Monday, July 1, 2013

Don't Judge A Game By Its Box Art: "Power Grid"


C'mon, look at that box cover art.  Just look at it.  A scientist dude in a lab coat holding a clipboard and twiddling his knob.  I'm sorry, but this looks about as exciting as watching a workplace safety video played backwards, upside down and in Latin.

Along with games like Steam and Die Macher, Power Grid really suffers from limited curb appeal.  At face value, it really looks as if it would put the "bored" back in board games.  But you'd be wrong for thinking that.  Wrong, myopic and quite likely a bit of an asshole.

Okay, so here comes my rebuttal to the charges of "boring as fuck".  First off, I'd like to table this opening statement, provided to me by the legal team at Rio Grande Games:

Power Grid is the updated release of the Friedemann Friese crayon game Funkenschlag.  The latest cooperative publishing effort from Friedemann Friese and Rio Grande Games removes the crayon aspect from network building in the original edition while retaining the fluctuating commodities market like McMulti and an auction round intensity reminiscent of The Princes of Florence.

Okay, okay, whoa, whoa, whoa, stop right there, guys.  Crayons?!  "Funkenschlag"?  "Fluctuating commodities markets"?  The "auction round intensity of The Princes of Florence"?  You guys ain't exactly helping out my case here.  Can you punch this up a little bit?  C'mon, it's time to bring yer "A" game!  Hit me with your best shot...GO!!! 

The object of Power Grid is to supply the most cities with power when someone’s network gains a predetermined size.  In this new edition, players mark pre-existing routes between cities for connection, and then vie against other players to purchase the power plants that you use to supply the power. However, as plants are purchased, newer more efficient plants become available so you’re potentially allowing others access to superior equipment merely by purchasing at all.  Additionally, players must acquire the raw materials, like coal, oil, garbage, or uranium, to power said plants (except for the highly valuable ’renewable energy’ wind/solar plants), making it a constant struggle to upgrade your plants for maximum efficiency while still retaining enough wealth to quickly expand your network to get the cheapest routes.

Okay, well, that sounds a bit better.  Looking to scope out the full deposition?  You can read all the legalese simply by following this link to the full rule book.

***

So, a coupla Wednesday nights ago, Andrew, Mike and I gathered in Dean's phat palatial basement to have a go at Power Grid.  Ages ago, Andrew and I played the game with Chad and were anxious to try it again with a different map.  Dean, who has a mild allergy to Eurogames, was understandably skeptical.  Mike, who's business cards probably say "Hooray for everything!", was just happy to be PLAYING A BOARD GAME.

COLORS

Andrew...Red
Me...Black
Dean...Blue
Mike...Yellow

We decided to use the United States map this time out:


And here's our starting assortment of Power Plants:


What's that?  You want to now what all this crap means?  You don't bother to read the rules, didja?  *Le sigh*

Okay, here's a quick orientation of the Power Plant Cards.  First off, the bold number in the upper left hand corner is how much the thing costs to buy and sorta represents the factory's relative value.  The iconography below shows what resources you need to spend and how many Cities you can power as a result.  For example, you can spend two barrels of Oil to power one City with that Cost "3" Plant.  

The Power Plants are deliberately arranged in two rows for a reason.  The top row represents the current market: I.E. Power Plants that you can buy right now.  The bottom row represents the future market and are off limits until they move up into the first rank as their predecessors are purchased or discarded.  As such, players can easily keep tabs on what's coming, allowing them to plan accordingly.  

In the first round I bought that six-value Garbage-burning facility and Mike picked up the five-point dual-purpose Oil and/or Coal-fueled factory.  This made the seven-point, three-Oil barrel operation available and Dean was all over that like a fat kid on a bag of Nerds.  Andrew also got his mitts on a second-generation Power Plant: an eight-pointer that required three Coal to power two Cities.  Mike and I immediately exchanged dubious glances, suspecting that we were already starting to lag behind.

All four of us began staking our claims with our initial Cities.  Mike started in Motor City and then expanded to one of the four corners of the earth: Cincinnati.  Seeing how inexpensive future infrastructure would be on the East Coast, I made my first few ventures into Raleigh and Norfolk.  Dean decided to set up shop in Denver and Cheyenne, either because he knew there'd be little competition or because he just so happened to be standing there.  Finally Andrew jumped all over Dallas and Oklahoma City, intent on splitting the country in half.

Dean and Andrew's ability to power two Cities gave them the initiative and soon I found myself irritated by the inflated cost of raw materials.  How could Garbage be so gorram expensive?           


Here's how things looked going into the next round:  


Mike snapped up a Power Plant capable of fueling two cities with two Coal.  Still on a budget, I picked up the three-cost factory which could power one City for two Oil.  Dean made a heavy-but-worthwhile investment in a thirteen-point wind turbine.  Andrew acquired a frugal three-point operation which provided one juice for two Oil.  

