The Worker and the Placement - Two Conceptions
For a basic definition of a WP game I turn to Geoff and Ryan's terrific discussion on Ludology, where Ryan gives the following definition (4:18): "a game in which players take turns to place pawns on the board to select various available actions... when players are out of pawns the round ends. Actions are either carried out immediately or then resolved in a set order. repeat rounds until game ends". Geoff then enumerates the key features: fixed number of action spaces, players put pieces on actions to execute the action, there is a limit to the number of pawns on a space. They obviously acknowledge that these rules are only there to be broken and that there lots of exceptions to these rules, as designers play around with the basic mechanic that is found in a classic game like Agricola.
But then, interestingly, they talk casually about Village as a worker place game, noting the unique feature that the workers in Village age, though those workers aren't what activates the action on spaces (taking a cube does), you don't go around in turn order placing them (you may sometimes place them when you take action, or sometimes you don't - in a way, they are more like he result of actions that the way you take action) and there is no limit to the number of workers in a space, which Ryan and Geoff later agree that the single defining feature of WP that is cannon, because without limits there is no blocking, which is at the heart of the dynamics of WP; removing it 'kills the game' (45:16). So what's going on?
A clue to the conundrum can be glimpsed in another telling exchange, when Geoff says 'depending on how you want to stretch it, to a certain extent you can almost say that a game like El Grande is kind of a WP game' (42:01), which makes Ryan exclaim 'what!' and chides Geoff for crossing the line with that statement. Geoff's decidedly apologetic explanations don't convince him and he decides to call bulls#$it on it, which makes Geoff concede the point completely. But if we look at the original definition, we see that El Grande looks much more like a WP game than Village so what's going on?
I think that what's going on is that there are two related, but distinct, conceptions of WP that are at work here. The first one is the more mechanic based one - which focuses on the function of the mechanic in the game. Not surprisingly, this outlook is closer to the position technically inclined Geoff "GameTech" Engelstein presents in the podcast. That's the definition on BGG's WP page where the importance of blocking to WP is recognized but also contested. Which is why on BGG it says that WP is "more precisely referred to as 'action drafting'" - which would place El Grande squarely inside the definition. Village would also fit the bill but not because of the aging meeples, but rather because you draft actions by picking cubs. Your workers are therefore not the meeples but the cubes and you don't place them, but rather displace them. There is some blocking there, as there are only so many cubes in each area, but there's also the possibility to use the well to activate any spot, which admittedly reduces the pressure in Village, making it much more like a nice cup of tea. But more on this later.
The other definition is centered around the thematic idea at heart of worker placement. In El Grande, the actions are just drafted because 'that's what you do'. Any game is an abstraction, and we play by the rules because they make sense internally, and make for a fun/good game. But rules take on a deeper meaning if they are tied to theme of the game - when they make sense not just within the game but in the world that the game represents. There is no real meaning to the drafting in El Grande (or other card drafts like Citadels, Puerto Rico or Wars of the Roses), it's just a choice we make in turn order. But in Agricola, it makes total sense: we have people on our farm, one of them gets wood at the same time the other one goes to the market to buy a sheep. Part of the popularity of WP is that it ties that thematic logic into the mechanic: we send a worker, we 'activate' a building by going there (standing in line, haggling etc.). In Village, the action drafting is done by displacing cubes but the meeples are the workers placed - trained as calligraphers and wainwrights, and worked until they die of old age. Or something.
I take the technical definition as the central one (which means El Grande is definitely in), and that's the one most people who talk about this adopt, but I mention the thematic understanding because I think it's important to how most people understand these games. But what about these popular games?
The Politics of Placement
WP is very popular among Euro-games, where games focus on producing a competitive environment for strategies and tend to encourage direct players interactions. Therefore, there is less emphasis on deal-making, bluffing, trading and in general, talking. That may lead some people to think of these games as lacking any political aspects. Indeed, I have played a full game of Spyrium, about an hour and a half, where no word was uttered by anyone. Yet I think that such games have important political aspects as well, hiding in the interaction of the strategies.
