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Games: Power Grid

A few years ago I stopped buying new games, and decided instead to concentrate on picking up those classics that, for one reason or another, I'd neglected to pick up when they were new. Through the Desert, Ra, Mu & More, and the like.

And yet, despite its reputation as the third most highly rated modern game, I held off on purchasing Power Grid. I'd heard that it was long and complicated, and my shelves are already well stocked with such games, that rarely or never hit the table.

Plus, the theme of the game sounded unthinkably dull: power plant construction and management. The reviews of Power Grid seemed to confirm this impression, as they made the game sound like a protracted story problem, one in which you own plants X, Y, and Z, are trying to supply energy to N cities, and need to determine how much of four different types of fuel to buy. Bore-ing.

Still, for the sake of completeness, I eventually bought a copy, and even went to the trouble of playing it. To my surprise, I found the game was not as lengthy, complicated, or as bland as I'd feared. In fact, it rapidly became obvious that its reputation as one of the greatest games ever designed was well deserved.

Each player heads up a fledging power company, seeking to supply the nation with electricity. To that end they need to do three things: purchase power plans, acquire fuel, and hook cities into their power grid. Obtaining power plants is simple: every player has the opportunity to buy one at the start of each round. Purchasing fuel, however, is a bit trickier. First of all, Power Grid has a clever mechanism that approximates supply and demand: the more units of fuel that are purchased during a round, the higher the price goes. So which the first player to buy, say, coal, might get it for $2 a lot, the final player might be forking out $5 per coal or more. Secondly, the first person to buy fuel is the player in last place, followed by the penultimate player, and so on. In other words, if you are trailing, you get your fuel on the cheap; if you are "winning," you'll pay extra. This evens the playing field, and makes "hanging back" a viable strategy in the game.

Player then hook cities into their power grids. This is done by placing markers onto the board, which shows a country and a number of the cities therein. Only one player can own a city (at least at the start of the game), so players jockey to snap up the available towns, and maneuver to not get hemmed in. City acquisition is, again, done in reverse-place order, with the last player going first and the first last.

Finally, players fire up their power plants, supply cities with energy, and reap the rewards in cash. This cash will be used in future rounds to buy more plants, fuel, and cities.

From the description above, you can see why I might have written Power Grid off as an exercise in tedium, a game with all the excitement of filling out reimbursement forms. Instead, the game is remarkably taut and exciting. In fact, I tend not to like economic games at all, since they often strike me as overly bureaucratic, so it's something of a wonder that Power Grid, which falls squarely in that category, is currently my favorite game in my whole collection.

For one thing, money in the game is often very tight. In early rounds you may make no more that $20 or $30 dollars for selling electricity; and yet late in the game, when you are routinely pulling in $90 or $100 dollars a round, you may still find yourself a single dollar short of the funds you need to accomplish your Master Plan. The game isn't just about who makes the most money, but who can manage it the best.

Another great feature of the game is that the opponents you are primarily competing against changes throughout the game. Early in the game, for instance, I and player W may be the only two that own oil burning plants, and we are in pitched battle for the oil resources; meanwhile, on the board, the cities in my power grid might abut those of Player X, and we might constantly joust for position on the board. By midgame, though, I may have transitions over to nuclear power plants, skirmishing with player Y for uranium and fighting for territory with player Z on the board. In short, the game demands both strategic (i.e., long-term) planning, as well as tactical (i.e., current turn) savvy--a near perfect mix.

Power Grid is both longer (a typical game takes 90-120 minutes) and more complex than most of the games I recommend on this site. But the time flies by, and is easy enough to grok once you have a few rounds under your belt. It is also unusual amongst "money games" in that it is great fun even when you get clobbered; I have thoroughly enjoyed my dozen plays, despite the fact that I have never won once. Indeed, every loss just whets my appetite for more, as I desperately want to figure out how to refine my strategy. That's the hallmark of a great game: fun to play at the time, keeps you coming back for more. And though I bought Power Grid to "fill in the cracks" in my library, it rapidly became one of the cornerstones of my collection. A true classic.

