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I've wanted to try Power Grid for a long time now, but hadn't had the chance until a recent game night at my friend Sean's house. I had heard that it was a great game, although not as elegant as a lot of the other high-ranked games here at the Geek. There have been enough dissenting voices (like Eric Burgess of Boardgame Babylon) that I didn't know whether it would be something I would have to run out and buy as soon as I'd tried it. So how did I like it?
Sean took out his still shrink-wrapped copy of the France map for a four-player game, and then proceeded to explain the rules over the next 20 minutes or so. It sounded like the rules weren't all that different from the original map. After our game was finished, I actually felt like the rules were pretty straightforward - but it was surprising to see how long it took me to really grasp what was going on at first. Sean is good at explaining rules, and I understood each part of the turns or phases as he went - I just couldn't piece it all together somehow. It didn't help that I was abnormally tired - but I really wanted to give this a go. When you boil it all down, everything makes sense theme-wise, even though the variety of different mechanisms that are in play within each round don't necessarily mesh elegantly. Bid on buying a power plant, pay for the right to supply power to a city or cities connected by routes to a city you already own, buy the appropriate fuel needed to keep the power plants working, power up the cities, receive income, and start the whole process over again.
After a few rounds, I felt like I got the general hang of things, even though any real sense of long-term strategy eluded me. I was paying careful attention to what the other 3 players were doing. My first city was one third of Paris, alongside Sean and Zach, while Ken had the lower-left corner of the board pretty much to himself. I basically just built along the cheapest routes while keeping my available routes on the right side of the board open as much as possible. I thought Sean and Zach would have a harder time expanding their networks than they did, since they were sort of stuck together confined within the same part of the map right around Paris, but they actually did very well - especially once Phase 2 started. It felt like they were saving their money for a big push expanding their connections once the later phases opened up the number of cities they could connect to again. I was surprised at how many turns the guys would not buy power plants, or not build any routes, or even sometimes skip buying fuel - just sitting on what they had, waiting for the game to progress before taking much action.
My biggest problem was not having a sense of how fast the game was moving. When we were about an hour and a half in, and had only just gotten to Phase 2, I was wondering if we were really only 1/3 of the way through the game. Sean told me that we were much further than that, and that the rate at which we could power more cities would grow exponentially. Boy - he wasn't kidding. Zach seemed to have a much better handle on how many turns were most likely still left in the game, even though it was his first game of Power Grid as well. Another thing that took getting used to was how the turn order worked - almost everything about it seemed to work counter-intuitively. I also never completely understood how high to bid up on power plants. When the "50" plant came up to bid on (where you can power several cities on wind power), Zach and I bid it up to 95, and I let him have it in the end.
I had the misfortune of being the first one to build routes to new cities in what ended up being our final round. I thought there was a slight chance that Ken would end the game, but I was rather low on cash, having enough to only add 3-4 cities to the 10 I had already claimed. I had short-sightedly spent far too much on fuel in the previous couple of turns, maxing out on all my power plants could hold, thinking I would need it all in the next couple of turns. I added three cities to my network, and decided to go no further, saving about 40 bucks to hopefully contribute to a big push I would make in the next round. Needless to say, not very smart - I should have gone for broke. It turned out that Sean had enough money to add 5 or 6 cities to his network that round to bring him up to 18 cities, all of which he could power up. While he was at it, he built in such a way that Ken could not build into any more cities than 17, blocking his access to anything further. Ken ended up with the 17 points, while Zach did an admirable job of having 17 cities claimed, 16 of which he could power up. I had all of 13 with plenty of fuel to spare. We finished at almost 2:00 am, after starting at about 11:00 pm.
Even with my poor showing, I very much enjoyed this game. I really like the mechanism used to set the price of fuel where the cost goes up with more people that need it. I think the power plants themselves are very cool, and I like the way you build routes across the board - far better than any other route building game I can think of. However, my first impression of the game is that the whole is not quite equal to the sum of these very brilliant parts - close, but not quite, and I'm not even sure why I feel that way. I wish I could put my finger on it. Anyway, at this point I would rate it a very solid 8. I would play it again in a moment though, and my rating would probably go up as I understood more of the strategy.
I'm pleased to finally know what all the fuss around this game is really about.