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Review: Power Grid - Friese's Fiddly Funkenschlag Flop

November 21, 2006

I generally agree with the masses, the BoardGameGeek masses that is. I heartily concur with the thousands of people who have voted Tigris & Euphrates, El Grande, Caylus, Ra, and Age of Steam into the Top 10 on BGG. My tastes and those of BGG at large very rarely diverge, but Power Grid stands out as the most prominent instance of this rare occurrence. Let me start out by saying that I have a profound respect for the design of Power Grid. I think that Friedemann Friese did an outstanding job of interweaving various clever mechanics into a well-balanced game. The supply-and-demand market system for resources is particularly nicely done, and an admirable feat in game design. However, I analogize the respect I have for Friese’s design to the respect I have for classic games such as Chess and Go, or the respect I have for classical music such as Beethoven or Mozart. To be clear, I don’t think that Power Grid nearly rises to the level of any of those four masterpieces, but the similarity lies in the fact that while I respect and appreciate the design of each, I simply do not enjoy playing (or listening to) them whatsoever. I don’t intend to write many negative game reviews; not because I have something against them (they can actually be quite useful to people one a limited budget), but rather just because I rarely find a game I don’t like. In this case though, I think it may be worthwhile for me to explain the shortcomings, as I see them, of Power Grid.

First things first, what will you get in the box and what is it going to cost you? Power Grid comes with a double-sided game board, 132 wooden houses (22 in six different colors), 84 wooden resource tokens (representing coal, oil, garbage, and uranium), paper money, 5 rules summary cards, and 43 power plant cards. Power Grid retails for $44.95, and is published in the United States by Rio Grande Games. The components of Power Grid are generally very good. The double-sided game board is a nice touch, and certainly something that I’d like to see more games (e.g., Ticket to Ride) include to increase replayability. The board has Germany on one side and the United States on the other, which provides excellent variety that many eurogames with maps lack. The paper money leaves something to be desired, but could easily be replaced by poker chips. Finally, one minor complaint with the components is that the wooden resource tokens representing oil are completely round (as opposed to the garbage tokens which have flat edges), and consequently tend to roll off the table quite frequently. Nonetheless, the components are generally well done, especially the double-sided game board.

So what are you doing with all this coal and oil for 90 minutes? The goal of Power Grid is to be able to supply power to more cities than any of your opponents by the time the game ends. In order to supply power to cities you will need to do three things. First, you will need to buy power plants. Second, you will need to buy resources to run those plants. Third, you will need to claim cities on the map as the target for your power. My first complaint is with the instruction booklet for the game, which makes the game seem much more convoluted than it really is. The game simply comes down to building power plants, buying resources, and claiming cities, but the instructions are nearly impenetrable. This complaint is minor however, because most instructions for eurogames make the games seem far more complicated than they really are. Nonetheless, prospective Power Grid players should be forewarned that the instructions may take some time to digest.

The game is divided into 5 phases. First, determine player order (which will affect the order in which you build power plants, buy resources, and claim cities). This is done by putting players in order by the number of cities they have claimed (highest to lowest). This may sound like the player is already ahead because they have the most cities will have an advantage, but the reality is actually the reverse because many of the phases are conducted in reverse order. This is my second complaint with the game. The determination of player order is a huge “catch-up” mechanic to prevent a runaway leader and ensure that the results of every single game are extremely close. I don’t mind catch-up mechanics in general. I think the removal of rings in YINSH and income reduction in Age of Steam are both great examples of catch-up mechanics done right. However, in this case I think the catch-up mechanic is simply too extreme. It is so extreme in fact that players often strive to be in “last place” so that they can be last in player order. This detracts from the game-play significantly because instead of focusing on which power plants to build and which cities to claim, players end up focusing on how to manipulate the game to think they’re in last place, giving them that added boost from player order to claim first place at the very end. Players end up spending 90 minutes trying to be in “last place” to gain the advantage of this excessive catch-up mechanic.

