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Subject: [Voice of Experience] Power Grid: Smashing Players Together Since 2004 rss

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Mark Schlatter
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[This is my submission for the Voice of Experience review contest. The goals of the contest are two fold:
• to promote critical analysis of board games that goes beyond a summary of the rules, pictures of the components and a brief opinion of the game
• to encourage in-depth exploration of games in a community that tends to be dominated by first impressions.

To satisfy the latter goal, the person doing the review should have played the game at least ten times. I have played Power Grid about twenty times at least (not all plays logged on BGG) and taught the game to my local gaming group.

I have not included pictures or a detailed explanation of the rules. Instead, I wanted to emphasize the main concepts of the game in a written form.]


Power Grid, like a lot of modern Eurogames, is an economic game. You buy factories, resources, and cities in order to supply power, make money, and repeat the cycle. But unlike many games of its type, you do not have individual actors on the board --- there are no meeples or workers. Instead, you and other players are manipulating an economic system, giving an experience much closer to Container and Acquire than, say, Agricola.

There's another major difference. In many "economic engine" games, players specialize as the game progresses. By taking on certain roles or building special buildings, the players start to move away from each in the space of the game. For example, you can see some players in Puerto Rico focusing more on shipping cheap goods, while others produce expensive goods and sell them. You see players in Le Harve emphasizing different goods. As gamers, we often value these semi-disconnected strategies (as long as the game doesn't turn into multiplayer solitaire).

But Power Grid doesn't have multiple paths to victory. There's some minor specialization - the types of factories, where you build cities - but nothing like Agricola or Puerto Rico. Instead of the players being separated in the game space, Power Grid smashes them together through the use of three markets (factories, resources, and cities) where almost every decision by one player impacts the similar decisions made by the other players.

The city market: Cities are your long-term investment --- you never lose a city, and it never stops demanding power. Each additional city (assuming you can power it) brings in more money and reduces the cost to expand to other nearby cities. Moreover, buying more cities can advance the game (moving you to Step 2) or end the game.

And here's the first example of players being smashed together --- while you may start in different portions of the board, eventually you meet. And when you do, you have to start making decisions about expansion --- particularly, you have to weigh efficiency (making the cheapest connections) against competition (paying for more expensive connections to ensure your opponents pay more and you pay less in the future). I usually shine at this part of Power Grid, and I love seeing the networks grow and identifying the crucial cities to expand to.

The resource market: If the cities are the long-term investments, the resources are the short-term investments, because you can keep them around for at most two turns. And again, since everyone (usually) buys, players are often smashed together. You have to decide if buying more coal (potentially inefficient) is worth driving up the price for everyone else. (A quick aside: this is why the wind factories, although tempting, can be a mistake. By investing in wind, you increase your efficiency, but decrease your impact on the market.)

Sadly, this is the part of Power Grid I am worst at, but I have seen others do great at it, especially if they invest late game in power plants that require a lot of resources.

The factory market: Pretty obviously, these are the mid-term investments. What sets the factories apart, however, is how they are sold. More than anything else in the game, buying a factory shows your intentions. By your purchase, you tell everyone else what resources are important to you and indicate how many cities you may be building. So I love the fact that factories are auctioned off. The time when intentions are the most clear is the time when bluffing is most encouraged.

At two points during the game (Step 2 and Step 3), these markets shift. You see this most obviously in the city market, where the steps introduce new opportunities to build in cities (and more opportunities for player networks to run into each other). The Step 3 shift in the factory market is also fairly substantial, as the higher power factories (hidden for most of the game) emerge for sale about the time that players are raking in the dough. This combination of cash and power drives even more interaction in the late game.

The endgame condition of Power Grid is one more aspect of the game that drives players into fierce contemplation of each other's moves. A typical game ends when someone connects to 17 cities, but that someone is not necessarily the winner. (Read the FAQ!) The winner is the player who can power the most cities at that point --- that is, the player who has the resources, factories, and cities to generate the highest income. That number of cities may be more or less than the 17 needed to end the game.

In many economic Eurogames, the end of game is determined by a set number of turns, and your last few moves may simply be appropriate optimization. That can happen in Power Grid (and often does once someone hits 17 cities), but often your last few turns are concerned with who will end the game. Once again, you need to be flexible, balancing efficiency with interaction. I have often seen games where plans have gone awry once the ending doesn't come "when it should".

