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Power Grid: a brutal economic game

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Power Grid had been on my radar for some time, ever since I read this post about the game on BGG. It was this exchange that did it for me:

ME: What do you like about Power Grid?
GM: Money! Real *alive* money in this game!

There was something about the way his grandmother said that the money was alive that got me. Then, when TheBosZ commented, “I think it’s great that she catches on to one of the best things about Power Grid: the market. It reacts just as a real market would and makes every game awesome,” my interest was definitely piqued.

I still had reservations, though: I knew that some copies of the game used a crayon system for keeping track of the connections, and ever since the early days of Empire Builder I’ve had a horror of crayon games. It seems to be impossible to get the crayon completely off the board, and after just a few plays the board begins to feel grotty. Maybe it’s just me.

LittleMetalDog set my mind at ease regarding the components of the more recent versions of the game, and then I was, so to speak, off to the races. I bought Power Grid so I could get Amazon’s free shipping on a Christmas present for my wife – never mind the fact that Power Grid all by itself would have qualified for free shipping…. Ó¿Ò

I’m glad I took the plunge.

Power Grid is an unabashed power grab, a brutal economic game where money is used as a bludgeon. It’s like Monopoly on steroids, and I have the sneaking suspicion it’s the game Monopoly always wanted to be.

There’s nothing “nice” about Power Grid – in every phase of the game you try to outbid, outbuy, outflank, and outmaneuver your opponents. When buying power plants at auction, you bid as aggressively as possible to ensure that no one gets a bargain; when buying resources to power your plants, you purchase more resources than you actually need solely in order to drive the price up for your competitors; when developing cities, you do so in such as way as to cut off your opponents and make it more difficult for them to expand.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s all great fun. If you’ve ever wanted to pretend you’re a greedy capitalist bastard, this is the game that’ll let you do it.

Which brings me to the one thing I don’t like about this game: a kind of counter-intuitive twist that punishes the leader by making her go first in the auction (where going first is a detriment) and last in every other phase.

I know, I know, if you don’t punish the leader somehow, then the leader just runs away with it. Economic development games, in my experience, always have this problem – it’s in the nature of the beast that the rich get richer and the poor get screwed. So what do you do as a designer? You slow the leader down, you tax them, you make them go last, etc.

In the real world, I’m all for regulations and taxes and such. But in the gaming world, I’m all for purity of purpose. If it’s going to be a capitalist game, in other words, make it a capitalist game and don’t muck it up with artificial restrictions. Either force the players to interact more directly with one another so they themselves can reign in the leader, or let the leader run away with it – it’s simpler and more straightforward that way.

That being said, I love the game – it’s fun to play, and not knowing which power plants will be available for purchase adds a delicious tension that would otherwise be lacking. I’ve played it with two and with three, and both worked quite well. I can’t wait to try it with four.

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  1. January 24, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Great write up. I really want to try this game out.

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