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Thoughts on player turn order advantage

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Rick L
Rick L's picture
Joined: 08/22/2016

When it comes to a competitive game that has resource gathering each turn, does the 1st player have too much advantage over consecutive players?

In games where everyone collects resources from each player's production rolls, this isn't really an issue. Player 1 starts with zero, and rolls or takes an action that generates a resource for everyone, then player 2 starts with one resource more than player 1 had. Player 3 would then begin with 2 resources, and so on.

That sounds like it balances out so that player 1 doesn't have any advantage from going first, right?

But what about a game where players only generate resources for themselves? After several rounds of turns, does player 1 have a better chance of winning because he started first? If each player makes the exact same decisions, then whatever the goal of the game may be - build enough to score 10 points, for example - Player 1 will be able to score the final point before anyone else.

So is it enough to have the meaningful decisions throughout the game allow players to "out-build" player 1? Or having enough ways to interfere?

Or is it necessary to make an initial adjustment on the first turn - for example, player 1 starts with zero resources, player 2 starts with one, player 3 starts with 2, etc...?

lewpuls's picture
Joined: 04/04/2009
Depends on the game, Rick.

Depends on the game, Rick. Testing ought to show what's best. I don't think a hard-and-fast rule can work.

Rick L
Rick L's picture
Joined: 08/22/2016
2 mechanics to work around this

I'm interested in discussing this issue in general, but also for how it applies to my game specifically.

So as an example, I've been using an "end of turn" roll to generate a bonus resource for everyone. Basically, Player 1 ends their turn by rolling a D6, and each player gets a resource that corresponds to the number rolled. Since Player 1's turn is over, he can't use that resource until his next turn, but the following players CAN.

The only thing I don't like about that is that everyone needs to have a table to show what # on the die corresponds to what resource, so that each player gets a different resource than the others. Originally, I had those numbers printed on the board next to each facility, but it tends to confuse people, making them think that is the # of resources they get from placing a worker there.

Alternatively, I could use a custom die with an image of each resource icon, so everyone would get the same resource from the roll.

The end-turn roll works, and it generates bonus resources throughout the game. But what I'm wondering is if this is necessary to compensate for player turn order advantage?

Could I just have each player start with a different amount of resources for the first turn, as I suggested in the previous post? Player 1 starts with zero, but each consecutive player starts with +1 more than the previous player? Is that a simpler rule that's just as effective?

Rick L
Rick L's picture
Joined: 08/22/2016
lewpuls wrote:Depends on the

lewpuls wrote:
Depends on the game, Rick. Testing ought to show what's best. I don't think a hard-and-fast rule can work.

I do agree that testing is important, but it can be hard to tell if an initial starting condition ends up being a large or small factor when there are a lot of other things happening throughout the rest of the game, so just wondering if this is something that can be determined in general.

Joined: 11/05/2015
I've been thinking about this

I've been thinking about this a bit too.

I suppose you could find a game where turn order is negligible, but from what I've seen game designs have a mechanism for getting past "round 1" so hopefully when a game gets in rhythm everyone is equal. One card game I like called "Mottainai" has a general design goal where everyone shares everything- so there's a communal resource pool and everyone gets to use everyone else's chosen actions. The way this game tries to mitigate turn order advantage is, though player 1 gets first pick of the communal resource pool, the other players have yet to play an action, and so player 1 doesn't get as many actions on "round 1" as other players. Then player two gets second access to the communal resource pool, and also gets to use 2 actions, and so on. The last player sometimes doesn't get any resources, but gets compensated by getting 3, 4, or 5 actions from other players instead (the opposite of player 1). This sounds similar to your first scenario where each player generates resources for everyone (also like Catan)

Another game that I feel has NOT solved this issue is Kemet (one of my all time favorite lite-wargames). 2 out of every 3 games is won by the player who goes LAST. Throughout the game turn order is ALWAYS important and does make a HUGE difference, so much so it often decides the winner. Kemet tries to mitigate this, not by balancing it, but by making turn order variable each round. Initially, whoever had the fewest victory points got to choose the players order. That was generally agreed to be broken and they came out with an official expansion that also included a new turn order resolution mechanic- in this, players bid at the end of every round for turn order. Additionally every time you lost a battle you earned an additional token you could use to bid for turn order at the end of each round. This still never fixed the issue that whoever went last tends to win. So the game really is more of a posturing to figure out which round will be last, and to position oneself to go last on that round. Which actually, in my experience, encourages players to play sub-optimally (lose battles). Now, this is necessarily a bad game dynamic, it just isn't (or doesn't seem to be) the design goal of the game.

