Of course, no discussion of early-game structures would be complete without talking about who gets the first turn, and with it, we’ll take the chance to explore how turn order is decided in strategy games–and whether it really matters who takes which turn.
How is the first turn decided?
Perhaps surprising in a genre notorious for its thick rulebooks and considerable strategic depth, plenty of Euro games are completely silent on who goes first. Mainstays like Dominion and Power Grid don’t specify a way to determine the starting player at all; popular house-rule methods like “whoever gets the gold from this deck of copper goes first” or “if your house drops out of my hand first, you go first” get the job done but are completely arbitrary.
Other games use the “first turn decider” as a chance to inject a bit of levity into the rules: the first player in Small World is the one with the pointiest ears; in Pandemic, the one who was most recently sick; in Terra Mystica, the one who most recently planted something in a garden. The designers of these games are giving a wink and a nudge to the players, giving an objective way to determine the starting player while telling them that whoever goes first doesn’t really matter at all. (We’ll discuss the validity of that assumption in the next section.)
In games that have a “setup” phase before actual turns begin, the first turn often goes to the person who acted last in the setup phase. Settlers of Catan uses another “objective but arbitrary” first player (the oldest) in its setup phase, and then all of the players place one settlement in order and a second settlement in reverse order in a sort of two-round snake draft. Then, the original starting player (who acted first but also last during the setup phase) takes the first real turn of the game. This balancing scheme accounts for the general tendency for the value of draft picks to decay in an inverse-exponential manner (though the snake draft is supposed to account for that as well, and getting the first placement in Settlers along with the first turn is probably more than enough to offset having to place last).
Finally, in some games, one particular role or character might always act first. The most famous example is in chess, where white always starts. In asymmetric games, the player perceived to be at a disadvantage may have the chance to take the first action or extra actions as a way to offset that disadvantage. The task of the bioterrorist in the eponymous Pandemic: On the Brink variant is so difficult that the bioterrorist gets to take a turn after each of the other players’ turns. And some games incorporate the first-player advantage with a different logistical or organizational advantage: in Bigfoot, a card game by friend of the blog Scott Almes, the cryptozoologist divides the cards in each round into two “paths,” and Bigfoot gets the chance to pick which path he prefers.
Does going first matter?
It’s a question that has confounded observers of practically every strategy game since the field of statistics was robust enough to attempt to answer it. There have been scholarly articles, books, and even Wikipedia articles dedicated to the first-move advantage in chess, though it remains contentious whether this advantage arises from tactical probabilities or from a psychological advantage of going first.
For many strategy games, going first does seem to present an advantage, though the best way to assess the magnitude of that advantage is likely with the brute force of a large data set rather than trying to reason through all of the different possibilities. Therefore, we’ll talk about the first-player advantage in qualitative or anecdotal terms where large compiled data sets don’t exist.
In territory control games like Risk, going first allows you to begin building an empire before anyone has the chance to claim the territories that you want. Furthermore, depending on the version of the game that you’re playing, the first player may have the additional advantage of conquering neutral or unclaimed territories rather than making immediate enemies by stepping on someone else’s toes.
Going first in a worker placement or tile selection game confers the clear advantage of having more options than everyone else. Once the first player places a worker, or selects a tile, nobody else can make that same move. Agricola counters the obvious first-player advantage by giving all of the other players an extra unit of food, while Castles of Burgundy gives players extra workers for each position they are behind first at the start of the game. This sort of “compensation” approach can work well to remove the essentially arbitrary advantage of going first, but it can also simply pass the first-mover advantage down the line. Whether you’d rather have the first turn, or the second turn plus one food, in Agricola is debatable; it’s immediately clear, though, that you’d rather have the second turn plus one food than the third turn plus one food.
Some games, though, can carry a first-mover disadvantage. We’ve already mentioned that Terra Mystica, by using an arbitrary objective for determining the starting player, asserts that its player order doesn’t matter. Interestingly, the stats don’t necessarily support that assumption. In a 4-player game, the configuration that has the largest recorded sample size for Terra Mystica, each player position should win 25% of the games, assuming that the players had roughly equal skill levels. But out of more than 15,000 games, the first player wins only 21.13% of the time (about 85% as often as would be expected from pure chance), while the last player wins 29.86% of the time (nearly 120% of would be expected).
