Power Grid

Designer: Friedemann Friese

Artist: Lars-Arne “Maura” Kalusky

Publisher: Rio Grande Games

This is such an iconic image, but do power plant personnel really wear lab coats? (Photo credits: Henning Kropke@BGG)

I think enough has been said about Power Grid and the rules that it doesn’t deserve a complete rehash. It is clear that this game is beloved by many but increasingly, I see a group of folks who are quite vocal against it. It has been more than 15 years since the game was published and it still remains a favorite for many veterans, but the game is polarizing in many ways that can be puzzling to those who love it. Most board gamers are spoiled for choice these days with so many options and if something doesn’t feel “fun” the first time around, there is little room for replay. So, I get why Power Grid won’t endear itself to everyone.

I have enjoyed every minute of Power Grid since it came out almost 20 years ago, but those minutes have been unevenly distributed over the years. As with many new games, you play a fair amount when it comes out and then play time tapers. Even from the get go, Power Grid can be polarizing and getting a group of people to the table is challenging. Again, this situation is amplified now more so than ever as there is a game to cater for every whim. If you like solitaire gaming, there is a game for you; if you enjoy deck building or dungeon crawls, chances are you will find a game that suits your taste. There is always something else that works for everyone. This wasn’t the case when Power Grid entered the market. With limited choices, I think folks are more likely to replay a game and to give it a second chance. This is probably part of the reason why there is a long hiatus – probably close to a decade – in between Power Grid games for me. One silver lining is that having witness how the hobby has evolved over the years, I can evaluate Power Grid from a different perspective.

To me, Power Grid is an odd beast as the game straddles different eras. Published around 2003-04, several games that came out in this period showed a sharp transition away from the original German designs which feature quick simple rules with shared board space but with little to no complexity from variable card texts (i.e. special powers). In fact, one of the hallmarks for these early games is that they can be driven purely by iconography. The “depth” and the joys of playing these games came primarily from interactions among players on a common board. Power Grid along with a few other extremely popular games around that period (Goa, St. Petersburg, Blue Moon, etc.) started to incorporate more variety, with more “special” tiles or cards and also just more complexity and calculations in general – the latter which is something Power Grid is notorious for. To be fair, most of these games in the transition period including Power Grid retained the spirit from its predecessors and still featured many elements of the classic German designs (e.g. auctions, shared board) which made it enormously popular with most gamers from the old, but also attracted newer folks who craved complexity.

The biggest departure for Power Grid from games of the past is the leap in complexity for “planning ahead” and taking into account all the possibilities and variables presented by other players. It is true that many German designs also shared some of these traits, but not to the extent that Power Grid asks of its players. Even a game of St. Petersburg where managing every dollar counts doesn’t require the type of calculation that Power Grid requires. Take the auction mechanism which is a staple of many classic German designs: In Power Grid, players auction for power plants with varying degrees of capacity to power the cities owned by players. In general, the more cities the power plant can supply, the more valuable it becomes. The value of each plant also takes into account the way the power is generated. For instance, coal, oil, garbage, uranium can be used as raw inputs to generate energy. The more efficient the plant, the more valuable it becomes. In other words, the most valuable plant on the market is the one that is the most efficient and also able to supply to the most number of cities. However, those aren’t the only factors in play because players must purchase from a limited supply of raw materials with increasing costs from a common market and so the value of each plant also depends on how many people are fighting to purchase the same resource. If most players have coal plants, then coal will be expensive and that makes the value of the next coal plant less desirable. Moreover, the power plant auction market is designed in such a way that you can somewhat predict the line up of power plants for auction. For instance, you may have knowledge that if you missed out on the current power plant on auction, you could go for a secondary option which may not be the best choice, but may be less contentious and hence cheaper. So, how much are you willing to pay for the current power plant and even if you don’t, how much are you willing to extend the auction just to force your opponent into paying more? As you can see, the simple value of each plant is not so simple and really depends on multiple factors that go beyond just the printed value on the card.

Beyond power plant auctions and purchasing resources from the marketplace, players must also contend with the location to build power plants. There are now at least a dozen or so maps for Power Grid, each with its unique geopolitical features. With each map, players will select cities to construct power plants by not only paying for the rights to build in the city but also the power lines that connect between cities. The costs as well as the number of slots for building in a city increases as the game progresses whilst the city connection costs remain static. The spatial element of Power Grid feels detached from other parts of the game in a sense that the power plants that you win in the auction along with the resources you purchase to feed the plant is independent of which city you choose to build the power plant in. Essentially, any power plants you purchased during auction can be used to power any city and all that matters is the number of cities you supply power to and the efficiency and cost savings for doing so. By spreading out your network of power plants on the map in a way that facilitates future growth, one hopes to light up a requisite number of cities to remain competitive when the end game is triggered.

