(Grokking Games is a column in which I discuss strategy and game theory. Unlike the reviews on Board of Life that presume no knowledge on behalf of the reader, Grokking Games is recommended for those already familiar with the games discussed.)
In Monopoly, initial turn order can be everything. For instance, picture a four player game in which player one starts the game by rolling a 6, player two rolls an 8, player three rolls a 9, and all three buy the properties that they’ve landed upon. Before player four gets to roll, all of the light blue properties are out of the game, and he or she then has to roll a 3, 5, 11, or 12 to have a chance to make a purchase in the first round. While this exact situation isn’t that common, it is true that if you’re going last in Monopoly, each player that buys a property before you get to roll reduces the chance of you landing on an available property. In the hypothetical situation above, player one has a 64% chance to land on an available property (3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, or 12 on 2d6), player two has a 50% chance (the 6 being removed), player three has a 36% chance (6 and 8 removed), and player four has only a 25% chance. If player four compounds this disadvantage in probability with bad dice rolls, they will continue to follow the other players around the board and watch the available properties disappear.
This is why it can suck to go last in Monopoly.
In most other vintage roll and move games, though, there is little difference between going first and last, as each player gets to progress around the board with rolls of the dice toward their objectives, and only luck with those dice, and not turn order, determines the progress of the game.
Compared to roll and move games, in Eurogames and other modern tabletop games, the initial turn order follows the Monopoly model and favors either the first or the last player in the first turn. The two notable exceptions to this are 7 Wonders, in which everyone goes at the same time, and Catan, in which there are both distinct advantages and disadvantages to going first and going last. This may be one of the reasons that Catan remains a perennial favorite despite the fact that it still relies on those barbaric randomizers, dice.
Of all the tabletop games I play, Broom Service and Puerto Rico are the ones which disadvantage the first player the most. I’ve talked about Broom Service A LOT in this blog, but if you’re just jumping in now, I’ll quickly sum up why it isn’t good to go first in Broom Service. Player one’s dilemma is: do I play one of my four choice cards cowardly with a weakened effect, or do I play the card strong against the probability, that increases with each player in the game, that it will be trumped by others playing that card?
If everyone in Puerto Rico had the same starting resources, there would be a distinct advantage in going first. However, the game designers wisely decided to make the first player’s choice a problematic one by giving the first players Indigo, and the last players Corn, which is easier to begin producing due to it only requiring colonists and not cash.
Hence my opinion: there is a distinct disadvantage in going first in Puerto Rico, because each player in the first round benefits successively from the role card choices of each player before him or her, which sets up the last player to choose their first role having already been enriched by the actions of other players. Consequently, in the first turn, if you have the responsibility of going first, or second in a four or five player game, you should pick strategically from the few role cards that will have an effect for you.
Trader and Captain are out for the first player, as there are no benefits to those cards until the Craftsman card has been played with at least one player getting a good to either parlay to the Trader for coin or ship through the Captain for victory points.
Craftsman is likewise a bad choice for player one, and even the second player, as both of them start with Indigo, and to produce Indigo with the Craftsman, both the Builder and the Mayor have to be played. More often than not, the Mayor has to be played twice, which means the earliest that player one and two usually start producing Indigo is round 2. So Craftsman is out.
This means that Prospector, Settler, Builder, and Mayor are the only roles to benefit the first player and are usually the ones chosen by the first player for that reason. Prospector is good, as that enriches yourself without benefiting anyone else. However, of the three remaining roles, two are much more strategic choices.
If you pick the Mayor card, you get 2 colonists compared to everyone else getting 1, but as you have indigo, and the last players in the round have corn, they could use their one colonist to colonize their Corn plots and end up getting corn loaded onto the ships, scoring points before you get a chance to produce a single good. This assumes the following cards played in a four player game: Player 1 plays Mayor, Player 2 plays any other card, Player 3 plays Craftsman, and Player 4 plays Captain. This would give players 3 and 4 2 point leads in the first round. So Mayor is definitely out for Player 1, and Player 2 shouldn’t play it for similar reasons, unless player 1 plays Builder and player 2 takes the opportunity to buy an Indigo mill and then play the Mayor card to get both the Indigo tile and the Indigo mill colonized.
