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.


The Dreaded Player Order Advantage, Part 2

Some 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.

Many game designs carry in them player order advantages such as these. Fortunately, we have tools to detect them and tools to redress them.

Part 1 of this series looked at detection and two potential solutions to a player order advantage; starting bonuses and changing start player.  This led to a flurry of fantastic comments which will be discussed in part 3 of this series.  Today’s, column focuses on changing player order, tie breaking and differing goals.


Solution 3: Changing Player Order

Last column looked at changing start player from one round to the next as a method of addressing player order advantages.  Some games completely reassess player order each round. This approach has the advantage of being completely responsive to each player’s position but does run the risk of being fiddly. The best uses of this are either transparent and quick or integral to the rest of game play.

Many modern racing games take the transparent and quick approach.  Each car on the race track acts in race position order from front to rear.  Once every car has moved, a new round immediately begins, this time in their new position order.

Struggle of EmpiresStruggle of Empires took the approach the approach of being integral to play. Establishing turn order in Struggle of Empires is sometimes the longest part of a given game round but it is essential to the rest of play.  Turn order is set by auction in which players not only assign order but also alliances.  Since allied players cannot attack one another, a player in a poor position can adjust turn order and earn a cease fire by positioning himself into an alliance with a pugilistic rival both at the same time.


Solution 4: Tie Breaking

Sometimes, the solution to player order advantage can be found in tie breaking.  This is particularly handy in area-control games and racing games.  An end player advantage is mitigated by breaking all ties in favor of the start player.  A start player advantage is mitigated by breaking all ties in favor of the end player.

Terry Goodchild’s Formel Fun is a racing game that employs this approach dynamically.  If two cars are equally far ahead, the one in the inner lane goes before the one in the outer.  To make this completely clear, the game rules direct players to always place their cards into the innermost available space when they move.


Solution 5: Differing Goals

A great way to eliminate turn order issues is to give different objectives to each position.

Avalon Hill ASTEach player’s culture sets turn order and differing objectives in the Avalon Hill classic Civilization.  In particular, Africa is first in turn order but has the most difficult road on the Archaeological Succession Table (AST) shown above. Egypt is last but has the easiest road on the AST.  Civilization also gave each position at the table a different starting position on the map and through those positions, different options.

Fantasy Flight’s game Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game gave each player different options in much the same way that the computer game does–through special powers.  The Romans advance on the culture track each time they build a wonder, build a city, conquer a village, or conquer a city.  The Americans by contrast convert trade into production at an accelerated rate.  Each of these abilities will push their player toward different foci and thereby tend to mitigate the importance of turn order.

Chaos in the Old World achieved differing goals Chaos in the Old World dialsthrough a variety of methods.  Most prominently, each faction gets a unique progress dial.  Since each dial awards different bonuses as it progresses, player strategies must differ appropriately.

Changing player order, tie breaking, and differing goals are three of my favorite techniques for mitigating a player order advantage in my designs.  Put these, long with starting bonuses and changing start player, into your game design toolbox.  They will empower you to address any player order advantages that appear in your designs.

Next column we examine the suggestions and examples you wonderful readers have contributed to this series.  Let us know how you track player order advantages and what techniques you use to mitigate them.  Please post them so we may share them with your fellow gamers.

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.

The Dreaded Player Order Advantage, Part 1

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 FrontiersAlien 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.

Zong ShiMany 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.

TargiThe 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.

Ora et LaboraA 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.