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So I've been noticing that there's a vogue in gaming recently for the starting player to be chosen by some method other than simple lot. I'm wondering if this is a good fashion, or if it's just getting silly. Here's a representative list of some of the starting-player-choosing mechanism I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Youngest player first (e.g. St Petersburg)
  • Player with the longest beard first (Once Upon A Time)
  • Player with the pointiest ears (Small World)
  • Most well-travelled player (Ticket To Ride)
  • Nicest player (Dungeon Lords)
  • Player who lives closest to water (Le Havre)

Others can probably add a few examples of their own. My question is: are any of these actually superior, on a long-term basis, to just choosing at random?

I do like "youngest player first" in games where the first player has an advantage, on the assumption that if you're playing with children it's nice to give them a little help - but on the other hand, if the youngest player at your table is in their 30s and a boardgames fanatic, the rule may end up hurting more than it helps.

Likewise, in Ticket To Ride the "best travelled-player" is charming to start with, but can get annoying as the same person who spent 3 months seeing Europe by train goes first forever. And this is before we get onto largely subjective quantities like ear-pointiness and niceness (in all fairness to Dungeon Lords, I think that's a joke and really you're meant to end up choosing the start player randomly). Are these rules mostly just there to be cute - and quickly ignored - or should be follow them religiously?

As a corollary question, are there any games that vary the starting player by means other than pure randomness? (I suddenly remember Gloom, where the player who's having the worst day goes first; but again this is really subjective.) Also, are there any games that have rules for fairly assigning seating order - since in some games sitting "upstream" of the correct player can be even more important than who goes first?

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What you should do is pick completely subjective criteria like "best-looking player first"; those are the most fun to work out –  Michael Mrozek Jan 4 '11 at 21:44
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For hard-to-work-out, it's hard to beat Android's "player who's read the most science fiction". In most groups this is either runaway obvious, or the cause of hours of conversation by itself. Of course, going first isn't much advantage in Android. –  Tynam Jan 5 '11 at 0:41
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Just to add to your list of cute-but-probably-too-stable methods, I like that of Pandemic: "The player who was most recently sick goes first." –  Mark Longair Jan 5 '11 at 8:00
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@Mark: This is actually my favorite rule I've encountered. One of the very few that can change in a fixed group. –  Kempeth Jan 5 '11 at 8:13
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Don't forget Munchkin's starting player rules: "Decide who goes first by rolling the dice and arguing about the results and the meaning of this sentence and whether the fact that a word seems to be missing any effect." –  Caleb Huitt - cjhuitt Nov 2 '12 at 19:54

21 Answers 21

up vote 25 down vote accepted

We use Start Player every time. That gives us the fun and twisted subjective criteria that is such a blast to work out, but also injects the truly random so that no one player continuously gets picked as the starting player for any particular game. Plus, the cards are hilarious!

It is the best of both worlds.

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Alas, it seems the game has gone out of print; eBay is the best source for this at the moment, and even then it's not common. –  Paul Marshall Nov 29 '12 at 2:45
    
@Paul: There are Android and iOS versions of Start Player available. –  Allan Feb 25 '13 at 22:46

My group tend to ignore the specified instructions for picking a starting player* and tend to pick based on who's played before. If there are new players and there's no real penalty for going last, new players going last gives them an opportunity to pick up the game.

Conversely, if there is a huge advantage to going first and the rules are straightforward enough to understand from the start, we tend to let new players go first to counteract the disadvantage of never having played before.

*Although a running joke in our group is speculating what absurd condition there might be. Mystery Express? Who last solved a murder on a train?

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"New player wants to go last" is a common enough phenomenon that it merits an auto+1 from me... Unconnectedly, the latest game I bought, Dungeon Petz, gives the starting player token to "the player who last fed a pet", which is a nice addition to the collection. –  thesunneversets Feb 20 '13 at 14:13

In the game Last Will, the starting player is the one who paid for something most recently. Since purchasing is pretty common activity, it is fairly random to select starting player this way - unless of course someone deribelately pays for something just before the start of the game. However, in most cases, this method of selecting starting player should guarantee that this won't be the same person over and over again.

Why is it better than just randomly selecting starting player? Maybe it's not, though I like to think that this adds a little more spirit to the game - selecting player who is most connected with the game at the time, or who seems to be best for the job. This might be silly, but I would prefer talking with other players, learn something about them (maybe someone has a funny story about his last purchase or maybe he's not really sure if giving his child money for the theatre can count as paying him to get lost for couple of hours). It can be a really good ice-breaker for new players at the table.

I like to think that this is usually much more social and fun than just rolling dice by 5+ players and comparing results. If you would like to see the example, please go to the discussion about Who goes first in Pandemic?. Rules say that the player who was most recently sick goes first.

