Review: Power Grid

Power Grid, a Friedemann Friese remake of one of his earlier games, Funkenschlag, is a bidding, resource management style game with a race-to-be-the-biggest aspect to it. I've played this game many times with all sizes – from its designed 2-6 player limit – and can say that all group sizes works very, very well. The game has carefully balanced adjustments that scales beautifully at all points. I appreciate the fact that we have here a meaty game that plays 2 player well, which was a suprise for me, considering the high degree of player interaction and auctioning involved. Playing time clocks in from 45 to about 90 minutes increasing with player count. In Power Grid, players are power companies seeking to expand their reach through Germany or the US (thanks to a double sided board), and power the most cities by game end. As said, this is a meaty game, of medium weight and has player interaction at every step of the way. Turns are divided into phases – which all players take part in – so the game moves quickly with very little down time. The game is not terribly open in terms of what you can do or options to explore, so games do seem samey – but what it does have is so entertaining and fascinating that it has terrific replay value. The fact the players' actions are so intertwined makes each game play feel unique. In short, I really like this game, even after 10+ plays. I think the aspect of the game that I always marvel at is the way supply and demand and future technologies feels so apparent through just a few simple instructions and mechanics – really fantastic!

The overall production here is very good – plenty of wooden bits and a nice board to look at. So let's take a look at what we get. Firstly, we've got a rather handsome cover – executed in period 50s poster style – of a plant operator at his post. The colors are rich, deep and appealing. Inside, we've got a two sided board for variety of play, which is wonderful! The colors here are also rich with artwork that is a bit cartoonish. This is consistent throughout, so I think it fine. There is a deck of cards which are the power plants for auctioning which again have this cartoony look – each card a different plant with unique artwork for visual interest. The information here is minimal and positively clear and effective. As said, we get plenty of wooden bits, which is always a plus, representing the players' markers and four resource types. I'd say the big complaint I have here is the money, which is paper. Paper money is just so difficult to handle compared to other alternatives, like tokens. Money places a big role in this game as well, as it is exchanged in most every phase, so this is a little bothersome. Another complaint lies with the production of the rules, which is fair, but poor compared to an Alea. Without the color, the rules do have a throw away quality to them. They are not appealing and don't invite me to read them. It's too bad as one does need to reference the rules each turn to refer to resource chart. Actually, it would have been nice to have included this chart separately somewhere or integrated onto the board as it is an important part of the game. But these are all minor details here. One minor detail I do appreciate, though, is the time play/player count/player age key on the side of the box. The designer carried the electricity theme through to this small element. It's an unexpected witty touch. Nice.

What to Expect in This Game
- Lots and lots of player interaction. Bidding, resource hogging and blocking every step of the way.
- Plenty of ways to screw your neighbor if you play aggressively. If you don't, no worries, you don't have to be aggressive.
- A number of decisions to make each turn.
- A fast paced game where your turn comes up very often.

What's in Front of You
The game is played primarily on the board, which is fairly large, and each player's power plant cards, which remain directly in front. Additionally, off to the side will be 8 or 6 power plant cards (depending on that part of the game) face up. These cards track which are available to purchase with some look ahead to future availability. Players will be bidding on these. All other cards are face down in a deck. The board has a large map with cities of that country and pipes connecting cities to form a giant network. Each city has a pie shape to it divided in three parts. The map is sectioned into regions,which is purely for start game bountries allowing for perfect game scale. Players will place their wooden houses on the city spots on this map when they purchase connections. There is a large track on the bottom of the board which monitors the four resources (coal, oil, garbage and uranium) and their availability and cost for purchase. Each wooden resource that can be purchased sits on this track which is grouped by resource type and cost for each resource. On the top of the board is the turn order track and the scoring track, which monitors how many cities you have connected to. The power plant cards in front of each player are those that they have purchased. These cards will also have the wooden resources on them which they purchase.

