Power Grid is all about creating a network of cities and providing them with power. This is a multi-step proposition as you must connect to cities, win power plants at auction and purchase fuel. Money for these tasks is acquired by actually powering the cities so there's a sort of feedback loop—you increase your capacity so that you can earn more money so that you can increase your capacity (and so on). Tempering this is the fact that turn order is critical and punishes those "in the lead".
Power Grid is a new version of Friedemanne Friese's Funkenschlag. There have been a number of changes all geared towards shortening the playing time. There are minor alterations to the power plants and payoff schedule but the greatest change by far is that the routes are now pre-printed on the (double-sided) board. No more drawing routes with crayons!
The auction for power plants is where the most important decisions occur and will be where you win or lose the game. Each turn a number of power plants will be available for auction. On the first turn everyone must buy one but in subsequent rounds there may be none, one or several auctions depending on the choices of the players. Each power plant shows the type of fuel it uses, the number of cities it powers and the amount of fuel it consumes (from 0-3 "pieces" of fuel). Each plant also has a numeric rating from 03 to 50. This number represents the minimum bid allowable for that plant as well as acting as a tie-breaker for turn order. (Turn order is determined by the number of cities owned which means that players will often be tied. In these cases the player with the single highest numbered power plant will act later in most rounds; this is a decided disadvantage.)
The reason why the auctions are so important is because you are only allowed three power plants at any one time. Due to the way these plants are auctioned they will (generally) get progressively more efficient as the game continues. Early on, each plant will power only one or two cities but later plants will power five, six or seven cities. The game ends when someone connects 14-21 cities (depending on the number of players in the game) and so you will need to count on having fairly advanced plants if you hope to win. The problem this presents is what sort of "upgrade path" you are able to achieve. What I mean is that at first you'll generally have low efficient plants and will, over the course of pay, upgrade them to more efficient ones. How exactly you accomplish this is very important.
Purchasing fuel is straightforward as you simply pay the indicated cost for the specific type(s) of fuel you require. The market for this is set up such that the earlier in the round you purchase, the less you pay. This means that turn order is again critical as the costs can rapidly increase, particularly if several players are purchasing the same type of fuel.
Connecting to Cities
Connecting to cities is also relatively straightforward. You must pay the cost for the city itself ($10, $15 or $20 depending on whether you are the first, second or third player to connect to it) plus the "connection" cost. These costs are printed directly on the board and you must be able to trace a path back to one of your existing cities. (In the picture below it would cost the purple player $23 to connect to Kansas City—$15 for being second and $8 for the connection from Chicago.)
With so much of the game straightforward and simple you might think that Power Grid is a fairly light and "easy" game to play—you'd be wrong. When actually playing you'll find that there's a lot to occupy your thoughts and you must constantly monitor your situation. Will you be able to connect to Berlin this turn? What are your fuel costs going to be? Should you connect to that tenth city or will that hurt you in the turn order? There are times when you'll have a few turns planned in advance but these will be fairly rare as your opponents' actions will affect almost everything you do. This is especially true because the game is rather math-intensive (you've been warned). It's very bad to fall a few dollars short of a necessary fuel purchase or connection fee so you'll be constantly recalculating your earnings and expenditures throughout the game.
As I stated earlier, the auction is where the game is won or lost (for the most part). One of the reasons why this part the game is so challenging is that it's difficult to objectively value the power plants. The first difficulty is the fact that you can't simply upgrade to a new plant because it's more efficient. You need to consider the "capital cost" of the plant itself. How long will you keep it? It's almost certain that other, even more efficient plants will become available later. There's no point upgrading to a plant that will be replaced before it has a chance to pay for itself. This is what I meant when I talked about an "upgrade path". The second difficulty is that a plant's worth depends on what sort of plants the other players own. If everyone has a coal plant then the fuel costs will be very high for the player purchasing last. (This may mean that it's a good idea to buy a coal plant if you're first in turn order—you'll drive the price up for everyone else!) On the other hand, if you're the only player with a garbage plant then your fuel costs will be low. It's these sort of difficult decisions that I love and the reason I enjoy Power Grid as much as I do.
The original Funkenshlag had a number of problems with its components. Happily this has been rectified with Power Grid, everything is very nice. The board is hard-mounted and shows the US on one side and Germany on the reverse. The power plant cards are clear and attractive and the wood markers are different shapes which helps distinguish them. The rules are mostly clear but there is some confusion due to a mix up with the terms step, phase and round. Common sense helps when figuring things out but it should be noted that there are a number of fiddly little rules that can easily throw you when first playing. (Much of this is because there are small differences when playing with certain numbers as well as the fact that things change a bit throughout the three stages of the game. You'll definitely want to keep the rulebook handy when playing the first few times.)
While I like Power Grid overall, there are a number of problems that prevent it from being a top notch game. My primary grievance is that the final auction has a huge impact on the outcome. While you can try to prepare for this there is a considerable amount of luck in the timing of the end game. Very often it seemed that the winner was the player who had good fortune at the end. A slight change in the turn order or plants available results in another player winning instead. The reason why this is a problem and not merely a feature is because I do not believe you have enough control over how the circumstances of the final round play out—the best you can do is set yourself up and hope things fall your way. This is a disappointing in a game that takes over 2 hours to play.
Despite the problems I mentioned I still think Power Grid is a good game, it's novel and challenging. The improvements over Funkenschlag are marked and I think this game is better in every way. The "crayon rail" aspect of the original was ill-advised and this new method is clearly superior. It's harder to say how much the other tweaks alter the game. Some people have complained that the new payout schedule is too rewarding for those in the lead but I disagree. The greater amount of money coming into the game shortens the running time and I feel that you can easily use the advantages of acting earlier in the round to prevent a leader from running away with it. We still found that it took 150 minutes or so to complete which may be a tad too long. I definitely wouldn't want to do anything that will make it even longer so I won't be using an alternate chart as some have suggested. Power Grid is a heady game and it rewards experience. Importantly, the game is enjoyable enough that you'll likely be happy to put in time gaining that experience.
- Greg Aleknevicus