Who goes first? The age-old question in games. One of the reasons to actually reference the rules. Tabletop games have come a long way in the last few decades, and with that, the need to refine and improve mechanisms, including the one that determines start player, right??!

Gone are the days of “youngest first” because those gamers are now older, teaching new games. Making new games. So what are the most popular ways to do it these days?

I present a collection of start player mechanisms. (For purposes of categories, I’m assuming the same group and night of play). Pick your favorite and shout it out in the comments!

Non Random

subjective, doesn’t change

First Player is sometimes subjective and fixed.

Ticket to Ride – most well travelled player begins
Dungeon Lords – nicest player begins
Gloom – the player who is having the worst day begins
Once Upon a time – player with the longest beard begins
Small World – player with the pointiest ears begins
Android – player who has read the most science fiction begins
Lift Off: Get Me Off This Planet – player with the best story about being stranded begins (or random dice roll)
Hanabi – player with most colorful clothing begins
Asking for Trobils – player most recently in space begins (or choose randomly)
Cartagena – player who looks most like a pirate begins
Mercante – last person to buy or sell something begins
Cthulhu Realms – player who has most recently gone insane begins
Lagoon – player who last visited a forest begins
K2 – the player to have most recently visited the mountains begins
Le Havre – player who lives closest to water begins
Harbour – player most recently on a boat begins
Queen’s Necklace – player with the nicest jewelry begins
Bomb Squad – player who has most recently played with a robot begins
Fearsome Floors – the player that looks most similar to the monster begins
Flip City – player who most recently flipped a table begins
Terra Mystica – the player who has mostly dug a planting bed in their garden begins
The Reef – player who can stay under water begins (If that cannot be determined now, the oldest player begins)
The Bridges of Shangri-La – Whoever has last reached the peak of Mount Everest using nothing but blue and white checkered stilts carved from the wood of a Mammoth tree begins (tie becomes wisest player begins)

subjective, could change

First Player is sometimes subjective and changes.

Carcassonne – the youngest player chooses who begins
Fluxx – the boldest player begins
Forbidden Desert – thirstiest player begins
Mamma Mia! – hungriest player begins
Cards Against Humanity – player who most recently pooped begins
Kittens in a blender – the cattiest player begins
Terror in Meeple City – player who makes the best monster impression begins
Too Many Monkeys – player who makes the best monkey impression begins
Zerpang! – player who does the best impression of their starting class (Zombie, Elf, Robot, Pirate, Alien, Ninja or Gunslinger) begins

First Player can be determined objectively, non randomly.

objective, doesn’t change

St. Petersburg – youngest player begins
Adventurers – youngest player begins
Citadels – oldest player begins with the crown
Nuclear War – the owner of the game begins
Pandemic – player most recently sick begins (this could change per game, but unlikely)
Stones of Fate – the player who most recently had a birthday begins
Lords of Waterdeep – player who has most recently visited another city begins
Love Letter – player most recently on a date begins (then youngest)
Smash Up – player who got up earliest in the morning begins
Blue Print – player who visited a construction site last begins
Aquarius – player with the longest hair begins
Trains – the player who most recently rode on a train begins
For Sale – the player who owns the largest house begins
Great Fire of London 1666 – the player who has most recently visited London begins
Corporate America – the player with the most money on their person begins
Sheriff of Nottingham – player to the Sheriff’s left begins (Sheriff determined by most money in their wallet)

objective, changes

Dominion – the player sitting to the left of the player that just won begins.
Chrononauts – whomever guesses the closest to the current time begins
Risk 2210 AD – blind bidding for start player, most bid begins
Gheos – the player who can go the longest without laughing begins
Animal Upon Animal – the player who can stand on one leg the longest begins
Jupiter Rescue – players cooperatively decide who should begin
Viticulture – oldest for game 1, but then fewest points in previous game begins
Chess – player with white pieces begins
Betrayal: The House on the Hill – character (not player) with the next listed birthday begins
Mahjong – the player sitting east most at the table begins (may not change, but it could)
Lanterns – the player receiving the red lantern (color of good fortune) due to position begins (hybrid with seating position and randomness)


First Player is sometimes ultimately random.