Settler can be good, because that gives you the first choice of the five flipped tiles, so that you can regulate production. Player one only has the conundrum of deciding whether to pick a Corn, if he is lucky enough that one is available, so that he can also start producing goods for the Captain phase, or taking a Coffee or Tobacco or Sugar in order to plan for successive turns by maintaining an advantage in trade. Taking the Corn can be an equalizer, and put the first player in a similar production situation as player three and four, but if they choose a more favorable resource like Coffee or Tobacco, that can give them trade advantages later in the game. You started the game with an indigo, worth one gold in trade and they had a corn, worth no gold in trade; if you pick Settler, and take a corn, so that you have indigo and corn, in order to more easily produce goods to gain victory points, and the corn producers both take Tobacco, worth 3 gold, they have more valuable plots on their island than you did at the beginning of the game. Player One has to be mindful of the impact of the Settler phase not only on scoring Victory Points, but of earning gold.
For that reason, despite that many people advise Settler as the opening move online, I cannot fully back taking the Settler as the best opening move. It either results in player one further postponing the production of valuable goods, or of giving up their trade advantage to other players. If you decide that you will open with the Settler, my recommendation is to take the most valuable tile showing, which will make sure that the players after you get successively less valuable goods for their islands. The early and mid-game in Puerto Rico is all about the money.
Builder is the other of the two most strategic roles for Player one to play. Choosing Builder gives Player One the immediate opportunity to buy one of two Small Markets. Because the Small Market is only a one gold investment, or zero for the lead Builder, and it adds one coin to all sales to the trader for the rest of the game, I’ve seen a lot of first Builder phases that end with both of the Small Markets being removed from the game. If Player One passes on the builder, Player Two will probably take it and one of the Small Markets, and Player Three, Four, or Five will be likely to take the other one, which means that if Player One passes on the Builder, he will have to do without the benefits of the Small Market. Additionally, Player One shouldn’t want Players Three and Four to get the Small Markets, as that gives them more of a chance to make money off of corn production by raising the value of corn for a Small Market owner from zero to one gold. As the Small Market is a free buy when choosing the Builder role, this purchase will also let Player One retain their starting money for the Builder phase in the second round, and will ensure strategic purchases in both the first and the second round for Player One. And while you will retain all of your gold, players two through five will have their gold decreased by their purchases which will lessen the impact of their second round purchases.
There is also negative fallout from Player One leading with Builder. I’ve often seen Player 3 and 4, when deprived of the Small Markets, grab both Haciendas. More importantly, if player one chooses Builder, and player two builds an Indigo Mill on that phase, and then chooses Mayor for their role, player two will be ready to start producing Indigo before player one. So choosing Builder can give player 2 a small advantage if they are smart enough to grab the Indigo Mill and then choose Mayor for their role. Additionally, if player three then plays Craftsman, and player four plays Captain, this will result in player 4 getting 2 victory points off of loading 1 corn, player 2 would get 1 victory point from loading 1 indigo, player 3 would get 2 victory points from loading 2 corn, and player one would get nothing due to having no production.
If Player One selects Settler, they potentially lose their initial trade advantage, and if they select Builder, they could give their opponents early victory points. However, in selecting Builder and taking one of the Small Markets as a free purchase, Player One also maintains an economic lead over his or her opponents, who must deplete their coffers if they want to make a purchase in that phase. While the Settler role is the safer one for Player One to pick due to it providing less advantage to his opponents, the Builder role provides a definite economic edge with the added risk that if the following players pick a certain series of roles, they could score some points in the first round.
For the preceding reasons, I consider Builder and Settler to be tied in their virtues for Player One’s opening move. That said, I pick Builder when going first.
Due to the fact that only Settler and Builder are likely to be selected by Player One, it would also be possible to write an “On Going Second in Puerto Rico” advisement in a future installation of Grokking Games. As the third, fourth, and fifth players will have been set up by the previous actions of the players that preceded them, they are more likely to have multiple options that are less clear cut, and the benefits of analyzing their opening moves would be less advantageous.
Puerto Rico Game
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