Game Play
The game is played in rounds with five phases each. Upon reaching certain milestones, the game generally passes through three steps, which dictate the flow of resources and availability of power plants. The phases are:

1. Determine Player Order
2. Auction Power Plants - players have the chance to buy one power plant each.
3. Buy Resources - players may buy resources for their plants.
4. Building - players purchase connections on the board to expand their network.
5. Bureaucracy - get cash by powering the plants expending resources. Also, some updating game elements.

1. Determine Player Order. Here, players mark on the board their order, which changes from turn to turn based on how many cities on the board they've connected (purchased in 4. Building) and, in the case of ties which happens a lot, who has the more advanced power plant (purchased in 2. Auction). This is a highly important part of the game as the game is so interactive, turn order effects everything. This is an impressive balancing part of the game which makes it harder for those in the lead and gives those furthest behind some opportunity to catch up. For example, players first in order go 1st in phase 2 (which is a negative), last in phase 3 (again a negative) and 1st in phase 3 (which is a positive). Part of what players will be deciding during the game is whether to let one's self fall back ever so slightly to reduce one's turn order and thus get some benifits for being last.

2. Auction Power Plants. As mentioned, next to the board are placed 8 power plant cards face up (6 later in the game). In total, there are 42 power plant cards numbered between 3 and 50. The cards are placed in two rows of four cards each. Additionally, they are placed in ascending order with the top four starting cards being the 3, 4, 5 and 6 cards and the bottom being 7, 8, 9 and 10 cards. Players may only bid on cards in the top row when their turn comes up, the bottom row being a look ahead for upcoming plants (the futures market). The player with the highest turn order (determined in phase 1) chooses any of the four top available cards to bid on. They will then start the bidding with a minimum bid of the number on the card. Bidding goes around the table one at a time with players outbidding or passing. Players which pass on a plant may not come back in the bidding for that plant. Highest bid wins and money is paid to the bank. Next a card is selected from the top of the deck of power plant cards and placed in one of the two rows so that it is in ascending order. Other placed cards might move forward or back depending on the number of the new cardbut the final configuration should be four cards on top and four underneath. For the first few turns, because all the cards are already in order, the card drawn will go to the last spot on the bottom row. As different cards are pulled up throughout the game, there can be some interesting back and forth as plants come in and out of the market. The next player now may pick a plant to bid on in the same way, or, if the last player did not win his bid, he may choose another plant to bid on and start the bidding.

Now, a little about the cards. I've already mentioned that there are four types of resources (coal, oil, garbage and uranium). There are five power plant types, four of which correspond to the resources and one which is renewable energy and needs no resources. On the cards are icons representing the kind and of resource(s) needed to power the plant, how many are needed and how many cities this will power. The higher the value on the card, the more cities you can power with less resources needed. Additionally, the more advanced resources like renewable energy and uranium add to the expense – the cheap ones being coal and oil. So, what we get early in the game are the dirty plants (coal and oil) which require a lot of resources (perhaps 2 or 3 wooden tokens) to power very few cities (perhaps 1 or 2 cities). As the game progresses and cards go up in value, power plants come up that might only take one uranium resource to power up to 7 cities! Very efficient indeed. It's sort of magical to watch as new technologies become available on the market through the draw of cards that give you more bang for the resource buck or new resources that will be cheaper. One other detail, some power plants allow players to use both coal or oil, one type at a time, whichever is preferred. This offers players some choice as well.

Back to the bidding. Given that the better plants have higher numbers and cards are ordered in ascending order, as plants are sold, better ones come on the market. So, players which can choose later, generally get to choose from better power plants. A player may choose pass on picking a power plant to bid on. If this is the case, they forfeit the opportunity to do so that turn. They may still bid on another player's choice, but they don't get to pick and they don't have the first and lowest bid. One other thing, players may only purchase one plant per turn. Once they buy, they may not participate in future bidding. In this way, players that pick last generally have less competition for their pick.

There's a good deal of strategy here that can be used. A player who picks earlier might wish to select something they don't necessarily want, but suspect others might like. In this way, they hope someone will bid on it and win so that a better plant will come up from the futures market or from a draw in the deck for him to bid on. A player might also decide to pass on bidding that turn hoping the next turn will bring the better power plants.