objective, changes

Letter Tycoon – cut the deck, closest to Z begins
Scrabble – closest tile draw to A begins
Boomtown Bandits – spin the whiskey bottle – player it points to begins
What the Food?! – the person dealt the green relish target card begins
Hearts – whomever is dealt the 2 of clubs begins
Tichu – player dealt the “1” card begins
Evil Intent – highest roll of a die begins.
Eminent Domain – randomly deal out player aides, marked ‘start player’ begins
Imperial Settlers – randomly selected start player begins
Get Lucky – Lowest numbered character (out of 2 dealt per player) begins
Nevermore – players draw cards until a raven is revealed. That player begins
Mottanai – players flip cards over, card title closest to top of Alphabet begins
Aloha: Spirit of Hawaii – randomly selected start player begins
Skallywags – card draw, head or closest to ‘head’ body part drawn begins
BANG! – deal role cards, the player dealt the sheriff card begins
Caverna – randomly selected start player begins
Dominoes – highest double domino draw begins, or highest single point domino
Belfort – randomly selected start player begins
Through the Ages – randomly selected start player begins
Puerto Rico – randomly selected start player begins
The Settlers of Catan – highest roll on 2d6 begins
Powergrid – randomly selected start player begins
Wiz-War – randomly selected start player begins
Munchkin – players roll a die, (then argue about results and meaning of rules)

simultaneous start

First Player is sometimes simultaneous.

Shadow Throne – card drafting
Sushi Go – card drafting
Got It – puzzle solving – first to shout it
Amberden Affair – actions taken at same time per round
Twilight Struggle – USSR sets up first, but cards played simultaneously
Pit – trading cards
Diplomacy – negotiations
Set – puzzle solving – first to shout it

At Squirmy Beast, I’ve published three games, and all are “random and objective”, tied to a method that fits the game. Seems my preference is clear! Some other folks prefer silly, and others still just make house rules…

How do you do it?

If you have a better idea than all of these, or if you have a method you use regardless of what the rules say, we want to hear it!

Additional Reading!

Jasmine pointed out this great article on Turn Order over at Games Precipice by Matt Pavlovich. It’s a good in depth look at early game structures, how turn order moves and if starting player matters.

Also, thanks to Nathan for rounding up some suggestions on Facebook in the Boardgame Group. I also found this geeklist by ‘Just call me Erik’ and this post on BG stack exchange that helped me grab some examples easily.

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Peter Vaughan

Game Developer at Breaking Games

Peter eats games for breakfast! Founder of First Play LA, Squirmy Beast and League of Gamemakers, and Director of Development for Breaking Games. First published designs include What the Food?! and Nightmare Cove, and development credits include Letter Tycoon, Boomtown Bandits, Sparkle*Kitty and Rise of Tribes.

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7 Readers Commented

Join discussion
  1. Norv Brooks on September 18, 2015

    Very interesting post & list of games, Peter. I think the element of advantage of being first or last in Turn Order can influence how you choose the first player. If Turn Order has a significant influence on game play, then deciding initial Start Player deserves diligent design consideration. Without any initial game play it’s very difficult to have any way of selecting Start Player other than “silly” or “random”. I’m not much of a fan of “silly”.

  2. Henrik on September 18, 2015

    My game DuCo uses the same start player method as Hanabi, i.e. The most Colorful Clothing. As it’s a game about matching colors and shapes, it seemed like a good fit.

  3. Patrick Barry on September 18, 2015

    The risk legacy option of blind bidding is by far the most interesting option there. I like poking fun as much as the next, but that also sends a clear signal about the type of game you are about to play.

  4. Aaron A Wilson on September 20, 2015

    I must say that I really dislike the subjective ‘last to do whatever, goes first’ approach. If you tend to play with the same group like I do, you often lock in a first player to each game with that sort of starter rule. I prefer a rule that as Peter describes is random and object but tied closely to the game. In my deckbuilder (a sort of politicla scifi game of power and oppression) that I’ve only begun playtesting, the currency is Armadas. It’s display is one of power and threat allowing each player to procure cards that represent assets necessary to govern newly occupied colonies. Since each player has a separate line of cards as their own private market for procurement, it is there where we find a starting player. The player displaying the highest amount of Armadas in their respective procurement line starts. It is this potential for power that demands initiative.

  5. Matt Evans on September 20, 2015

    I think the most interesting element of selecting a first player is using it to set the mood of the game. For example, the first player in Spyfall is the one everyone agrees looks the shiftiest. A perfect connection with both the theme and gameplay elements of the game, it also gets everyone studying each other. I also like that it involves playing interaction right from the start, something that most of the methods on your list sacrifice. Similar mechanisms aren’t appropriate for every game, but I do love to see them!

  6. Saul Morales on September 20, 2015

    I have been gaming since I was a little kid. My brothers and sisters loved poker, monopoly and other games. And since I am the youngest of 9, I had to catch on really quick to be able to play. Well later D&D and haven’t stopped playing. So there are always dice within easy reach anywhere in my living room where we play most games. So we roll dice! Whether its a single D20 or a couple six siders there is something that we can roll and highest roll always goes first.

  7. Stefanie Bradley on August 9, 2018

    Great list! I just want to add that Maestro’s first player is the one who can reach a High C note for the longest, if I remember correctly 🙂 One to add to the list.

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