Power Grid, by Friedman Friese, is a popular game that places players in charge competing power companies as they purchase power plants at auction, manage their money supply, acquire resources, and struggle to power the most cites by the end of the game. The base game includes maps for the USA and Germany, but several other countries are available as expansions.
At the start of the game players begin with equal money, and then a temporary turn order is randomly established. It is temporary as it will be reset following the auction phase when players purchase their first power plant, and the player with highest numbered plant will play first on down to the lowest numbered going last. Generally the higher the number(minimum bid) the more efficient the power plant, meaning that it is able to power more cities for fewer resources. This will set the order for the first full turn of play and then be recalculated at the start of each future turn based on the number of cities controlled by each player, and only using the highest numbered plant as a tie breaker for order. Play order is extremely important in this game as the player with presence in the most cities (highest numbered plant for first turn only) is considered to be leading the game and given the most disadvantageous position in each of the game’s phases: auction, resource purchase, building cities, and making the decision on how many cities to power. This often creates an effect similar to auto racing in NASCAR where players attempt to draft behind the competition while remaining just close enough to the leader to strike when the moment is right.
Given that this a game about running a power company it only stands to reason that it is very important what power plants you choose to buy. Every power plant is unique. Every one has a base price, resource requirements(coal, oil, hybrid, garbage, uranium, or green which requires no fuel), and a maximum number of cities it can power. During the auction phase players in turn order, with the “leader” choosing first, will pick a plant from those available on which to begin an auction. Bidding moves clockwise around the table with a player having the opportunity to raise the bid or pass. If he chooses to pass, the player may make no further bids on the plant in question. This process continues until all but the current highest bidder have passed. At which point he pays the bank the final bid amount and the player with the lowest turn ranking who has not already bought a plant chooses the next one that will be up for auction. In the first turn all players must buy a plant, but on future turns a player may choose not to hold an auction on his turn. By choosing to pass he forgoes the chance to buy a power plant this auction phase and may not make bids from this point forward. A player may never own more than three plants, and if he purchases a fourth must discard one to make room for the new plant. As such, it is not at all that uncommon, for a player to find that none of the plants currently available fit his needs and thus choose not to start an auction.
As most power plants require fuel to power cities, players will purchase the resource that they need from the market. While the wind farms, and the solar power plants require no actual fuel, they tend to be more expensive compared to traditional power plants in the number of cities that they can power. Once again, in order, from last place to first, players take turns buying what they need. The resources are finite and do vary in abundance as the game progresses due to different refill rates and the vagaries of supply and demand. As more of a resource is purchased the price goes up, and thus the last place player has an advantage once again as he may purchase what he requires first, and at the cheapest prices. In fact, it is quite possible that later players will find that either the prices for the resources they require have skyrocketed or become completely unavailable. As one might expect this will lead to players hoarding either to protect their future plans, or deliberately cause shortages for their opponents. The ability to do either of these things is limited by the fact that one may only purchase resources that match those usable by plants the which the player owns. A plant’s capacity is equal to two times the cost of using it for a turn. What fuel will be available and at what cost are very important things to consider when deciding what plants to purchase and how many cities to power.
During this phase of the game players will choose cities in which they wish to begin or extend their power grids. In the first turn of the game a player may begin his grid anywhere by paying the cost to establish presence in a city. At game level one this cost 10 elektro (aka the “money” in Power Grid) per city. All further cities that a player wishes to connect to his grid must be linked by the lines between cities and not only must the city’s cost to build be paid, but also the price listed on the connection. There are limitations on how many players can be in one city at a time: level 1 allows one, 2 allows two, and 3 allows three. As a result it is possible to either box in your opponents, or find yourself boxed in at different points in the game. While it is allowable to “jump” over cities controlled by other players into one with available room, this is expensive as it not only requires payment for building in the new city, but also payment of all connection costs between the player’s nearest city and the desired new location. This area control part of the game gives certain locations strategic value as they are important hubs for your future expansion and for hampering that of your opposition. Once a player builds in his 7th city the games moves in to the second phase changing the refill rates of resources, and allowing a second player to build in each city for a cost of 15 elektro and the required connection price. When any player builds in 17 cities(in a four player game) the game will be determined during a final powering of cities wherein the player who powers the most will win the game. In the event that players are tied for powering the most cities the player in the tie with the most money wins. While it is possible to build to 17 cities to trigger the end of the game and be unable to power the most, this is an unlikely scenario as perfect information is available.
During this phase is when certain game management tasks take place such as: updating the auction and refilling the resource market, but most importantly it is when players decide how many of the cities in which they have presence they will power, and receive payment based on the number powered. This is only limited by the number cities they have presence in, the capacity or their power plants, and possession of sufficient fuel. After a player has built the gaming ending number of cities, this phase takes place one final time and the winner is determined.
There are many positive things to say about Power Grid. I am of the opinion that it is an extremely well designed game. I love auctions as a mechanic and I am a fan of any game that integrates supply and demand market economic considerations. I also enjoy the area control aspect of the game that allows for blocking and position to have strategic value. The rules are clearly written and easily understandable by gamers of at least moderate experience. The game also seems to have a high replay value due to the availability of more boards and different map configurations which is certainly a plus. Although considered a fairly heavy game by most players I think that Power Grid would be an excellent game to teach children perhaps as young as ten. The game suggest 12 and up, but a bright ten year old could easily learn the rules if taught by an adult . While they may not immediately grasp some of the finer strategic points it would provide a good opportunity for practicing math and learning some basic economic concepts. Oddly enough children who are learning the math used in the game roughly around the same time in school may find it less bothersome than some adults. More on this later. I found the components to be serviceable and personally like the board despite having read some negative comments about its appearance elsewhere. I have also found that the game accommodates different play groups very well. Whether you wish to play it as friendly family game, or with a veritable rogues gallery of competitive psychopaths (my usual groups) it is perfectly suitable to the needs either end of the gaming poles.
I do, however, have a few things that I consider to be negatives about this game. While it is most definitely a mentally challenging experience that provides intense competition, I find it to be a little dry. For all of the effort involved it somehow feels less epic than it should. I am also not a fan of the last place player having such advantages in all phases of the game. Especially when being in last can be by such a small margin, but the benefits can be so large. While I understand the need for a “catch up” mechanism in games with out elimination conditions, I find that it creates situations where, counter to intuition, the best move is to not improve my grid, but rather position for better play order next turn. This creates a very “gamey” effect that takes me out of the experience of trying to build a superior power grid. I have also experienced a tendency for the end game to develop in such way that a player who has no chance to win will be in position to either inadvertently, or deliberately determine the winner. While I do not absolutely object to king making in games with strong diplomatic or conflict based elements, I feel that in a game like Power Grid it can negate all of the careful planning during the game. Lastly, some of the people that I have played Power Grid with have complained about the constant need for math while playing. Even going so far as to call it a math test with a board. While it is only addition or subtraction, and I am not personally bothered by it, the calculations are many and enough people that I know have complained to make it worth mentioning.
In conclusion, I would give Power Grid a rating of 8.0 out of a possible 10. It is a fine game, and while not one of my absolute favorites it is most certainly deserving of the praise and many accolades it has received since released. If your group it is looking a challenging economic game with elements of area control mixed in, or just has a burning desire to create the most successful power company during an evening I would recommend giving it a try!
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Power Grid please consider Gryphon Gaming.