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Subject: Power Grid: One Power-fully Great Game rss

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[This review originally appeared on the Gamers Alliance website]

Everybody knows the story of the ugly duckling that grows up to be a swan. But how many times have you wished it could be true of a game? The game may play well, but is hard on the eyes and offends the aesthetic sensibilities. Sadly, games don’t grow up the way that aquatic fowl do.

Unless, that is, its creator gives the game a second chance, as is the case with Power Grid. The ugly duckling in question is a 2001 design called Funkenschlag and the designer is Friedemann Friese. Friese is a talented designer best known for his quirks (he dyes his hair bright green and almost all his games begin with the letter “F”) and his innovative gaming ideas. Among his best known designs are Fresh Fish (in which roads are constructed automatically via “expropriation”), Fische Fluppen Frikadellen (which can handle up to 15 players, who switch between three game boards), and Finstere Flure (in which the players try to avoid being eaten by a gruesome monster). But to hard-core gamers, Friese’s masterpiece is Funkenschlag. This is a deep, rich, multifaceted game that was a surprise hit back in 2001. There were only two things objectionable with the design. One was that it took at least three hours to play. The other was the components, which were less than stellar due to the small publisher (Friese’s own company 2F-Spiele). Particularly problematic was the game “board” (actually flexible laminated cardstock), which was too big for the box and had to be rolled up to be stored! Despite these issues, the game has a very high reputation among the small number of gamers who own it.

Altering a game to reduce its duration while maintaining its depth is usually a very difficult proposition. But that’s what Friese attempted with Power Grid, a streamlined and much nicer looking redesign of Funkenschlag. I’m happy to report that he has succeeded completely, producing a game that’s just as rich and interesting as the parent game but which can be completed within two hours. Since many GA readers may not be familiar with Funk, I’ll describe Power Grid from scratch, but I’ll also mention where it differs from the original design for those who wish to compare the two.

The theme of Power Grid is that of providing electricity to cities. The game consists of three main subsystems: buying power plants; purchasing fuel for these plants; and extending your power grid to the cities. The game board (yes, it really is a board this time) is two-sided, showing stylized maps of Germany and the U.S. on the two sides. Each map consists of 42 cities, connected to each other by pipelines with values on them. Each map is also divided into six areas and one area is used for each player, so the game can be scaled from two to six players. With two maps and different combinations of areas possible, there are quite a few initial setups for the game.

The power plants are represented by cards. Each plant is characterized by its value, the type of fuel it uses (coal, oil, garbage, nuclear, or wind power, which requires no fuel), the number of fuel units it uses, and the number of cities it can power if the fuel is expended. For example, plant 19 can power three cities a turn if it burns two garbage. The game also includes player tokens (to show which cities they’re connected to), tokens for the different types of fuel, and money.

The first thing that players do on a turn is buy new power plants. Players have the option of selecting an available plant, which is then auctioned off. The minimum bid is the plant’s value and no one can buy more than one plant per turn. There are eight face up plants and the four with the lowest value are available to be chosen. Since the first eight plants are always the eight lowest valued ones, this allows the players to slowly build up their powering capabilities as the game progresses. The system also gives the players an idea of what the future may hold without it being deterministic (since the plant that replaces the one just sold could be lower ranked than any of the four non-available plants). Overall, this system works quite well, although there is the possibility of stagnation in mid-game.

The decision of which plants to buy and how much to pay for them is one of the most critical ones in the game. The capabilities of the plant and the type of fuel it uses must be taken into account. But the real reason this is so important is the game’s key rule: players can never own more than three plants at the same time. If a fourth is purchased, one of the older plants must be discarded. Since the goal of the game is to power 14 or more cities, players always have to plan for the combination of three plants which will allow them to reach this total by game’s end. It’s also important throughout the game to have plants of appropriate size to power the cities that you’ve connected to. Planning your mix of power plants makes for a very satisfying subgame.

After the plants are purchased, the players buy the fuel for their plants. Power Grid uses a simple, but effective supply and demand system for determining the price of fuel. There are spaces on the board for each type of fuel with a price on each space. A certain number of tokens of each fuel type are placed on the spaces at the beginning of the game, beginning with the highest cost and continuing downward. When players buy fuel, they take their tokens from the occupied spaces with the lowest cost and pay the bank the sum of these costs. At the end of each turn, a set number of fuel tokens are replenished to the display. Thus, if more fuel of a type is bought than was replenished, the price will rise. On the other hand, if little of the fuel type was bought, the price will fall.

