Love live the Empress!
For the Motherland!
Objective: You play a electric company trying to make the most money and power the most cities while trying to win the technology race before your opponents do the same.
Materials: The box is a good size in that it is not too big to fit into a normal sized game closet, despite having a load of pieces. Unfortunately, there are no individual dividers for the dozen or so diverse pieces, requiring you to provide zip-lock bags to keep things organized. Otherwise, the components are wonderful. The board is what I would call “normal sized” and will fit on almost any table along with everything else. It has 2 sides, 1 side is the United States and the other is Germany. This is a nice feature because in combination with the fact that the game board can change each time you play it, you pick the country you are planning in, giving endless replay value without playing the same game twice. The pieces are in the same style as Settlers of Catan: small wooden pieces that are painted in solid, bright colors. One issue with the pieces is that 2 types of pieces (oil and uranium) are round and will roll off the table when you put them in their stock-pile. I have to use ramekins (little cooking dishes) or baby dishes so that doesn’t happen. Again, could’ve been fixed with dividers in the box. The cards are plastic-coated like Bicycle poker cards, giving spillage protection. The artwork has a 1950’s cartoony look to it, which is done well. In addition, the cards (which represent advancing technology of the power plants) having subtle changes as the technology advances, which is a nice touch you don’t notice until you compare your 1st (early tech) card to your last card (late tech). The money, however, is a terrible waste of paper. It is done in the style of Monopoly money, only smaller. Since you are constantly changing in money, they get folded, torn, etc. Personally, I recommend poker chips. It’s easier to see how much money you have and (more importantly) how much your opponent has. The paper money is just plain sad.
Pros: Solid board and pieces that will fit easily on your table. Excellent sized box. Nice artwork.
Cons: Needs compartments in box. Money is sub-par.
Mechanics: This could take a while, and that is likely a turn off for some people to buy this game. However, the rules themselves are like swinging a golf club; the explanation takes much longer than the execution. The rulebook is only about 5 pages (front and back). In a nutshell, the game has 5 phases=1 round. Now, this is NOT to be confused with “steps”, which I will get into later. Instead, I will concentrate on each phase.
Set-up=The game is designed for 2-6 players, and set-up varies depending on the number of players. Overall, each player chooses a region of the country as their starting point. Each region has 7 cities that you are going to building connections to (but are not limited to your own region alone…it’s only the starting point). Each player then starts with $50. 8 Power Plants are put into the market (i.e. auction) area; the 4 lowest tech are the current market, the 4 highest tech are the future market.
Phase 1=Determine player order. This is the order you will play for the rest of this turn. The first player is the player with the most cities he has connected, the second with the second most cities, etc. Ties are broken by highest power plant tech.
Phase 2=Auction Power plant. First player starts the bidding. He chooses a power plant in the CURRENT market and bids on it, minimum bid (in $) equal to its level of tech, which ranges from 3-50. Any player can outbid him. Whomever wins the bid, keeps the plant. A new plant is drawn from the pile to replace it. The 4 LOWEST tech plants are always the current market, the others are the future. Then, another player chooses a power plant. Again, the player that is highest in the order (i.e. #1) that did NOT win a auction this round picks a plant and bids. Players who won a plant this turn cannot bid. You do not have to buy a plant. You may only have 3 plants at a time; more than this and you must discard one.
Phase 3=Buy resources with $. Starting with the LOWEST order player, players must buy resources for their plants. Each plant can only hold so much of the resource it can burn. These include coal, oil, uranium, and garbage. If there is a lot of that resource available, it is fairly cheap. Otherwise, expensive. So the HIGHEST order player goes last, typically paying thru the nose for his resources (the price you pay for being ahead).
Phase 4=Connect Cities. This is supposed to represent a power station router in a city. Starting with the LOWEST order player, you can buy any city off your original network for $10 plus the distance to the city you are connecting. So, for example, if you have a connection (i.e. router) in Chicago and want to build a connection to St. Louis (distance=16), it would cost $10+$16=$26 to make a connection there. From St. Louis, it’s distance=8 to Kansas City, for a total of $18. You can bypass cities, but you still have to play the total distance fee. Only 1 player per city (for now).
