The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Who's On First?

Matthew Horn

June, 2002

What are you wearing? How long has it been since you've been to Amsterdam? Are you hungry?    

These aren't pick-up lines at the local pub (well, at least not good pubs). They're questions that may need answers the next time you sit down to a Euro-game with your local group. Game developers often ask that players answer these kinds of questions in order to determine the starting player.

This article explores some of the common themes that game designers use to determine who should be the starting player.

Appearance/Gender

Many games ask that the appearance of the players be considered when determining who goes first. While this has nothing to do with skill level or age, it has everything to do with looking good while sitting at the table and often ties into the game's theme.

Flowerpower boxThe person wearing the snazziest pants goes first in Who Stole Ed's Pants?. Similarly, if you wear the most colorful clothes, you go first in the Kosmos two-player game, Flowerpower. The turnout at a Flowerpower tournament would be like a convention of pimps.

Beyond clothing, some game designers choose to use the physical characteristics of the players to determine player order.

How long is your beard? The longer the better in Knizia's Digging, a game whose theme is based on the unshaven prospectors of the California Gold Rush. Of course, (most) women are left out of this one, but long hair length is rewarded in Looney Laboratory's Aquarius and shortest hair gets you the first turn in the abstract Q-Turn. With the proper coif, anyone can secure a pole position.

Recent Essen release Goldrush City, another game with a prospector theme, is an equal-opportunity game, as the player who is most in need of a shave goes first. The rules don't specify what kind of shave.

A Dog's Life makes up for gender bias altogether by letting ladies go first. Hey, life's a bitch. In the absence of a lady at the table, the youngest starts.

How long are your eye-teeth? If yours are the longest, then you get to draw first blood in another recent Essen release, Vampir Connection. Being the palest will get you the go-ahead in Knizia's Vampire.

Big hands gives you a leg up in Mole in the Hole from Ravensburger, and in a nod to the ridiculous, the "most alien player" starts in Uwe Rosenberg's Space Beans.

I have yet to find a game that rewards my webbed feet... but I am still searching.

Traveling/Dining Out

Other means of determining a starting player are related to the player's vacationing and eating habits. For example, Merchants of Amsterdam rewards the player who has most often visited Amsterdam with the honor of going first. In La Città, it's the last person to visit Italy, and in Modern Art, the person who most frequents a museum. Interestingly, the English rules for Modern Art dropped this starting condition in favor of youngest.

Games like the re-themed Atlantic Star ask who has been on a cruise most recently. The original version, Dirk Henn's Showmanager, rewards the person who most recently saw a musical with first pick from the actor board. On the topic of shows, the rules for Traumfabrik (now Fabrik der Träume) say that the player who last saw a movie gets to make the first bid.

One notoriously weakly-themed starting player rule is found in Richard Borg's Hera & Zeus, where the person who most recently ate in a Greek restaurant goes first. Presumably, you not only get to go first but also get to expound on your gastronomical exploits as you play out a calamari-based beat-down. And the hungriest player makes pies first in Uwe Rosenberg's Mamma Mia.

Even The Odds

In some games, the less experienced player goes first because the starting player might have a slight advantage. This is often put delicately by the designers by specifying that the "youngest player starts," with the generalization that the younger player is less experienced. In Settlers of Catan, the youngest player chooses the first place to build a settlement, often seeding the best location. In Call My Bluff, the youngest player makes the first bid, which is often the safest.

Other games that suggest the youngest player starts include:

  • Attilla
  • Carabande
  • Medina
  • Metro
  • Through the Desert
  • Union Pacific
  • Zapp Zerapp

Sometimes, the converse is true. Going first is a disadvantage, so the oldest player is designated as the start player, because, presumably, age=wisdom. Going last might give you the final move in the game if the game requires an even number of turns. Such is the case in Mexica, where the oldest player goes first, but the game does not end until everyone gets a final turn. Compounding the benefits of going last in Mexica is the fact that if you are first, you might not know the game is ending on the current round, and you have to make the best possible move without knowing if you'll get another turn.

Or going last might give you more information about the other player's position. In Lost Cities, the oldest player also starts which gives the younger player extra information about the exploration of their opponent. The younger player also gets the first opportunity to pick up a discarded card.

Similarly, in Drachenland, the oldest person places his starting pawn on the board first and can move it 1 space. Subsequent placements of starting pawns by the rest of the players get +1 movement point until everyone has placed one. Going first is clearly a disadvantage here.

Other games that suggest the oldest player starts include:

  • Res Publica
  • Princes of Florence
  • San Marco
  • San Francisco
  • Tikal
  • Expedition

Alea's newest release, Die Sieben Weisen (The Seven Wisemen) tries to balance the scales by asking that the least wise player go first. Presumably, going first provides some sort of advantage to make up for (1) being the most foolish person at the table and (2) being insulted.

Traditional

In some card games, the oldest person goes first, or the oldest person deals and the person to their left goes first. For example, Wyatt Earp and Bohnanza specify that the oldest person be the first dealer. This may be a nod to the notion of a hand of cards being "born", i.e., when you are dealt your last card and look at your hand, your hand is said to be "born". The oldest hand (the one that was born first), is held by the person to the left of the dealer, so in a way, the oldest player, or the player with the oldest hand, is actually going first.

In a curious twist, Vino specifies that the banker be the oldest, and that the player to the left of the banker go first.

Meta-gaming

Other methods of determining the starting player are about the game's meta-game.

For example, if you requested to play Roads & Boats, then you are given the honor of going first when you finally get around to doing it. And if you are the lucky one to own Nuclear War, you get to start the carnage. Same with Alan Moon's Pony Express, although the game features significantly less carnage.

Teaching the rules to the game earns you starting position in Members Only. And if you most resemble the game's namesake, you go first in Dominique Erhard's Johnny Controletti.

Games Within A Game

Some methods of determining a starting player are games in themselves. Consider the following methods of determining who starts the game:

  • Holding your breath the longest in The Reef.
  • Guessing the exact time in Chrononauts.
  • Playing Am-Stram-Gram in Elixir.
  • Playing Rock-Paper-Scissors-Leaf in Chifoumi.
  • Whirling the Spin-4-It that comes with Tin Soldiers.
  • Doing the best impression of a monkey for the Ravensburger game Coco Crazy.

By the time you are finished determining the starting player, you might want to pack up and go home.

Odds and Ends

The following table lists some interesting methods of determining a starting player not mentioned in this article.

Who goes first? Game Designer
Person with the shakiest hands Bamboleo, Hamster Rolle Jacques Zeimet
Person with the most money in their wallet Nur Peanuts! Heinz Meister
Roll the die and then argue about the results Munchkin Steve Jackson
Player with largest Dork Tower collection Warhamster Rally Frank Branham
Youngest player decides who goes first Carcassonne Klaus-Jurgen Wrede
Meanest player Vegas Reiner Knizia
Most courageous player Lord of the Rings The Companions Card Game Reiner Knizia
Player with the worst medical history Quacksalbe Volke Tietze
Player closest to their ideal body weight Suppenkasper Karl-Heinz Schmiel
Player with the smallest house For Sale Steffan Dorra
Player who owns the most shares Spekulation Dirk Henn

- Matthew Horn

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