Why is there a first-mover disadvantage (and a last-mover advantage) in Terra Mystica? The answer probably lies in so much of Terra Mystica’s strategy being reactive: placing settlements last ensures that you have enough contact to make future development affordable and enough space to have room to grow.
Finally, as the variance in a game increases, the importance of the turn order decreases. If we play a simple pure-variance game where I roll three dice, then you roll three dice, and whoever gets the higher number wins, it does not matter at all who rolled first. If we then added betting elements, or re-rolls, or bluffing mechanics to our dice game, then a turn-order advantage might appear. Maybe I want the chance to bluff first and throw you off your game, or maybe I want to wait and place my bet after you’ve placed yours.
How are subsequent turn orders determined?
We’ll discuss turn order in several possible configurations. Games with simultaneous turns have no notion of turn order at all. Games with a static turn order, rotating starting player, or player-controlled starting player maintain the same order throughout the game but have different mechanics of determining the starting player in each round. Finally, games with a shuffled turn order or role-enforced turn order manipulate both the starting player and the subsequent turn order throughout the game.
As we covered in our article about downtime, one of the very best ways to decrease or eliminate downtime in games is to make all of the turns happen at once. The idea here is that, by making everyone take a turn at once, nobody is stuck waiting many minutes to be able to act again, which speeds up the pace of the game and keeps players interested. An ancillary benefit is that it removes concerns about turn order entirely: nobody is able to derive any benefit or forced to suffer any penalty from acting first.
Of course, simultaneous actions are not always practical, especially for games that contain bidding or area-conquest mechanics. In general, because players are taking their own turns without waiting for the game state to develop extensively, simultaneous turn-taking can reduce player interaction. But games with extensive drafting and role-selection mechanics lend themselves well to simultaneous turns; 7 Wonders and Race for the Galaxy are prime examples.
Static turn order
This is the simplest configuration of a game where turn order is a necessary concept. A starting player is decided, whether objectively or randomly or objectively-as-a-means-of-doing-it-randomly. Then, play proceeds in a fixed order (counterclockwise by the convention of many games) until the end of the game. This arrangement is best for games that are not divided into distinct rounds, such as Ticket to Ride (or where the “rounds” are merely a contrivance to set an end condition for the game, such as Small World). And it works best with games that have a relatively large number of turns, so that any first- or last-mover advantage would be comparatively unimportant by the end of the game.
Most American board games (including Risk and Monopoly), and virtually all of the classical abstracts (where alternating two-player games like backgammon are a special case of the static turn order), use static turn orders. However, many Euro games and classical card games use more discrete rounds rather than a continuous progression of turns, and the rounds often have mechanical implications in terms of new cards being dealt or different resources being available for purchase. In that case, it’s not fair for one player to take the first turn every round, either because that player enjoys an advantage in terms of getting the first crack at the resources or suffers a disadvantage in terms of not seeing how everyone else has bet before placing his own bet.
Rotating starting player
One way to mitigate that constant advantage or disadvantage is to rotate the starting player while keeping the turn order the same. Most variations on poker rotate the dealer every round, where the starting player is determined in relation to the dealer’s position. That way, each player cycles through paying the ante (which carries no strategic decision), placing a low-information early bet, and being able to place a late bet reactively to what other players have bet.
Under this structure, each player takes turns being the first player to act, the last player to act, and everything in between. You may be familiar with this method from games like Puerto Rico and Stone Age.
La Citta is a good example of a Euro game where the rounds have mechanical importance and where the turn order is rotated to ensure fairness in each round. Here, the starting player is selected based on the results of the setup phase (whoever got the “bend” of the snake in a snake draft to place starting settlements gets to take the first turn). Each round’s starting player gets the first pass at a new set of cards dealt that turn, a situation that might lead to that starting player picking up the only desirable card to be dealt in the entire round. At the end of each round, the “starting player” token simply passes to the next player in the turn order such that the player who most recently took the last turn takes the first turn in the next round.
Player-controlled starting player
The most complex, but potentially most strategically interesting, methods for determining turn order involve tying it to another game mechanic. Worker placement and “point salad” games, where every action is a small part of a turn and hopefully confers some slight advantage, are particularly well suited to player-controlled starting player scenarios. Here, as in the previous section, the mechanic determines who acts first but does not shuffle the turn order. If the player to your left in one of these games is particularly keen on claiming the first turn in every round, then you might be doomed to act last in every round.