The purchased fuel is placed upon the plant that will use it. Each plant can store up to twice the amount of fuel that it can use in a turn. For example, plant 19 referred to above could store up to four garbage tokens. Usually players will only buy enough fuel for a single turn, but hoarding can be effective to drive up the price for an opponent or even to exhaust the current supply (which is bad news for a player going later in that turn who has a plant that requires that fuel type).

Next, the players expand to new cities. This is the principal difference between Power Grid and Funkenschlag. In Funk, you connect to cities by drawing from point to point on the board just as in a crayon rail game. The cost is based on the number of intermediate points between cities and their terrain. Power Grid dispenses with the crayons altogether. Instead, the cost to expand from one city to an adjacent one is the value on the pipeline that connects them. There is also a city connection cost, just as in Funk. Players show which cities they are connected to by placing one of their tokens on the city. At the beginning of the game, only one player can connect to each city, so blocking tactics are possible. Players can build through a city without connecting to it, paying for the sum of the pipelines used, but that tends to be expensive. Later on, two and eventually three players can use the same city, at an increased connection cost. Funkenschlag’s building mechanic was an inspired borrowing from crayon rail games. But calculating the cost between cities was time consuming, as was the drawing itself. Power Grid drastically reduces this time, while maintaining almost all of the strategy in the building phase. It also makes planning much easier, since the costs are clearly printed on the board.

Then comes the payday. Each player declares how many cities he is powering that turn. This requires that he be connected to at least that many cities and that he has power plants that can power at least that many cities and that those plants expend the necessary fuel. The expended fuel is returned to the supply. Each player receives cash from the bank for the cities he powers. The more cities a player supplies, the more money he gets, but this amount is subject to diminishing returns, so that the difference between supplying one city and two is less than the difference between supply nine cities and ten. This keeps early leaders from establishing too much of a lead. These diminishing returns mean it is sometimes a strategic choice for a player to power fewer cities than he can, particularly if the cost of the fuel lost is greater than the income received for the extra cities.

Finally, the turn order for the next turn is established. The player connected to the fewest cities on the board goes first, and so on down to the player connected to the most cities, who goes last. Ties are broken in favor of the player whose highest valued plant is lower. Turn order is very significant in this game and is another “catch the leader” mechanism implemented by Friese. Going last in the resource buying phase means you’re paying more for your fuel—and there might not even be enough left to power all your plants. Building last means the choicest spots might be taken earlier in the turn. During the auction phase, players go in reverse turn order, so the leader must pick the plant she wishes to auction first. This gives you less flexibility, since the juicier plants may become available later in the round. If there’s nothing appealing among the available plants, you either have to put a minimum bid on a plant you’d rather not buy, hoping that another player will raise it (not likely, with experienced opponents), or pass, which eliminates you from the rest of the auctions that turn.

The game ends when at least one player has connected to a certain number of cities (which varies with the number of players). The players then power all the cities they can and the one who can power the most cities (possibly not the individual who triggered the end of the game) is the winner.

What makes Power Grid a great game is the way the three principal subsystems mesh together so well. You need to have plants, fuel, and cities to win and they are acquired in different ways, using different gaming skills. It truly is a game where you have to be at your best every step of the way in order to succeed.

Your toughest decisions will probably occur during the plant auctions. In addition to always being aware of how many cities you can power, your fuel requirements are also critical. A plant that can power a bunch of cities is no bargain if the fuel costs every turn will bankrupt you. Plants that use a fuel type that is little used are always valuable, as the fuel price will be low. But sometimes you have to play a little defense, to make sure that that player with the only Nuclear plant has to pay more than rock bottom prices for his fuel. Finally, you have to figure just how high you’ll go in a competitive auction, which includes estimating what is likely to be available to buy if you bow out.

Your options during fuel purchasing will to a large extent be determined by the plants you have, but deciding whether to overstock or not stock a plant at all can still be an important decision. You always have to be aware of the possibility of a type of fuel running out, which can be devastating (unless you’re the one scarfing up the last of the coal, in which case it’s delightful!).

