Does your game give an advantage to the player who goes first? Does she get the best goods? Does he stake out the best position? Does his opportunity trump other players’ skill?
Or is it best to go last? Does the last player get the best view of the table? Does he get to take advantage of the spots other players overlooked? Does she get to make the perfect bid without fear of being outbid or of overpaying?
Symptoms like these are collectively called player order advantages. Does your game have one?
Player order advantage is one of the first things a diligent publisher will look for. It’s high on many critics’ lists as well. Tools to detect and redress such imbalances should be in every game designer’s toolbox.
Detecting Player Order Advantages
The first step to solving any player order advantage is in detecting it. I recommend good record keeping. Record player order each time you test your game. Look for a relationship between final scores and turn order. Track other relevant measures of position if your game doesn’t use victory points.
Does a certain position win more often than the others?
Does that position score higher than the others?
If so, how extreme is the advantage?
Keep an eye out for these issues and be prepared to adjust accordingly.
Solution 1: Award Starting Bonuses
One way to address player order advantages is to give bonuses to the weaker positions.
Alien Frontiers would have a start player advantage had Tory Niemann not addressed it so effectively. To counteract the start player advantage, players other than the first begin with extra resources. Many games use the similar solution of giving players in the weaker position bonus points.
Many modern designs give every player a few resources at the start of the game. This has the primary advantage of accelerating play. During the mid-2000s, I developed a technique to also address start player advantage through this technique. Starting resources are drafted in reverse player order; the last player gets first pick and the start player gets last pick. Because it has proven to be a successful response to the start player advantage, Zong Shi and Rolling Freight both start this way.
Solution 2: Changing Start Player
Games which are played in rounds can address turn order advantages by giving every player a chance to experience them. A start player marker of some sort is included in the box. At the end of each round, the marker is passed and start player is thereby reassigned.
The most common change is to pass the start marker forward one step at the end of each round. Although this method has been quite common over the last decade, I find it can be problematic. In a game with only two players, this system can equate to letting each player repeatedly take two turns in a row. In a game with several players, start player must wait through every other player taking two turns before taking her next. For this reason, I approach this technique with caution and save it for games in which individual turns are short. The Kosmos two-player game Targi does this excellently. The start player marker passes every round but each round is made up of several short turns, leaving nearly no player downtime in the game.
A fantastic method of passing start player appears in Ora et Labora. The start player takes the first and last turns of the round before passing the marker to the left. Because many choice actions have already been claimed, this final turn is limited. These actions largely reset when the start player marker passes, giving the new start player a fresh set of options. In this way, position advantage is spread around without and downtime is minimized for all players.
Another way to change start player is to pass the start marker by the current game state. If going first is an advantage, the marker goes to the player who is furthest behind. If going first is a disadvantage, the marker goes to the player who is furthest ahead. I like this approach conceptually but not in application. It always seems to turn out that the player sitting immediately after this player is excessively impacted. Imagine a game that gives the lead to the player with the most points each turn because going last in that game is the best position. Sitting immediately to this perennial start player’s left, you find yourself in the second-worst position, never getting that chance to play last and catch up.
Awarding starting bonuses and changing start player are two of my favorite techniques for mitigating a player order advantage in my designs. Next column will look at some more.
What about you? How do you track player order advantages? What techniques do you use to mitigate them? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog. You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.
16 thoughts on “The Dreaded Player Order Advantage, Part 1”
I’m fond of the Alladin’s Dragons method for addressing player order advantage: it is something you can bid for in the auctions, like the other resources you need to win.
History of the World had a nice handicapping system for turn order in each round based on total armies from the previous civilizations – basing order on opportunity and not results.
Great article! For my game Ghostel, the player order is based on points scored at the end of each round of play. Going last has major advantages in gameplay terms, so this goes to the player in last place. Tracking player order is done using the score tracker printed around the outside edge if the board, and if players are on the same score, it’s based on ‘token on top goes first’. Not quite perfect, but nice and simple!
One way to counter the left-of-thefirst-player syndrome you describe is to have the players take turns in a certain order regardless of where they sit, in Civilization (the original) players move according to their scoring or population, not in the order they sit.
I also like the system where players actively must buy or grab the first player marker, for instance like Agricola (and with food piling up on that spot each turn someone will take it).
Nice post as always, Kevin!
This article assumes clockwise turn order. When turn order becomes variable, you have a lot more flexibility in controlling and handicapping turn order. For example, passing turn order based on game state becomes very powerful. Power Grid is notorious for handicapping this way. Brass also has a nifty variable turn order mechanism based on money spent in the previous round. In both of those games, the entire turn order will be completely different from round to round.
Of course, variable turn order adds some extra bookkeeping to the game, so it wouldn’t work for a light game.
Going back to clockwise turn order, you can have players gain the first player marker through a specific action. This can suffer from the same problem you mentioned earlier, where the player sitting to the left of the player who always gets the first player marker benefits. Still, highly successful games like Agricola and Tzolk’in do this.
Finally, you can have players earn first player. This is slightly different from the previous example in that players have to really compete for it; it’s not just a single, atomic action. Look at Amun-Re, for example, where part of the reward for the sacrifice auction is the first-player marker.
Gil, you’re absolutely right. When deciding where to put the breaks in this piece, I elected to address games with fixed turn order today and let variable turn order wait for Tuesday.
Power Grid and Brass are good examples of variable turn order with bookkeeping. Many racing games have a turn order mechanism which is virtually bookkeeping free; turn order is race position order.
In my cooperative Doomed Atlantis game, the player order problem is slightly different. I wanted to know which player would be the target when an event occurs, and decided to make it the first player. But that means the first player role needs to rotate around the table, so the same player isn’t targeted all the time. As a result, after each player takes their turn in a round, the first player takes a turn for the board elements–handling all of their automated processing–then hands the first player token to the left. His normal turn is effectively skipped, which is a disadvantage you mention above, but he does get a turn of sorts, and it’s important because he resolves any arbitrary decisions not explicitly handled by the automation rules. This seems to work well: no one who’s ever played the game has complained about it. (The automation needs to be streamlined when there are lots of enemies on the board, but that’s a different problem.)
A possible solution to some two-player symmetrical games where first-player advantage is suspected in the opening move is the “pie” method, in which the second player has the option of co-opting the first player’s move, and forcing the first player to choose something else. It’s neither perfect nor universally applicable, but can be a handy rule to have available.
Thanks for this, a very good read about recognizing and addressing this issue in games.
I like the approach of rewarding turn order disadvantage with extra resources and treating it as an in-game currency – e.g. being able to sieze a more favourable turn order (both applied in Lords of Waterdeep for example).
For my own game – I decided to make a mini-game of it – first to go in each of the phases (about 12-15 of these per game) is decided by a dice roll. I expect the randomness to result in a more or less normal distribution, leading to lack of advantage to anyone in particular. And the extra bit of competition gets players excited before the main action starts.
There’s also the drafting/role selection way to determine player order. My favorite example of this is Twilight Imperium, but it’s done in other games – the first one that comes to mind is Citadels. In Twilight Imperium, you choose a role which also determines player order. Sometimes the role is the most important thing in your choice, other times its the order of play – and you try to choose what works best for you. Part of the game is looking ahead and seeing what you’re going to need – and if you can look far enough ahead, you can take steps in an earlier round to make sure you have first choice of roles when the timing is right.
Ah, yes, I remember that in Citadels. That is a nice implementation.