A Look at Turn Order, Part One: Economic Games
Benjamin Keightley
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You can learn a lot about a game by examining its turn order system. In the case of many well-designed games, understanding why the designer chose a specific approach to turn order goes hand in hand with understanding the fundamental philosophy behind its design. Here, I'll look at three popular economic 'engine' games with three very different turn order systems. I think turn order is a fascinating prism through which to look at each of these excellent titles; hopefully by the end of this list you'll agree.

Stay tuned for Part Two (of what is almost certain to be a two part series): train games!

Update: Part Two has been posted.
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1. Board Game: Puerto Rico [Average Rating:8.06 Overall Rank:15]
Benjamin Keightley
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In Puerto Rico, a 'round' consists of each player taking a turn in a fixed, clockwise order. The first player to take a turn is arbitrarily assigned, and given a priority card. A player turn consists of selecting one of a limited, fixed number of phases. Each player, in clockwise order, will then be given the opportunity (or compelled) to participate in the phase. After a round, priority cycles one player clockwise, and a new round begins.

I wish I could remember who wrote this (maybe someone will be kind enough to remind me), because it's the best summation of Puerto Rico's infamous turn order dependency I've read. To paraphrase: in Puerto Rico, it is each player's responsibility to ensure the player on his left doesn't win. What a great way to sum up the central philosophy of this game, which seems to be that you win by losing the least.

The way Puerto Rico's engine runs, each phase will occur--maybe not each and every round, but still frequently enough. The game has a strong sense of forward motion: by selecting the phases, players are really just influencing the flow, making small adjustments to how the game will proceed. There is competition for resources (here defined as anything limited: space on boats, space in the trading house, buildings, goods), but this competition is more about proper timing than about getting there first. It is about lining yourself up so that when the inevitable happens (trading, production, shipping, building), you are able to fully benefit regardless of who selected the phase.

Players may not influence the turn order in Puerto Rico, and the turn order does not change for any reason. This is consistent with the powerful, even pace of the game. Each player is participating in the same environment, and unlike many games, this environment barely notices the players' presence. It is so strong that (indulge me for a moment) it's not hard to imagine the economic system running on its own. Players simply 'plug in' for a brief period of time, hoping to exploit the engine better than their opponents.

Why should turn order change? When it's your turn to select a phase in Puerto Rico, your primary criterion is that it benefit you more than anybody else, with a natural extension being that you do not give a windfall to someone else (usually your left-hand opponent). This consideration, while it is hugely dependent on turn order, would not fundamentally change if that turn order were in any way dynamic. Worse, it could confuse the issue to the point where players are unable to make coherent choices. Being able to anticipate the effects of turn order is one of the most important aspects of playing a solid game of Puerto Rico, and the game's rock-steady order is part of the strong, stable engine the players can only subtly manipulate.
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2. Board Game: Caylus [Average Rating:7.83 Overall Rank:45]
Benjamin Keightley
United States
New York
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In a round of Caylus, multiple sets of player turns cycle through a fixed, arbitrary turn order. A player turn consists of placing one of a limited, fixed number of claim markers on an action space, and paying cash for the privilege. One of these spaces (the only one with room for more than one claim marker) is for turn order. Here, the first player to place a claim marker will, in the next round, bump up to first in the turn order. The second player second, and the third player third. The designer seems to have correctly assumed that fourth place in the turn order is not really ever a valid option, and so he has not allowed it as a possibility.

Players don't have individual board positions per se in Caylus. They are competing with one another for control of the shared spaces. This competition is most easily seen in castle-building, where having a resource advantage allows a player to bully other players into overspending, or intimidating them into staying out entirely, letting him in cheap. The resource production spaces are going to get taken early, they are going to disappear fast, and if you don't bid for turn order you're never going to see a piece of the action in a larger game. This spirit of aggression is seen again with the 'provost,' a spoiler piece that spends its time on the bleeding edge of town and can be very easily bribed with cash by any or all players to move about the board after action selection has already taken place, rendering spaces beyond his final resting place unusable. Being in control of the provost's movement is as much about having a cash advantage as it is about anything else. This is a highly aggressive game.

So when you bid for first, you pay cash, as well as potentially two kinds of opportunity costs: an action selection opportunity and a claim marker. Although there are many turns in a game of Caylus where all of a player's markers won't be used, just as certainly there are many where they will. Further, assuming this is not your last selection of the round, you have given each of your opponents another opportunity to select an action before you get another chance. In a five-player game, this is a lot of actions. If you're giving up this much just to go first, going first had better be terrific.

In Caylus, going first is strictly better than going later. ANY advantages one could possibly glean from going later are vastly outweighed by the advantages of getting the choice spots. Since everyone's board position is roughly the same, the value of each space tends to be similar for each player. I'm belaboring the point, but I think it's an important one: in any given turn of Caylus, if each player wrote down, in order, which spaces he wanted, everyone's list would look about the same. This makes Caylus largely a game about turn order, as well as exploiting inefficiencies or lapses of judgement in other players' work.