As noted, the main political point of contact of the WP game is the element of blocking: where I place my worker, you cannot. Or at least, that's the general idea. The level of tension around this varies in accordance to the severity of the blocking. In Village, for example, there are multiple blocks on each action space (except the market), so even if you take a certain action, in most cases I can still take it as well. Remember that by the mechanical definition we adopt here, the real workers in Village are not the meeples but the cubes, and we don't place them but rather we displace them, taking actions by removing them from the board (meeples in Village don't block each other at all). In addition, in Village you can always take another action using the well, by paying three cubes of the same color. Of course, these extra actions are costly: instead of gaining a cube, I lose three. And if you took the cube I wanted, I may not have another one of the same kind in that particular action. Still, in Village the element of blocking is very much attenuated which is why I think, as I hinted earlier, that Village creates an experience of very low conflict. There is tension still on the table, as we are competing against each other to see who employed the available resources more efficiently. Yet the interaction is not so much of explicit conflict but rather of competing enterprises in the same environment.
Because blocking is the main element which dictates the politics of WP game, the way the blocking is designed in different games will explain much of the political interaction. Is there room for cooperation? For negative strategies (choosing an action only to harm the opponent)? In what ways would players take other players' strategies into consideration? What relationships will players form? How will they behave towards each other?
A game like Agricola, where workers are few and blocking is total, raises the stakes and the tension of the game. It is not a coincidence that Agricola, despite its pretty generic theme of building a farm, is very conducive to competitive play and has attracted a lot of gamers. While it is true that as the game progresses players have more workers and more spaces open up, the stakes in Agricola are also raised since the harvest come more frequently and the need to feed the family is pressing. In such an environment it is very crucial to make informed guesses concerning other players' next moves, if not by talking to them than by observing their moves. But in Agricola that interaction has pretty specific characteristics. I only need to know if they are going for wood this round or not, whether they are planning to take that huge pile of food on the fishing spot or let it rest. There isn't much flexibility in that interaction because the interaction is recursive: if I take lumber because I think you will, you are more likely to take it next turn and not let it accumulate. We are both wasting pawns on low quantities lumbers because we are forced by each other. Geoff and Ryan say that the tension in WP games comes from the fact that some spots are better than others. Without that, there is no tensions: if all spots are equal, I wouldn't care that you took that because I can take this. This observation misses a few important features of WP games. First, what is important for me is not necessarily important for you, because we employ different strategies, pursuing different paths to victory. But more importantly, that there is a sport that is 'obviously' better is often the result of groupthink. If, for whatever reason, we develop among us (even in the course a single game) and inflated appreciation to lumber, it will become a scarce commodity. That's not to say that there are never any spots that are clearly better than others, but the tension may come from somewhere else namely, the way our particular group in a particular game has come to evaluate the different spaces. The player that will, in addition to noting what spaces are generally valuable, find out what is over-valued or under-valued by the group will have a better chance at devising a strategy that exploits the particular interaction on the board.
This is the reason I find the interaction in games like Agricola less interesting than other WP games which create a more flexible space for interaction. Spyrium, for example, lets you place workers between cards and not on top of them. So each placement can be used on either of the cards. In addition, your opponents' workers don't block you but rather raise the price of the card - you would have to pay extra to buy the card if opponents placed their workers. This does not remove the tension, of course, as anyone who played Spyrium and found their workers surrounded by no cards knows - but leads to much more complex interactions. The cards that are considered best on the table would be populated by lots of meeples, which would raise their prices and lower their value. But you can place workers around them to raise their value, only to use them to take the card on the other worker's side. You need to know much more about your opponent's strategy than what they value to successfully foil their plots. Likewise with KEyflower, where workers are used to activate tiles as well as to bid for them, and activation does not block further activation but limits it, as subsequent player have to employ more workers and ones of the same color.
Such complications enrich the interactions between players but they also complicate the strategic interaction. At the limit, it becomes really hard to see all the ways in which your opponent may respond to your move and some players may actually retract and focus only on their own moves. As surprising as it sounds, I have seen many people doing that, overwhelmed by the possibilities that a game like Keyflower presents. Nonetheless, I am very excited to try out games that play around with the WP to create rich and interesting player interactions, such as Lancaster and the upcoming Dogs of War. WP as a mechanic creates, in games like Agricola, a very wide strategic variety: multiple paths to victory that intersect in interesting ways (and important action spots). These variants attempt to preserve the strategic dimension while adding various ways in which players can relate to each other and interact.