One last thing here. Players have a limit of 3 power plants (4 in a two player game) that they may have at any given time. If they purchase one that puts them over this limit, they must discard (demolish) a plant of their choice. Thematically, you can imagine aging power plants being torn down.

3. Purchase Resources. As mentioned, along the bottom of the board is the resource market. Here, we basically have a row for each resource (coal, oil, garbage and nuclear). Each row is divided into segments which have prices associated with them from $1-$14 per resource. And each segment is further divided into spaces that indicate how many resource tokens go in each area (essentially, what price each resource token will be). As players purchase the resource tokens (which are color coded wooden pieces) for their power plants, they will obviously want to choose those tokens in the cheap segments. As more and more players buy the same resources, prices will shoot up with fewer resources available. Thus, supply and demand. Nice! Players may only purchase resources that their power plants can accept and can only store a maximum of double the amount that each plant can use in a turn. In this way, if you anticipate a lot of people are going to need a lot of the same resource (driving prices up), you may want to stock up on them for the next turn while the prices are now lower. By doing this, you drive the price up for the next player. Again, nice! Later in phase 5 (Beaurocracy), some resources will be replenished from the stock pile according to a chart that varies on the amount of people and how far along the game is. Thematically, this is resources that are put back in the market. However, when demand is high, often the amount that is being replenished cannot match what is being used. In this way, such resources will get pricier turn after turn. It is really magical to watch this relationship of supply and demand unfold on the board. Game setup dictates that in the market there is an abundance of coal and oil, a little garbage and nearly no uranium. Thematically, these more advanced resources are more expensive to buy so long ago. As the game progresses, the replenishment table favors these newer resources and the price tends to drop. Also of interest to watch is uranium. Early in the game, the resource is very expensive and the power plant cards rarely come up. Uranium is so expensive, the nuclear plant is not worth purchasing. As turn after turn of replenishment builds up the uranium supply, all of a sudden the nuclear plant is looking pretty good! Everyone I've played with has always commented how impressive and beautiful this system is to watch unfold – and it truly is!

Players place the purchased resources directly onto their power plant card. Again, only resources that match the card may be placed on it to a maximum of double what can be used in a turn. Purchasing is done in reverse player order. In this way, players which are behind get first dibs on the cheeper stuff and can resource hog. This prevents the rich from getting richer.

4. Building. Now we return to the large map on the board. In player order, they will purchase cities on the map with which to put their building markers. On the map, you will basically see cities and pipes connecting various cities together to form a network. The cities are circles divided into 3 pie pieces or city zones which are numbered 10, 15 and 20. Each pipe that connects two cities has a number on it. Both the city numbers and the numbers on the pipe are the costs associated with this purchase. Thematically, you are building city infrastructure and wires and pipes to connect the two cities. Players' first purchase will be simply $10, which is the cheapest zone in a city. They will pick the city they want to start in and place their house on it. Future purchases will be the cost to build in the next city they pick plus the total cost of pipes one can trace from one of their cities to that city. Generally, in order to reduce costs, you will pick a city located next to one you already have purchased. So, if you have one city and wish to build in the $10 zone of a neighboring city with a pipe connection that is $6, it will cost $16 to buy. Players place their house markers on cities they purchase. A player may purchase as many cities as he can afford to.

About the city's three zones. Basically, all this is, is a reward for those who first connect to a city. The first person to connect will pay $10, the next will pay $15 and the next $20. Thematically, it is illustrated that the first area is residential, then business then industrial. Also very importantly, there are three parts to the game (called Steps) which prevent barriers of entry. In Step 1, only one person may purchase an individual city. In Step 2, two people can enter and Step 3, three people maximum – the cost going up as mentioned for each person. So, given that money is very tight, there is a lot of blocking going on as players spread out from city to city looking to cut off a neighbor from cheap connections or places to expand. I know I've been in situations on a crowded part of the board where I simply could not build without paying multiple pipes to jump to a city far off. Simply too expensive. One thing I haven't mentioned is that the board is not evenly distributed. On the US map, for example, there's lots of cities on the east coast and fewer and fewer cities moving west. The west coast cities are spread way out and the pipe cost is enormous. Compare a typical west coast pipe at $15 to an east coast pipe of $5. For this reason, the east coast and midwest gets very crowded making for lots of maneuvering, blocking and racing to get to certain central hubs. Once again, lots of player interaction and ways to affect others. Because this phase is in player order, those who have the most cities will be going first and have more opportunities to block others.

