This is a very recent development in the design history of New Bedford, that I recently had to work out. It touches on an important subject of balancing thematic integration and player perception with need for a balanced game. New Bedford might have a problem with turn order advantage in the first round. I don’t know, because I don’t have enough data. I may not ever have enough data. It took thousands of games of Puerto Rico to discover the third player advantage of a few percent.
The symptom in New Bedford is that the player who goes fourth in a four player game has not won many games. While playtesting, I had begun to see the trend when I started computing statistics. At the same time, the concern was voiced by some experienced players, so I knew it was at least something I needed to seriously consider. Even if it’s not truly a problem, it gives the perception that there is a problem, which still isn’t good for player engagement.
The obvious place to look was the availability of initial action bonuses. The 3 player game does not show the same trend, and it may be because there are three main resource actions in the game, and thus three spaces that will give bonuses. With 3 players, they are distributed equally. Even if the fourth player wants to use the town hall or shipyard action, they will still need resources, which means the first three players will have a good chance to use those buildings for a second bonus. Now, this is one of the reasons I gave players money to start, so that they can buy resources to use these spaces on the first turn. But that restriction and forcing the player to buy resources still results in a suboptimal play.
For other potential causes, I also had to consider the effects of fixed turn on the other rounds. Although I had been assuming that having first choice of action in the last round is most valuable, it could be that this helps the first player more, or that first action in the second to last round is more beneficial. There is also a chance that having the first turn in round 4 is less valuable than rounds 3 or 5. But both of those are counterintuitive, so I’ll stick with the most likely cause.
I considered a few ways of balancing this potential difference. The first was to use the approach frequently used in tournament play of Puerto Rico: simply let players bid for turn order. It would be an easy fix since players already start with money, but it also puts the burden on the players to understand and quantify this advantage. I am especially concerned that this puts new players at a disadvantage.
The next thing I considered was giving the fourth player a slight boost. The first question is what form the balance should be in. Giving points directly is easiest, but least satisfying for a player. Giving resources could have big effects due to feedback. In either case, exactly determining this amount will take an unreasonable number of playtests.
Both of these solutions have problems, though. Ideally, the game should be balanced right out of the box. And these feel like cheap fixes because they have no theme integration or justification. These fixes would draw attention to the fact that gameplay is not inherently balanced. But balancing the start using some distribution of resources points to a third solution.
The perceived disadvantage comes from the fact that there are only 3 buildings in which it is possible to receive a bonus on the first turn: the three resource buildings. Adding a new permanent building would require dramatically changing the game, so I have to make at least one of the other actions usable. Selling goods requires goods, but money generally isn’t useful early. Preparing a ship needs at least 1 wood, and must proceed launching. Building also requires resources. The common thread is that players need to start with resources to use those buildings.
I’ve read that if players do the same things on the first turn, you should make that part of the setup. Since players always take goods on the first turns, it makes sense to start players with their choice of resources. This brings two good actions into play, and gives players a wider variety of options early on, helping players get into the game faster. Though this accelerates the game slightly, I don’t think it will be enough to cause problems.
When teaching the game, many players have asked whether they start with any resources in addition to the money you start with. It always seemed odd to me that people just expected to start the game with resources, too. I suspect that few people who didn’t expect resources will raise a fuss about getting resources. In any case, it helps meet players expectations, which helps player engagement, too.
I was able to test out this change at GrandCon, and it looks promising. I still need to determine how players collect resources. It should be in turn order, but I need to determine how much, and what what can be taken, especially the more valuable brick. I’m leaning toward allowing players to take $3 worth of resources, which could be one brick and one other resource, or 3 resources, or even money. I may decrease the starting amount of money to $4 or $3, to counteract the extra materials while giving players more flexibility.
The important takeaway is that players felt like the start wasn’t quite fair. It might not be, or it might be a statistical fluke. But by providing more options at the beginning, I avoid the problem and the perception, making for a more engaging game.