll clean up the language
What makes worker placement good is the jostling with other players. You want to do both A and B, but which one do you pick first, for fear the next player also wants to do A or B? Tension. Indirect conflict. Scrambling over limited resources. Give four men three scraps of food and drama happens.
It’s a fantastic dynamic, especially when it’s the complement to more direct conflict. Such as the city building in the cowboy-themed Carson City or the Ice Age survival-of-the-fittest wargame in Dominant Species. In those games, the worker placement is the parlor you go through to get to the the main room.
Stone Age is a more modest design, along the lines of Caylus for how you’re just gathering resources and cashing them in for victory points. It’s pretty much all parlor. Which is fine. Not everyone wants to build Carson City or shepherd spiders to global dominance over birds and reptiles. Stone Age is fast, light, and uniquely appealing.
The appeal of Stone Age is two-fold. First is that it’s a very casual friendly game. There isn’t a Settlers of Catan neophyte who wouldn’t transitional effortlessly to Stone Age. This is not a demanding game. It’s not going to drop anyone into an economic death spiral. It’s friendly and mostly forgiving. And part of the reason is the dice.
The dice are the second element of Stone Age’s appeal and, as far as I can tell, what makes it unique among cockblocking games (sorry, that’s the last time I’ll say that). Most worker placement games are razor’s edge resource management challenges. But Stone Age throws over the harsh mistress of scarce resource management in favor of lady luck. Any time you gather resources, you roll dice. There are even cards that involve rolling dice to see what prize you get. For all its Euro-lite-ness, Stone Age is not afraid of randomness. And in case you hate dice, a great mechanism lets you partly subvert the dice by developing tools. It’s some lovely theming meets game mechanics.
On the iPad, Stone Age is a bit of a disappointment, but not for the usual reasons. This is a port with solid AI, or at least enough randomness that I don’t feel cheap beating up on the AI. It has excellent multiplayer support, either for games with friends or games with strangers. But it’s primarily an iPhone game, designed to accommodate that system’s smaller screen. Important information about who has what — and therefore who’s likely to do what, and what you should do to block them — is one tap too deep. The clarity you’d get with an iPad is sacrificed to the iPhone’s smaller screen and a slavish attachment to the boardgame’s rough artwork.
But all’s well that ends well. This is one of a few boardgames that I’ve bought for the tabletop after being introduced to it on the iPad. And unlike the other two (Dominant Species and Small World), this is a game still worth having on the iOS.