Monday, April 18, 2011

Power Grid: Theme and Strategy

Power Grid, from German game designer Friedemann Friese, is a game that I consider to be one of the best of the best. It has stood the test of time and will continue to do so, both for me and many gamers around the world. This review focuses mainly on the theme and strategy of the game.  Detailed rules or components summaries can be found elsewhere; I have tried to explain just enough for players to get a strong sense of gameplay.

In Power Grid, players take on the roles of different power companies vying for dominance in cities across the country, whether it is the U.S. or Germany, both of which are included with the base game.  Other maps are available. Throughout the game, players invest in power plants that supply electricity to the cities in which they have presence.  The plants operate at different efficiency levels and are powered by different resources, from coal and oil to solar and wind.  The player who can power the most cities with his plants when the game ends, wins.

Power Grid is definitely a game for the well-rounded player. In order to excel, he or she must be good at bidding, money management, spatial reasoning, and more than a little mind-reading.  This game has it all: auctions, a commodity market governed by the natural laws of supply and demand, and network building. The game is very competetive and has plenty of opportunities for thwarting other players or stunningly cutthroat moves. It also has a very effective mechanism to help prevent a runaway leader and often has a dramatic, nail-biting ending. The carefully crafted interplay of all these elements is what qualifies Power Grid as a masterpiece of game design in my mind.

Math and Money Management
Many games keep try to keep math to a minimum or keep it hidden or disguised, but its overtness in Power Grid is a very common complaint about the game and is what turns off many gamers. Although the math involves nothing more than simple addition and subtraction, there is a lot of it and it cannot be avoided. And while it does distract from the theme of the game at times while you get out your mental calculator, it actually directly related to the theme, as opposed to a game like Seeland where the math is more at a tangent to the theme. This is because all the calculations involve the basic currency of the game, the Elektro, represented in game by colored paper money.

Elektros are used for everything from buying power plants to acquiring fuel to extending your power network, and if you play it right, it all leads to... more Elektros. In order to excel, players must be very good at managing this cashflow throughout the game. Each of them begins with startup capital they must use to invest in their first power plant and the fuel to run it, and then begin making inroads on the map.  Deciding when and where to spend money is a balancing act, and I love the way it's done in this game. At the end of each turn, the net result of these actions is income, which is funneled back into their business until eventually it becomes the most powerful.

So, while the math does get a little burdensome at times and can devolve into a lot of time-consuming number crunching towards the end if you let it, there's a purpose. It really is thematic and a necessary evil of this game, and I don't mind it, within reason. If you're playing with experienced players who don't have a huge problem with analysis paralysis, it shouldn't be a huge deal.

Every turn starts with an auction round where players bid on the power plants they will use to power their network, represented in-game by square cards. Each player will choose a plant to auction, but during most of the game only four plants are available to auction. However, players can see what is likely to be on the block next and in what order. The auction phase may represent the amount of money the power companies are willing to pay for research in new technologies and improvements to existing technology.  I love this part of the game for many reasons.

First, the auctions are done in order such that the player who is in the lead must choose the first plant to auction. This is a disadvantageous position to be in, because choices are limited to the four plants that are currently on the auction block. The next few showing, which are likely more efficient, only serve to tantalize him. This presents many choices, but a decision must be made. Meanwhile, the player who is last in turn order is sitting in the catbird seat. He can enjoy bidding or passing on every auction as he pleases, knowing he will always have the opportunity to buy the last plant at face value, if he wants to. This is the first way the game tries to level the playing field, and I think it's smartly done.

Related to this, I also love the random order in which power plant cards are drawn. As each plant is auctioned off, a new one is drawn and the plants are rearranged in numerical order. The more efficient plants have higher numbers and higher starting bids, and are out of reach. Since only the four lowest numbered plants are available, the newly drawn plant could change what plants will be on offer next. It could land in the future market or it could push out a plant that had been expected to be included in the next auction round, leading to groans from some players and grins from others. This aspect of the game has been very well done.

There's the actual auction itself, with its bidding and bluffing and choices. Should the player quietly choose the one he views as best and hope to get a good price (or perhaps he has so much cash on hand that money is no object)? Should he choose one in hopes other players will be interested and outbid him, perhaps driving up the price along the way, and thereby giving him a shot at the next one that turns up? Should he pass, saving some money but eliminating himself from further bidding this round? Or maybe he should just pass because the plants on offer are not desirable, knowing that the next player in turn order will face the same choices.

Next, there's the fact that the number on the power plant serves as a tie-breaker for who will be start player on the next turn, which is very often needed in this game. And since turn order is such an important factor, it's very important for the player to pay attention to the number on the plant he is buying in relation to the number on the plants owned by the other players. Would he OK with the being the first auctioneer, or is the catbird seat more comfortable to him, or would he rather be somewhere between the two extremes?

