Sunday, April 26, 2015

Power Grid: When it’s time to graduate from Monopoly

Posted By on Sun, Apr 26, 2015 at 7:17 AM

click to enlarge NATE WARREN
  • Nate Warren
Imagine if Fred Astaire’s “Cheek to Cheek,” which charted back in 1935, were still constantly on the radio and you’d have some idea of how hobby board gamers feel about the knowledge that Monopoly — far surpassed in economic game design many times over in the decades since — still retains its spot as a top-selling game.

Monopoly holds a great deal of mindshare among any family that knows what a board game is. Friedemann Friese’s Power Grid was released in 2004 and has the same footprint on the consciousness of hobby gamers as Monopoly does for the public at large. It shares little in common with Monopoly in terms of mechanics. I compare the two because they’re both economic games and because Power Grid stands in such stark contrast to the roll-and-move games of old. It’s almost pure strategy, it’s elegant as hell, and, unlike Monopoly, you can be far behind and still have some sort of effect on the outcome.

Remember those old family game nights with Monopoly, and going into a rage after your cousin emptied your pockets and turned you into a disgruntled spectator for the rest of the game? Well, nobody gets eliminated in Power Grid. And you don’t have to roll dice to figure out what will happen on your turn. There’s some luck involved in the way that the power plants come up on the auction block, but other than that, almost every variable can be planned for and optimized. It’s a mathematical game that bends well to the competitive player who can think a few moves ahead. It can be ruthless, but in a different way than Monopoly.

Each player is an energy magnate striving to build the largest network of connected cities — a two-sided board lets you play in either Germany or the US. The game proceeds along three major phases. Every phase begins with an auction in which players vie with one another to bid for new power plants, each of which burns a different kind of fuel and has varying degrees of efficiency. After that, players buy resources from the game’s constantly shifting fuel market (coal, oil, uranium, or trash) to fire up the plants, and have to pay to place houses on the map’s connected cities. Houses give you customers so that you have a reason to burn your fuel, earn cash, and keep pace with your opponents’ expanding networks.

There are many well-thought-out nuances that’ll keep you in the game’s grip. The shifting market of available plants will tease you with dreams of power, but you’ll have to consider your many expenses before you get drawn into a Pyrrhic bidding war. The game’s “rubber band” mechanic means that whoever got first shot at the plants for auction goes last when it’s time to buy fuel and place houses. People can drive up the cost of running your plants by snatching all the cheap fuel you were hoping to get or they can block your cities in, cramping your plans for expansion. I often have to break out a calculator late in the game to see if I have enough cash to do everything I want. I usually don’t, which creates vital tension and tough decisions. (I won’t be getting any bailouts from Community Chest, either.)

If none of this scares you, you might want to try this Euro classic. One warning: Power Grid’s rulebook has a deservedly bad reputation in the hobby board gaming community. As written, it is incredibly easy to misunderstand or overlook important steps to the game. Before you try to play your first game, check out this cleaned-up version of the rules from a dedicated forum member. It’ll save you major confusion and give you a shortcut to the fruits of this superbly designed, wickedly competitive economic game.

You may forget that you ever had Monopoly on your shelf.

Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.

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