When I started my own collection, my goal was to get the best game from each major mechanic. That way, I would always be able to play the best game for whatever type of experience I wanted. It's a pretty hard thing to achieve. First, new games come out all the time. You cannot keep up. And second, "the best" of anything is obviously quite subjective. However, it is also the most common question I get asked when people are looking for a new game to buy for their own collection. So, I thought it may be helpful to you out there to list my top 5 from certain mechanics. Feel free to drop me an email with any specific mechanical top 5 requests.
I don't want to just run through the top 5 from a mechanic though. That would be pointless for the purposes of helping you buy a game. You could all just check the rankings on BGG or simply skip and only look at the number one game. This may not necessarily be the right one for you. So, instead I am going to pick a mechanic, and then look at the best five games within that mechanic for different ways they use this specific mechanic, or how the game incorporates it into other mechanics. No game uses just one mechanic. Well, very few anyway. As such, this top five is not in any specific order. This is five great games each with specific reasons for their presence here. This way, you can make your own choices based on what style of game works for you.
So, without further ado. Here are my top five games that utilise Worker Placement.
The Classic: Lords of Waterdeep.
And the best to play if you want to play seomthing simple.
Current BGG rank: 85
Published by: Wizards of the Coast
WBG Rating: 8
All the games on this list score a 9/10 from me Whereas this first selection scores only an 8. Why then is it on this list? Surely, there are better games that use worker placement. Well, yes. I have ranked a few games that use Worker Placement higher than Lords of Waterdeep. But each game tells a story. A big part of every games story is where is came from. And a lot of modern board games owe a lot to what Lord of Waterdeep did. Bus from 1999 is regarded as the first game to use Worker Placement in it's current form. And games like Agricola (2007), Keythedral (2002), and Caylus (2005) all had huge roles to play in the development of Worker Placement as we see it today. But I would argue that it was the 2012 release of Lords of Waterdeep that accelerated the mechanic, both in terms of it's development in other games, but also in popularity.
Lords of Waterdeep currently has 54k ratings on BGG. Caylus has 29k. Keythedral has 3k. Now, admittedly Agricola has 71k ratings, is a brilliant game, and is commonly regarded as one of the ultimate classics for a worker placement game. But for me Lords of Waterdeep gets mentioned more in this breath. It's so often the game that brought people into the hobby and made some of us fall in love with games. In my dealings with many other gamers, Lords of Waterdeep has played this role for many people. Agricola is more of a second or third game to try down to complexity.
All these games could have made the list however. Stone Age (2008) too. They are all great games, and they all played pivotal roles in the development of the mechanic, but Lords of Waterdeep gets my vote as being the most main stream, and the most influential on subsequent games.
But why is it so good? Why do I think it was so influential? Three reasons.
1. The game is so solid. It all works together so seamlessly. There is more going on than worker placement alone, but this really is the base of the game. You will be working towards set collection and contract fulfilment, but all through the mechanic of your workers being placed out on the board. It incorporates all the classic reasons why worker placement is so fun, engaging and rewarding. With limited actions based on limited available worker placements that bring a race game element to the game, and the desire to want to be first on some rounds. It is enjoyable to simply place workers to achieve goals but you need some tension to make this sing. Some scarcity. This increases the sense of achievement when you fulfil a quest. Without a struggle there would be now reward. Lords of Waterdeep creates this struggle so perfectly in all player counts, for all players, at all times.
Through its simplicity and smooth engineering. It is one of the most pure worker placement games as well as being one of the best. This leads to other games leaning into this simplicity and just changing the theme. I would suggest hugley that popular worker placement games such as Raiders of the North Sea (2015) and Underwater Cities (2018) would not be here in their current form were it not for Lords of Waterdeep.
2. It bought DnD players over to board games, and visa versa. Waterdeep is a huge part of the Dungeons and Dragons roll-playing world. Wizards of the Coast who made Lords of Waterdeep own the rights to all things DnD and made this game as a gateway for both sides of the board game and DnD world, to cross over and try the other one out. It was hugely successful and brought new people to both hobbies. Quite an incredible achievement if you think about it.
