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.

Bottom-Up Scoring

Len Stemberger is a designer in the North Houston design group. He is currently developing an area control game which features marker manipulation–placing and moving markers.  His core engagement is to keep players constantly jockeying for position in as many areas as possible at all times.  With this core engagement in mind, we began looking for the best scoring mechanism to serve it.

As we bounced various ideas around, we hit upon a mechanism which was entirely new to me and darned interesting–a system that scores both upwards and downwards.  We provisionally named it “bottom-up scoring” and decided to share it with you.  We hope it gives you an interesting tool to work with.


Bottom – Up Scoring

Area majority games generally score downwards. Awards are passed out by looking at first place, then down to second place and so on.  Bottom-up scoring does some of that.

Set collection games generally score upwards. Increasing your set increases your reward.  Bottom-up scoring does some of that too.

The first step to creating a bottom-up scoring scheme is to select a top-down scheme as you might for any other area majority game.  For our example, I’m using an exponential scheme.

First Place

8 points

Second Place

4 points

Third Place

2 points

In most area-control games, the first time a player placed a marker into an area, he is considered to be in first place.  He essentially occupies the top spot.  If scoring occurred with only his marker in the region, he would receive the best possible award for the region.

Example: Danielle has a cube in the green region and it scores.  Since no other cubes are present, Danielle scores first place, 8 points.

In Len’s game, area manipulation and scoring each occur on every turn.  This is important to understanding why how we arrived at our new scheme.

Our concern centered on the massive start-player advantage that occurred when the start player placed a marker into a region on his turn and then immediately scored that region–He would get the first place prize simply for going first!  That sat well with none of us.  We needed a different plan.

In our bottom-up system, the first time markers are placed into an area, they are thought of as beginning construction in that area, only just beginning to improve and expand the area.  The player who placed these markers essentially occupies the bottom spot. When scoring occurred with only her markers in the region, she received the worst possible award for the region.

Example: Danielle has a cube in the green region and it scores.  Since no other cubes are present, Danielle scores third place, 2 points.

Massive holdings in an otherwise empty region are no better than a single cube in that region–like having the best castle in Boise, Idaho.  This is better than no award at all of course, but no longer so massive an award.

Example: Danielle has five cubes in the green region and it scores.  Since there are still no other cubes present, Danielle scores third place, 2 points.

Now in order to reach high awards, the player must work for majority in popular regions.

Example: In addition to Danielle’s five cubes, and Dean has two cubes and John has 1 cube.  When the region scores, John scores third place, 2 points. Dean scores second place, 4 points. Danielle scores first place, 8 points.

Working for majority in popular regions puts players in conflict throughout the game.  Putting players in conflict throughout the game increases player interaction.  Increasing player interaction increases engagement.  Delivering engagement is what games are all about.  We were looking at a winning scheme.


Tie Breaking The Bottom-Up Scheme

Having established the basic structure, we immediately moved on to debate the best tie-breaking scheme for Len’s core engagement.  Our best suggestions fell into three general categories.  Rather than asserting which is best, here are all three.  Each had its merits, depending on the spirit of the game and playtest data.  Len wisely decided to collect more data before making any final decision.

First in wins.  Markers placed later are considered to fall behind those placed earlier.  The only way a later player can get ahead is to exceed the previous count. This is generally best if the game has a start player disadvantage.

Last in wins.  Markers placed later fall ahead of those placed earlier.  A later player can get ahead by tieing the previous count.  This is generally best if the game has a start player advantage.

Friendly ties.  Tied players each get a full share of their position’s award.  This is generally best if there is no discernible advantage associated with the order of play.


Have you designed an area-control game? How did you award points?  How would Bottom-up scoring have changed the dynamics of your game?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Ties, Damn Ties, and Statistics, Part 2

Our last column looked at ways for tied players to share points.  Many situations do not lend themselves to sharing.  Sometimes, sharing is completely inappropriate.  Sometimes, it is simply unsatisfying.  When faced with such a case, the intrepid designer can employ a variety of tiebreakers which I have divided into three broad categories.

Elimination Tiebreakers

Elimination tiebreakers remove all tied players from consideration.  They receive no credit whatsoever.  The elimination approach is often seen in simultaneous blind auction games.

Example: Our subjects from the last column–Ava, Bette, Carlos  and Derek–are back.  They are currently bidding for a house in a land development-themed auction game.  This is a simultaneous auction.  Ava and Bette each bid $50,000.  Carlos bid $35,000 and Derek bid $20,000.  Since Ava and Bette are tied, their bids are eliminated.  Carlos’ bid moves up to first place and he gets a lovely $35,000 house.  Ava and Better look on angrily and Derek just watches.

Locking Tiebreakers

Locking tiebreakers take the ostrich’s approach by burying their head in the sand and refusing to acknowledge the tie.  Wolfgang Kramer’s Forum Romanum uses this to amazing effect. So long as two or more players are tied for majority control of an area, that area will not score.  Since workers are a finite resource in Forum Romanum, this leaves players with the deliciously painful conundrum of either abandoning contention for an area or trying to get by with fewer pieces than her opponents.

Second-Factor Tiebreakers

Ties can be broken by invoking a different element.  This method of tie breaking is extremely common when determining who should start a game.  These tiebreakers can be wholly random as in the case that the first dealer in a card game is the player who draws the highest card.  They can also be completely skill-based as the pool tradition of choosing the break by shooting for it.

In the late 1990s and early 200s, it was fashionable for designers to include amusing but trivial mechanisms for breaking the tie to set start player.  Reiner Knizia’s Vampire for instance let the player with the longest canines start.  Ted Alspach took this trend to its logical conclusion by releasing a set of cards and then a smartphone app entirely dedicated to the job by featuring tiebreakers like “the player with the longest email address is the start player” and the “player who has most recently purchased games online” is the start player.

Second-factor tie breaking is also a common tool for determining the sole winner of a game.  As you might imagine, players are not likely to tolerate a wholly random tiebreaker for the win but skill-based ones are quite common.  If two or more players are tied at the end of Power Grid, the winner is the player among them with the most game cash in hand.  Since cash reasonably represents a player’s performance in that game, the approach is generally acceptable to most players.

Second-factor tiebreakers also make regular appearances in games which offer an in-game reward that cannot be subdivided.

For instance, many basketball tournaments feature the alternating possession rule.  The ball obviously cannot be divided between the teams and must go to one team or the other any time play must resume.  The alternating possession rule holds that the ball goes to the team which lost the jump ball (opening tip off) at the beginning of the game.  If play stops and later restarts in the same game, possession would then go to the team that won the jump ball and so on.

Games with more than two players/teams can achieve a similar alternating possession effect by awarding a marker to one player which moves around the table each time it is used to break a tie.

Alternating possession can be made even more meaningful by holding the tie breaking marker in place.  I particularly like this approach when players also have the agency to take the marker for themselves.  I have played several worker placement games that favor the start player in all ties and offer an action to become start player.  Adding such layers to the decisions in a game can be immensely satisfying.

A vicious version of second tier tiebreaking enables the favored player to win every tie, even ones that the player isn’t actually in!  Ministers win ties for titles this way in Confucius.  In a game like this, it is to the possessor’s clear advantage to encourage ties in multiple areas.  This can add another layer of tension to an area control game.  I think this would be doubly exciting in an area-majority game that allowed players to move or replace one another’s markers.

Elimination, Locking and Second Tier are the major categories tiebreaker I’ve encountered.  If you’ve seen others, please add them to the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please subscribe to this blog.  It makes a big difference.

In our next installment, we spend time with the mathematics of victory points.  See you Tuesday!