These are the 3 main phases of Power Grid that requires your attention. There are a few additional administrative steps in between but essentially, money needs to be allocated for buying power plants, purchasing raw materials to power the plant and paying to build in cities. At each step, there are many variables to consider and any change in resource allocation for one phase will impact all others – if you overspend in auctions, you will have to reallocate for the two other phases. There is no question that planning is required to play well and the more variables you can take into account in your planning steps to accommodate the unexpected, the better your chance of winning. With each game of Power Grid, everyone is busy making mental calculations on how much to spend in each of the phases and how to further handicap opponents by depriving them of resources. For experienced players, it’s not enough just to safeguard your purchasing power by taking into account unforeseen circumstances, you must force your opponent to expend additional resources to thwarts their plans. For example, if you extend the auction and force your opponent to pay more, or if you buy that extra unit of resource to drive the prices up for the next person, or if you build in a city to block an opponents expansion plans, your chances of winning the game significantly increases. This is what polarizes Power Grid and sets it apart from other games: the effort in planning is intense. At some point, this spreadsheet style calculations crosses over into the territory of “work” instead of “play” and that line is different for each player. Folks who aren’t good at mental arithmetic will most definitely find the game tedious. Even if you are a human calculator, the considerable variables that come into play and having your well constructed plan for domination thrown under the bus because of an unexpected turn may be too frustrating. I have to admit that I do not enjoy all the number crunching and I bet most don’t. I understand it is part and parcel of the game, but it is not the part I enjoy. In fact, I cannot think of any other game in my collection that requires so many micro-calculations, over and over again. In general, this ought to be a red flag for me. While 15 years ago, gaming choices maybe more limited, the plethora of games available today makes Power Grid expendable in a sea of possibilities.

So, why even bother playing if you find the game, or parts of it, remotely frustrating?

Ironically, as brain burning as Power Grid is, the game shares more in common with the German-styled games of the past than the current crop of heavy Euros. In fact, may aspects of Power Grid are what fans of German games are angling for: depth of decisions beyond just variation provided from card text. This complexity depends on many human qualities beyond the printed rules and has that sought after “emergent” property that players clamor for. Indeed, auction as a mechanism, though now currently out of favor with the masses, is a wonderful way to bring out this type of complexity which depends on an individual’s tolerance and ability to assess risks. The game also feature a common game board, relatively simple rules (but with fiddly upkeeping which only one person needs to remember) and minimal components. I mean you open up the box, there is a bag of wooden bits, some paper money and a small stack of power plant cards: you need only 3 baggies to hold all your components.

I am certain that it is this connection to the old school German designs that continues to draw me to Power Grid despite all the math. There are many aspects of Power Grid that I enjoy which reminds of old school German games: I love jumping ahead on the turn order to plug the cheap lanes on the map and expand my network of cities while blocking the advancement of my nearest competitor; the back-and-forth price war followed by a last minute pull out from an auction of a power plant I don’t even care; or the glee that comes with seeing an opponent’s devastation when they are a dollar short of purchasing the garbage required to power their cities. There are plenty of dramatic moments in Power Grid that for me, is well worth the effort of making precise calculations over and over again across different phases. I wonder if the tediousness that comes with these micro-calculations is what makes the game tick? Can Power Grid be designed in a different way to cut down calculations while retaining the “fun” parts of the game?

For those who know Friedemann Friese and his design philosophy, it should not be surprising that Power Grid appears to break the mold just around the time when games evolved to become increasingly more complex. Most of Friese’s design choices are bold, daring and revolutionary in that sense and he is willing to try out-of-the-box ideas such as 504. Yet, almost all his games retain a certain quality or spirit that ties him to the classic German designers. His latest offering as of this writing, Free Ride, seems to take us back even further and looks like a bonafide old school design. Faiyum, with all its complexity and variable card text is really a German design fighting for resources on a shared space. Love or hate his games – and I mostly enjoy his creations – you have to really appreciate his unique contributions to the board gaming community. Power Grid is no exception here and it is his masterpiece.

Games routinely enter and exit my collection but there are a few core games, mainly the German designs from the past that forms the backbone of my collection. Power Grid, though not exactly from that same group, will remain in my collection even though there are limited opportunities to get it to the table. It is worth the wait, even though I fully get why one may not like it.

Final word: Good (Great with the right crowd)

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