Sunday, May 9, 2010

Who Goes First?

Going first in a game usually affords an advantage to that player, though it is not substantial and most likely normalizes over the course of the game. But still, an advantage is an advantage and most games recommend that for the sake of fairness the players roll a die and the highest roller will kick things off. This is fine, and usually the preferred method in the games I play in. However, some games do recommend alternate methods of deciding the first player. Here are some of my favorites, with suggestions to improve them as well.

It makes sense that the starting player of Pandemic is connected to illness, that is after all what the game is about. In this cooperative game the rules state that the player who has been sick most recently goes first. I like this one a lot and in our games we always stick to it. The reason why? It’s always different every time that you play, essentially making it random. I don’t think that this one needs fixing.

One of the stranger methods of choosing a starting player is employed by Smallworld. The player with the pointiest ears gets to go first. Certainly an odd way of picking things, I do like that it rewards such a bizarre personal trait that really may have never come up before in the person’s life. However, like a lot of these methods it winds up being redundant in a group of players that frequently game together. Unless someone is so committed to victory in Smallworld that they alter their ears the same person will continue to go first. Here is my suggestion for an alternate method. Once the initial races are all out on the table the player who most resembles the race in the first spot goes first. Sure, it could cause some hard feelings when trying to figure out who among you most resembles an orc or a ghoul, but really it’s just setting the tone for a game that is all about slaughtering your friends. And if an elf pops up you can still fall back on the pointy ears.

Ticket to Ride rewards the most well traveled of a group of gamers. The initial player is determined by the player who has visited the most places. Like Smallworld this gets old fast, though it does at least have the possibility of changing if you have a long term gaming group. People travel, usually for the reason of improving their chances of going first in Ticket to Ride. Not really, but this game is not really about traveling. It’s about trains. How about the first player is the one who has most recently been on a train? Done.

It’s fun to pick on old people, and clearly the designers of Bohnanza agree with me. In everyone’s favorite game about bean farming, the first player is the player to the left of the dealer. Which is pretty standard fare, however the rules state that the dealer is the oldest player. Ouch. Not only does the elder gamer have to do all of the setup, but then they ultimately wind up going last as well. Not sure what any of that has to do with beans or farming and it also suffers from the redundancy problem, though in a different way (the first player is always changing, but the last player stays the same). My fix is rather simple. Prior to shuffling all the players flip over a single card, the player with the most common bean then has to do all of the shuffling and be the last player. Come on, growing old sucks as it is. Does Bohnanza really need to be against you too?

For a game that is all about being an evil overlord it seems like an odd choice that Dungeon Lords chose to reward the nicest player by having them go first. But I think it is a brilliant way of deciding. There is nothing quite like watching several people argue over who is the nicest among them. It is also the type of thing that is subject to rapid changes based on recent actions. I think that this method is pretty solid, and since in Dungeon Lords players are not really getting a chance to actually kill one another it’s nice to be able to get some animosity out with a healthy argument to start the game.

There is nothing wrong with the random roll of the dice to determine who has the minor advantage of going first, but sometimes a game deserves a little better. Plus, these games all have one thing in common. They don’t use any dice so something else needed to be implemented. (The exception is Smallworld which has the reinforcement die, but it is not a traditional die and could result in a bunch of ties. So we will forget about that one.) I applaud the game designers for coming up with a solution that has some personality to it, even if they are a bit redundant at times.

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