And that's when I realized that I'd done goofed up.  Up to that point in time I though that you could use a Power Plant tile as often as you wanted so long as you had enough resources to keep powering it.  Yeah, I was wrong.  Although this oversight prevented me from powering all three of my Cities, I did end up stockpiling some pretty cheap Coal.  I made sure not to make this same mistake again.  

Andrew extended his reach by snapping up Kansas City.  Spurred on by the cheap connectors, I quickly claimed Washington D.C. for my very own.  Only Andrew had things balanced in perfect harmony and managed to power all three of his Cities.  

  
Here's what we were all vying for in the following round:


Nuclear power really came into vogue that turn.  I snapped up the seventeen-point factory, giving me the ability to power two Cities for two Uranium.  Andrew went all-in with a twenty-eighter pointer, allowing him to fuel four Cities for the same cost!  Dean stuck with more traditional means and picked up a twelve-cost Oil and/or Coal facility which could juice two Cities.  Mike nearly broke the bank when he spent twenty-nine (billion?) dollars to buy a Power Plant which could supply four Cities with lights for only one Oil or one Coal.  

During this round the stragglers caught up in the City count.  Dean moved into Billings and Mike went after Buffalo.  At this stage, our strategies really began to get interesting.  The first time I played Power Grid I never placed a new City until I knew for sure that I could power it.  This time out I threw 'em down as quickly as possible in order to stake out an early claim on my territory.  My relatively-cheap building costs really helped me bounce back from those first few questionable opening moves.

The resulting cash that came from my ability to power all three of my Cities really helped fuel my next few turns.  

  
Here's what the next Power Plant assortment looked like:


Both Mike and Dean decided to pass, either because they were financially strapped or they weren't keen on the current spread.  Andrew, intent on setting up all the infrastructure he'd ever need right now, bought a massive facility that could power six Cities for three Coal.  Of cource, it also set him back thirty-one bucks!  All I cared about was buying the cheapest possible Power Plants that offered the best possible deal on resources.  As such, I bought another el cheapo facility for nine beans which converted a single inexpensive Oil to power a hypothetical fourth City.

In fact, the cost of raw materials was quickly spinning out of control.  Uranium quickly became uber-pricy and I found myself pondering the idea of dumping my own recently-acquired nuclear Power Plant.  At that stage in the game we'd all invested in Coal-burning facilities and this drove the price up to five (hojillion) bucks per l'il black nuglet.  Yikes!

I'm not sure if he was financially strapped or he just didn't want to go last in the turn order but Andrew didn't buy another City that round.  I know for a fact that Mike was broke and he had little choice but to pass.  Thumbing his nose at the rising cost of connectors, Dean placed cities in both Seattle and Portland.  Meanwhile, I enjoyed some of the cheapest possible expansion out on the East Coast, upgrading Philadelphia for only thirteen bones!  


Here's the auction fodder we were looking at for the next round:  


Still paying interest on their previously-purchased big ticket items, both Mike and Andrew were forced to bow out, giving Dean and I the perfect opportunity to expand.  Dean picked up a Power Plant which could fuel five Cities on two Coal.  Not keen on the price of that particular resource, I paid twenty-eight bones for a factory that could power five Cities with two Oil.  

Seeing how inexpensive my expansion was, Mike started to weasel in on my turf, reaching New York City before I did.  Andrew succeeded in cutting the country in half, urbanizing both Omaha and Minneapolis.  After expanding a bit too quickly, Dean found himself scrambling for resources.  I was in the same boat, but many of my Power Plants were fueled by the cheaper raw materials.  

By then, we'd already started to look at nuclear alternatives but Coal was still being sold at a premium rate.  


I'm not sure if we just got lucky with some of those earlier pulls but the new Power Plant draws turned out to be decidedly underwhelming:


In fact, all of us passed on acquiring any new facilities.  Since we could already power more Cities then we could build, why buy something else?  

I kicked myself for giving up on nuclear power so quickly since Uranium was beginning to stockpile in the market.  Although we all began to transition away from Coal to Oil, both resources continued to be sold at above-average rates. 

City expansion was rampant that turn.  Knowing that Mike was going to flood into my zone like a yellow tidal wave, I quickly snapped up Atlanta, Birmingham and Memphis.  As such, Mike had to be content with Boston, Knoxville and Chicago.  Tapped out from last round, Andrew was more then happy to let someone else play last.  Dean, in his own little world, bit the bullet and invested in Boise and Salt Lake City.  Slowly but surely, all of that extra infrastructure cost was starting to put a serious dent in his coffers.  


Although the assortment of Power Plants didn't change very much next turn, market fluctuations and the need to keep up with City expansion forced most of us to act.  