Let's turn to the possible negatives of the game.

The fiddliness: I cannot deny that Power Grid can be a complicated game to manage --- you have to refill resources, place factories out correctly, handle the steps, make payouts, etc.... (Read the FAQ!) I handled most of this the first few times our group played the game, and while the amount of detail isn't staggering, it's definitely above the norm for the average Eurogame.

However, it is worth noting that almost all of the fiddliness is corporate bookkeeping, not individual bookkeeping. The game needs management not because each player needs to track her or his information, but because the three markets need to be appropriately handled.

The math: Power Grid regularly requires you to handle one, two, and (sometimes) three digit addition. Again, this is a consequence of the design. You are using one currency to pay for three different markets, each of which needs some level of variation to make different options more or less attractive. You therefore need some spread in the values, and that drives the need for arithmetic. So, if you do not wish to be adding five two digit numbers together your last turn, do not play Power Grid.

The turn order: I am guessing there are some Power Grid fans who are surprised to hear no mention of turn order up to this point in the review. Turn order is crucial to the game, with players with the most long-term investments (cities) typically having to play higher prices or receive lesser factories. In short, you control when you enter markets by the number of cities you have.

Now, controlling turn order isn't unique to Power Grid. But most Eurogames --- if they adjust turn order --- do so on the basis of specific options players take that are directly connected to turn order (e.g., placing a worker in Caylus, deciding to end your turn in Hawaii). Brass (where turn order depends on how much money you spent the last turn) is probably the closest analogue. But Power Grid determines player order using one of the variables that determine who wins the game, and a common complaint is that it's a catch up mechanism that does not fit the theme of the game.

I won't defend the fit with theme, but I will say that the turn order mechanism is another example of how players in Power Grid are forced to carefully look at each other's moves. Each long-term investment you make is counterbalanced by the knowledge that you may, as a result, lose out on cheaper investments in the future as other players make moves to grab easier connections, less costly resources, and better factories. I don't think of the mechanism as penalizing, but driving more interaction. Those who prefer a greater emphasis on efficiency may differ.

So, what's the takeaway? I believe Power Grid succeeds as a game because its design does not separate players in the game space, but smashes them together. By having all players carry out the same set of actions, the game emphasis transcends mere efficiency to focus more on interaction and market manipulation.

Hmmm.... I think I just wrote a hifalutin version of "Power Grid is a game with great potential to screw other players".












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Fraser
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mschlat wrote:

The resource market: If the cities are the long-term investments, the resources are the short-term investments, because you can keep them around for at most two turns. And again, since everyone (usually) buys, players are often smashed together. You have to decide if buying more coal (potentially inefficient) is worth driving up the price for everyone else. (A quick aside: this is why the wind factories, although tempting, can be a mistake. By investing in wind, you increase your efficiency, but decrease your impact on the market.)

Sadly, this is the part of Power Grid I am worst at, but I have seen others do great at it, especially if they invest late game in power plants that require a lot of resources.


I think your explanation of the resource market may point to areas of worthy of revisiting.

In my opinion the statement you can keep them around for at most two turns is not the way to look at resources.

Fact: Each Power Plant may store up to two turns of resources.

However if you will only burn at most one turn of resources per turn and you can purchase another turn's worth each turn, thus you can effectively "park" one turn worth of resources on a power plant for a long time. In, possibly extreme, cases you may choose not to power a plant at all, usually due to either the price of refueling or the likelihood that you will not actually be able to refuel because of a resource shortage. I once held a 5 city power plant fuelled with coal for three turns without using it because the coal was too expensive or just not available and it was the only way I could ensure the plant was available for when the game was likely to end.

mschlat wrote:
this is why the wind factories, although tempting, can be a mistake. By investing in wind, you increase your efficiency, but decrease your impact on the market

My thoughts on the Green power plants (wind and fusion (the magical 50)) differ from yours. It doesn't mean that my opinion is any better of course cool

The biggest problem with the Green plants in my opinion is that there are not many end game plants, most of them are early or mid game plants that you are going to replace and it is a matter of timing that replacement.

I find them incredibly useful because they cost nothing to fuel and generating income without any ongoing expense is extremely useful in Power Grid. My main issue with them is that as I mentioned above, most of them are transient and you will discard them for a power plant that powers five, six or even seven cities for your end game positioning.