In Agricola, the “starting player and minor improvement” space is one of many places where you can send a worker. Evidently Uwe Rosenberg decided that getting the first action in the next round was good enough to merit using a worker on it, but not good enough for that to be the only thing that your worker did, so in choosing that action, you also get to add a (low-value but potentially useful) upgrade to your farm. In subsequent turns, whoever has the “starting player” token gets to keep it unless and until someone else takes it, further enhancing the value of that action.
Castles of Burgundy uses an interesting mechanic where the starting player in a given round is the person who most recently reached the space furthest along the shipping track. It’s a legitimate strategy in Castles of Burgundy to become the starting player by building lots of boats in the early part of the game and maintain the initiative by grabbing the boats in each round before the other players have a chance to do so. However, if someone catches up to that strategy (which is nearly inevitable because the shipping track is short), then it can be easily overtaken: if you’re on the sixth shipping space, and another player catches up to you, then you’ve lost the first-player initiative.
At some point in each turn of Terra Mystica, you will run out of things to do, usually because you have no more workers and/or coins, so you pass, pick up a new bonus tile, and end your turn. The first person to pass gains the starting player token for the next round. This system evokes the “success cycle” in baseball by rewarding a short, disciplined turn with the ability to act first in the next round and “penalizing” a very long (and hopefully very successful) turn by leaving your position in the next round up to chance.
Shuffled turn order
Because the answer is always Power Grid, this section wouldn’t really be complete without mentioning the constant adjustments to positional balance that Power Grid makes, of which the turn order is one of many. The turn order is so fiddly in Power Grid that it even re-balances in the middle of the first turn after the initial power plants have been purchased and then at the end of the first turn and each subsequent turn.
Power Grid is a bit different from the other games here, where the starting player changes but the turn order remains the same. In Power Grid, both the starting player and the order of the subsequent players are re-evaluated after every round and are tied to the number of cities in your power network. In other words, unlike in games in the previous categories, who you’re sitting next to in Power Grid doesn’t matter at all.
Another example of a game where the turn order is shuffled every turn is Brass, where players act according to how much money they spent in the previous turn. Here, it’s not simply that the person who spent the least money acts first and the rest of the players take turns in a circular order. Instead, the person who spent the least acts first, then the person who spent second-least, and so on.
Role-enforced turn order
A few games, mostly ones with prominent role selection mechanics, assign the turn order based on an initiative order tied to the game’s mechanics. In both Citadels and Lost Legacy, numbers printed on role cards determine the turn order.
In some ways, this is a subset of the “variable turn order” category in that the turn order is shuffled along with the starting player. This method introduces an interesting wrinkle of strategy in that later-acting roles are generally associated with more-powerful effects favoring self-enrichment, so players need to decide whether going first or having a more powerful ability is more important.
How does turn order affect strategy?
Now that we’ve gone through the basic implementations of turn order, here are a few more thorough examples of how the turn order is as essential an element of the game design as any other and can affect the strategies that the players adopt.
Bang! is an example of a game with a static turn order that might have benefited from a more variable turn order. In Bang!, the safest course of action, especially in the early stages of the game before any information about the players’ roles has emerged, is to target the players to your right. In games with a large number of players, targeting a player immediately after he acts practically ensures that he won’t have the chance to retaliate against your attack, and he might have even forgotten about your attack by the time his turn comes back if other, worse things have happened to him. On the other hand, attacking the player who will play next gives that player an incentive to attack you back, even without any proof that you’re on different sides of the law.
The biggest problem with this arrangement arises if you happen to be seated to the right of a player who comes out “guns blazing.” It can be advantageous for the Outlaws and Deputies to start shooting immediately–and there are trigger-happy players who will sow as much chaos as possible regardless of whether or not that’s the best move for their roles. In the most unfortunate games of Bang!, players can be crippled or even eliminated before they can take a single turn because of their position relative to the most aggressive player, an imbalance that is implicitly enforced by the turn order.
The first few turns in deck-building games like Ascension are deceptively fascinating. Even though the starting decks in deck-builders are typically basic and uninteresting, the cards that each player selects in the first few rounds often drive their strategies for the rest of the game. The first player does sometimes have a large advantage if a powerful–but affordable–card is available at the beginning of the game. The next players have to play increasingly reactively. If the first player in Ascension acquires a Lifebound card (one of the four “factions” in the game), then the second player is incentivized not to acquire a Lifebound card, even if it is otherwise useful, or else he would find himself competing against the player immediately prior to him in the turn order for the same cards.