Another way designers go about this is a "point-salad" approach. Player 1 may get a slight advantage of say a few points, but is negligible when 100 points are scored throughout the game.

Or another way is to create an ascending point structure. So round 1 10 points will be dolled out, round 2, 20 points will be dolled out, and round 3 40 points will be dolled out. So in round 1, player 1 will again get an advantage of a few points, but by the time rounds 2 and 3 come around everyone is in the game and those first few points won't be the deciding factor.

Last thought- another way to mitigate turn order advantage is simultaneous resolution- that is get rid of a "player 1". so players have a hand of "action cards" say, and play them at the same time. This won't work for every game design, I've only seen it in wargame designs, and probably won't work as well for communal resource games that don't simulate some type of combat (we both chose to get this resource? fight!). But might be worth thinking on.

polyobsessive's picture
Joined: 12/11/2015
I'm with Lew

This sort of thing is often possible to calculate to some degree, but even if you manage to calculate the best possible balance, you might find that players perceive things differently in practice, or that some other part of the game throws balance out way more (or is totally broken) and you have effectively been wasting your time.

If your gut tells you that the first player has an advantage, just have a rough shot at giving bonuses to later players or something, then get it to the table. Don't waste time balancing and optimising before you have data on how much of a problem there is.

Joined: 11/05/2015
I agree with just give it a

I agree with just give it a rough shot as well...

Like I said Kemet is one of my fav games, but I also feel it doesn't get this right. So getting a fun game is more important than perfect balance.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Variation of the Turn-Order

Here is an idea Joe Pilkus (@The Professor) came up with for my game "Tradewars - Homeworld".

Basically on each turn players choose one (1) of ten (10) roles. Roles each have an assigned number from zero (0) to nine (9).

Instead of turns going around in clock-wise fashion, Joe came up with the idea of using the Role number...

How it works is this: each round everyone secretly chooses a Role card. Then everyone reveals their choice. The highest Role number goes first. If there is a tie, order is from the youngest (1st) to oldest (last). Once those players have played their turn, the next highest Role number goes next, and so on...

This is cool because roles are organized in a hierarchy (0 to 9). Combat goes early, trading goes late.

Just some ideas about "mixing" things up a little.

And BTW that "expansion" (Premium Role cards) will be an early stretch goal in our KS campaign. It boosts the number of cards from 280 to 320 (+40 cards)...

Rick L
Rick L's picture
Joined: 08/22/2016

The role idea sounds like a great idea Questccg, I like the concept. It wouldn't work in my current project, since it's designed around "open" turn actions, but might want to use it in the next one!

Some great thoughts & examples from everyone so far - as I've been thinking over all this, it occurred to me that my mechanic that I've been using (end-turn resource roll) might not be doing anything to "balance" player turn advantages after all!

Some games you can prove that turn order makes a difference, like in tic-tac-toe. Some games you can prove that it DOESN'T make a difference, like in Catan, where Player 1 might roll a number that does him no good, but gives everyone else a resource. Of course, you can also argue that it's the turn order of placing settlements at the beginning of Catan that makes all the difference - I don't know if that's been "proven" or if it's still just a theory...

But then there are games that, as polyobsessive points out, you can't really say for sure, and might come down to just how players feel about it.

My early thoughts were that in a game where resources are fairly consistent, player 1 will be the first person each round of turns to be able to reap the benefits of the previous turn.

So as a mental exercise, if Player 1 and Player 4 both play a game really well, and progress pretty evenly, let's say by round 10 of their turns, they will each be ready to win the game, based on the progress made during round 9.

Since Player 1 starts round 10, he's going to win. Should the game have a mechanic that gives player 4 a slightly better chance of winning the game in round 9? Or should the game provide enough interference mechanics to allow player 4 to "create" their own opportunity to win one round of turns earlier than Player 1 (and players 2 & 3 for that matter)?