It is true that they can take you out of a resource market manipulation game, but in my opinion you should only be playing the resource market manipulation game (i.e. driving the price of a resource for other player(s)) if it is beneficial for you to do so, or in other words driving the price of the resource for the other players should be of secondary importance. If you are spending money to buy extra resources purely to drive the price up for other players then you are running the risk of wasting some money due to the fact that you could probably buy those same resources for less in the next turn. You may say it only cost a few extra Elektros but I have seen many a game of Power Grid where the difference between first and second place was only one Elektro.
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Moe45673
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Exactly the kind of review I like. Explaining the rules means nothing to me. Rules are for playing the game. They are tools to give you an experience. The experience is why you play the game, not "you're only allowed to put down a meeple in a space that is available." It's like explaining the "spin around until you fall down and puke" game to a child.

"Well, you just keep turning in one spot as fast as possible until the fluids in your inner ear are properly scattered"

"SPIN! The world turns so fast, like a rollercoaster!"

Which game would you rather play? Ok, we're all old fogies here, but you catch my drift.

I personally like economics and math in my games (which is weird, because the subjects bore me in real life) and I have this game on the shelf. I hope to break it out this weekend. Your review gives me much hope, especially after seeing many of the negatives say "there's really only one viable strategy which kills the replayability"
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Blorb Plorbst
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Good review. Some parts made me think about the game in a new way and that's useful.

All of the things you mention are key parts to playing the game well:
Resource Management
Network Development
Predicting\Controlling the end of game
Turn Order management
Power Plant Auction

When played with experienced players who are all trying to do them at the same time, the game will come down to just a few dollars and it's very exciting.
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Mark Schlatter
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Karlsen wrote:
In my opinion the statement you can keep them around for at most two turns is not the way to look at resources....

However if you will only burn at most one turn of resources per turn and you can purchase another turn's worth each turn, thus you can effectively "park" one turn worth of resources on a power plant for a long time.


Yes, I think that's a valid critique --- I was trying to drive the short-term emphasis and forgot about parking. Perhaps it's better to emphasize the frequency of replenishment over the frequency of use.


Karlsen wrote:
mschlat wrote:
this is why the wind factories, although tempting, can be a mistake. By investing in wind, you increase your efficiency, but decrease your impact on the market

My thoughts on the Green power plants (wind and fusion (the magical 50)) differ from yours. It doesn't mean that my opinion is any better of course cool

The biggest problem with the Green plants in my opinion is that there are not many end game plants, most of them are early or mid game plants that you are going to replace and it is a matter of timing that replacement.

I find them incredibly useful because they cost nothing to fuel and generating income without any ongoing expense is extremely useful in Power Grid. My main issue with them is that as I mentioned above, most of them are transient and you will discard them for a power plant that powers five, six or even seven cities for your end game positioning.


Well, I said I was worst at resource management

Here's the biggest issue I see with green plants: new players tend to overvalue them, possibly because of the free energy. (See http://www.amazon.com/Predictably-Irrational-Hidden-Forces-D... for a good description of the psychological thinking on how free distorts our thinking.) I have seen the 50 plant sell for 100 electros --- way more than its worth in the game (with neither newcomer bidder ending up winning). I have seen a new player load up on wind power and fail to make the transition to higher powered factories. I certainly agree that there's a place for the plants, but I believe new players should be cautious with them.
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Randall Bart
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The psychological issue I see is that people think in terms of percentage return on investment and long term use, but the game is about being biggest (not most efficient) in a limited time horizon.
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Sam Carroll
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The issue with green power plants is that you can only have three plants at a time. If the number you could have was unlimited (or just larger, say 6 or 7) the efficiency of the green plants would be a much larger factor, since you could buy plant #13 and keep it around for the whole game. Restricting each player to three plants means that larger plants, however inefficient, are almost always better.
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Blorb Plorbst
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spartax wrote:
The issue with green power plants is that you can only have three plants at a time. If the number you could have was unlimited (or just larger, say 6 or 7) the efficiency of the green plants would be a much larger factor, since you could buy plant #13 and keep it around for the whole game. Restricting each player to three plants means that larger plants, however inefficient, are almost always better.


