One of the reasons a lot of people shy away from playing certain games is theme. It’s often pretty easy to convince people to get involved in a game where a bunch of you are questing to defeat a monstrous demon or play as astronauts colonising a distant planet, but look a little further away from these standards and you’d be surprised at what some games are based on. I recently played and reviewed 1960: The Making of The President and loved it, even though I never thought that I’d be into such a theme. The survival of the fittest may not be the first thing you think of when picking something off the shelf, but GMT’s Dominant Species is incredible. With a decent enough mechanic, you could probably make a game based on anything – even setting up a national energy grid. Or you could, if it hadn’t already been done – Power Grid has already beaten you to it.
Designed by the prolific Friedemann Friese, the game does indeed see you and your opponents attempting to build up a network of cities while collecting and upgrading power plants. You also need to make sure you have enough resources to fire these plants at the end of each turn (which earns you more money), and the game ends when a set amount of cities have been connected by one of the players. They may not necessarily end up being the winner, however – the glory goes to whoever is able to power the most cities on that final turn… but how do you get there?
Despite looking quite daunting initially, the game is pretty simple once you break it down into the different parts. Each round has five actions that each player gets involved in. They’re not all mandatory, but miss out on too much and you’ll find yourself lagging behind pretty quickly. The round starts by determining the player order, followed by bidding on one of four available plants (and keeping an eye of the futures market – a row of plants that are potentially for sale soon). These produce their electricity by using resources which happen to be picked up in the next round – coal and oil begin the game as the cheapest, but there are also plants that burn garbage or use uranium. Next up, you need to develop your network of cities, then finally spend your previously purchased resources to generate the electricity to power as many as possible. This generates you the necessary income to do the whole thing all over again, eventually building up as large a network as possible.
The early stages of the game are always tentative, not only down to you having a lack of funding but also that only one player is allowed to be in each city. Things get a little more confrontational as soon as the first network of seven cities is created – Step 2 of the game kicks in, allowing shared ownership of cities. The second player to set up in a city has to pay a little extra, but if you want to expand enough to win the game you have to become the embodiment of “speculate to accumulate”. You’ll get nowhere in Power Grid without spending money, and as the game progresses you’ll find yourself needing to pay out more and more to improve your power plants. Cheaper ones may well only generate enough electricity for one or two cities, meaning that after a few turns they’ll become somewhat redundant – remember that the more cities you supply, the more money you’ll get at the end of each round, meaning a greater chance for investing in more efficient power stations. Believe me, you’ll need them.
As well as thinking about your ever expanding network and keeping on top of the power plant situation, you need to consider what you’re going to use to keep them going – the previously mentioned resources. At the end of each round the resources are replenished to a limited degree, hopefully meaning they’ll become more affordable. The market constantly fluctuates depending on what is in demand – for example, if no-one is buying garbage the price slowly drops, while if coal or oil are in high demand they’ll be hard to get limited and expensive to boot! It’s an ingenious method that really demonstrates how supply and demand works, forcing players to adapt their plans dependent on what others are doing and what they can afford. If you can pay for it, you can also buy up extra resources and store them on your power plants, meaning that your opponents have to lay out more to even be able to fire up their generators. A mean strategy, but all’s fair in business!
Power Grid is a game of multitasking. You need to keep on top of many things, but after getting a couple of rounds under your belt you’ll find that it’s not as difficult a task as you may have originally thought. Being able to see the plants that are available in future allows you to come up with potential strategies, but you need to make sure that you don’t rely on them actually showing up – more often than not, they won’t, especially if they’re of a high value and they appear early! With a little concentration, you’ll find it easy enough to balance your purchases and expansion plans without running out of cash. Runaway leaders will often find that they get caught within a few rounds, and as the winner is decided by who can power the most cities on the final round, it’s always in your interest to fight for every last uranium rod.
Having been around for a little while, Power Grid has a pile of expansions available in the form of extra boards (generally double-sided, like the USA/Germany map included in the original game) or new sets of power station cards. There’s also a few promotional items available, of which I’m lucky enough to have a couple including the Flux Capacitor and Generator cards – if you fancy getting your hands on these, you’ll have to chance your arm on eBay or Board Game Geek! This is a wonderful game and a great step up from your Euro gateways – there’s a little more thought required in comparison to releases such as Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan, and despite the slightly curious theme I’d really recommend you give it a whirl. One of the best mid-level Euro games out there and, in my opinion, Friedemann Friese’s greatest design.
Power Grid was first released in 2004 and is – of course – still available today. Designed by Friedemann Friese with artwork by Maura Kalusky, it originally came out through the 2-F imprint, but is now produced by many companies worldwide (though mine is from Rio Grande Games). Between two and six players can get involved, though I find it’s best with four – however, it scales incredibly well, limiting areas of the board dependent on how many are playing. Available from your local game store and online (Amazon often have it for less that £20, a total bargain!), you need a copy of this in your collection.