Phase 5: Supply power, collect money, and replenish resources. Each player (in any order, it doesn’t matter) decides how many cities in his network he wishes to supply power to. He burns resources to do so and collects money based on how many cities he supplies. Resources are then SOMEWHAT replenished (although they become less and less as the game goes on). And a new round begins.
As for Steps, there are 3 steps to the game. These represent different stages in technology development in power generation. The game begins in Step 1.
Step 1=Only a handful of technology is available. You can see the future market, but it take a while to become available. Also, a monopoly takes place in each city; only 1 player per city.
Step 2=Takes place after 1 player has connected 7 cities. This represents the loss of the technology monopoly. Power companies have grown so powerful, that it has been deemed legal for more than one (2, to be exact) company (i.e. player) to be in one city at the same time. Only it’s more expensive to be that 2nd player (think of it like royalties). Although future technology is still unavailable, current tech will quickly be phased out (the lowest un-bought tech in the auction is discarded). Old resources (coal and oil) become replenished less while newer (garbage and uranium) are more abundant.
Step 3=Occurs when the card that says “Step 3” is drawn. All tech is current and may be purchased. The oligopoly restriction is even less limited (now 3 players per city, but at an even more expensive price for that 3rd player). Older resources are coming back into popularity but even more so with newer resources.
Winner: Whomever can supply the most cities with power when the 17th city is connected, wins. Ties go to the player with the most money.
Pros: There’s a few things that make the mechanics of the game great, but they all fall into one overall theme and that is: Accelerating Game. These games tend to be tricky to be done right, but when they are done well, they provide the most entertainment to all players. The classic accelerating game is “Settlers of Catan” where as the game progresses, the speed toward which players get closer to the end point picks up. In Settlers, as more and more settlements get built, more and more resources are made, hence building more settlements. A vicious cycle is made. In “Power Grid”, the more cities are supplied with power, the more money is made, allowing one to build more power plants and connect more cities. Again, a viciously good cycle. The advantage of these style of games is that as the game reaches the end, it does NOT become a dragged out back and forth cat and mouse game between 2 players as the other players sit by and watch (like in Monopoly, for example). Instead, the race only intensifies as it reaches end-game.
Cons: This may or may not be a “con” for some people, but for the majority of players, this could be a serious turn off. You see, in most game of the accelerating type, there is a balancing factor to be sure that the leader doesn’t run away with the game too early. Remember, in the accelerating style games, you move faster to the winning conditions as you get closer (think of it as an exponential equation). In Settlers of Catan, those factors are the robber and the fact that when a 7 is rolled (the most common number rolled), you lose cards if you hold more than 7 cards. In “Power Grid”, however, they make no apologies that there IS NO BALANCING FACTOR. You can call the fact that the leader pays more for a resource and gets the last choice of a city connection placement, but this does not off-set the exponential growth that leader is going to see. In fact, they stress that newer players should only play until Step 1 ends since if you fall behind too early, you are likely not to catch up. Now before you go raging that ruins the game, I will address this in the strategy section of the review, because this actually comes into play as to how to win.
Strategy: The strategy changes dramatically depending on the number of players in the game, which I will address in the next section. There is, however, one underlying theme. That is what I like to call the “criterion money management race.” Long winded term? Maybe, but it’s certainly applicable. If you are familiar with bicycle or short track speed skate racing you may have heard of a criterion style race. This involves the lead staying just barely ahead of the pack. The other competitors “draft” (that is, they stay just behind the leader) making the leader waste all his energy trying to stay ahead. When the time to pull into the leading position presents itself (usually near the end of the race), the pack surges forward looking for the win.
