The Dreaded Player Order Advantage, Part 3

JS_starter_pistols.tiff_t960Some games give an advantage to the start player. That player gets the best goods, stakes out the best position, wins far too often because of the advantage of opportunity.  Some others give an advantage to the last player.  That player gets the best view of the table, can make the perfect bid without fear of being outbid or of overpaying, again winning far too often because of her position in the turn order.

Part 1 and 2 of this series looked at detecting player order advantages and my suggested solutions; this led to a flurry of fantastic comments.  Today, we take a look at these interesting submissions from our awesome readers.

Comments fell primarily into two groups.  There were comments on methods of reassigning the start player marker and there were comments on allowing players to influence turn order.  They have been grouped accordingly.


On Player Control

Several readers pointed to the notion of putting control into the players’ hands.  These methods of assigning player order can be quite interesting because they tend to present players with another layer of decisions without dramatically increasing rules complexity.  Adding these extra decisions increases player engagement and game design is all about delivering player engagement.


From Gil Hova:

“[The first] 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.


From Carl Klutzke:

“I’m fond of the Aladdin’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.”


From Bevan Clatworthy:

“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!”


From playnoevil:

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.”



From futurewolfie:

“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.”

Letting players choose roles to choose player order is a fantastic mechanism provided that it is thoughtfully implemented.  It is important to try different sequences of roles. You will naturally find that some roles are more powerful earlier in the round while some are more powerful later.  If a certain role seems too powerful, changing its place in the order may be all that’s needed to balance it.


On Rotating the Start Player Marker

Some readers added other methods of passing the start player marker or of mitigating the effect of passing the start player marker.


From Gil Hova:

“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.

Some games are successful with this approach but some aren’t.  Railways of the World attempted it with limited success.  Each round of play begins with an auction for the start player marker.  Play proceeds clockwise from the start player.  In this case, the best place to sit is often directly after a player who bids aggressively for the start player marker.   You get all of the benefits of an early position in the round but don’t have to actually pay for it.  I am a fan of Railways of the World despite it but I cannot stop myself from wondering how much better the game could have been without this issue.

“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.”

This solution has been successful in a large number of worker placement games.  “Turn order” is a location to which workers can be assigned.  Doing so gives you priority in the following round.  My favorite variation on this allows each player who has a worker on “turn order” to decide where in turn order he or she wishes to land–first, last, or somewhere in between.  Players who choose not to put a worker on “turn order” get whatever’s left.


From Carl Klutzke:

“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.)”

Carl has developed an interesting variation on simply passing the start player marker.  Because the start player gets something to do at the end of the round other than simply passing the marker, her down time is minimized.  Because the start player has a measure of control over the non-player elements, she gets a boost to make up for being the target of all events.


On Handicapping the Start Player

ironregime brought a different attitude to the table by suggesting a way to mitigate any start player advantage in a two-player game.


From ironregime:

“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.”

This is a classic solution which I’d completely forgotten! Fortunately, ironregime was here to remind us.  I first encountered it in Piet Hein’s/John Nash’s Hex.  It’s not universally applicable to all two-player games but can certainly see applying it to those with open information–Chess, Targi, Zertz, and the like.


On Data Collection

We close today’s column with bduerksen30’s suggestion that judicious data collection might bring further insight.  This is a suggestion I will definitely be pursuing.


From bduerksen30:

“It would be interesting to compile a list of games, their game type, and their player-order solutions to see if certain game types utilize some methods more commonly or more successfully than others. For example, I think Kevin rightly identifies modern racing board games as mostly utilizing changing play order, and it seems to work quite well in those rulesets.

“Just in general, I’d be curious to know if others see a correlation between successful implementation of the solutions above that address play-order imbalance, and certain game types?”

What do you think of these ideas?  Did we miss your favorite method of mitigating player order advantages?  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.


Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 1

There will be two Protospiel events this month.  March 14 – 16 will see its first appearance here in Houston.  March 21 – 23 will see its return to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Protospiel events are big game design parties.  Most of the attendees are authors, carrying work that varies in completion from “heading to the printer” to “thought of it this morning.”  Playtesters–people who attend to play and nothing else–will be milling about.  Publishers will be scouting for the jewels among the mass.  No matter what your role, everyone will be playing a variety of games, offering feedback, impressions, and suggestions.

Design events like Protospiel have become increasingly common both as stand-alone events and as part of a larger whole.  In the last year, Origins, Gen Con and BoardGameGeek.Con all featured “designer alley” or “designer/publisher speed dating” or both.  There are playtesting events scattered across the US and Canada.  Although I am not personally aware of any, I would be willing to bet that some are being held by our neighbors to the south as well.  With so many around the continent, I cannot imagine how any designer could fail to attend at least one of these events.

If you’re new to these events, you will probably have some questions.  How does a designer get the best results from these events?  What are the secrets to success?  The three columns in this series will answer the biggest questions heard over the years.

Successful playtesting comes in three parts–good preparation, good execution, and good resolution.  Today, will focus on questions of preparation.  On Tuesday, we will focus on what to do during the playtest.  Next Friday’s column will resolve resolution.


1.  What is the most important thing to bring?

An open mind.  Each person you meet will have ideas for your game.  Some will take your game places you’ve never considered.  Some criticisms may make you uncomfortable.  Take them all in.  Remember that their only wish is to see you and your game succeed.  Prepare yourself to that each person for her time and feedback.

2.  What kind of game can I bring?

Protospiel events are primarily about tabletop game design.  Board games, card games and party games are the most common but Carl Klutzke did bring, test, and publish a roleplaying game.

Computer games are extremely rare, however.  For those, you may want to look into alternate events like those the Game Developers Conference hosts.


3.  How many times will my game get played?

The answer to this varies wildly with the event.  Some events are structured and plan specific schedules for each game.  Some are freeform.  In the case of the former, the number of plays is limited only by the time you have been allotted.  In the latter case, I find that my own games get played only once or twice a day.  Your mileage may vary however, as I often treat these events as a chance to get a peek at other people’s approach rather than a chance to hammer on my own designs.


4.  How long should I expect each playtest to take?

Give yourself plenty of time.  Playtests generally run from 50% to 100% longer than the normal play time for the game.  Post-play feedback can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.  This means that your 15 minute card game will need about an hour to test and discuss while your 2 hour game will need about 3 hours.


5.  I’m not that experienced at designing games. Will my feedback worth less than someone more experienced?

Designers need as much feedback as they can possibly get.  Come to the event with that firmly in your mind.  Plan to be honest.  Plan to be brutally honest.  Your honest feedback is priceless, no matter how experienced you are.


6.  How nice should my prototype look?

When it comes to prototyping, uglier is usually better.  If you’ve invested a great deal of time making your game attractive, you may find yourself unwilling to make needed changes.  But you MUST be willing to make changes on the spot.  When a player makes an excellent suggestion, you are going to want to get that idea into play as soon as possible.  If that means altering, defacing or even destroying existing components—do it!

A good general rule is that you should be willing to take a sharpie to any component you bring.


7.  Uglier is better?  Really?!?

Yup.  Experienced designers and publishers tend to view suspiciously any game which looks “too good.”  Several experienced designers have told me off the record that when a beautiful prototype comes onto a nearby table, they immediately head the other way.  Add to that the horde of horror stories among publishers who decided to give a beautiful prototype a try–and discover that the game was all flash and no substance–is astounding.

Keep your focus on core engagement and gameplay.  This will impress the people you meet much more than any flashy component ever can.

Before we sign off today, much gratitude goes to Gil Hova and Carl Klutzke for their help assembling this list.

If you’re an experienced Protospieler, what do you do to prepare for playtesting?  Do you have a question about playtesting that’s still searching of an answer?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

Our next set of questions get to the heart of good execution–what to do during a playtest. See you Tuesday!