I've been wanting to publish a review of Power Grid on here for ages, largely because the prevailing attitude of gamers around here is one of undisguised adoration for the title which I find utterly perplexing. I tried playing Power Grid because it seems to be a game everyone loves – my geekbuddies love it, all the Ameritrash crowd seem to love it, Eurogamers of course love it and it seems that it has lots of appeal to Wargamers too. I wrote up my experiences not long after as a review and, on re-reading it, it seemed that in spite of a couple of games in the meantime, it remained a fairly accurate assessment of my attitude to the game. So since I don't really have time to write a completely new article on the subject nowadays, here it is again, with a few tweaks for modernisation purposes.
I don’t normally do rules précis for very popular games like Power Grid. I would normally say at this point that anyone interested should download the rules, just like I did, and read them to get a feel for the game. In this case however I can’t really do that because I presume that most people who read the rules will probably do exactly what I did, which is to go “wuh”? They’re bad rules – badly laid out and very confusing. But the game is not complex – you just need to play a game with other experienced players to see what’s going on and you’ll pick it up in no time. Failing that, here’s my summary.
Each turn is divided into phases. Firstly player order is determined by the number of cities they currently have on the map which is a rough indicator of how well they’re doing in the game. Who actually does what first is flipped around during the following phases so that the players in a weaker position get an advantage each phase – they can buy fuel first when it’s cheap and get first shot at claiming new spaces on the map and so on.Then there is an auction for available power plants. There's a sorting mechanic that means as a general rule plants become more efficient (they can generate more power for less fuel) as they game goes on. The auction is pretty straightforward – you must pay at least a minimum value for the plant and from there everyone gets a shot to continue bidding until only one player is left. It's therefore an entirely open auction which seems to be something of a rarity in games these days and so has the potential to be rather more exciting than the limited round/limited bid models which have become more typical.
You then get to buy fuel. PR contains a rather novel open market system. At the beginning of the game units of each of the four power sources are placed on a track at the bottom of the board, filling from the right. From left to right the units get more expensive. So the first person to buy can pick from the leftmost, cheapest units and as these are bought the price slowly goes up. At the end of each turn a fixed number of units are put back on the board again, making resources cheaper. However if there’s been a run on one fuel type then this will remain much more expensive than the alternatives, putting a premium on power plants that can utilise the cheaper fuels.
Next up is placing cities on whichever map you’ve chosen, Italy or USA. There are cities on the map each of which has three spots of increasing for players to build and there are connections between cities which also have a cost on them. No player can build more than once in a given city. To build you must pay the cost of the spot, and if it’s a new city the cost of the connection from one of your existing cities. One of the most confusing aspects of the game is the “step” rules – all these basically mean is that before a city is allowed to hold more than one building, a condition must be satisfied. There is a second condition to be satisfied before a city can hold three buildings. These steps cause competition for good city spots to be intense and there’s a blocking aspect to the game where you race to get the best spots before your opponent does.
Then there’s the dishearteningly titled bureaucracy phase in which you can get income. You can fire up power plants, burning fuel, to try and power as many of your buildings as possible – if you fire up too much power excess is lost. The number you successfully power determines your income and the differential between how many you power and how much you earn decreases as you have more cities. The player who is the first to successfully power a certain number of cities based on the number of players is the winner.
Phew, that too longer than I expected. Hope it was worth it.
What my description of the rules doesn’t make clear is exactly how the strategy of this game operates. I read a very interesting article over at the Gone Gaming blog about how most good games had some basis in maths and the very best games were ones that managed to keep that maths as far removed from the play as possible. If that’s a measure of success then PG fails very, very badly. It struck me sometime during my second game that a calculator would be a handy player aid. I pointed this out to my opponents, one of whom responded that it was considered a virtually essential tool.
Consider. At the start of the round you’re faced with an auction against other players for the power plant that you want. So one of the questions that’s uppermost in your mind is “how much can I afford to spend on this, if I’m pushed all the way”. So you start to plan. First of all you know what power plants you have and what it costs to run them and you know the same for all the other players too. So you can fiddle with that calculator and make a pretty confident prediction of how much you’re going to need to spend on fuel this turn.
