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Subject: [Voice of Experience] Power Up! rss

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This review was originally hurriedly (~30 min) written for the Voice of Experience contest.

I enjoy playing boardgames as both a social activity and as an opportunity to stimulate my mind. I enjoy trying to solve "puzzles", thinking ahead several moves, and second guessing my opponents moves. I lean toward games that keep all players involved with no clear run-away winner. Like many, Settlers of Catan was my "gateway" game into the board-gaming hobby and I have now since moved on in the search for more intellectually stimulating games.

To me, a great game has the following things:
• A great/interesting theme
• Easy to understand rules (not necessarily simple)
• High degree of player interactivity (for the social aspect)
• No/limited player elimination or early clear cut winners
• Less emphasis on luck, more emphasis on strategy
• Ability to win even if it's your first time playing

Premise of Power Grid
I might be a little biased as a graduate of engineering studies, but I think the theme of Power Grid is pretty awesome.

Image courtesy of Teppolainen

Each player represents a power service provider with the goal of providing the most power to various cities in a country (most versions of the base game include USA and Germany as the available countries to play in). Explaining the theme to players from a less technical background sometimes induces a bit of eye-rolling, but it's easily understandable and relate-able. The game is fairly topical (considering energy is a hot-issue these days) and playing Power Grid often leads to interesting discussions and/or snarky comments from your oil-loving/hippy-green-energy friends whistle

Ultimately, I think the premise and theme of Power Grid is well executed and gives the players the right amount of motivation to play the game and understand what they're doing.

Thoughts on Gameplay
I won't go into too much detail on all the rules and such, but I'll give you enough information so you aren't forced to read the rulebook in case you're just looking for a primer.

The overall structure of the game is fairly straightforward:
• 1) Players determine the turn-order for this round (losing players get a more advantageous position while winning players are put in a more dis-advantageous position)
• 2) Players bid in turn order on available power plants that are used to provide power to their network
• 3) Players bid on resources such as coal, oil, garbage, and uranium that are used to power their power plants
• 4) Players expand their power network by building new infrastructure in cities around the game board
• 5) Players decide how many cities they are going to power and deplete the necessary resources, getting paid depending on how many cities they powered.

The game eventually ends when a player's network size reaches a certain number of cities (determined by the number of players). At that point, whoever can power the most cities wins.

As you can see, the gameplay itself is rather straightforward - but what makes Power Grid such an interesting game is how this all works with the game mechanics.

Power plant auctions
Image courtesy of bkunes. Note the stand was a custom component and is not part of the game

When deciding what power plant to purchase, players can see four available power plants and four power plants that are "in development". Those power plants that are in development might soon be available, but anybody who's in the research business knows that nothing is for sure and those juicy power plants might well disappear back into the power plant deck (awesome theme integration here, as a researcher, stuff always fails/gets delayed! ). Thus, there's always the challenging dilemma of either going for a decent power plant that's available now or perhaps holding out for an even better one that you can see on the horizon. An extra area of intrigue is that players will bid against each other and a hotly contested power plant may soon cost 10-20 "Elektros" (the currency of the game) more than you expected. Finally, as players can only buy 1 power plant a turn, if you just wait for everybody else to buy their power plant, you can buy whatever power plant is available uncontested! (no bid-war).


Image courtesy of phibbi

Another really neat thing about this game is the variable resources costs that represent the effect "supply and demand" can create on prices (another great implementation of the theme here!). Resources that are plentiful initially cost very little to acquire. However, as more and more players buy say...coal, the price can skyrocket as the supply decreases. Thus, it becomes important to watch what your opponents are doing as even though that coal power plant *might* be the best plant, if 3 other players are also coal heavy, you might want to steer clear. Turn order here becomes very important, as those who are behind in the game get first dibs on buying resources, meaning they can usually acquire them far cheaper than the players who are winning and need to get their resources last. Sometimes, it can be advantageous to manoeuvre yourself into a losing position just so you can buy the resources you need.