It means the person who has most recently been a victim of bioterrorism - The Chaz

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I came across some players who were using recursive approach, if you will:

  1. Whoever won the last game played in this group, will start the next one.
  2. If this is the first game being played in this group, the person who suggested playing it goes first.

I also met one guy, who went all starting player choosinception. Don't know what I mean?

But who should start it? Let's resolve with this smaller game:

But who should start it? Let's resolve with this smaller game:

But who should start it? Let's resolve with this smaller game:

But who should start it? Let's resolve with this smaller game:

But who should start it? Let's resolve with this smaller game:

...

Yo dawg

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In our group, the person who just taught the game goes first. There are a couple of reasons for this:

1) New players get to see someone else's turn before they have to take their own.

2) The teacher get a reward for the work of teaching

3) Most of our games have a counter balance of some sort, so first player is not a huge advantage.

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For new games we have a variation of that - the start player is the one that lets the most experienced players go first (so that the new players get to see a few people play their turns). –  Allen Gould Oct 21 '11 at 20:16

This doesn't help much the first time you play, but pretty standard rule whenever we play a bunch of the same game is winner goes last (assuming of course first is desirable).

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There aren't a lot of games out there with no specific turn order, but it's worth taking a look at Race For The Galaxy where for the most part everyone goes simultaneously.

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I'm a fan of Nuclear War. The owner of the game goes first. Always nice to provide a bennie for the person who bought your game.

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I like Fluxx's method:

whoever 'calls it' goes first. The easiest way to 'call it' is to draw from the deck and start playing.

If someone objects with a reason why they should go first, such as the fact that that player went first last time, then the group decides what to do. Otherwise, you just start playing the game. :D

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Of course, in my group we spend ten minutes faffing over which game we even want to play... maybe it should just be "whichever game someone starts setting up first"! –  thesunneversets Feb 2 '11 at 20:25

In any game that revolves around points i like to let players blindly wager points. Whoever offers the most pays it and goes first. Play continues clockwise. It makes going first another dimension of the game, and not random chance that in some games seems to have an affect on the whole game.
Does not work well with new players

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This idea was initially appealing to me, but the more I think about it the more problematic it seems to get. In some games points are too valuable to bid freely; in other games going first isn't valuable enough to bid on! Take my favourite game, Agricola: it feels like it would clearly be worth a point or two not to be in fifth seat... but I'd probably rather be in second seat than first! –  thesunneversets Feb 2 '11 at 20:07

I often use to say that the person who is having his/her birthday next time. I bit like saying youngest/oldest player but it can still change, especially if its a new crowd of players.

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I quite like that idea, although it could be a bit depressing if it was your birthday yesterday! –  thesunneversets Feb 1 '11 at 19:33
    
Very bad: (1) if two people have their birthdays close to each other, the second one will almost never be chosen; (2) the starting player will always be the same in a long streak of days. –  Lohoris Feb 2 '11 at 10:54
    
Like i mentioned, this works best if the crowd of player changes. Of course it doesn't work so good if the same bunch of friends of family members playing every friday evening. –  BurningIce Feb 2 '11 at 15:25
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@Lo'oris: "Very bad" meaning better than most of the examples in the original question. :) –  MrHen Mar 2 '11 at 21:32
    
depends on the size group, theoretically, the "next birthday" should rotate moderately quickly if the group exceeds, say, 5. Then again, if they're all summer birthdays, that's no good. –  warren Nov 6 '12 at 20:37

For what it's worth, because most of the games originating in Germany are designed to be played by families, having the youngest player go first (in the case where going first is an advantage) or the oldest player go first (in the case where going first is a disadvantage) actually makes reasonable sense.

The rest of them are just for fun and work fine if you play a wide variety of games, but as noted are a problem if you play the same game multiple times in close temporal proximity.

Since all my gaming is with groups of adults, we always choose randomly, most commonly by grabbing one of each player's color marker (commonly score markers are already stacked up and waiting) and randomly drawing one.

In cases where the players don't have identifying markers (SmallWorld, for example), we either use a handy Spin-4-It (commonly one laying around, or I have one on my keychain):

Spin-4-It metal table spinner

Or since most of us have iPhones, the free Spin The Coke app:

Spin The Coke iPhone app screenshot

A warning on Spin The Coke, though: at least in earlier versions the first spin always ends up at the same place. The second spin is random, though, so I just start a spin and then start the second spin immediately, no need to wait for the first to finish.

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We use Rock, Paper, Scissors when we are three players. If we're more, for the sake of simplicity we use dice. Thereafter the first game the winner always starts first.

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We always use our own method of choosing the starting player, regardless of what the rules say. To take your point about youngest player, I am 30, and the youngest player in our group, yet I probably have the highest win ratio. So, this would be unfair where the first player has an advantage.

Our method is simple, we roll a die. If we can't find a die, we take all the players' victory point piece, or worker (anything to identify the players colour), and throw it across the board. The furthest away from the thrower goes last, the closest first. Simple, easy and fair.

