Thursday 11 August 2016

Board Report: Power Grid

Just yesterday this thing was going around the twitters asking people their seven favourite games, presumably because 7 is a good number to fit in a tweet. I did my thing to keep the hashtag rolling.

Now that I've had a little time to think about it, though, it's clear that there's a couple of things that need changing in that list. The first five games are probably shoe-ins most of the time, but the last two positions change a lot. Codenames is a new game that sees a lot of play but I'm still not sick of, despite having played it approaching 50 times in the last 6 months, and probably gets in there most of the time, for now, but Raumscach is a game that I love for its brainbusting madness, but have only played three times. It's hard to really consider it a fave. Yesterday I couldn't think of anything else to put instead of it, but after dusting off an old favourite last night (no photos, sadly, I keep forgetting that I'm supposed to be providing blog content!), I remember what I'd put in the list instead...

Power Grid

In Power Grid, each player uses their stack of money to buy different power plants at auction, then fuel for their power plants (coal, oil, garbage or nuclear) and then contracts to supply cities with power, and then uses the money earned from cities powered to do it all again until someone has enough contracts to finish the game. That's it. The rules for Power Grid are deceptively simple, which is probably the main reason I love it so much. 

But playing the game, or at least playing it not simple, and having played it five times this year and probably about fifteen times overall, I'm happy to say that I'm still regularly stumped in deciding what to do. For me, that's a mark of a pretty solid game.

I hear you saying "Owl, I thought you said that you don't like auction games", and all I can say is that it's just a general rule (with this, Keyflower and 500, 3 of my top 7 are auction games, after all!). I don't find the auctions that painful in this one, even though they suffer from two common auction game problems. 

The first is that the bidding can sometimes go ludicrously high depending on the power station offer, which in many games means the winner gets a huge bonus, but in Grid often severely handicaps them for a while. I think this is because in many games money is only used for the auction, but in Grid its a resource that you need to steward to use in all three phases of a round.

The second auction game faux-pas that I generally hate is that some of the options are utterly undesirable for most of the players. I came cruelly acropper of this one in my last play, and I think there's two main reasons that it's not a disaster. The first is that you're not forced to take a suboptimal plant, you can choose to in order to move the game along, like I did last night, or you can wait it out and use your cash for other things. The second is that Power Grid does a great job of self-balancing, so the auctions (and every other part of the game) in favour those that are losing in a really classy way, by having the players perform their actions in order of how well they're doing.

The auction mechanics also don't seem to be upset by large or small player counts (my favourite count for this one is 3, but any number from 2 to 6 works fine). I don't know how that happens, but it's a thing.

Why is it Great?

Germany good. USA bad.
The main reason that Grid is just an excellent game is that this self-balancing mechanic, and the way that mechanic can be manipulated. Player order is determined by the number of cities each player has contracts with, then ties are broken by the size of each players largest power plant. Not only does this make it easier to recover from poor decisions and serve to keep people's scores close together, a large portion of the thought in the game is trying to grow to just the right size to make enough profit but not so large that you end up in an unfavourable position in the turn order. In grid, the catch-up mechanics aren't bolted on, they're the key to many successful strategies, in way way or another.

Or you can ignore it! If you're the kind of person that just wants to go all out and maximise income, you can do that and still have a chance. Or you can jostle for position on the board, forsaking short-term profit in order to reduce long-term costs through forcing other players to pay higher connection fees. Grid seems to reward a multitude of different strategies depending on the situation in the game, and reading other players, the state of the board and the different possible turns that the situation could take and reacting accordingly is where the real nuance comes in.

The game also includes one of my favourite Euro-type mechanics, in which the end of the game is movable and the person that triggers it might not win. In Power Grid, the endgame is reached when someone has formed contracts with the requisite number of cities, but the winner is the person who has the most contracts that they can fulfil. This causes weird endgames all the time, where out-and-out leaders are dragged back to the pack and surprise victories abound. And I love it.

As someone who takes joy in introducing games to new players, I also love Power Grid because it attracts a group of players that are otherwise hard to interest in new gaming experiences, the Monopoly Kids. All the itches are scratched, the stacks of cash, the careful investment, the testing of other player's breaking point, but all in the form of a game that I wouldn't hate having to play with them. This is the gateway game for a huge portion of people who actually like Monopoly, and instead of just making faces at them, this the game I pull out secure in the knowledge that it'll work. 

Yes, Power Grid is a long game. Unless you've all played before and don't suffer from decision paralysis this is going to take you 2-3 hours, but even with 5 or 6 players, there's very little down time because you spend all your time counting your cash and assessing possibilities. You can lose hours on this one and I'm pretty confident that you won't mind.

Blaugust Writing Prompts
1) What are your top seven games? (Or top seven x, if games aren't your thing right now?)
2) How often do the things you call your 'favourites' change?
3) What's your favourite x to teach to new people?

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