Playing games is often all about choosing a role or character and immersion into a particular theme. One game mechanic that has become very popular in recent years is role selection: this when players, from turn to turn, select from a pool of roles that have attached to them various game actions. Not only does this enhance the theme of the game, but it’s an interesting and dynamic way of spreading around the actions players can take, instead of everyone following a structured turn sequence.

Probably the first game to explore the idea of players choosing different roles each turn was Citadels (FFG, 2000), a fantastic little game that deserves a place on every gamer’s shelf (along with its expansion, The Dark City, which now comes included with the base game). It can also be played with up to eight people, and with as few as two (though it’s probably best with five or six). Each turn, players secretly choose from a deck of eight characters (Assassin, Thief, Merchant, King, Architect, Warlord, Bishop, or Magician), each with special abilities. The deck is passed around and roles chosen, and they’re revealed in a set order, so part of the game is guessing what your opponents have chosen and bluffing about which role you chose. Once you’ve taken your action—anything from ‘assassinating’ another player (they miss their turn) to destroying one of their districts—you can take gold or build a city district. The first player to build eight districts ends the game and points are totalled. Citadels is a lot of game value in a little box, surprisingly strategic, and always a huge amount of fun for newbies and experienced gamers alike.

If you think role selection, you probably first think of Puerto Rico (2002, Rio Grande and others)—that incredibly popular perennial favourite and holder of the top place in BoardgameGeek rankings (apart from a brief usurpation by Agricola). If you think of yourself as a gamer you really must give this classic a go, and it’s the perfect game to introduce to new gamers who have already successfully negotiated a ‘gateway’ game or two like Ticket to Ride.

Players are merchants in the Renaissance-era New World colony of Puerto Rico, managing their plantations of corn, indigo, sugar, coffee and tobacco, expanding their cities, and shipping the goods back to the Old World. Colonists—well, historically, slaves really, but the game avoids the unpleasant realities—work your plantations, but your goods can only be produced if you have the appropriate production buildings in the city and colonists working in them. You earn victory points by ultimately selling goods back to the Old World (and constructing ever-more elaborate buildings).

Each turn, players can choose from a number of roles: the Captain, Trader, Prospector, Settler, Builder, Mayor or the Craftsman. Each of these has a certain game action associated with it which all players then perform—but the person who chose the role gets and extra advantage. For example, if you choose the Mayor, everyone receives colonists from the colonist ship to work your plantations and populate your buildings. However, as the player who chose the role of Mayor, you receive one extra colonist from the general supply. In addition, at the end of the round when everyone has chosen a role, you place one gold on the other roles—thus making these roles more attractive for subsequent selection.

Puerto Rico walks an interesting line. It’s relatively complex, especially to newer gamers unused to these kind of mechanics, but it also has the ability to rope in and engage player of all levels of experience. Once everyone has got the hang of it after a few turns, it flows smoothly and offers lots of interesting choices that have to be balanced carefully. Because it is the number one game on BoardgameGeek it has attracted a lot of criticism and detailed analysis, but first and foremost it is a fun and interesting game that deserves a place in every gamer’s collection. It’s only a shame that it continues to be a slightly drab experience from a graphic design perspective—it’s certainly a game that deserves a brand new deluxe edition.

If you enjoy Puerto Rico, be sure to check out its portable card game sibling, San Juan (2004). This manages to cram most of the basic concepts of Puerto Rico into a card game; cleverly, cards can be used both as buildings, and as gold to build buildings. The role selection mechanic is still there, and the game is perfect for that portable carry-anywhere game hit.

It didn’t take long for more game designers to jump on the bandwagon and start using this ingenious game mechanic in other games. The third edition of Fantasy Flight Games’ flagship ‘big-box’ game, Twilight Imperium (2005), incorporates a form of role selection. This isn’t a game for the faint-hearted. It’s best with the full six players, it’s quite complex, and a game can take a solid day to play; but it’s probably the best sci-fi empire-building boardgame experience money can buy and extremely immersive. And it comes with nearly 350 plastic miniatures—enough said!

Rather than roles—players choose one of ten races to play throughout the game—the selection here is of Strategy cards, which fulfil much the same function. Each Strategy card has a primary effect for the chooser and a lesser, secondary effect for all players if they pay to take it; and each indicates a place in the turn order. The effects are things like researching new technology, conducting diplomacy, and of course, initiating conflict! If you like your games epic in every way, you can’t go past Twilight Imperium. Don’t forget the essential expansion, Shattered Empire.

Race For the Galaxy (Rio Grande, 2007) also shares the sci-fi theme, but it’s a card game with a Puerto Rico/San Juan feel that can be played in an hour. Each turn players simultaneously choose an action, and all players only get to execute the actions chosen. The graphic design leans towards a very heavy use of initially confusing icons, but eventually they become clear and the game has proved a big hit among BoardgameGeek players with its endless strategies and card combinations.

Crosscut Games’ Galactic Emperor (2008) is a sci-fi empire building game that has seven roles to choose from each round: Explorer, Steward, Merchant, Engineer, Warlord, Regent, and Scientist. As in Puerto Rico, the player who chooses a role gets a special benefit, while all players can take the action associated with the role; and the roles range from goods production and accessing technology to political influence and combat. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘Twilight Imperium-lite’, and for those who don’t have the time to play that huge game very often, it’s a great choice to scratch that epic sci-fi game itch in a reasonable time.

Finally, we can see how the mechanic keeps evolving in new releases such as Nexus/FFG’s 2009 sci-fi game (detecting a pattern?) Ad Astra. Players don’t select roles as such, but place action cards from their hand in spaces on a turn order board. Once the board is filled the actions are played through in order; everyone in the game gets to take the action—whether producing resources, moving, building, trading etc. It’s a clever twist on the role selection mechanism which adds the additional strategy of long-term turn order planning.

No doubt we haven’t seen the last of the role selection mechanic and game designers will be inventing new twists on it for some time to come. Rather than forcing players to stick to a set turn sequence, role selection brings a whole raft of strategies to the table. Just don’t sit to the left of the newbie in Puerto Rico

For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit the publisher sites or BoardgameGeek (www.boardgamegeek.com). You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for many of these games at Headless Hollow (www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html).

by Universal Head

Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing for clients across the globe for more than twenty years, and playing games for much longer than that. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent an entire year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for a computer game. In between he’s designed just about every form of visual communication: corporate identities, websites, packaging, brochures, even postage stamps. He also created the game websites www.tekumel.com and www.battleloremaster.com. His blog site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.