The Russian writer Anton Chekhov once advised writers to tear their stories in half and begin in the middle. There is merit in such an approach – a game should begin as close to the end as possible without losing player volition.
Take a look at Ticket to Ride. The game starts with each player getting 4 cards (resources) and a choice from 3 tickets (goals). During the game you can draw new cards or new tickets. The game could easily have started with the players having nothing – except that they’d probably have begun the game by A) drawing cards and then B) drawing tickets.
If Ticket to Ride begun from scratch players would have more choice and influence over their strategy. But they’d also have no hooks, nothing to give their action any meaning. If you don’t have any goals (tickets) and you don’t have any sets started (cards) then a white is equal to a red is equal to a black – it doesn’t matter what you draw. By giving players a starting set of resources and goals they are nudged in a certain direction and can start acting meaningfully from the start. The random setup enables player volition right from the start.
(I’m using the term volition a bit loosely here. The dictionary (Merriam-Webster) definition is “the power to make your own choices and decisions” but volition can also mean the cognitive process by which individuals take action and I’m using it in both ways here, sorry.)
In medias res
In Advanced Squad Leader Amazon you could start out with both forces at the edge of the map, or even at the edge of a map board further back. That way the players would have the ability to secure exactly the positions they’d want and be able to achieve. But most games start out with units already in engagement range, some even in close combat. That’s because marching into war would make a rather boring game for most parts and would rarely give the type of interesting situations that a scenario designer can write. The scenarios begin In Medias Res.
Fresco Amazon , or any Eurogame really, begins with each player having some resources. That’s because those resources are what makes play possible. Yes, you could begin Fresco without anything, collecting money on the first turn to buy colors and mix on the second turn to paint on the third turn. But such a beginning would be boring. On turn 1 every player would take money. On turn 2 every player would buy colors. No volition.
By beginning with some money and some colors players get a choice from the start: they have the ability to mix any medium color, collect more money, buy more colors or even paint one of the minimal resource tiles. The game begins at the point where players have a meaningful choice of strategies.
Finding the true begining
What does this mean for us as designers? Take a look at what your playtesters do at the start of a game. Do they tend to do the same things over and over again? If so, give them the results of such actions and let the game begin later. Make it shorter if need be but begin it at the point where player actions start to matter. That’s the point at which the game becomes interesting.
What if giving players a starting set of resources moves the problem forward: they still do the same things even though they start with some resources/positions? Then you can either move the beginning even further forward to find the point at which the players’ actions diverge or force divergence upon them from the start.
Tzolk’in Amazon begins with players choosing from a random set of resource tokens, with each token giving different resources. This determines starting position, with some food, some resources, some advantages in technology and divine favor. Players begin in different, perhaps even asymmetric, positions, which gives each player different incentives. They may not have a position that’s as optimized as they could have gotten if they’d all started from scratch but they do have different options and thus divergent strategies right from the start.
Begining to late
We’ve been talking about beginnings here, but there’s another aspect of this: endings. What happens if the game starts too close to the ending?
Well, it’s pretty rare for this happens. I can’t think of a single published game that does this, mainly because in such cases there is no game – no player volition. Duel in the Dark Amazon comes close, with one player setting up their entire game (more or less) then the other player setting up their game and then everything unfolding pretty much as scripted. The game itself, while long, is an exercise in precise resolution, with players having very little influence on what happens during the game itself, moving a few fighter squadrons while the main bomber stream flies along a programed route and the major impacts on it come from preset ground defenses rather than the night fighters.
In designing I’ve come upon the no volition problem in that players can begin with a dominant strategy: do this and you’ll win, do something else and you’ll lose. But it’s often a question of one action or type of actions being overpowered rather than the game starting too late. So I’ll go with the old “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it” strategy: look for the furthest point along the arc of the game where players actions are still convergent and start the game there. Alternatively force a divergence upon your players by random draw or asymmetric setup.
Your games will be better for it.