Game Night: Power Grid

June 9, 2017 - Board Games

I first bought Power Grid purely on the basis of its ranking on BoardGameGeek, where (at the time) it sat among the top ten games in overall rating. It’s since managed to become one of the least-played games in my collection, despite one of our regulars expressing great affection for it. So tonight, we brought it out for another go.

That’s how I got to experience anew why it never comes out.

Power Grid is regarded rather fondly in a number of strategy game circles. I’m told it’s a game of devious tactical depth, where the shifting player order, variety of maps, randomized power plants, and auction and resource market mechanics make for a number of different variables that must be cautiously juggled in order to position oneself for victory. At times I’ve felt that this must be true; I’ve experienced a degree of appreciation for a particular mechanic and even sat there condescendingly informing other frustrated players that the game was designed to give them a different kind of advantage for being lower in player order.

I’m sure it’s true, but I’ve never once seen it play out.

My group’s experience with Power Grid boils down to a bicycle race between two people on a tandem. Barring something ridiculous happening, you can go through the motions as long as you have to and nothing will change. The first time any player has gotten a lead in our games – and by this I mean turn one – that player has won. Every time, without fail, and in a way that feels basically impossible to stop. For a game that runs a solid two hours, such a cartoonish examination of futility against the rich-get-richer juggernaut feels rather like Monopoly, only less honest about it. The Landlord’s Game did, after all, set out to make you miserable.

So let’s talk about the game. Power Grid sees players as rival power corporations spread out over a country (my game came with the US and Germany) who dream of big networks of power lines and want to capture the most market share. To do this, players will bid on power plants at auction, purchase the fuels necessary to make them run, build connections into cities around the map, and then receive payment for the power they supply, based on the size of their network. Coal, oil, garbage and uranium (yes, yes, eco-friendly power is available too) are purchased from a common market and shoot up in price as demand reduces supply.

The game is divided into three “steps” which dictate market supply and the level of competition permitted in cities; in Step 1, only one player may connect into a given city, Step 2 allows a second, Step 3 a third. As your networks grow larger, you will find yourself needing to pay a premium to connect into a city where another player is already established, or possibly fenced out altogether and looking for new ways to expand. With some connections very close (and very cheap) and others requiring a lot of infrastructure to complete, there are optimal ways of routing your network – and unfortunate avenues you could funnel your opponents down.

It probably sounds like it works; again, as far as I understand from groups that aren’t ours, it probably does work, more or less. The mechanics reward players whose powered networks are smaller with priority access to the resource market and first choice on where to build. Conversely, however, the mechanics also reward the leading player – with money. Yes, money, in paper form, which is used to buy better power plants, and resources, and increase network size. It may cost the leader more to do these things, but the leader has more money. That’s where the problem stems from.

It may be that there are auction strategies, or network-building strategies, or some other form of strategy that will shake the game up a bit more. I have to believe that’s what people are praising, that there’s a more in-depth and learned way to engage with Power Grid which yields more competitive outcomes and a properly tense strategic game. The issue here, however, is that these strategies appear to be nonintuitive – they don’t arise naturally from the way my group has engaged with the game, nor do they feel teased at in a meaningful way that encourages further experimentation.

For a game as long as this one, that feels like an insurmountable problem. Who wants to domesticate acorns when apples are available? Asking a group of people to commit two hours because you want to experiment with a new way to engage with a predictable game can be a bit much, especially if you need to do it multiple times. Coupled with this issue is the amount of fiddly management needed – the rulebook is a reference required to track market restocking, the power plants need to be moved around as new ones become available, and most accursedly of all, paper money banking. With values that insist on 1s being in circulation all the time. These operating elements create a period of slowdown at the end of each round that sucks momentum from an already ponderous chore.

If the theme or presentation were engaging, it might still be possible to sell Power Grid more often, but the art is almost viciously drab and the theme doesn’t grab once its execution is seen. I’ve had games of Power Grid abandoned for being a long, dry, flavorless, and frankly futile ordeal. In a way, its sins are worse than those of Monopoly, which at least has the good graces to put some players out of their misery.

Some of us enjoy the attempt, and it’s always worth trying to crack out again eventually; it’s just that so many other games exist that are more inviting to experimentation and novice strategy that Power Grid fails to make a case for itself. While I was pleased to get it back on the table, after two hours of pedaling on the back of the bike, it was just hard not to ask myself why I agreed to race on a tandem.

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