Board Game Review: Power Grid

The game of Power Grid in the course of a four player game. The board represents a map of the continental United States with various cities connected by network lines. Wooden house tokens in the various players' colours have been placed on many of the cities. Along the bottom of the board are black, brown, orange, and yellow tokens representing the various resources. Cards and more tokens lie around the board on the table.In my quest to play eighty of the top 100 board games, I have finally been able to play Power Grid. I first heard of this game when I read the Cracked article 6 Board Games that Ruined It for Everyone. That article lists Monopoly as the worst board game of all time. Perhaps it’s only fair to say it’s the worst widely known board game of all time. But the article goes on to recommend Power Grid instead. The article states:

Power Grid is everything Monopoly should have been. You’re genuinely aiming to build a monopoly, earning ever-increasing fountains of money, but you still have to spend every cent to stay ahead of the competition.

I’ve only been able to play once, but I already know I need to own a copy for myself. Let me explain why.

Let’s look at some ratings:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Gameplay: 2 hours
Gamer Profile Ratings:
Strategy: High
Conflict: Medium
Social Manipulation: Medium
Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Power Grid

The base game comes with a double sided board. One side is Germany, the other side is the continental United States. You can buy expansions that allow you to play in many other areas: Australia, Japan, Spain, Russia, and so on. I played on the British Isles board. But the game play is the same, regardless of where you’re building your network.

Players are owners of an electric company. They must build their networks to be able to power the most cities of all the players. Players start with one city in their network, each in a different but adjacent region, and expand outward from there. They earn money, called ‘elektro,’ by powering cities, and use their elektro to purchase new plants, resources, and add cities to their networks. A round takes place in five phases:

  1. Determine Player Order. Place player tokens in order of descending number of cities in the player’s network.
  2. Auction Power Plants. Players bid on the available power plants.
  3. Buy Resources. In reverse turn order, players take turns buying the resources needed to generate power.
  4. Build cities. In reverse turn order, players place house tokens on cities to add that city to their network.
  5. Bureaucracy. Players use their resources to generate power, and receive money based on how many cities they are able to power.

Determine Player Order

This phase is simple. The player with the most cities goes first (which is actually a detriment). The player with the fewest cities goes last (going last is actually beneficial).

Auction Power Plants

The player in first position as determined in the ‘Determine Player Order’ phase bids on an available power plant. Power plants are numbered, and the player must bid at least that value. The higher the number, the more powerful that plant. Other players are able to bid as well, but once they’ve passed on bidding for a specific plant, they may not bid on that plant again. Once all but one player have passed on a plant, the winning player takes it and pays the amount bid.

After replenishing the market, players continue bidding until everyone has purchased a new power plant, or opted not to. No player may have more than three power plants, and so if a fourth one is purchased, one of your existing plants must be discarded.

Buy Resources

Most power plants require resources in order to power a city. A few plants use solar, water, or wind power, and thus require no resources. But most will take coal, oil, garbage, or uranium (some can be powered by more than one type). These resources are arranged on a track on the board. The more resources there are, the cheaper that resource is. In reverse turn order, players buy as many resources as they want and can afford. These must be stored in your power plants, and you can only store twice the amount that a plant requires to generate power.

Build Cities

During this phase, players may place their house tokens in cities to add those cities to their networks. During Step 1 (more on steps in a moment), only one player may have a house in a given city. It costs ten elektro to build this first house, plus the connection cost. Each connection printed on the board has a connection cost listed on it. You must pay this cost in addition to the normal ten elektro. It’s possible to skip over a city and pay two connection costs.

For example, Detroit has a connection to Chicago, with a connection cost of 7. Chicago is also connected to Kansas City, with a connection cost of 8. If you had a house in Detroit, and wanted to build in Kansas City without first building in Chicago (perhaps another player already has a house in Chicago, so you can’t build there yet), you could do so by paying both connection costs (7 from Detroit to Chicago and 8 from Chicago to Kansas City, for a total of 15) in addition to the build cost of 10, giving you a grand cost to build in Kansas City of 25 elektro.

Bureacracy

Each power plant card indicates how many resources, and which type, it requires, and how many cities it powers. During the Bureaucracy phase, you spend the necessary resources to power your power plants. You don’t have to power all of them, but the more cities you power, the more elektro you receive. Then you finish the round by placing additional resources onto the track according to how many players there are.

Three Steps in Power Grid

The game occurs across three steps. The first step lasts from the beginning of the game until one player has built seven or more cities. Then you move into step two, which lasts until the ‘Step 3’ card comes up in the power plant deck. Step three lasts until the end of the game.

Steps have two effects in Power Grid. Firstly, each city may only have one player’s house during step one. During step two, there can be up to two players in each city (building a house in a city which already contains another player’s house costs 15 instead of 10). During step 3, there can be up to three players in a city (the third house in a city costs 20 elektro to build).

The second effect is that the number of resources being placed on the board during the Bureaucracy phase varies from one step to the next.

Winning Power Grid

The game ends after the build phase in which one player builds their 17th city (15th in 5 player games, 14 in 6 player games, and 21 in 2 player games). The winner is the player who is, at that moment, is able to power the most cities. It doesn’t matter if he has the power plants to power the most; if he doesn’t have the resources to actually do it at that time, it doesn’t count.

My Thoughts on Power Grid

This game is a lot of fun. A ridiculous amount of fun. I know this review is kind of lengthy, but it’s really a pretty simple mechanic. Once you’ve played a round, it’s very easy thereafter. Furthermore, this game produces an astounding amount of strategy, planning, and cunning. You wouldn’t think it about a game in which you’re basically building a power company’s infrastructure, but Power Grid is a surprisingly contentious game. Simple actions can inspire frightening levels of antagonism.

A perfect example: when playing with John, Zeb, and David, I found myself eyeing a very nice power plant. It could power 6 cities for free. On David’s turn during the Buy Power Plants phase, this plant was the first one in the ‘future market’ row. This meant that whatever plant was purchased on this turn would make space for this amazing plant in the ‘current market’ row. But I didn’t want David to get off easily, either; I decided to try to increase the price just a little bit before letting David have whatever plant he was bidding on. So after his opening bid, I bid one elektro more. David immediately conceded, meaning that I was stuck with a power plant I didn’t want and he got the awesome one that powered six cities for free.

Needless to say, I said some very unkind things.

That wasn’t the only time in that game when one player’s actions enraged another. Any game that can produce that much ire from such a simple setup is clearly a winner.

So I fully agree with Cracked’s assessment: this game deserves to be in the top 100 forever. So go out, give it a try, and come back next week for more games discussion. Until then,

Game on!

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J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.

About J

J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.