So there is incentive to select not merely useful cards, but cards that lend themselves to different strategies, in the first rounds of a deck-builder game. From there, because cards of the same faction tend to work well together, each player has the incentive to continue selecting cards of that same faction. Therefore, not only the availability of cards in the first few turns, but also the position in the turn order relative to other players who control similar cards, can steer a player’s strategy for the remainder of the game.
The turn order in Navegador is a simple “pass to your left” implementation of the “rotating first player” scheme, but there can be tremendous setbacks for a player caught in the middle between two players with opposite strategies. The market function of the game encourages each player to be either a producer (who sells a product like gold and lowers the price) or a processor (who buys gold and raises the price). Trying to do both is ineffective because of the limited number of actions in the game.
Suppose that Player A is producing and selling at a premium (and lowering the price), and then Player C is processing and buying at the new lower price (sending the price higher). A feedback loop quickly emerges and incentivizes both players to continue their strategies. The problem is that Player B is caught in the middle of a vicious cycle and is best situated to avoid the market for that good entirely. Otherwise, Player B has to mirror either Player A’s strategy (which, as he follows Player A in the turn order, he is in a terrible position to do) or Player C’s strategy (which requires that Player B invest even more resources in the strategy than Player C has).
Our final example is Five Tribes. Five Tribes has a strange situation where it may not be as advantageous to act earlier as it might be to act after a particular player. Going later in the turn order can offer lucrative opportunities that earlier players simply didn’t have, and (as in many games) if you can take a turn after a new or inexperienced player, you can gain a massive advantage. A new player may make the suboptimal move of crossing through open territories (leading to capture opportunities) or creating large tribes that someone else can use.
In an arbitrary turn, players will bid considering the relative value of the two or three best moves (where considering anything else is excessive because so many variables can change by the fourth turn). Let’s say that the best visible move yields an 8 point capture (camel) space plus a benefit from that space’s action. A player might pay a premium of 3-5 points for the privilege of acting first in that situation. On the other hand, that same move may have been available to the final player of the previous turn–or may arise again for the final player of this turn–for little to no cost and the same benefit. This pattern can arise frequently and may end up as the single biggest separator of player scores. Furthermore, going early in the first few turns isn’t nearly as important as going early as the game is wrapping up, where it can be important simply to extract value from your turn (rather than yield little to no benefit).
So what could be changed? It’s neither elegant nor functionally reasonable, but having a “Right of First Refusal” turn order bidding structure would probably be the only way to mitigate this problem. Using this system, players can bid for turn order, and then beginning with the top bidder and moving down, a player can “pass” the active turn to the next player. The last player must always take the active turn if it is passed to them. This way, if a player opens up a lucrative scoring opportunity for the next active turn, then the top bidder remaining can elect to take that turn rather than pass.
This structure solves one problem but creates a few others. First of all, it would at least double the playing time of Five Tribes. Every player would have to consider the board every time it got passed to them. Considering that this game could kill an analysis paralysis-prone player already, this additional analysis could be a disaster. Second, Five Tribes would become less of a game and more of a puzzle; it would kill the fun, free-flowing game play and turn it into a far more structured and serious task. As a result, the game would grind to a halt and probably lose a significant level of enjoyment.
We’ve seen that the turn order can range in complexity dramatically from an arbitrary arrangement that simply maintains a set rotation throughout the game to an intensely player-driven one that constitutes a major part of the game’s strategy. Simultaneous actions both drastically reduce downtime and eliminate the need for a turn order structure at the cost of reducing player interaction. Bidding for turn order or tying it to an orthogonal mechanic increases the strategic depth but also the complexity.
As a designer, one of the critical concepts in turn order is understanding whether the first mover in a round has an advantage or a disadvantage and figuring out if there is a method for abating that advantage. Furthermore, it’s important to analyze the different phases of the game and understand how the turn order affects each: the starting player in any given round of Terra Mystica may gain an incremental advantage, while the first player to claim territory during the setup phase can win or lose the game with the placement of a single dwelling. And a game with a large number of turns more naturally evens out first-mover advantages or disadvantages than a game with only a few turns, which could conceivably be decided by who goes first.
Finally, the amount of attention to give turn order in your game might be as strong a function of the game’s weight as anything else. For a dense gamer’s game, assigning a new starting player halfway through every turn might be appropriate, while for a lighter game, nobody will mind if you decide the first player based on what everyone had for lunch.