Network building

Image courtesy of henk.rolleman

The area of network building is where there is most likely to be some metaphorical (or literal devil) head-butting with your opponents as you jostle for the most favourable board positions. Not all cities and positions are equal, as when you expand your network, you also have to consider the connection costs (of laying cable, etc.) between your existing cities. This is again, a great implementation of the power grid building theme. Thus, if you build your cities far apart, you'll have to pay quite a bit more than if you connect closer cities. Naturally, the board quickly becomes crowded and players can get boxed out of juicy areas if they're not careful. Again, turn order plays a factor here as those who are "losing" get first dibs on infrastructure placement.

Sum of the parts
The three main mechanics of auctioning power plants, buying resources, and expanding your network all fit very well into the theme of the game. They complement each other to create a challenging and dynamic environment that initially forces the player to plan out their entire move ahead of time, but also react to what their opponents do. There is a large variety of power plants along with "green" plants that do not need any resources but often power many less cities than their fuel burning counterparts (another great true-to-life fact laugh). At the same time, players have to watch the resource supply and demand market and think about where they might expand next (but also where their opponents might go). The result is a game that forces you to re-evaluate your position every turn and results in a much less static sort of "set-it and keep chugging ahead" feel that games such as Settlers of Catan evoke for me.

Thoughts on components and artwork

Image courtesy of Nodens77

Included in the game are your standard euro-style wooden bits that are found in other games such as Catan or Agricola. They're nothing special, but they get the job done and the colours contrast each other enough so that you don't get confused. Every player also gets a helpful aid that summarizes the phases of each turn and earning potentials of your network. A nice touch was having the resources colour coded and also differentiated in shape.

I really like the power plant art and feel the progressions of a small coal power plant with a small innocent smoke stack that powers 1 city to a veritable den of evil with clouds of smoke to be another hilarious truth in the game.

The rule book is decent, but it was much easier and less confusing to learn the game from somebody who had played it before. Another complaint is the charts/tables that are needed to set up the game and determine resource supplies are on different pages throughout the book. Perhaps the tables should have been included as a separate aid sheet?

Final thoughts
Great things about power grid:
• Simple rules, first timers can be competitive and win
• Great theme and art
• High degree of player interaction throughout all phases of each round
• Good layers of strategy, and limited emphasis on luck
• All players are more or less in it until the end
• Relatively short and players in about 2.5 hours for a 6 player game

Some not so great things:
• There can be some downtime between turns - especially in a 6 player game - this usually isn't a huge problem as things happen fairly quickly but could be an issue if somebody in the group overthinks things
• Board isn't modular and requires the purchase of new boards if you start to get bored of playing in USA/Germany all the time
• The re-filling of resources is a little tedious as it requires you to look up tables and what not. This part of the game is not as elegant as the rest, but I suppose it's not really that bad

Some things people might have issues with
• You really need to know exactly what you're going to do with all your money at the start of the turn to play effectively. This results in a lot of mental math (adding 2-3 digit numbers - difficult if you've been out of high school for a while whistle). It can become kind of a brain burner and limit table talk as people are too busy adding numbers in their head.
• You need to play with at least 3 players. 2 players is possible, but far less interesting as much of the fun comes from the bidding and jostling for resources and board position.

Power grid is a great economy building game that is lighter on rules than its counterparts such as Agricola and Puerto Rico. It has a fun theme and relatively short playing time. It's easy to teach new players how to play and they can be competitive the first time they play with no needed knowledge of "tricks" and other types of derived knowledge from experience. It has good, but not great replayability as the power plant deck randomizes the order and availability of power plants each game. It's easily expandable if you end up really enjoying the game though, as you can buy new power plant cards and game boards with different countries and slightly different rules. The game rewards players who can think ahead yet react effectively to their opponents' plays. Due to the potential for brain burning via math, I suggest playing Power Grid when people are fresh and as the only (or at least first) game of its night for a lighter, more social evening (or afternoon, morning, what have you).
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