Going Analog

Where video game industry veterans introduce great board games to video gamers

Our favorite first-player rules for board games

That they all point to us is a mere coincidence, honest.

OK, everyone ready to begin?

Oh, sorry, we thought you wanted to go first. Us? Oh, no, no, that wouldn’t be fair. Right, well in that case. Hmm. Say, anyone got a random number generator handy? 

Picking the first player is rubbish. All too often games either leave us the oh-so-helpful instruction to decide randomly, or gleefully remind us of our creaking bodies by suggesting that the youngest player start. Well we’re tired of those whippersnappers firing the opening salvo, so below we’ve put together a list of some of the silliest and strangest first player rules in board gaming that we love to use. Now, where to begin....

Betrayal at House on the Hill

The rule: The next character’s birthday 

The best first player rules in board games - betrayal at house on the hill

OK, hands up, who wants to be the first one into the very clearly haunted mansion that’ll probably end up killing us all? No volunteers? Well too bad, because Betrayal at House on the Hill has already planned for your cowardice by including a great little ruling that’s hidden in the game itself.

Rather than relying on the ages of the players around the table, Betrayal determines its first victim based on the upcoming birthdays of the characters you’re playing. Yes, look closely at each player board, and you’ll spot a little date of birth which is neatly marked and, as far as we know, of absolutely no purpose within the game itself. 

It’s an easy rule to miss but nice way to get you thinking a bit more about the poor souls you’re sending into the unknown. That said, getting chased through decrepit halls by a vampire is a birthday celebration that only people with a very select set of interests might wish for.


The rule: The last person to ride on public transport

great first player rules in board games - MetroX

We’re all for funky rulings that single out an odd character at the table, but sometimes you need a fierce fight for that first turn. Breezy rail-and-write MetroX nails this miniature melee by asking the table to muscle the other commuters out of the way with its travel-based kick-off rule. Or at least it did back when we could actually go outside.

When the COVID-19 pandemic is over and we are able to get out and about again, picking the lead based on public transport use is certainly likely to cause some contention and even encourages people to make use of more environmentally friendly transport methods. We really feel like subway usage should be worth extra points, though. While we love this rule, it does suck a bit for the poor host who’s spent the day preparing snacks instead of riding the bus.

Small World

The rule: Whoever has the pointiest ears

first player rules we love in board games - Small World

Off the top of our heads, we’d struggle to remember the eye colors of our friend and family. But ask us who’s got the most elfen lugholes, and we’ll have an answer on the spot thanks to rapid civilization and conquest game, Small World.

Encouraging your friends to inspect and compare each other’s ears is -- provided the group is comfortable with the idea -- simultaneously awkward and hilarious, and helps establish a fittingly silly atmosphere for the game. Our real question is why elves get all the love. Where’s the rule for the most orcish or trollish ears? We’re pretty sure we’d have a shot of winning there.


The rule: The last person to visit Portugal

best first player board game rules - Azul

Azul does not have a good first player ruling. In fact, it’s only scored a place on this list because we can’t help but laugh at how gleefully useless it is every time we play. How often would you say you travel to Portugal? We’re gonna go ahead and guess that the majority of answers range from “not very” to “I’ve never been,” or even the occasional “Portugal...is that in South America?”

Even people who live in Portugal -- which is in Europe, before you start shamefully Googling -- will struggle to find a use for it. Does being there count as visiting? Do you need to leave the country for it to count? If you do have a friend lucky enough to have holidayed there -- it’s a lovely place, we hear -- then Azul’s rulebook might as well read Sophie starts first yet again, and yes, she’s going to spend the next 20 minutes telling you how great her trip was. Cheers, Azul, very helpful.


The rule: Whoever has had the worst day

The best first player rules in board games - Gloom

Daniel Powter famously sang,”You’ve had a bad day; the camera don’t lie.” Well Daniel, the camera may not lie, but your friends very well might. Gloom is a game about misery, so it’s only fitting that those who’ve trudged through tedium in real life get the first opportunity to inflict it on their card-based family.

Gloom’s first player rule is a great excuse for everyone at the table to have a good grumble-off, relaying exactly where their day went wrong and attempting to one-up each other with their woes. Just don’t be surprised if they overegg a few details in order to win the pity Olympics. And if one of you was unfortunate enough to have a day that genuinely sucked, no one will gripe over granting them the minor pleasure of dishing out the first disaster.

The Bridges of Shangri-La

The bridges of shangri la best first player rules in board games

The rule: “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 is declared the Starting Player. In case of a tie, the wisest player of the group begins the game.”

What do you mean you haven’t climbed Everest? We did it last month, actually. Easy stuff. No, sorry, we didn’t take any photos, but we will take our turn now, thanks. We don’t really have much more to say about The Bridges of Shangri-La’s first-player rule besides recommending it for the award of most-oddly-specific-yet-unarguably-thematic ruling. It might not be of any use in an actual game, but at least it’s giving up in the funniest way possible.

Other great first player rules

  • Forbidden Desert: The thirstiest player starts. No, not that kind of thirsty, you filthy animal.
  • Spyfall: The person who looks shiftiest starts. Queue the spy looking as serious as cheery as possible after checking their role card.
  • Hanabi: The person in the most colorful clothes starts. Is this the perfect time to bring back tie-dye T-shirts.? No. No it isn’t.
  • Love Letter: Whoever last went on a date starts. Things can get a bit awkward when your significant other insists on starting before you.
  • Le Havre: The person who lives closest to water starts. If you’re opening Google Maps, things may have gone too far.

Want some universal first-player rules you can apply no matter the game you've picked? Click here to check out our list of stylish ways to pick the first player at your game nights. Starting is one thing, but what really matters is who comes first at the end of the day. To help you solve those disputes, we've put together a list of our favorite tiebreakers from board games as well!

Can you think of another great first player rule that we've missed? Send it our way via Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. And once you’ve got started there, be sure to give the Going Analog Podcast as a listen as well!

Author bio: When he’s not losing himself as a mercenary in Frosthaven, Henry Stenhouse can be found scouring the web for the latest and greatest games, then wondering why he never has time to actually play them. Share your love of deck builders with him at @Fernoface on Twitter or drop an email to henry@moonrock.agency.