3. It is so simple to learn and teach. Some say it is too simple, and this is why it perhaps does not score higher on BGG, and also from myself. But this is a gateway game, with pure and simple mechanics and ruleset. It is not trying to be anything else. This is one of the reasons the game spread so fast and found new fans so quickly. But if you want to add in a deeper level, the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion brings two new locations to add to the base game, with new Lords, Buildings, Intrigue, and Quest cards, as well as an entirely new concept, corruption, which removes points at the end of the game based on how corrupt you have been. It takes the game to a more mid-weight worker placement game, and adds new layers to develop the different Lords keeping more experienced gamers happy with their experiences with this game.
The Revolutionary: Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar
And the best to play if you want something crunchy but accessable.
Current BGG rank: 59
Published by: Czech Games Edition
WBG Rating: 9
There are many worker placement games with a twist. That tends to happen when something becomes popular but then becomes overused. People want to find a way to stand out from the crowd by giving poeple what they want, but in a new way. I wanted to pick the game that does this the best. For me, that is Tzolk'in. When you play a worker placement game, you will expect there to be some similarities to other games that use the same mechanic. One of these will be the expectation that when you place a worker, they will carry out a specific action based on where you placed them. In Tzolk'in the worker placement is dynamic. The location where you place them won't be where they end up when it comes to your turn next.
The game has one main central cog. One full rotation of this marks out the length of the game. This is the game clock. As this main cog turns each round, the connected smaller cogs will turn as well. On your turn you can only do one of two things. Place one or more workers or remove one or more workers. As your workers move with each cog turn, their actions will become more powerful. You will want to leave them on the board for as long as possible to achieve more efficient turns. But eventually you will run out of workers to place and will have to start removing them. This simple twist to the basic worker placement mechanic elevates Tzolk'in to incredible heights. The game feels incredibly deep and strategic, despite having relitivley simple rules and options to you each turn.
The game started the T-series. A group of games, mostly using worker placement in clever ways. All made by Daniele Tascini. The series includes Tzolk'in from 2012, Teotihuacan: City of Gods from 2018. 2019's Trismegistus: The Ultimate Formula. The 2020 release Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun. 2021 Tabannusi: Builders of Ur. And one of my other favourites, and my game of 2022, Tiletum.
I do not get Tzolk'in to the table as often as I would like as it requires a good hour and a half of serious consideration, and that is not something I sadly get to do as much as I would choose. But up there with games like Brass: Birmingham, Tiletum, and Le Havre (which nearly made this list), Tzolk'in would be right up there for me when I am choosing a mid-weight game to play on those rare occasions when I am blessed with the time and the right gaming group to really enjoy a crunchy strategy game over an hour and a half.
The Highest Ranked (and optionally coop): Viticulture Essential Edition
And the best for getting non-gamers involved.
Current BGG rank: 34
Published by: Stonemaier Games
WBG Rating: 9
This selection might stir some controversy, not because of the game itself—Viticulture seems universally well-received by most gamers. The contentious aspect lies in the reason for its choice as the highest-ranked worker placement game. On Board Game Geek, four worker placement games are ranked higher than Viticulture: Dune: Imperium, A Feast for Odin, Lost Ruins of Arnak, and Everdell. The decision to opt for Viticulture over these titles is straightforward. While the four games indeed incorporate worker placement, I wouldn't categorise them primarily as pure worker placement games. Everdell leans more towards tableau building, Lost Ruins of Arnak and Dune: Imperium are more of a deck building game, and A Feast for Odin has lots going on and I see more of an Income game, but it really could be many things. Though all four involve worker placement, it's not their core mechanic. Additionally, I find Dune and Arnak to be somewhat overrated, although Everdell will make an appearance later in the list for a differnet reason.
In my view, Viticulture stands out as the highest-ranked game with worker placement as its core mechanic. Conveniently, I also consider it a brilliant game, deserving serious consideration from any board game enthusiast. As a big fan of Stonemaier Games and designer Jamey Stegmaier, Viticulture only solidified my appreciation after falling in love with some of his other designs.
Like many worker placement games, Viticulture operates on a straightforward premise: place your workers and carry out actions. However, the path to victory is remarkably varied from game to game. Each playthrough feels like a fresh learning experience, unlike some games that I feel I've mastered after repeated plays. The perpetual sense of discovery in Viticulture is a delightful aspect for me.