From The Comments: Jason asks: "The purchase link you listed says 2-6 players, but how many players (at a minimum) do you think you need to make it really enjoyable?" I have not, and probably never will, play PG with two. But it's great with three to five, and the only downside to six-player games is length (i.e., typically two hours or more).

The rules for PG vary slightly according to the number of people playing, to ensure that every game is tight. For instance, the board is divided into six regions, and you always play in a number of regions equal to the number of players, making each game equally claustrophobic. Also, less fuel is available in games with fewer players.

Which is to say: they didn't just slap "2-6" on a game that was ideally suited for exactly four; they actually tailored the game for any number of participants.

Posted on June 14, 2007 to Games


It's definitely the "cornerstone" of my collection too. I never tire of Power Grid. It's imperfections make it almost perfect. I cannot possibly say enough good things about this game... oh, except... the BeNeLux map... uggg....

Posted by: David on June 18, 2007 12:19 AM

Power Grid is the only game that all four people in my regular gaming group put in their top five. Our tastes are all over the map, but we all find something to absolutely LOVE about Power Grid. I'm glad you've highlighted it here and I hope some folks give it a shot.

Posted by: bristlesage on June 18, 2007 6:36 AM

Thanks for the good review. I love Power Grid, and will use it to evangelize.

Posted by: nichole on June 18, 2007 7:31 AM

The purchase link you listed says 2-6 players, but how many players (at a minimum) do you think you need to make it really enjoyable? It seems to me that many "2 to many" games are different games with only 2 players, and often don't realize full potential without 4 or more.

Posted by: Jason Clark on June 18, 2007 10:20 AM

I prefer to use the payout chart from the original edition of the game, Funkenschlag. This chart is stingier with the cash, which makes the game even tighter and better. With the payout chart provided in Power Grid, money's a little too loose and our games often end before Phase 3, which feels anticlimactic.

Posted by: Peter on June 18, 2007 11:25 AM

You forgot to mention that if you are in the lead in the last turn that you will most likely lose the game :p

Posted by: Evil Timmy on June 18, 2007 1:38 PM

Power Grid is one of our house favorites.

I always like to get my hands on the green factories.

Posted by: jill on June 18, 2007 3:01 PM

Skipped Power Grid all these years? My friends would never let me get away with that! It's great as a second or third tier gateway game. I haven't tried any map except the first one, but now I think I'll suggest it at my next game night. Thanks for reminding me of an old favorite!

Posted by: Erin on June 18, 2007 4:14 PM

To Jason Clark - it's not very good with 2 players. 3 players can be OK except there's no way to block people in phase 3 so it lacks something. 4 or 5 is really good and 6 is entertaining.

Posted by: David on June 18, 2007 6:33 PM

I've held off Power Grid for many years as well. I still do. I'm not sure what it will take for me to give it a try, but your review almost did it. A quick look through my collection made me remember I have a game too similar to PG's economic design to warrant the closet space for it.

Posted by: jacob on June 21, 2007 10:12 PM

Shoot -- I wish I'd read this before I pre-registered for all of my Origins events. (I live in Columbus, so the mecca of gaming is literally down the street from me every year.) My wife is a non-gamer due to issues of both patience and temperament; I can't even interest her in Lost Cities. And when she took up knitting, the struggle was truly lost.

Guess I have to wait for the two-year-old to tack on a few more years; he won't even reach Candyland for a few more months.

Posted by: OhioBrian on June 26, 2007 8:53 AM

Great game. I've played it maybe ten times and very much enjoyed it. I agree that it has to be played with at least four people to be worth it. Has anyone tried any maps other than the basic one? The US map looks completely unbalanced. (I assume that's just German humor there.)

Posted by: Wolfe on June 27, 2007 5:41 PM