The turn order system in Caylus is appropriately robust and 'fair' for its importance level. A bid for first in a five-player game has a fairly predictable longevity and a fair cost. Most importantly, to enjoy the benefits of being early in the turn order, you must bid for it. I'll be happy to play in a five-player game with three players who overvalue turn order and one player who undervalues it, for example. The three people early in the turn order will waste all their time staying there, giving me access to the choice spaces and/or a claim marker advantage. I'll also consistently get spaces that are strictly better than the ones left for the turn order miser. Good play in Caylus is about establishing and maintaining domination of the shared spaces through resource superiority and smart investments in turn order.
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3. Board Game: Agricola [Average Rating:8.03 Overall Rank:16]
Benjamin Keightley
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In a round of Agricola, multiple sets of player turns cycle through a fixed, clockwise turn order. A player turn consists of placing one of a very limited number of claim markers on an action space. This number will increase for each player over the course of the game, at a rate determined by willingness and ability to invest time and resources into 'growing the family,' so to speak. One action space is for turn order. The player who takes this space will go first in the next round, play proceeding clockwise. He will continue to go first in subsequent rounds until someone else grabs the turn order space.

At first, this really rubbed me the wrong way. Regardless of how well-priced the 'start player' space is for the player who takes it, it is great news for his left-hand opponent, who just got Second Player for free, and terrible news for his right-hand opponent, who just got Last Player for no compensation. In order to understand why this is maybe not as unreasonable as it sounds, we need to look at how the game is 'meant' to be played.

Agricola has some of the same features as Caylus. Certainly, the action selection procedure is practically identical. Everybody is competing for limited resource spaces, and they need to turn these resources into points by 'building' things. However, instead of a primary hub (the castle) distributing points, players are developing individual, unique board positions. They do this with fields and fences, sure, but even more importantly, they do this with occupations and improvements. The single largest effect these cards have on the game is that they reshape the demand curve of the various spaces in manners specific to each player. Just as a random example, there's an occupation that turns the Take 2 Food space into a Take 2 Food and a Grain or Carrot space. This raises the value of that space for the person to play that occupation, and dramatically lowers the value of the Take 1 Grain and Take 1 Carrot space. As a result, the last two spaces are more likely to be available and the first space less.

This is a markedly different pattern than Caylus. Player-specific demand curves and a general glut of 'good' spaces strongly imply a game that isn't about competing to be the first to grab the hottest spot. It is certainly not a game about bullying and aggression, since the game doesn't provide an arena for this anything like Caylus's castle. Rather, this is a game about personal efficiency, being able to watch the market closely enough to understand where your points of competition truly are, and creating your own demand curve that is as dissimilar to the others' as possible.

With this as a design goal, the turn order system begins to make sense. If you're a good player, doing well in Agricola should not depend on being early in the turn order. In fact, any advantages of selecting first should be countered nicely by the advantages of seeing where everyone else has decided to place their bets. Meanwhile making sure you're going to be first at bat (when you've anticipated a choke point) should be a privilege with no particular ripple effects.

Obviously (and to be somewhat charitable), whether Agricola has actually achieved the design goal I've given it is not completely clear at this early stage. However, I'm confident that the game has its priorities roughly where I've described. Exploring the 'why?' of this turn order system that at first blush appears half-finished and sloppy has brought to light for me previously-unseen aspects of its design. Keeping these aspects in mind when forming a plan in Agricola should make for stronger, more efficient play.
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4. Board Game: Race for the Galaxy [Average Rating:7.77 Overall Rank:48]
Sheamus Parkes
United States
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You did leave off my personal favorite turn order mechanic: Simultaneous Action Selection.

What does it solve?

1. It keeps downtime to a minimum. You pick the actions at the same time. You pick your build choices at the same time. You cash in your goods at the same time. It keeps the meaningful decisions flowing one right after another.

2. It solves the whole "stop the next player from winning". Next player? You're all playing at once. Similarly, it doesn't give any bonus to the start player either.

3. It adds an acceptable level of chaos to the game. I like trying to guess what role my opponents are going to choose and try to plan accordingly. It's lotsa fun!


What problems exist?

1. In an economic game, it just doesn't add enough player interaction. I love Shogun and Himalaya to death, but I'm not as hot on RftG thus far. Beyond what role they choose, I don't care a ton what goods they trade in or what cards they happen to draw. I care some, but not enough. Not like getting that first big payout from the trader in Puerto Rico.

2. It causes some AP+ players to just lock up. When they start trying to guess what everyone else will do, the number of possibilities spirals way out of control.
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