Since building can be so expensive, particularly later in the game, its cost must always be taken into account during the auctions and fuel purchases, making sure that you have enough to expand to sufficient cities (taking into account the nefarious actions of the players building ahead of you). Moving to cordon off areas and block opponents on the usually crowded board is also essential. Finally, you have to ask yourself if building to that extra city is worth falling back in the turn order (this is sometimes a consideration during the auction phase as well, when bidding for a high ranking plant). All these decisions have to be dealt with numerous times during a single game of Power Grid, making it a very meaty and very enjoyable design.

Another feature of the game is that it plays well with a wide variety of players. I can testify that the four and five player games are excellent. Reportedly, it works well with three as well. Some feel the map gets too crowded with six, but just as many like it with that number. Even the two-player game seems worth playing, but most players agree that the game plays better with more.

Besides the streamlined and very successful switch away from crayon drawing in PG, the biggest difference between Funkenschlag and the newer design is the amount of money in the game. Money is much more readily available in Power Grid—the players begin with more and the payoff for powering cities is greater. The reason is simple: it speeds the game up. Even though both games feature the concept of diminishing returns for additional cities, some gamers feel that the accelerated payoff schedule in Power Grid makes it too hard to catch an early leader. That hasn’t been my experience, as I’ve seen both wire-to-wire victories and big come from behind wins in my games. In fact, the penalties to the leader in Funk are so draconian that it sometimes seemed as if the games devolved into a dance to see who could avoid the lead! Power Grid seems a little better rounded in that regard, so at this point in time, this isn’t a concern for me.

There is one area in which the increased money supply in PG seems to detract from the game and that’s an inevitable consequence of its shorter duration. In Funk, once you got up to three plants, there were definite stages of growth as you inched your way up to your ultimate collection of power plants. Every game was different, of course, but roughly speaking, there was a beginning, intermediate, and final stage that had to be achieved. Power Grid seems to lack that middle stage and I find I miss it. So I do feel the gameplay in Funk is slightly superior to PG, but the quicker game play and much nicer components more than make up for it.

The random order in which the plants appear helps to make every game of Power Grid different, but they also introduce a bit of luck into the proceedings. Most players will find this very acceptable, but there are times in which the newly revealed card turns out to be unexpectedly high or low and this can really sway the game, particularly if there is only one player left who can buy (and who might therefore be the recipient of a genuine bargain). If this proves to be troublesome, one obvious variant is to reveal the top card of the plant deck, so that the players always know what card will be next to join the exposed cards. In Funk, this could be a problem, since if the available cards were crap and the new card was golden, no one was willing to put a plant up for auction. In Power Grid, however, there’s a new rule that says that the lowest ranked plant is discarded if no auctions occur in a turn, which neatly takes care of this problem. So those players who want to minimize the amount of luck in a heavy game like this one might do well to consider this variant.

Probably the biggest problem I had with Funk was the likelihood of stagnation in the middle of the game. You get a bunch of mediocre plants in the lineup, everyone waits for better buys, and the game drags. This was not an uncommon occurrence. This is still a possibility in Power Grid, even with the new discard rule, which is a little disappointing. But I think the chances of it occurring are much less, another point in favor of the newer game.

So did the ugly duckling really grow up to be a swan? Well, maybe nothing quite that nice, but Power Grid is still a fine looking bird. The game board is an enormous improvement over the original. The use of the pipeline graphics does make things a little cluttered, but it’s still pretty easy to read and this is not only much better looking but considerably easier to use. And you can’t beat getting two maps for the price of one! Many gamers objected to the cartoony style of the illustrations on the Funk power plant cards. I actually kind of liked them, but I do agree that the new pictures on the PG cards are nicer looking, with more detail and use of color. The illustrations on the currency are also a little more dignified, as is the cover art. The components are quite up to the standards of the big German game companies and that’s high praise indeed.

To summarize, Power Grid is one of the best game designs to appear in the last five years. It is not a game for the faint of heart, but is more accessible than its progenitor Funkenschlag simply because it’s quicker and better looking. But for those who like meaty games, it’s a must buy. The varied, finely meshed game systems, the constant tension, and the need for consistently good judgment elevate this game to greatness. So don’t delay—electrify your gaming group and pick up a copy today!
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