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First is the Worst - Mitigating the Advantage of the Starting Player

September 12, 2006

As the timeless childhood adage (and one of the best examples of sour grapes) tells us: First is the worst, Second is the best. However, this rarely holds true in the world of board games.

Eurogames provide us with an amazing array of methods for choosing the starting players, from youngest, to oldest, to the person who went swimming most recently, to the upcoming person who can refrain from laughing the longest (and no this is not going to be yet another list about ways to choose the starting player, for that go here). But whatever the method for choosing the starting player, no one ever likes having to go last (usually). Most games throw up their hands and say c'est la vie, but there are a few games out there that actually mitigate the effects of going later in turn order by giving those players a special bonus or penalizing the starting player, depends on whether your glass is half empty or half full. Here is a list dedicated to those games that attempt to balance the advantages of going first.

This list was inspired by a recent GeekList called "Games with a catch up mechanism" which specifically excluded games "that simply change the start components for the players based on the position that they begin play" (e.g., Reef Encounter).

Caylus - Caylus mitigates the luck of getting to go first by doling out a different amount of money depending on where you are in the player order. This is a probably the most common way to mitigate the advantage of going first because it is particularly easy to implement, and merely requires adjusting the conditions during the setup phase. However, I'm not sure this is particularly effective in Caylus because, despite the smaller amount of money that the starting player and second player receive, they are still the only ones who can get cloth and stone, depending on the arrangement of neutral buildings, which means they are the only one who can build in the castle on the first turn.

Through the Desert - Through the Desert mitigates the luck of getting to go first by having the starting player only place one camel, instead of the normal two, on their first turn. I primarily play this game two-player so that is the extent of the rule in my experience, but I recall that if you were to play this with 3-5 players then more people would also play only a single camel on their first turn. This is a good special rule, and a great example of what this GeekList is about, because it effectively nullifies any advantage of going first, but without introducing any extra complexity or confusion into the game. This is a simple and elegant way to eliminate the luck of going first.

Reef Encounter - Reef Encounter mitigates the luck of getting to go first by varying the number of polyp tiles that players start the game with. This seems like a very effective implementation of this mechanic, although it may be the harshest of all the implemenations listed. Unlike the other games listed, in which the penalty for going first doesn't seem to outweigh the advantage of going first but merely balance that advantage out, this rule seems like it might so far as to make it worse for the starting player. Since there are enough good spots for everyone at the beginning of the game generally, and everyone will get one of the free bonus squares, it might be an excessive penalty to give the starting player so many fewer polyp tiles. But then again, the starting player will generally have one more turn by the end of the game, which is particularly important if someone plays with a blitz strategy (which will thankfully be eliminated in part with the upcoming expansion).

Goa - Goa mitigates the luck of getting to go first by giving the player with the flag only 7 gold instead of the normal 10. Unlike Caylus and Reef Encounter, which both vary the starting resources between first/second player and second/third player, Goa only varies the starting resources between the first player and everyone else. I'm not sure why Goa doesn't give somewhere between 7 and 10 gold to the second player, and more than 10 gold to the third player, but perhaps it proved unnecessary in the playtests. What do you think about this implementation? Is the flag better than the three gold deprived to the starting player? Is it particularly bad to go third or fourth in this game since you get no more money than the second player?

Settlers of Catan - And of course where would we be without the granddaddy of them all, Settlers of Catan. This was my first introduction not only to eurogames, but to the entire concept of mitigating the luck of the starting player. Settlers of Catan uses an ingenious method that I think of as "first in, last out." As I'm sure you all already know, the player who places the first settlement, also places the last settlement, so it goes 1-2-3-4-4-3-2-1. After many, many plays of this game (very few of which are recorded here because I played a ton between 1996 and 2004, before discovering BoardGameGeek), I'm convinced it's actually best to play last (i.e., be to the right of the person who rolls highest to go first) so that you can place both settlements simultaneously, which is especially important if you tend to go for Longest Road, which I often do.

(See this GeekList for this article plus additional comments on it)