Begin the Begin: How Should a Game Start?

Let me ask a question which might appear hopelessly broad. How should a game begin?

I ask, in part, because I see little transmitted wisdom on this point. There exists a widelyheld view that board and card games should have a narrative arc – that a game should provide a progression in the decisions it offers players in order to sustain interest across its duration. However, the question of how this curve is best established by the start of a game is not much considered.

To some extent, it might be argued that board and card games are too diverse in their nature for this point to be addressed with any precision. A trick-taking card game is likely to be a very different beast from, say, a civilization-building board game – and each must therefore open according to different principles. However, I think it would be unwise to conclude that the question is valueless before giving it thought. This is the beginning of my thinking on that question, but only the beginning (a blog is a fit place for thinking in public, after all).

Perhaps, considering what commentators have asked for in the narrative arc of a game can help this inquiry. It might be possible to tease out what kind of beginning the requested arc might imply. Gerald Cameron, in the second of the articles linked to above, wants a game’s arc to come about without props beyond the game’s fundamental rules. He argues that ‘the best gaming experiences usually come when a game’s narrative is organically produced by the game’s processes.’ For instance, he celebrates the increasing income a player enjoys in Puerto Rico as a fluid means of opening up new options and operations. Conversely, he criticizes the way in which Caylus withholds stone buildings until a particular wooden building has been built, finding this stilted.

I tend to agree with the case Cameron advances here (his blog in general is great, though sadly has not been updated since last year). As he argues, Caylus could have kept the player from buying stone buildings, without adding obtrusive additional rules to do so. I believe in the idea that a narrative which emerges directly from regular play will tend to be more satisfying than one welded onto a game clunkily through its rules (the explicitly identified stages in Power Grid could well be an example here, but I haven’t played the game enough to say so with conviction).

Cameron’s line of reasoning might be taken to imply that a game should not have a distinct set-up phase as its opening – that a game with an organic narrative arc should not have a special phase for the selection of initial cards, say, or for a player to choose his or her starting location on a board. But, I’m not sure this is evidently the case. Instead, I don’t think this is something he is likely to have had in mind when writing his article.

So, let’s think about this now. Are special rules for a game’s opening problematic if we want a fluid playing experience and organic narrative? I think so, in many cases, but the problem, I feel, is different from when rules intrude deeper into a game.

I feel that special rules which concern the start of the game can be intrusive, in the sense that they may divorce the opening from the rest of the game. Indeed, certain rules can, I think, make the start of play feel like an extension of setting a game up on the table. What could, in theory, be dramatic choices can feel irritating and divorced from the rest of the game.

For instance, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game requires that players chose one of four squares for their opening city before any regular turns are taken. Though an arrow suggests a standard location on each starting tile, there can on occasion be credible reasons for selecting another location – if a player sees a need to harvest different resources, say. However, usually I find myself approaching this decision as annoyance and no more: though I know that other squares would be legal, I almost always find myself using the standard square as if no alternative had been offered.

But there are counter-examples. I very seldom see players do anything other than agonize over which tickets to keep at the beginning of a game of Ticket to Ride, myself included. Indeed, I give this (not unreasonably, perhaps) more thought than pretty much anything else in a game. Likewise, players tend instinctively to see the importance of the initial placement of penguins in Hey, That’s My Fish! and take time and effort over this.

In addition, it can often be this initial ticket choice which most animates a player in discussing his or her experience after a game of Ticket to Ride. The act of hand-selection has let a player feel invested in constructing his or her own story from the off.

A special rule can, then, either set a story off at a canter, or have it stuttering over the starting-line.

What’s the difference between these cases? I think, to keep this brief, that it lies in the amount of evidence a player is provided with in making these choices. Sid Meier’s Civilization begins with most of the map concealed, whereas in Ticket to Ride the whole map is visible. The limited data available at the start of a game of Civilization, can, I think, sometimes be enough to justify taking an unorthodox starting location (the American civilization, for instance, starts with a random great person; his or her ability might make starting near a particular resource a greater priority). However, mostly, players will feel too blind for the choice they have been given to be anything other than an irritant. In Ticket to Ride, players are blind to what tickets their opponents are choosing from, of course, but can nevertheless have a clear picture of the paths they would like to take around the board.

Opening choices in any kind of game can can give a player this immediate sense of direction (while not, hopefully, entirely deciding his or her path). If this direction is achieved through the use of an exceptional rule or two, I don’t consider this a problem. However, an artificial choice, like that offered at the start of Sid Meier’s Civilization, may serve only to remind the player how lost he or she is at the start of this journey.

4 thoughts on “Begin the Begin: How Should a Game Start?

  1. I’d add that setup rounds can be problematic when teaching/learning a game, because it forces new players to make possibly game-shaping choices without yet having seen how the game actually plays.

    • I agree to some extent – though I do wonder, in general, to what degree we should ask for the right choices in a game to be deducible on first play.

      If players are prevented from making radical decisions in early rounds (including any possible set-up rounds), it may ostensibly be for their own good: In, say, an economic game, I’ll probably have a bad experience if I can bankrupt myself after a couple of turns (as I understand can happen in Container, for example). Probably safer if a game system grants me time to understand it, before I get the chance to test its limits.

      But does this not also mean the early rounds of a game which provides these safety-wheels are fairly valueless? Perhaps.

      It’s like the accepted wisdom in screenwriting that there’s no point in showing a character hearing a phone, picking it up, asking who’s calling, and so on – the scene should begin with the character on the phone, already hearing the big news.

      I can enjoy a slow progression (I’m studying D.H. Lawrence, after all) – but I think there’s also room for strategic games with punchier pacing. I suppose, though, what’s interesting is that, in strategy board games, it’s the slow which is a safer bet for a wide-audience (Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne et al both give you time to make and correct mistakes), whereas, say, something more intense like Container or Chicago Express (where a player has to be up to speed from the off, given any single auction could screw up his or her entire game) has, by nature, to be more specialist.

      I guess, in short, I think it’s important there should be games which are safe, and reliably enjoyable from the first play – but I also want games which can be a test from the very beginning.

      • Oh, I agree with all of that, and wasn’t advocating for more games with ‘training wheels’. Just that games where the setup phase is quite distinct from the rest of the play can feel awkward when teaching, as opposed to ones which just get straight into the game ‘proper’.

      • I didn’t mean to misrepresent you – I was just letting my thoughts run around a bit. For sure, any extra steps and exceptional rules make teaching more awkward (and therefore should be added to a design with caution).

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