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I Go First

O Updated
(Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

After setting up a board game and explaining the rules, if necessary, the next step usually is to decide who starts. Different games decide this differently, so in this article, I want to discuss the various ways in which board games choose the first player and I will also touch on games where the first player changes from round to round.

Let's begin with games where you have to select someone in your group randomly. That is the most common format, especially in games that aren't asymmetric, where nobody has any sort of advantage over others. You basically roll a dice or flip a coin or play rock, paper, scissors to work out who goes first. After that, play usually continues in clockwise order. I have previously written about turn order and the first player advantage in my article Turn order, so I won't go over that again here.

What I do want to discuss though is how some games want to help you select someone at random. They will have some sort of rule as part of the setup steps in the rulebook that's meant to be tongue-in-cheek and is usually related to the setting or theme of the game. For example, in a game about a swimming competition, the first player rule might say that the person who last went to a swimming pool starts the game. That can be very nice and feel really suited to your games group, but it can sometimes feel a bit elitist, because not everyone will necessarily have the opportunity to have done the thing that the game wants you to have done.

For example, in a game about travel, the first player rule might choose the person who travelled the furthest. That's very thematic, of course, but some people just won't have the money to go away abroad, let alone travel long-distance. It's therefore often better to just tell players to choose who beings the game randomly.

Some games have some sort of built-in tool to do that. An easy example is games that come with dice. The game could just ask everyone to roll the dice and the player with the highest value goes first and in the case of ties, the tied players roll again. Games with decks of cards can do that too, assuming that cards have different values. Players could be asked to shuffle the deck and draw a card at random and then the person with the highest value card is the starting player.

As I alluded to earlier, some games will link who goes first to what faction they have been assigned or have chosen. Asymmetric games will usually give the factions with the weakest powers the advantage of going first or they might give that player the option of choosing who goes first. In those games, if factions are assigned randomly, they are not much different to my previous example of randomly choosing the starting player.

However, some games allow you to bid on the faction you want to play, in which case people will actively choose who goes first or at least they will try to decide that through their bids. I think that's a really nice way of deciding who begins the game, but it can be an issue if you've not played the game before, because you won't know the values of the different factions, other than by the value the game assigns with respect to turn order. The faction that goes before the other factions is usually the weakest, so if you've not played the game before, you get a rough idea of that faction's value within the game.

There are some games where the first player is not only chosen at the very beginning, but again during the game, either after every round or maybe after so many turns or some other points during gameplay. These games often also change the player order at the same time, so not only is there a different first player ever so often, but who goes second, third and so on changes as well. The turn order is usually based on how far ahead players are, either on a victory point track or maybe on how many actions they have taken. It's usually a way to give other players a way to catch up and often encourages players not to get too far ahead.

I'm sure there are other ways of deciding who begins a game and I'd love to know what you've come across. What games have you played where choosing the first player was really fun? Are there games you enjoyed that rely on active player choices to decide the starting player? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #331211 02 Mar 2022 15:42
I've always presumed that cutesy rules for who goes first are designed to be ignored, just a little throw-away flourish of the person who wrote the rule book. But given the somewhat-aspergers nature of a lot of boardgamers these flourishes still manage to get in the way. That said, a game I play whose rule simply states "select a starting player" gets people on the Internet complaining that it's not specific enough.

You can't win.

30 years ago you just came up with your own interpretation for when rules were vague or unavailable. Now people look for guidance on the most arbitrary little details in any rule book. Kids these days.
cdennett's Avatar
cdennett replied the topic: #331212 02 Mar 2022 16:09
My group has for the longest time taken a piece from each player (pawn, marker, whatever is in their player color) given it to one person that tosses them all at an arbitrary spot on the table/board. Whoever lands closest goes first. Works for basically any game that has individual player pieces. If those don't exist, there's an app for that... But we'll sometimes follow the cutesy rules if we're in the mood.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #331214 02 Mar 2022 17:35
We just Chwazi it. Phone's always nearby. Seems random enough. Done.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #331231 03 Mar 2022 04:45
Characterizing funny starting rules as "elitist" is so uncompromising that I can't imagine anyone remaining free of the sin of gatekeeping if that's the bar to clear. It's not that I don't see the argument, is that it's pretty damn brutal place to draw the line.

I remember when Elizabeth Hargrave brought up the same point about that travel game being exclusionary. And all I could think about how Wingspan costs has much as two other games put together but is considered "accessible". I guess that, in this debate, some sins are much worse than others.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #331245 03 Mar 2022 10:17
"Elitist" -- what a bunch of hooey. Does nobody have any self-agency anymore? It's your copy of the game, do what you want with it. Change any rule that doesn't appeal to you or your group.