Power Surge’s strategy is comparable. You could, theoretically, take the lead early and spend lots and lots of money connecting cities, buying power plants. The downside is you will spend all your money in doing so, and there is a significant point of diminishing returns. Since the dollar amount is the tie breaker (and it is common to have a tie between a few players at the end), money typically wins the game. So the idea is to either stay just ahead as the leader, or stay right on his ace. This is much harder than it sounds because the game is ALL MONEY MANGEMENT SKILLS.
Pros: The game's only use of randomness is which power plant cards are drawn. Auctions, diplomacy, scheduled (read: able to plan the next turn) resources, and pure logarithmic curves for money collection are all involved in determining how much you will be spending to achieve the win. So for those who enjoy winning due to skill rather than luck, there is no finer game. The criterion money race fits in beautifully with this, making the challenge to win all the sweeter when you actually do.
Cons: As I’ve mentioned in the mechanics section, you can fall behind early in this game and if you fall too far behind, there is no way you can catch up. Even a good strategy won’t save you if you implement it too late. You MUST really plan ahead in this game, and someone who is not paying attention is going to be miserable during the latter 2/3 of the game once the pace picks up even more.
Will this game work with few (2-3) players as well as many (4-6) players?:
Pros: The game has a different set of rules for each number of players. Specifically, the regeneration of resources, the size of the board you use, how many cities are required to win, and how to “stack the deck” all change with the number of players in the game. In that regard, the company did a nice job of play-testing and it is balanced for any number of players you may have. The pace and ultimate goal/winning condition is also appropriate for each number of players and works out wonderfully. Check out the next section (i.e. non-gamers) for another point.
Cons: The biggest disadvantage this game has (and it is readily apparent) is that if you have less than 4 players, the auction for the power plants becomes almost pointless. Although the mechanics work well for this, you will end up paying face value for all your power plants; this eliminates a major strategy portion of the game. For example, no one tends to buy garbage plants in 2 or 3 players games. Garbage becomes more abundant near the end-game, but never as much as coal or oil. In 4-6 player games, someone is usually forced to buy garbage because they were outbid in other resources (coal or oil or uranium), or they wish to have a monopoly on garbage. Since this is a major factor in the game’s balance and strategy, you really miss out on this aspect of the money management strategy in-game.
Will my non-gaming spouse/friends like it?:
Pros: This depends on the number of players you have. The game becomes significantly less cut-throat if you only have 2-3 players. The reason is the ease of connecting cities since you lose the crowding effect with less players. The auction also becomes less of an issue in lower player games, again making it more friendly. Despite the length of the mechanics above, the rules themselves are fairly straightforward and the game play is quick. All positives for the non-gamer
Cons: As I mentioned above, in the higher number of players, you could fall behind early and never catch up. This is a not an attractive item for non-gamers.
Good for kids?:
Pros: There’s not many in this regard. You could argue that the rules are fairly straightforward, but you are definitely going to need an adult who knows the game well to help out and keep the flow smooth. The building aspect of this game is attractive for kids as well.
Cons: It can be cut-throat. The strategy involves a significant amount of planning ahead. You need to understand cost-effectiveness rather than just absolute dollar amounts. The rules change as the game progresses. These are tough points for a kid to take in.
Should I buy it? The criteria for buying this game should be the following:
-Do you enjoy games that use well-thought out planning rather than luck to advance the game?
-Do you enjoy games that you need to think about your turns well in advance rather than “playing it by ear”?
-If you fall behind, knowing you will never win, are you still going to do everything in your power to continue to play well?
-If you play with non-gamers, do you play with 2-3 players? If you play with gamers, can you routinely get 4-6 players together?
If you can say “Yes” to these questions, then this game is for you. Also keep in mind, if you are planning on buying this for the non-gamers in your life, I would make sure to introduce it to them with 2 or 3 players. Otherwise, they will likely be turned off by it.
Overview: I think this is a wonderful game and cannot believe I missed it up until this point. The thinking that goes into it is so many layers deep that I still haven’t formulated a solid strategy for it, which is part of the reason I keep coming back to it. The price is $45, which may be a bit steep for some, but given the replay value of it, it’s well worth that amount.