This isn't to say one should never buy green. I used to avoid them but in the last year I find myself buying one almost every game. You just have to know why and when it's good - or what you need to do to make it good.

If you can get the 13 at or near cost, it's a fine plant -- significantly better than the 8. If I can get an early 5 plant to go with it, it'll run for ages - providing me a free $10 per turn. If you're going to be forced to churn it out quickly - it's lost its efficiency.

A mid game 44 is a great buy as long as you're set up for finding the other 12 power. And the 50 near the end can be insurance against someone running out the resources.

One of the real risks for green plants is its affect on turn order. The 13, especially, tends to throw you into the lead based on plant value. You need to adapt to that and be ready for it.
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Hey, great review! You clearly and succinctly described what Power Grid is really about. I liked the discussion of short term, medium term and long term aspects. I also totally agree that it is the tension and interaction found in every phase - the "Smashing Players Together" that makes this game so good.

That said, while I like Power Grid, it isn't my very favorite, in part because of the fiddliness and calculations you mentioned, but also in part because of the randomness. There can be a decent little bit of luck in the power plant draws. On occasion the last person left in an auction will get just the plant they needed handed to them off of the deck, with no-one available to bid it up. I'm not saying that the luck plays a big role in the game, mind you, but it is enough to annoy me a little bit. Granted, I am more easily annoyed by randomness than most people are, but I still think it bears mentioning as a possible negative.
 
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Grzegorz Kobiela
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First of all, great review and thanks for the interesting read!

Another thing I dislike about green plants is their number. They are always higher than equally good resource-consuming plants, thus, worsening your position in turn order in case of a tie in cities - which are very common, especially in the early game. Green plants demand skill, newbies, as some of you already mentioned, keep to over-value them too much.

On resource manipulation, I usually find that buying resources in order to drive prices up hurts more than it helps. Almost always. Buying another set of resources, say 3 coal for $9 just to drive the price to $4 per coal hurts you by $9 and your opponent by $3 (if he as well buys 3 pieces, now costing $12 instead of $9). Yeah, you also got the resources, right, but most of the time you'd get them cheaper in future turns.

Driving up prices in order to create shortages of a certain resources, again, doesn't work so well most of the time. Resource shortages are quite common, but extremely situational. If many players acquire coal plants, then, of course, coal will soon become a short resource. When coal starts to cost $7, it is worth consideration to buy as many pieces as you can to deny them from other players. With prices lower than that, it's not worth it. It requires at least another player to gang up with you in the pursue to shorten the supply. And you can't count on that and, more importantly, without "cheating" you can't really suggest something like this aloud. It's kind of bad sportsmanship.

Better keep those Electros for future turns, either for rushing the city building or having some left for high bidding. The latter, again, is usually not recommended unless the situation emerges.

Which, finally, brings me to why I love this game so much: Everything in it is so situational. No game, even with the same board, is nearly equal to another. The huge amount of decisions players take during the game creates great variety. Although all players are "smashed together" - as you wonderfully summed that up -, they still have to go through so many decisions. This game creates so much tension with so little elements. This is a truly professional game design!
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Alex Drazen
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There are situations where buying up lots of coal is appropriate, but they're mainly 2-player.

Once, I had lots of coal plants with big coal storage, and my gf blundered into buying a coal plant by trying to bid me up on it. I had the turn order and was able to eat up lots of coal (I think it was in Brazil, where coal barely replenishes) in Step 1. How much coal? Enough to keep her from running a 5-city plant for about 2 turns. I spent about half what I denied her in potential income.

Also, you might as well grab stuff at 1-2 electro unless the game is ending, or you desperately need another $1-$2.

The best use of wind plants is in plant stall; you'll be making more than your opponents, for fewer electro per turn. I've played some 3p where I ended up with 13-18-22 as my plants and sat on five cities while everyone desperately rushed to build to 7 cities to stop me from running away with it (and had they waited about one more turn, I probably would have).

Wind is also good on (a) resource-poor maps and (b) maps with expensive connections. You'll get cheaper power for longer, which can only help you.

But wind isn't a guarantee. I just played Benelux at Unity this past weekend, and lost to a newbie by a mere $9, playing with Plant Deck 2 in a 6-player game -- despite getting the 32 wind plant (!!) on the first turn (last in turn order and future wind plants go into current market), and holding it right up until the end.

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