Since Andrew still had the ability to fuel half the globe, he refrained from buying anything.  Although the price of Oil and Coal was certainly high, I think the rest of us went a little too nuts with the Garbage-burning facilities.  Dean overpaid on a twenty-four-cost site which could supply four Cities with power for only two Garbage.  I got a nineteen-cost facility at a steal, allowing me to keep three Cities charged up for only two Garbage.  Mike ended up paying through the nose for a thirty-cost Power Plant which lit up a whopping six Cities for three Garbage.

Now armed with some incredibly productive industry, we set about procuring the resources required to power all of this shit.  Even after we all made a conscious decision to move away from it, Coal continued to be very pricey.  And while Oil bounced back a bit, Garbage took a ridiculous hit after all of us invested in the same technology.    

But this didn't stop us from laying Cities down like a Tom Vassel component drop.  Andrew horned in on my territory by stealing New Orleans and St. Louis.  He also expanded up north in Duluth and Fargo, "don' cha know."  Since it was still relatively inexpensive, I decided to get up in Mike's grill by developing New York and Pittsburgh.  He returned the favor by venturing into Philadelphia.  Meanwhile, Dean, all alone out there beyond the Rocky Mountains, could only afford to expand into Santa Fe.      


Towards the end of the game, last-minute acquisitions would be critical.  Also, as per the rules, the "future market" was abandoned and every Power Plant was suddenly up for grabs.  


Andrew still had everything he needed so he wasn't temped.  After butting heads over Garbage acquisition, Mike and I decided to take a more sustainable route.  I bought an eighteen-cost wind turbine, giving me two free power-ups while Mike paid a whopping thirty-three coin for an oversized pinwheel in order to power four cities for free.  Also seeking to diversify, Dean dropped twenty-one bones for a dual Oil and/or Coal burning plant which could spark up no less then four Cities.  

After wisely hanging on to his nuclear Power Plant, Andrew gobbled up some relatively cheap Uranium.  Garbage continued to be precious, costing upwards of seven bucks per unit.  Coal also remained steep, making Dean's recently-acquired, flexibly-fueled acquisition a wise purchase.  As for Mike and I, we began to suspect that wind power was going to become very practical at that late stage in the game.  

Since the player with the most powered Cities would be declared the winner, expansion continued unabated.  Seriously hobbled by the high price of West Coast expansion, Dean could only afford to develop Phoenix.  Drawn to the comparatively-cheap cost of infrastructure in my region, Andrew decided to join me in Memphis.  After establishing a bulwark against easy incursions into my northern turf I kicked off my endgame: cheap expansion into Florida.  I pushed my finances to the limit, buying up Savannah, Jacksonville and Tampa.  When Mike saw this, his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.  He began to plot out a similar move by laying groundwork in Atlanta and Birmingham.  

         
The next assortment of available developments boasted a slew of nuclear plants and a very temping wind turbine:


Knowing that the end was in sight, we all took a close look at our efficiencies.  Even though it pained me to do so, I dumped my wind turbine in lieu of a thirty-four-cost nuclear plant which could fuel five Cities on a single Uranium.  In a last-ditch effort to remain competitive, Dean bought his own thirty-nine cost Chernobyl.  Meanwhile, Mike blew fifty freakin' bucks on some sort of weird Bond-villain evil lair that produced a slew of energy for free.  Although it looked pretty awesome it might have been a shade too extravagant so late in the game.  Andrew, oblivious to the current market, doggedly clung to his current stable of facilities.

Commodities continued to be pricy right across the board.  Coal never really dropped in price, primarily because its late-game production trickled down so much.  Everyone still had major Garbage-burning facilities so that resource continued to be stupid crazy expensive.  And now that Dean and I were back in the Three Mile Island bidness, Uranium prices spiked again to fourteen buck a dollop, much to Andrew's chagrin.  Though it all, only Oil remained at a reasonable price.  

Dean, now completely frustrated by the disparity of his development costs, resigned himself to a single move into San Diego.  Mike kept running riot in my neck of the woods, laying down pipe in both Savannah and Jacksonville.  Mercifully, Andrew halted his incursions into my territory, choosing to  cut a swath into Mike's holdings via Chicago and Detroit instead.  That left me with two "Captain Obvious" moves into Miami and Boston.  


Here are the Power Plants remaining on our very last turn:


Again, Andrew decided to stay his hand, but could he find the room to build enough new Cities to win the game?  Mike, still reeling from the price of his above-ground lunar bunker, also abstained.  Dean dumped his twenty-one point Oil / Coal factory and then got embroiled in a vicious bidding war with me over that thirty-eight-cost Garbage Burning plant.  After driving the auction price up sufficiently, I let Dean have it and then picked up the thirty-six-point retro Coal-burning plant at face value!

