The game we’re working with today is called Ultimate Tic Tac Toe, a quite interesting variant on the original game. And we’re going to try out some methods of handling first player advantage, specifically in perfect-information deterministic games. In general, to keep testing time down, try to make most moves in under 20 seconds. (This is to simulate a more complicated game, or a game with real time controls, such as people actually play)
Method 0 (unofficial): Ignore it. We acknowledge that the advantage exists, we build some hunches about how big it is, and we congratulate player 2 when they scrape one out anyway. Try playing this game a few times with no balancing mechanic, just to get a feel for it.
Method 1: The Pie Rule (“you cut, I choose”). P1 plays a stone. Then, p2 has the option to either play a move, or become p1. This forces p1 to play a move that is either just barely p1-favored or p2-favored, making the game closer to fair.
Method 2: Pie Squared. Same as the pie rule, except that if p2 chooses to switch, p1 is offered the same choice once there are three pieces on the board. (Example: p1 plays x. p2 switches, becoming the x player. p1 plays 0. p2 plays x. p1 now has the choice to play 0, or become the x player again.)
Method 3: Laying odds. At the beginning of the game, each player secretly estimates the odds of p1 winning – say, 2:1, 10:9, etc., and the bids are revealed. Whichever player believes p1 has the larger advantage takes p1, and some external currency is bet at the given rate. Whoever takes p1 bets some standard amount; p2 bets an appropriate fraction.
If you decide to try these out, please keep a log of who (player identity and p1/p2) wins each game, as well as draws, and post this with your comments. It’s also helpful to write down any reactions you have during the games – in general, but especially related to the balancing mechanic. I recommend trying these mechanics in order, for no particularly justifiable reason.
Happy playtesting! I hope some of you exist and I subsequently hear back from you. If you’re having trouble finding in-person games, you can also try this site.