While many players suggest that the Tuscany expansion is a must-have, I respectfully disagree. While it does enhance the game significantly, I find the base Viticulture enjoyable even before introducing the expansion. Viticulture World's cooperative expansion is another noteworthy feature, making this game stand out in the world of worker placement. Cooperative play often doesn't gel well with worker placement games, but Viticulture World handles it brilliantly.
Returning to the base game, Viticulture brings a rare yet intriguing theme of winemaking, appealing to a more mature and sensible audience. It's a game I often suggest to those who dismiss gaming as too nerdy or childish. Pitching it as a game centered around making wine and fulfilling wine contracts tends to generate a more positive response. Viticulture has proven itself as a successful gateway game for those who initially resist the idea of gaming being for kids or geeks, making it a top choice when seeking to convert non-gamers into enthusiasts. Viticulture has yet to disappoint in this regard!
The Main Stream Hit: Everdell
And the best to play with a more casual gamer.
Current BGG rank: 32
Published by: Starling Games
WBG Rating: 8
I previously mentioned that I wasn't including this in the highest rank, but Everdell has become such a big hit that it feels almost unjust not to feature it in this lineup. While I've emphasised that it leans more towards being a tableau builder, the influence of worker placement is undeniably significant, shaping your options each turn. As you strategically place your critters, you must consider your objectives, required resources, and the most effective way to achieve them. The game evolves into a complex tapestry as your cards expand, yet its fundamental charm lies in the straightforward act of placing an animeeple onto the visually stunning Everdell board.
Everdell has seen numerous expansions, many reprints, and has amassed millions on Kickstarter. It stands tall among the modern giants of board games and cannot be overlooked. Similar to many things in life, its surge in popularity in the mainstream has caused some to undervalue it among hardcore gamers. While opinions may vary, it's important to acknowledge that Everdell is a solid game. Its inclusion on this list is justified not only by its success but also by its role in introducing countless new enthusiasts to the hobby.
Personally, I derive enjoyment from Everdell, although it doesn't quite reach a nine, unlike three other games on this list. It firmly holds a commendable spot at eight in my rankings, and I relish playing it. Its accessibility, combined with its aesthetic appeal, rule set, and thematic allure, ensures it will endure as a cornerstone in many collections for years to come. Sometimes in life, compromise is necessary, and for me, including Everdell means having a game that not only enriches my collection but is also frequently enjoyed, especially with my wife, making it a practical and delightful addition.
And the best to play if you want a challange.
Current BGG rank: 88
Published by: Portal Games
WBG Rating: 9
Robinson Crusoe surpasses the typical worker placement game, offering a rich tapestry of theme and narrative—a crucial factor for me when selecting a solo game. The absence of a compelling theme can leave me feeling disconnected from the gaming experience, diminishing my enjoyment. While camaraderie and conversation are essential when playing with others, in a solo setting, I crave immersion. I want my mind firmly engaged, steering clear of distractions like my phone or the surrounding room. A robust theme and narrative play a pivotal role in achieving this.
The allure of Robinson Crusoe lies not only in its stunning theme but also in how seamlessly it intertwines with the narrative and game mechanics. Its mechanical brilliance shines particularly bright. I previously discussed the significance of scarcity in worker placement games, a challenge compounded in solo play where there are no opponents to block your choices. Unlike many games that address this by introducing dummy characters or blocking certain spaces, such approaches would feel thematically out of place in Robinson Crusoe. Stranded on a desert island alone, the scarcity arises naturally. Survival becomes the crux of the game, with limited actions, time, and resources intensifying decision-making. The tension and reward emerge not from racing against opponents to claim spaces or actions but from the consequences of your choices.
Undoubtedly, Robinson Crusoe is a challenging game—not in terms of complexity or learning curve but in the pursuit of victory. Unlike games where achieving the highest score is the goal, here the objective is survival. It's a stark binary: success or failure in your mission. Unfortunately, this challenge has contributed to an unfair reputation, with some labeling the game as overly difficult, dissuading potential players. Many, myself included, occasionally shy away from games with extensive rulebooks and complex mechanics, seeking simplicity after navigating the complexities of the real world. However, the effort invested in learning Robinson Crusoe is proportionately rewarded. To all solo gaming enthusiasts, I strongly encourage trying this game. Despite its reputation for difficulty, fear not; the learning curve is manageable. Embrace the challenge, for the moments of walking away victorious will be nothing short of incredible!