Now that my opponents had moved away from Coal and the price was sane, I decided to sneak in there at the last second.  Although still relatively rich, Coal was nowhere near as expensive as Garbage. Through it all, the price of Oil remained pretty cheap, mainly because no decent Oil-related production facilities appeared late in the game.  As for Uranium, Andrew and Dean kept the price of that inflated all by themselves.  

So began the last desperate bid to light up as many Cities as possible.  Dean sparked up Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Oblivious to how many sites he could actually power, Mike totally went off, spreading like a yellow fungus down into Tampa and Miami.  He also barged into Washington and crashed Andrew's party in New Orleans.  As is that wasn't enough, he even spent the mega-cash required to horn in on me and Andrew in Memphis!  Meanwhile, I placed Cities in the only two places that were still available: Knoxville and St. Louis.  

Since I didn't have the most amount of Cities on the board I immediately began to despair.  Here's how that particular tally stacked up:

DEVELOPED CITIES
Mike...17
Andrew...16  
Me...16
Dean...12

But, in this game it doesn't matter how many cities you have: it's how many you can power.  So, here are the standings after the switch was flipped: 

POWERED CITIES
Andrew...16
Me...16
Mike...16
Dean...12

Holy crap, a three-way tie!  This prompted us to delve into the rulebook to determine a tie-breaker.  After discovering that remaining money was the final deciding factor, here's how the final score ended up:

POWERED CITIES + THE MOST REMAINING MONEY
Me...16 Powered Cities and $14.00
Andrew...16 Powered Cities and $1.00
Mike...16 Powered Cities and $0.00

WOOT!



***

REVIEW

So, you may ask yourself, how can a died-in-the-wool Ameritrash fan such as myself possibly like a game that comes in such a sterile-looking box?  Well, here's how:

PROS   
  • At face value, the game may seem complicated but that's just because it's so wildly original.  Honestly, the rules are actually quite intuitive.  After a few turns you'll notice how infrequently you find yourself referring to the rule book.  
  • The mechanic used to simulate the commodities market isn't just elegant and inspired, it's actually a legitimate strategic avenue.  Since you can stockpile stuff, clever players will be temped to snatch up cheap resources and drive up the costs for their opponents.  
  • Picking the right Power Plant is key.  Although it might be tempting to invest early in an expensive facility that can power four cities, the cost could curtail your City expansion.  Also, you might feel obliged to hold on to that beast long after its fuel costs become prohibitive.  
  • Although auctions often feel stilted and forced in so many other board games, it's a legitimately tense part of the action here.  Inflating the bid can easily turn a good Power Plant into a mediocre one.  In fact, sometimes it makes sense to go for the more humble factories because you can often nab 'em at face value.  
  • The wooden resources tokens, "houses", Power Plant cards, "Elektro-bucks", and summary tiles all make for appealing and user-friendly components.  The board is colorful without being garish and the iconography is relatively clear once you know what to look for.  
  • The game is actually quite forgiving.  After some early oversights I adjusted my strategy and managed to surge back mid-game.  Since the player with the least amount of Cities always goes first, you never feel as if you're totally and completely out of contention.
  • Although some folks might consider this to be a "Con" I actually consider it be a "Pro".  There's absolutely no effort made to make the game boards "balanced".  In other words: West Coast infrastructure costs on the U.S. are appropriately pricey when compared to the East Coast.  So, you can either brave the more costly region knowing that you wont have much competition or wade into your opponent's turf and then slug it out.  
  • Victory requires a balanced approach.  If you think you can win just by randomly building crap in an inexpensive region then you're in for a surprise.  You have to closely monitor your Power Plant efficiencies, remain aware of future "technologies" and constantly gage the climate of the commodities market.  

CONS
  • Let's face it, folks, the game's theme is admittedly less-then-riveting.  
***

Honestly, Power Grid is the perfect example of substance over style.  Some people might claim that the theme, such as it is, was just tacked on to unify a set of clever mechanic, but I don't agree.  While playing the game you really feel as if you're managing and expanding a burgeoning energy empire.  Every auction, purchase and placement feels impactful.

Ameritrash fans who take one look at Power Grid's box art and automatically balk are doing themselves and the game a tremendous disservice.  I think this game would make an excellent addition to anyone's collection.  In fact, I can't help but give it a perfect score: six pips outta six! 


***

Wanna hear your fussy gaming group describe themselves as "pleasantly surprised"?  Click on the link below, order Power Grid from Amazon.com and help support this blog!

3 comments:

  1. http://boardgamegeek.com/image/251150/matthan
    Nice report David.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Kris.

      That's a pretty sexy t-shirt, BTW.

      Delete
    2. FANTASTIC shirt - I'd buy it in a second

      Delete