A few years ago I stopped buying new games, and decided instead to concentrate on picking up those classics that, for one reason or another, I’d neglected to pick up when they were new. Through the Desert, Ra, Mu & More, and the like.
And yet, despite its reputation as the third most highly rated modern game, I held off on purchasing Power Grid. I’d heard that it was long and complicated, and my shelves are already well stocked with such games, that rarely or never hit the table.
Plus, the theme of the game sounded unthinkably dull: power plant construction and management. The reviews of Power Grid seemed to confirm this impression, as they made the game sound like a protracted story problem, one in which you own plants X, Y, and Z, are trying to supply energy to N cities, and need to determine how much of four different types of fuel to buy. Bore-ing.
Still, for the sake of completeness, I eventually bought a copy, and even went to the trouble of playing it. To my surprise, I found the game was not as lengthy, complicated, or as bland as I’d feared. In fact, it rapidly became obvious that its reputation as one of the greatest games ever designed was well deserved.
Each player heads up a fledging power company, seeking to supply the nation with electricity. To that end they need to do three things: purchase power plans, acquire fuel, and hook cities into their power grid. Obtaining power plants is simple: every player has the opportunity to buy one at the start of each round. Purchasing fuel, however, is a bit trickier. First of all, Power Grid has a clever mechanism that approximates supply and demand: the more units of fuel that are purchased during a round, the higher the price goes. So which the first player to buy, say, coal, might get it for $2 a lot, the final player might be forking out $5 per coal or more. Secondly, the first person to buy fuel is the player in last place, followed by the penultimate player, and so on. In other words, if you are trailing, you get your fuel on the cheap; if you are “winning,” you’ll pay extra. This evens the playing field, and makes “hanging back” a viable strategy in the game.
Player then hook cities into their power grids. This is done by placing markers onto the board, which shows a country and a number of the cities therein. Only one player can own a city (at least at the start of the game), so players jockey to snap up the available towns, and maneuver to not get hemmed in. City acquisition is, again, done in reverse-place order, with the last player going first and the first last.
Finally, players fire up their power plants, supply cities with energy, and reap the rewards in cash. This cash will be used in future rounds to buy more plants, fuel, and cities.
From the description above, you can see why I might have written Power Grid off as an exercise in tedium, a game with all the excitement of filling out reimbursement forms. Instead, the game is remarkably taut and exciting. In fact, I tend not to like economic games at all, since they often strike me as overly bureaucratic, so it’s something of a wonder that Power Grid, which falls squarely in that category, is currently my favorite game in my whole collection.
For one thing, money in the game is often very tight. In early rounds you may make no more that $20 or $30 dollars for selling electricity; and yet late in the game, when you are routinely pulling in $90 or $100 dollars a round, you may still find yourself a single dollar short of the funds you need to accomplish your Master Plan. The game isn’t just about who makes the most money, but who can manage it the best.
Another great feature of the game is that the opponents you are primarily competing against changes throughout the game. Early in the game, for instance, I and player W may be the only two that own oil burning plants, and we are in pitched battle for the oil resources; meanwhile, on the board, the cities in my power grid might abut those of Player X, and we might constantly joust for position on the board. By midgame, though, I may have transitions over to nuclear power plants, skirmishing with player Y for uranium and fighting for territory with player Z on the board. In short, the game demands both strategic (i.e., long-term) planning, as well as tactical (i.e., current turn) savvy–a near perfect mix.
Power Grid is both longer (a typical game takes 90-120 minutes) and more complex than most of the games I recommend on this site. But the time flies by, and is easy enough to grok once you have a few rounds under your belt. It is also unusual amongst “money games” in that it is great fun even when you get clobbered; I have thoroughly enjoyed my dozen plays, despite the fact that I have never won once. Indeed, every loss just whets my appetite for more, as I desperately want to figure out how to refine my strategy. That’s the hallmark of a great game: fun to play at the time, keeps you coming back for more. And though I bought Power Grid to “fill in the cracks” in my library, it rapidly became one of the cornerstones of my collection. A true classic.
From The Comments: Jason asks: “The purchase link you listed says 2-6 players, but how many players (at a minimum) do you think you need to make it really enjoyable?” I have not, and probably never will, play PG with two. But it’s great with three to five, and the only downside to six-player games is length (i.e., typically two hours or more).
The rules for PG vary slightly according to the number of people playing, to ensure that every game is tight. For instance, the board is divided into six regions, and you always play in a number of regions equal to the number of players, making each game equally claustrophobic. Also, less fuel is available in games with fewer players.
Which is to say: they didn’t just slap “2-6” on a game that was ideally suited for exactly four; they actually tailored the game for any number of participants.