The second phase involves buying power plants in auctions. This phase is actually quite clever because 8 power plants will be visible, but only 4 of them are available, with the other 4 making up the “future market” so players can see what will be available eventually. Each player has an opportunity to select a power plant, which then puts that plant up for auction for everyone to bid on. Players don’t always want to buy another power plant because each player can only have a maximum of three power plants, and if you buy a fourth plant then you must discard one of your previous plants. The third phase involves buying resources to run these plants. There are four different resources in the game (i.e., coal, oil, garbage, uranium), which correspond to the different types of power plants. As I mentioned previously, I think the system for buying resources is both the most clever part of the game’s design and simultaneously one of the biggest shortcomings of the game. The system for buying resources is extremely clever because it involves a supply-and-demand market where the price of resources in high demand will rise and the price of resources in low demand will fall. Only a limited number of each resource is made available each turn, and as less of each resource is available, the price of that resource rises accordingly. This is the first of two examples of the catch-up mechanic interfering drastically in the game. Players buy resources in reverse player order, so the player with the fewest cities buys resources first and the player with the most cities buys resources last. Resource prices rise during this phase so that the last player to buy resources ends up paying significantly more than the first person. Consequently, players strive to be last in player order so they can buy resources first, which is not only counterintuitive but also an instance of the catch-up mechanic dominating gameplay. While this system for buying resources is very clever, it is also one of the sources of my third complaint with Power Grid. The game is extremely “fiddly,” by which I mean that gameplay does not flow smoothly because players constantly have to refer to the chart in the rulebook for refilling the market. This bogs the game down, distracting significantly from the interesting part of choosing power plants and selecting cities with the menial task of managing the resource market. This problem of the game being too “fiddly” is also manifested in the “future market” for power plants mentioned earlier. The “future market” is another example of a clever design that ends up distracting too much from gameplay by requiring constant player management. This is because players have to constantly monitor to make sure the worst plant does not have a lower number than the lowest number of cities held by any player, or else that plant is removed. In addition, the best plant has to be placed on the bottom of the deck every turn. Moreover, if no plant is bought on a turn then the worst one is removed. Finally, the market has to be rearranged every time a new plant is drawn so that they are in order again. This is simply too much. Even after playing the game a few times, players still have to refer to the rules, and still often forget to do one or more of these crucial steps. In recognition of this problem, the instructions even highly “Important rules, often disregarded” on the back cover, which is convenient, but rather than solving the problem, simply demonstrates that there is a problem with players accidentally disregarding rules. Managing the resource market as well as the power plant market is just no fun, in addition to the fact that it is time consuming and is easy to screw up.

The fourth phase involves claiming cities on the map. This phase is the second example of the catch-up mechanic interfering with gameplay because this phase is also conducted in reverse player order. The player that is in “last place” has the opportunity to claim cities first, which is a significant advantage since only a limited number of players can claim each city, so some players are inevitably blocked out of cities they wanted to claim. As a result, players try to hold back from building too much at many points in the game so that they can be in “last place” and gain the advantage of this catch-up mechanic. This phase is not quite as “fiddly” as the management of the power plant and resource markets, but is still excessively confusing because not only is the game divided into these 5 phases that I am describing, but it is also divided into 3 “steps.” These “steps” are important to this phase because during the first step only one player can claim each city, during the second step two players can claim each city, and during the third step three players can claim each city. However, the demarcations separating these “steps” are very arbitrary and not well integrated into the rest of the gameplay. The game transitions from the first step to the second step once one player has claimed a total of seven or more cities. This arbitrarily affects gameplay because players try to manipulate the system to enter Step 2 when it is most favorable to them. Step 3 begins as soon as the “Step 3” card is drawn from the power plant deck, and then allows a third player to enter each city. I can see the advantage of having these distinct steps so that players must claim different cities in the first part of the game, but the way the steps are demarcated and implemented leaves much to be desired.

The fifth and final phase is called “Bureaucracy,” which I know inspires much excitement in all of you. This phase allows each player to earn money to buy power plants, resources, and claim cities in subsequent turns. This phase also requires the players to refill the resource market according to a chart in the rules that varies the number of resources added depending on the resource, the number of players, and the Step. It’s not a fun chart to read, but you better get used to it because you’ll be referring to it quite frequently during the “Bureaucracy” phase. Finally, this phase requires players to manipulate the power plant market by removing the best power plant and placing it under the deck so that the best plants come out during Step 3. Bureaucracy has never sounded so fun. Players repeat these five phases until one player has claimed a specified number of cities, which varies depending on the number of players, at which point the player who can supply power to the most cities is the winner. Then the players count leftover money to see who actually won because there is often a tie.

This gives rise to the fourth shortcoming of Power Grid, which is that the results of the game are generally too close. What? How can that be a shortcoming? I know, I also tend to like games that have close results so that everyone can feel like they have a chance until the very end. The problem with Power Grid is that the results are often so close that the game is a tie. This requires players to count who has the most money leftover as a tiebreaker. I find that games which rely on a tiebreaker to determine the winner are generally unsatisfying, especially when the tiebreaker is something like how much money is leftover. I know that this encourages players to carefully manage their money throughout the game when buying power plants, resources, and cities, but it leads to too much calculation during the game as players try to find the best deal, and results in the game bogging down as everyone does mental math. The problem with the results being too close is not one I have with other games, it’s actually unique to Power Grid, and perhaps it’s not something that other players have a problem with, but it is an interesting example of how the catch-up mechanic dominates gameplay by keeping everyone in the running until the bitter end.

As I said at the beginning, I have significant respect for the intricate design of Power Grid. However, I have found that the game has a variety of shortcomings and is not any fun to play.

(See this Review for this article plus additional comments on it)