I know every game is going to be different, and have different interference mechanics, different amounts of luck, luck mitigation, or anything else. But, as a design theory, what seems best to you?

I chose to start this thread under "Design Theory" because I'm not sure if one way of balancing is better than another, or if balancing mechanics always works​ the way intended. Sometimes it can be really hard to say how much this factors in.

Anyway, I realized that by doing an end of turn roll, to allow player 4 to start turn 1 with a little boost doesn't really change anything - player 1 will start turn 1 empty handed, but they will accumulate resources from the other player rolls, so by the beginning of turn 2, they have a boost of their own, PLUS they reap the benefits of whatever progress they began in their previous turn!

Does that make sense? I think all that mechanic has been doing is just speeding up the game a tiny bit lol!

I think I've been "theorizing" too much about this - I mainly wanted to figure out if I could either simplify or eliminate a rule, and I think the game might be balanced enough with interference mechanics and character abilities that no one will feel disadvantaged by turn order.

Well, gotta go play it & see!

Squinshee's picture
Joined: 10/17/2012
My two-player cards game has

My two-player cards game has players switching who goes first each turn, which players have liked. No one knows if it's better to go first or second (nor do I)!

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
Err. Lets see.First turn

Err. Lets see.

First turn could be only half of what a full turn could do. Or. Player 1 goes first. Player 2 has turn 2 and 3. Player 1 has turn 4 and 5. Etc.

Random turn order is also a possibility. Especially if you don't know if it is smart to go first.

But to each game its own. Just try several ways out. And see what works best for ya.

Joined: 01/27/2017
Elbow room

Two methods to mitigate first-mover advantage is to either start the players far away from each other (e.g., chess), or dump a lot of variability into the first move (e.g., Monopoly). There is still an advantage to going earlier, but it's mitigated quite a bit by requiring several turns to accomplish anything. Chess mitigates its first-mover advantage using a second technique which is the multi-game tournament alternating play order (not relevant to most games).

For the space game I'm trying to develop, the players' starting locations are simply spaced too far apart for them to interfere with one another at first. To counter the hindsight advantage of later players, ships also have the ability to keep some maneuver points in reserve to react to other's attacks (whether from the player or the "board"). On their first turn, all ships will start with a few maneuver points in reserve.

Rick L
Rick L's picture
Joined: 08/22/2016
Those are some good mechanics

Those are some good mechanics to smooth out any initial advantages Frank - even though every game is different, it's important to find a simple, elegant way to make everyone feel that they have a fair start in a competitive game. Even in a track race, runners start at different positions in the different lanes to compensate for the different circumferences of the lanes.

I don't know if my game even has an issue with any advantage for the first player. After a few turns, everyone has completely forgotten who "player 1" is, and no one has complained or even brought up the possibility of an​y advantage over the course of approximately 24 play tests. It usually takes 20 turns or so before players can win, and by then, a lot of things have happened in the game.

I'm just looking at this in "theory", because as was mentioned in one of Gabe's podcasts, your game will get a whole lot more "play-testing" when hundreds or thousands of people buy your game! Do I want them finding a bunch of flaws that I missed?

In theory, in a 4 player game, if player 4 wins, everyone had an equal number of turns. But if Player 1 wins, he had 1 turn more than everyone else.

But does that matter? If other players think player 1 is getting ahead as the game progresses, they will focus their interference on him, to slow him down, right?

Still, there have been a few games where Player 1 was ready to do their "final experiment" and win the game in the same round of turns that player 2 would've been ready. But player 1 was successful and won! No hard feelings there from anyone, just the inevitable comment that "aw, I was so close! If you had failed your experiment I was ready to try!"

It's a fun race to the finish, but there's always that "what if I had my turn first" thought in the back of my mind.

I may craft a simple alternate rule where, if a player is ready to make their final attempt, they place a token to indicate it, and the remaining players get to finish out their turns, each able to place their token if they are also ready to make their final attempt. Then if there are others ready, there would be a brief "showdown" to see who wins the chance to go first. That way, everyone has the same # of turns to try to get ready, and the turn order for the final experiment, in this case, would be determined by using what you have accumulated to win the first try.

That's an idea for the test table for sure, but I still see it as most likely an optional rule.

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