Players must also consider the price of the plant, the type of fuel the power plant users, its efficiency level, the resource market, and the number of cities it can power. The fuel may be cheap, but other players may have the plants requiring the same resource. Or  fuel may not even not pertinent, in the case of solar or wind plants, and the player is willing to spend more money on the green technology. Or perhaps a player may want to choose a type of plant not held by other players, knowing there will be no competition for resources and the price will therefore come down. Diversifying fuel sources is another option. Another decision is the number of cities the plant will power relative to the cost of the plant and the resources.

As the game progresses, players begin to vie for the more efficient plants and are usually willing to spend more Elektros on them at auction.  Occasionally, a plant will even sell for more than double its value. This is because the winner of the game is the player who can power the most cities and the better plants are vital to accomplishing this goal.

I love the myriad considerations when choosing plants to auction and buy. The more you play, the more you appreciate the genius of this part of the game.

Resource Market
The resource buying phase of the game is the next thing to consider. The individual resources are represented by wooden pieces: brown cubes for coal, round black barrels for oil, and yellow and red octagonal cylinders for trash and uranium, respectively. My only complaint here is that the oil barrels can easily roll of the table. I would have preferred a black octagonal cylinder.

During this phase, players buy the fuel to power their plants from those available in the resource market. As stated previously, the market is controlled by the laws of supply and demand. As players buy resources, from last player to first player, the prices are driven up. At the end of each round, prices do come down at varying amounts as resources are replenished. The market is well done and serves its purpose, although I would argue the choices are a bit simpler here, involving fewer considerations. I still appreciate it, though.

The first consideration is obviously the cost of the resource. The player must decide what he can afford, usually leaving enough money for the city building phase, which comes next. Related to this, the player must decide how much should buy, as the plants do have storage areas for extra fuel, but the storage capacities are limited. This does involve planning for future turns and mimics the way a business would decide how much money to invest in a particular fuel source.

Next, the player may want to review the fuel needs of the other players, particularly toward the end of the game. It is possible to deny another player of the resources he will need to power his plant or plants, provided he has the storage capacity and despite the fact that it will be expensive to do so. I do like this aspect of the game and I like doing what I can throughout the game to make sure I'm not caught in this predicament, because it can be devastating.

Lastly, as mentioned, resources are replenished at the end of each round at varying rates, which will in turn drive the prices down for the next round. This will also factor into the decisions a player makes.

City Building
The city-building phase of the game requires players to suss out a network of cities across the board.  To land a utility contract with a city requires an initial investment; competition with other players as the game progresses may cause additional fees as they win contracts ahead of you.  Future expansion to other cities involves additional costs as well; theme-wise this represents the costs of building the additional infrastructure to reach them.  The more cities you are able to power, the more Elektros you earn in return (though at a decreasing rate of return).

The first aspect of city-building that I like is making my first city placement (indicated by placing a colored wooden house on the city) and watching what other players do.  While I generally strive to make my initial investment in a city that is centrally located and not too far from cheaper areas that I can move into later in the game, I have seen other strategies work equally as effectively.  Some players like to start in areas where the expansion costs are much lower (or free), while others start in the areas with high expansion costs.

It is also interesting to see how fast players expand, since there are compelling reasons not only to expand, but also to not expand, as least not too quickly.  While the more cities a player can power will earn him more income, taking the lead in this phase is counter-balanced by its effect on turn order: the player with the most cities will have the worst position for the next turn from everything to auctions to resource buying to additional city building.  This penalty sometimes leads to some tough decisions; I love the way it has been done.  Different players have different play styles, and their strategies may change over the course of the game.  Thematically, this could reflect the idea that smaller companies are able to run their business more efficiently than the larger ones.

About halfway through the game, the number of cities becomes important for another reason: the first player to build seven cities signals the beginning of the next stage of the game where a second player can invest in each city. Good positioning in turn order can be especially critical at this juncture. Players will frequently want to be last in turn order, so as to have first choice during the expansion phase of the following turn.

Lastly, effective city building is vital because the end of the game is signaled when one of the players reaches a certain number of cities (this differs according to the number of players).  When the game reaches this point, players typically spend one or two turns making increasingly powerful plays, such as spending large amounts of previously accumulated cash to pay outrageous sums for power plants, to stock up on resources, or to expand their power network to several cities in a single turn. The reason for this crescendo is because the winner is the player who can power the most cities. This is one of the most exciting moments in the game.

Turn Order
I have already touched on turn order throughout this review.  It is a very important consideration in the game and it is affected directly by players' actions in all phases of the game.  It is so important that competition for it often becomes a separate side game, as players often jockey to gain or retain control of it.  The competition has its subtleties, as being second-to-last may be just as good as last depending on the other players' power plant and resource holdings.  I really enjoy games that involve counterpoint such as this, and ones that place such a strong emphasis on turn order.  I really admire how Friese has done this.

Power Grid is a masterpiece of game design and clearly deserves its laurels.  If you haven't yet played it, I encourage you to give it a try.  If you've played it and can't get beyond the math, I would encourage you to give it another try, keeping the theme in mind.  The abundance of math is an understandable complaint, but with the right players the game really shines brightly.