And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. -- Barbossa

I think the entire hobby is due for a refill of its sense-of-humor.

2.5 SHL Approved Security Containers
The game requires the use of two Solar Hanseatic League
Approved Security Containers. Normally these containers
retail for 15 galactic credits apiece, but if you send in your
proof-of-purchase, you can purchase two containers in a
single order at the low, low price of 30 galactic credits (plus
postage and handling from Alpha Centauri). One container is
used to hold Nastian Units (called the Nastian Cup) and the
other holds Surface Installation markers (the Surface
Installation Cup). Using an unauthorized set of containers—
such as a coffee mug or other opaque container—is strictly
prohibited, violates the End-User License Agreement, and
will result in mandatory forfeiture of your kidney or bladder.

As best I can tell, there's a fair portion of the hobby boardgaming community that would hit this passage in the Escape From Hades rulebook and think to themselves, "sure, I could use coffee cups, but technically I'd be cheating. Can I Iog a play of the game at that point? And if I can't log it, is it worth the time to play?"
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #331248 03 Mar 2022 10:34
"Place the game board in the center of the table"
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #331254 03 Mar 2022 11:03

Not Sure wrote: "Place the game board in the center of the table"

I like the trend in rulebooks that started probably 10-15 years ago that directs you to place X components "within reach of everyone at the table". I always wondered how many people end up fretting about that directive, depending on the number of people actually at the table, the amount of components, the size and shape of the table, etc.

"I can't reach those. Can you grab me a-"

I'm fully on board with the "change whatever rules makes you happy" approach, if that's how you want to play it. It rankles a bit, though, to see the number of people who jump on BGG after one play and say: "This rule is totally unbalanced and we're house ruling it!" This was a constant refrain in the first couple weeks of Tiny Epic Dungeons making it to people, where many were having trouble with the difficulty of the game... but mostly because they weren't reading the whole rulebook and were playing it wrong. This kind of dovetails with those who find one thing "wrong" with the game (i.e. something they don't enjoy) and immediately condemn the publisher/designer for having produced something that doesn't meet the writer's tastes. Sometimes you're just not going to like a game and it's no one's fault.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #331256 03 Mar 2022 11:09
I can't tell if the obvious rules statements like "place the board on the table" are being serious, or its designers mocking the insipid questions you see on BGG.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #331266 03 Mar 2022 15:55
Usually the first time someone at the table has played it, we'll determine first player as per the rulebook because sometimes they're interesting. "Last person to have a colonoscopy." After that, if it's the same group and we remember who it was, the winner of the last game gets to/has to go first. If we don't remember, we'll roll a die or pull a token. It the token belongs to the player that pulled it, they always get accused of cheating.

As for house rules, I try to stay away from them because I've seen what Jackwraith is talking about. I have a friend who, after one play, often thinks that something should be houseruled. Especially if he lost. Annoying as hell.
boothwah's Avatar
boothwah replied the topic: #331273 03 Mar 2022 18:00
In our house, until it's been canonized as a "Game We Play" vs "One of Dad's games" the first player is me, because my wife refuses to read/have rules explained in their entirety. I have 3 minutes, max, and then she says, "why don't you just go first and we'll figure it out."

I get accused of cheating in every first game of everything we play because of that as well.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #331274 03 Mar 2022 18:44
That’s your role as husband. I think it’s in the vows.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #331275 03 Mar 2022 19:32
Yeah, despite first player advantage in a lot of games, “i’m new so I’ll go last to see some turns” is a decent house rule.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #331278 03 Mar 2022 23:14

boothwah wrote: "why don't you just go first and we'll figure it out."

Have a guy like that in one of my regular groups. I'm in the middle of a lengthy explanation and he's like: "Let's just get started and we'll figure it out." Three turns later, I'm all: "No, you can't do that." The reproachful response: "Well, if I'd known that..."

That stopped when I started teaching them Cole Wehrle's games. "Let's just-" "No. N. O. That just won't work because two turns from now you won't have the first clue about what you're doing. Just sit still for five fucking minutes and I'll explain, even if you don't get it perfectly on the first try."
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #331291 04 Mar 2022 09:39
If I am teaching a complex game to impatient players, I switch from explanation to "let's play a couple of practice turns." Since we're not playing the real game yet, I have them slowly work through a couple of turns while I explain what is happening and what their options are at each stage. If there are cards, I have everybody put their cards on the table face up during the practice turns. People tend to learn faster by doing than just listening.