Of your list, I have only player Ticket to Ride and Le Havre, but we have never used most well travelled and lives closest to water (again I fear I would come first in these as well).

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Youngest, best-travelled, possessor of a lovely waterfront view, and you also win all the boardgames - the rest of your group must hate you a bit! ;) –  thesunneversets Jan 4 '11 at 20:45
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He/she probably also has the most pointy ears, gets sick a lot, is super nice, has a fantastic beard and sits to the left of himself. –  MrHen Mar 2 '11 at 21:30

To answer your question, I don't like the non-random first player choices, because they either

  • Make the same person go first over and over again
  • Or the method it self has to be chosen at random, and in this case it is just a longer random choice

Our method of choice (it doesn't require any props and is quite fast):

Everyone at the same time "throws" 0-5 fingers on their hands. The number of fingers is summed up and counted in clockwise direction starting from previously chosen player (usually the one owning the game). The player on which the last count lands is the first player.

This method depends on random choices of all players so is quite random and quite unbiased. It replaces such mechanisms as "rock,paper,schissors" which have the disadvantage of possible ties.

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For games where being the starting player matters I favor plain an simple randomness. The "youngest player" rule is cute when you're 8. It's not so cute when you're 18 and have a twin was born half a minute after you. And at 28 it starts to get really silly.

As for upstream advantage, that's actually a pretty common effect. If this a serious problem in your group you'll have to find a solution for it outside the printed rules. Remember those are only suggestions. The only important thing is that everyone plays by the same rules...


But there are a few games with an interesting spin on this

El Grande

Who's the starting player at the beginning of the game is largely irrelevant because it changes in every turn.

Every player has a stack of cards numbered from 1 to 13. Once you've used a card you can't use it again. The starting player chooses a card first and then it goes around the table. The higher the number you played the sooner you get your turn. The lower the number you played the more cubes you get to play with. And the player with the lowest card becomes starting player in the next turn.

Mesopotamia

Everyone except the last player gets a disadvantage during their first turn. After that it's just one player after another and who went first is no longer important.

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It seems you're arguing against both subjective criteria and also randomness. I seems in this case that you want some objective criteria. If the game doesn't provide for such a thing you can use one among the your gaming group. An obvious one is simply board gaming experience * experience with this board game. It's generally easy to determine who's the best board gamer, and who's played the most. In games with a first-turn advantage (an unbalanced game IMHO), just go in increasing order of experience.

To answer the other part of your question, the theme-based go-first do add to the game experience, but yes, they're meant to be thrown out when they get old.

Perhaps the best method I've seen to balance starting player is when the game provides a mechanism to determine this in-game as a tactical decision. For example, Innovation has players simultaneously reveal a hard from their hand, and first alphabetically goes first. This allows one to decide between the card they want to play, and the less desirable card that will allow the first turn.

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I'll go first.

The game's all set up, people are chatting about random things, and when nobody's looking, you decide to go first. I play in a somewhat casual group, and it's surprising how well this works. No dice to roll, no questions to ask, just go. If you don't like it, then you can go first next time. ;-)

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I can't remember what game it was, but there's at least one where the rules are "the boldest player goes first", which seems to be exactly this. –  Argyle Aug 27 '12 at 18:33
    
I'm pretty sure we got this idea from Fluxx, where it's the official rule for starting the game. –  Kristo Aug 28 '12 at 12:51
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As a nice side-effect, this encourages people to start playing ASAP. –  Alex In Paris Nov 7 '12 at 12:22

Chrononauts is one answer to your corollary question. This is a pseudo-random start: first player is whoever guesses the time at a given mark most accurately. This varies the player, but is definitely not purely random. Good time sense is an advantage. (Fair enough, in a time travel game.)

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I've seen at least one more rule which actually works well. Gold Mine-> Player who is most excited to play goes first. But in general, I just pick a way, dice roll or similar. The alternative methods aren't really random, I'd say they are there for entertainment in rules, and perhaps for playing for the first time or two, but not for long term use.

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I don't know Gold Mine, but I'm pretty sure I've run across at least one game where the first player who call dibs on going first gets to go first. Pretty good for indecisive groups, though not quite so good for games where going first is a disadvantage! –  thesunneversets Jan 5 '11 at 0:45
    
Gold mine is a pretty new game, see amazon.com/dp/…; and stratusgames.com/games/gold-mine –  PearsonArtPhoto Jan 6 '11 at 14:05

Dominion has the "player sitting to the left of the player who won the previous game" mechanic. Since play passes to the left, this means the person who won the previous game goes last.

This also means every other player has a chance (on turn 3) to play attack cards before the player who won previously. Or to buy up the last copies of a popular card (Lighthouse, Moat).

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That seems like a pretty smart rule - although obviously it would work better in the scope of a single session than over a long period of time between games... –  thesunneversets Jan 4 '11 at 21:52

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