The final piece of this week’s package on prospects for 2010, players who might jump on to the 2011 list, is up. If you missed the main list, it starts with numbers 1 through 25. I’ll have one more piece on prospects next week, possibly Tuesday. As for Ulysses, I have four sentences – running twenty-odd pages – to go, so I’m hoping to write it up on Sunday or, at worst, Monday.
I got the board game Power Grid on the recommendations from several of you, and it’s currently the fourth-ranked game on Boardgamegeek. It’s a brilliant game with a few drawbacks that are easily surmounted, fairly simple to learn with some game-to-game modifications, and (as far as I can tell) no easy strategy to win.
The idea of the game is to build a power grid across a map of Germany or the U.S., including power plants and power stations in connected cities. You can have up to 3 power plants that run on coal, oil, garbage, uranium, coal/oil (hybrid plants), or green sources; except for green power, the others require players to purchase resources in each turn to fire the plants and power the cities. The first player to build a network of 17 cities, with the capacity and resources to power them, wins the game, with the magic number varying slightly depending on the number of players.
The great hitch in the game is that the power plants each take different inputs and power anywhere from one to seven cities, and they come up for auction rather than selling for fixed prices, while resource prices vary as well depending on how many players are chasing those inputs, which can change as each player upgrades his plants. It’s a complicated economic question: costs vary, and the marginal revenue from powering another city is positive but declines slightly as the number of cities in a network increases. I imagine that someone could build a model (I’m thinking Monte Carlo simulation) to figure out what these plants should be worth, or roughly what they should be worth depending on when they come up in the game, although I think that might ruin the fun.
With three or more players, two competitive dynamics come into play. One is the map – for the first part of the game, only one player can occupy a city; in “step 2,” it’s two players per city; and it’s never more than three players per city, giving multiple opportunities for a player to block others and prevent them from expanding their networks, deliberately or as part of naturally expanding their own networks. A player could have the money and power plants to expand his network but be slowed dramatically because he has to pay extra – a lot extra on the western side of the map – to go through someone else’s network, and while I’m not sure if it could happen in practice, I think I could see how a player could end up pinned in for several turns while he waits to accumulate the cash to expand out of region. The other is the competition for resources, which are refilled at fixed rates for each step of the game, so they can be depleted if too many players need them to power their plants – in fact, I can’t see how in a five- or six-player game you wouldn’t run into shortages, forcing players to change their plants and perhaps driving up purchase prices. And uranium is refilled so slowly that there’s a severe disincentive for two players to run nuclear plants simultaneously.
I did mention drawbacks. One is that it’s a mediocre two-player game, because the constraints don’t really constrain. You have room on the map, resources won’t be depleted, and the auctions don’t get too crazy – my wife and I engage in de facto collusion, so we buy plants at face value unless it’s a green one. Three works, although I’ve only played two games with three, and I imagine four would be perfect and five-plus would be a little cutthroat. With three players, each game took over an hour, so a five-player game could certainly run two.
Another is that the board is drab. I don’t care that much about artwork, but my wife really dislikes the game because she says it looks depressing – and she’s right about the cards with the power plants on them, which depict varying levels of air pollution. It wouldn’t stop me from playing the game, but it will stop some people, and for what these games cost I think it’s fair to consider the artwork.
And the third is that the mechanics of the game are complex. To keep the game in balance, the game author had to put a number of unnatural rules in place, including artificial constructs like the shift from step one to two (when any player has seven cities in his network) or two to three (when the “Step 3″ card comes up in the power plant deck) and a table for how many resources to add back to the resource market at the end of each round … it’s a lot to keep track of over the course of the game, and we usually screw something up, somewhere, like forgetting to put coal back in the market one turn only to wonder three turns later why coal is so expensive. Even the order in which the players go in each round varies – you set a new player order each round, but then for some phases in the round, players go in reverse order. Yeah. I imagine the more you play, the more natural it becomes, but I don’t see it ever become as intuitive as most of the games we enjoy.
I’d recommend Power Grid because I enjoy playing it, especially the economic twist from the power plant-resource interaction, but I know from your feedback that you guys are split between folks who like the quicker-to-learn games like Ticket to Ride or Dominion and those who think I should be playing more Agricola and Puerto Rico. Power Grid, to me, is more for the second camp than the first.