By all rights this game should be boring. To describe it sounds like work, to play it feels like work. And yet somewhere in between the magic happens, and you have a lot of fun. Let’s have a look.
Power Grid plays 2-6 players, where players assume the roles of entrepreneurs each creating a start-up within their home state. However, like Newton and Leibniz everyone happened upon the same idea at the same time; supplying power to the people.
How to Play
The game has a unique winning condition whereby the winner is the player who can provide power to the most cities. To do this, you’ll need: power plants, suspenders, power grids, a calculator, fuel, a green eye shade, and money to buy all of these.
The rule breakdown gets a bit confusing, more so if you try and follow the rulebook. I’ll do my best, but offer no guarantee that you’ll come out any more knowledgeable. To begin there are five phases to each round:
- Determining player order
- Auctioning power plants
- Buying fuel resources
- Establishing power grids within cities
- Getting paid (the best part)
Determining player order is an important because it balances the game. The auction phase goes from first to last player – logical. This order reverses in all other phases – logical? This mechanic is akin to the blue shell in Mario Kart, it puts the leader in the most dangerous position, we’ll touch more on this later.
To begin an auction, the current player selects the power plant they wish to possess and give a starting price; the minimum cost printed on the card. Then other players take turns stating whether they’re going to put their money where their mouth is, or pass and save their money for later. However, like Fry’s dog from Futurama, once you’re out, you stay out. The highest bidder wins the power plant which marks the start of a new auction, however each player can only acquire one power plant per round.
Next, often forgetting that the last player should be going first, players take turns buying resources. You can only buy the type of resources your power plants use, and then be a complete arse and store up to double that amount. As there is only a set amount of fuel, buying more fuel increases the scarcity of that fuel type, thereby making it cost you and your opponents. Without any government body regulating cost, this is a great way to price other players out of the market.When it comes to buying power plants, never judge it by its cover, but always judge it by the type of fuel it takes, how many cities it powers, and its price. It’s these properties that sort the mouth-watering uranium power plant, from the prissy lacklustre coal power plant. It’s also these properties which cause players to recklessly throw away their fortune at auction time. Not only to win a mint condition, still-in-the-wrapping powerplant but also for bragging points over their competitors.
Power plants: check. Fuel to run power plants: also check. Now if we have any money left we need to buy power grids. To do this you and your friends take turns pointing at cities and saying, “I want that one,” and then paying the required amount money. There is some red tape surrounding what you can and can’t buy, and how much it costs. Such as the connection fee for all the wires and infrastructure needed, and the building permit (read: bribe) from the city to allow you to build. This cost increases for every player that’s already connected to the city. So, it pays to be quick, or at the very least it just costs less.
The final phase of a round sees you getting money from the bank based on how many cities you’re currently powering. Then it’s refilling the fuel supplies, updating the power plant market, and then back to phase one: determining player order. Note that fuel supplies refill at different rates depending on map and what stage of the game you’re in.
You get all that?
Firstly, the game balances direct and passive conflict as though it were part of Cirque du Soleil. The auction mechanic is brilliantly done, and creates for some heated moments. While the rest of the game doesn’t put you in direct conflict, you are still constantly affecting, and being affected by the other players. Even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it.
I find power grid to be a feel-good game, in that it never feels like I lose. Only that I did less good than the winner. What I mean, is that by the end of the game, no matter your position, you went on a journey. You started the game with zero power grids on the map and a small Trump sized loan of 50 Elektro. Now you’re a major contributor to global warming and your power plants are sprawled across the countryside like a poorly managed epidemic.
Then there’s the efficiency calculations. Oh boy. Power Grid is fantastic at giving you a set amount of money and then having you distribute that money in the most efficient manner possible. Each round you must budget where you’re going to put your money: power plants, fuel or cities. Then that budget is challenged in each phase of the round by the other players. Should I win this auction and take this power plant, or get a worse power plant for cheaper? Which connections are the most cost effective, and what expansion options do they provide? Fuel is cheap, should I buy extra this turn? If I do I won’t have enough for a power grid. Hmmmmm. You make more meaty decisions in this game than a butcher does all week, and it’s glorious.
Perhaps the meatiest decision of the entire game is choosing the correct resource to invest in. As the game plays out each type of resource will get both more, and less expensive, at different times. Knowing when to make the switch, and when to cut your losses, can make or break your company. In this regard Power Grid does a fantastic job of modelling real life supply and demand. You must be careful of and anticipate other players as they attempt to make the same choice.
In terms of positives, the last thing I’ll mention is the catch-up mechanic. That blue shell of turn order I talked about earlier. It works in a way that isn’t too obtrusive to the gameplay. While knowing who goes first in what phase is a bit annoying to start with, and to end with, it does an excellent job of making everyone feel like they’re in it to the end.These decisions would be workable in an environment where you could predict your opponent’s move. However, if your friends are anything like mine, then they’re both unpredictable and always out to get me. This game gives them an all-you-can-mind-game buffet, and you better believe they brought their own cutlery. Four of the five rounds provide a unique way for them destroy each and every plan you were enacting or thinking of.
The first thing that people say against power grid is that it’s too mathy. You’re constantly performing additions and subtractions in your head trying to sort out what you can and can’t afford. I agree with this assessment, that there is a lot of math to be done, but at the same time it isn’t difficult math. We aren’t finding the square root of pi to nth decimal place, we’re doing simple addition and subtraction. These mental gymnastics can be a downer, so in our group calculators are permitted to take some of this burden.
This maths problem, that doesn’t involve two trains and a cart of watermelons, lends itself to another: Analysis Paralysis. There are many banes of the modern board gamer and this one is regal amongst them. Analysis Paralysis is where someone becomes overwhelmed with options to make that they spend too much time trying to figure out their optimal move, stagnating the game whenever that person takes a turn. Turning a 180-minute game into a 260-minute game. Gosh dang it, just make your move already! I believe Analysis Paralysis can happen during any game as it is more a ‘problem’ with the player type. Though some games, like Power Grid, exacerbate this issue more than others. I find that it’s worth implementing a turn timer if you are finding it getting out of hand.
Another issue I have with the game is the blue shell. While it’s great for keeping the game close, it unintuitively means that sometimes your best move is not the move that would bring you closer to the victory condition. This isn’t a good mechanism because it hides itself from the players, and they will have trouble understanding why they didn’t win when they were first place for most of the game. Another reason why I think it’s poor is because it doesn’t reward the effort put in to become first.
Lastly, there is a lot of fiddly rules that can be missed easily. An example being the turn order. The rule book being half rules, and half spaghetti doesn’t make the learning curve any easier. This is somewhat alleviated by the game being straight forward enough that new players will pick up the basics quickly. Leaving only one player who needs to know these fiddly bits.
Power Grid, despite all the mechanics (and subsequent length of this article), is ridiculously easy to pick up and play so long as one player knows all the rules. It will have you and your friends racking your brains for hours, providing highs, lows, and numbers; so many numbers. It will leave you drained – yet satisfied, happy you won or deep in thought about how you lost and what you can do to improve for next time. With enough expansions to keep players coming back for a long time, this reviewer is happy to say Power Grid is a Critical Hit.
Who can say no to Power Grid? Can you? Let us know your thoughts below.