After a player has purchased their cities and placed their city markers, he counts the total he now has on board and moves his marker along this track on the board. Once a player hits 7 total cities (this number varies per player count), this triggers Step 2. A few will things now change. Firstly, two people may build in the same city instead of only one. Secondly, there is a small shuffling of the power plant cards which is not worth mentioning and thirdly, resource replenishment (in phase 5) follows a different table. This is just to reflect progress as newer resources are being produced more effeciently at a faster rate.

5. Bureaucracy. Now, players fire up their power plants and power the cities they have purchased. Each power plant card says how many cities it can power. Players may choose to use whichever plants they wish, so long as they have enough resources on that plant's card (as listed on the card). The amount of cities a player owns is the maximum they may power up. Player reference cards tell how much they get for that many cities. There is a diminishing return here as each city added yields slightly less than the city before. Nonetheless, players will usually want to power up as much as they can to get much needed cash.

Now, expended resources return to the stock pile, where some of them (according to a reference table) will go back into the market for sale in the next turn. A new turn then begins with phase 1 (player order). The one with the most cities goes first followed by others. Tie breakers go to the one with the highest numbered power plant.

Step 3 comes about when a "Step 3" card in the power plant deck comes up. This card starts the game at the bottom of the deck, so it takes a little while to get to this step. I have played games where the game ended so fast, the card never came up. When the game goes to Step 3, three players may now connect to each city, again the resource replenishment changes favoring uranium and garbage even more and some new shuffling goes on with the 8 power plant cards that are up for bid. Essentially, the highest and lowest cards get discarded bringing the total now to 6 cards. All 6 plants are available for bidding at any given time, instead of 4 available and 4 coming soon as was previously the case.

Game End
The game end trigger takes place during phase 4 (building) at the time a player buys a certain number of cities. This number varies between 14 for six players to 17 for two players. When this threshhold is crossed, this phase is finished off with everyone given equal opportunity to make their final city purchases. We go to phase 5 and power up the plants. The player who can power up the most (given their resources and power plant capacity) wins the game.

This makes for very interesting play. Players may opt to slow down their city purchasing to save money for bidding on larger power plants knowing that their current capacity is not enough for a win. Also, players tend to have a sense when others may be able to successfully jump over this threshhold and power up more for a win. In such cases, resource hogging can work well for the others. Since the players that are behind can buy first here, I have seen it happen that they buy up all the resources or drive the prices so high, that a player within reach of victory cannot buy the resources needed to fire up his plants.

I really love this game. It's a delicate balancing game of:
- Knowing when to hold out for bigger plants
- Reading others in the bidding
- Buying the best plant based on resources that are currently cheap or might be cheap in the future
- Correctly anticipating supply and demand to save money on resource purchases
- Knowing when to hog up resources or save the money for building city connections
- Knowing when to buy cities and which direction to drive your network
- Holding out on city purchases to lower one's ranking in the order
... and much more.

Games tend to be pretty close. It's not uncommon for the person who builds the most cities to be unable to power up the most.

As mentioned, the game has been designed to play well at all sizes. I prefer playing with 5 or 6 simply because of all the player interactions that happen. There's more going on with a full table of people – lots of turf wars and resource wars that make for very interesting play. For such a gamerly game, there is really good atmosphere and thematic details. As such, it's a wonderful combination of theme and clean, finely balanced mechanics that sets this game apart. Watching the market fluctuate in a such natural manner and seeing the influence that new technologies have on it is really a delight as well. If you like meatier games, I'd highly recommend trying this game out.

- Mike