What’s next? New cities – a vitally important part of the game as it’s the winning condition. New builds are expensive so you need to make sure you’ve got enough left to make the new builds you need. Out comes the calculator again – you know the player order so again you can make confident predictions of what other players are going to attempt to do because you can also see the cheapest and best places to build. Tap, tap, tap on the keys and you know how much you’re spending on builds this round. Now you’ve got a fairly accurate approximation of how much you can afford to bid in the power plant auction.
It’s not as simple as that of course. The auction is unpredictable and it’s a lot of fun – completely open auction systems like this are actually pretty rare in games and it’s tense and exciting. You might get your abstraction of who’s going to end up getting which plant wrong and then you’ll have to pull out that calculator again and re-jig what you’re planning to spend on the rest of the round. On rare occasions you might get your prediction of who’s going to buy what fuel wrong as well if someone tries to unexpectedly stockpile something when it’s cheap but you can usually see when this is going to happened and plan, sorry, calculate, to take it into account. The building step is usually totally predictable because you can see where the cheapest spots are and that’s always where everyone is racing to get it. So again, if you know the turn order you can see exactly what’s going to happen.
So effectively strategy in this game boils down to doing a long series of fairly simple sums. It’s not easy – there’s a lot of numbers to juggle in your head at the same time and I’m certainly not terribly good at it. But the bottom line is that this is very much a skill-based game and the skill required is adding up. Lots of it. There could be a lot of competition and excitement in this game from the auctions, from the chance to speculate to some degree on the fuels market, from the chance to quickly expand and block another player into a prime spot on the board. But because everything (bar the power plants) is clearly priced (and you can make good guesses as to the value of the plants) everything else becomes dry, predictable and mathematical in the extreme. So extreme in fact that in all my games the players knew who was going to win several turns before it actually happened. That might appeal to some but it’s really not the sort of game I care for.
There are other aspects of the game that put me off. The administration overhead of the game is huge, having to re-lay out the fuel markers to a particular pattern in their little slots every turn, and watching the nuclear fuel balls roll all over the table. Indeed it's a bad enough problem to have caused some gamers to slate Power Grid on this issue alone. The weakest-player-goes-first mechanic annoys the hell out of me, as does the way the reward for adding more buildings to your network generates progressively less income. Both are massively gamey and they look like attempts to stop the game turning into one with a huge runaway leader problem. If I’ve plated well and built up an advantage, I want to enjoy that advantage rather than see weaker players boosted at my expense. I realise that it makes turn-order management a part of the strategy of the game but yet again, since everything has a clear value, optimal play can be calculated.
It’s not a complete meltdown for me though. There are some really good aspects to the game. I already mentioned I like the open auction. The fuel pricing is a clever and unusual approach to resource allocation which works really well and could provide a potentially brilliant source of competing strategies were it not for the fact that all of them can be seen in advance, calculated and accounted for. I’d love to see something similar resurrected in a trading game of some description. There’s potential for some nice “gotcha” moments as well as you triumphantly build over the spot your rivals were racing for, or at least there would be if everyone hadn’t done their neat calculations and seen it all coming at the start of the phase.
It should be fairly clear that I don’t much like Power Grid. I find it one of those awkward games to rate though because it does contain a number of really interesting and innovative ideas and I can really see what it was trying to do, only I think it got sabotaged by it’s obsession with number and the near-perfect information available to planning. I don’t see an alternative way it could be made to work but those two conditions, when you think about it, are almost guaranteed to lead to a game in which mathematical calculation is the surest road to victory. In the end it's certainly a below-average title for me. It’s not a game I’d actually refuse if enough other people wanted to play it and I’d probably even have some fun with it as long as the plays were few and far between. But actively suggest a game? No way! This was a game I almost bought on the weight of recommendations alone – thank god I tried before I bought. If you carry just one thing away from this review, let that be it!