Friday, 1 September 2017

Power Grid: The Card Game

Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

I like Power Grid and have collected quite a few expansions. In 2011 there was a version released called Power Grid: The First Sparks, using the stone age as its setting. It was a simplified version of Power Grid. I didn't like it because I didn't feel Power Grid needed simplifying. And then last year (2016) we had Power Grid: The Card Game. This version took a different approach. Instead of streamlining all mechanisms and the overall gameplay, the map (i.e. spatial) element was entirely carved out.

This is how the game is set up. At the top you see two rows of four cards each. These are the power plants you can buy through auctions. In the middle there are four columns of cards. This is the resource market. The columns are numbered 1 to 4, referring to the price when you buy a resource card from the corresponding column. The $1 column starts empty. Resource cards are added here only under specific situations. Normal resource cards cost at least $2. After the resource buying phase each round, there will be holes in the $2 to $4 columns. Leftover resources are shifted left, i.e. they become cheaper. The columns are then filled up using cards drawn from the resource deck.

The overall structure of a round is simple - you may buy a power plant, you may buy resources, and finally you may expend resources to generate electricity and make money. There are many types of power plants. Some require a specific resource type (e.g. uranium, coal), some can use multiple resource types (e.g. oil or gas), some don't require resources at all (e.g. hydro plants and wind farms). You spend money on plants and resources to make more money, and then spend that money on buying bigger and better plants to make even more money. You prepare for a final round after the power plant deck runs out for the first time. In this final round, the money your plants earn is directly converted to points. If you have money left over from earlier rounds, it is converted to points at a 10:1 ratio. Whoever has the most points at game end wins.

Like the original Power Grid, turn order is very important. It is something you need to be aware of at all times, and you need to manipulate it to your advantage. Turn order is determined by how much you have earned in the previous round, and ties are broken by how big your best power plant is. When auctioning off new power plants, you go in turn order. This is slightly disadvantageous to players who are leading. They must decide first which plants to bid for. They cannot wait and see. When buying resources, you go in reverse turn order. Again the leading players are at a disadvantage. They will likely lose out on the cheaper resources.

The value in the top corners is the minimum price of a power plant. If you want to buy a plant, that's the minimum bid. At the bottom left corner you see the resources required to power up the plant. At the bottom right you see how much you earn when the plant generates electricity.

Normally you only get to bid for plants in the top row. The bottom row is just a preview of what may soon become available. These two rows of cards are always arranged in ascending order. When a plant is bought, a new one is drawn to take its place. The two rows may need to be rearranged depending on the minimum price of the newly drawn plant.

I now have two power plants. The limit is three. The resources are placed below the corresponding plants. The storage capacity of a plant is double the resource amount required to power up the plant. That means you may at most buy an amount of resources needed to power the plant for the current round and the next. The numbers along the edges of the resource cards indicate the quantity. Each time you consume a resource, you turn the card 90 degrees clockwise. When you reach 0, discard the card.

The Play

The game has plenty of tactical bouts. You fight at the plant auctions and at the resource market. You fight to maintain a healthy growth. You need to keep making money and upgrading your plants, and you don't want to fall behind. You are constantly manipulating the turn order. The long-term strategy is always to get to a strong set of power plants by the last round, and to be able to power them all. The journey is full of pitfalls and unexpected twists. The order of power plants appearing is random, and this is a tricky uncertainty to manage. It affects the scarcity and the prices of resources, and your decisions on which power plant types to compete in. The order of resource cards appearing is also random.

Jostling for position at the turn order track is crucial. It is disadvantageous to be in the lead, but it doesn't make sense to stay behind all the time just to avoid this disadvantage. You do need to progress, and you can't afford to stunt your growth.

The most important player interaction is in the power plant bidding. It affects who you will compete with for resources. If affects your income and turn order too. It is important to consider your power plant upgrade path. This is the crux of the game, and it is not something you can really plan beforehand. You need to be nimble and be keenly aware of the situation. Ideally you want to save money and not change power plants too many times, but sometimes you need to get a middling plant as a stepping stone to help you earn enough money for the better plant that will come later.

I have 3 power plants now. The next time I buy a new one, I will have to decommission one of them.

We did a 6-player game, and we barely had enough space at the table.

The Thoughts

I didn't have high hopes for Power Grid: The Card Game, but it proved me wrong. I didn't like Power Grid: The First Sparks because I felt it was an unnecessarily diluted version. In Power Grid: The Card Game, a huge chunk was cut out, but surprisingly it retained much of what makes Power Grid interesting. There is still enough depth. There are still interesting interactions in fighting for power plants, in buying resources, and in managing turn order. Jaime Lannister with one hand less is still a very interesting character.

What purpose does this card version serve? It is a shorter game if you don't mind skipping the map element. It doesn't feel incomplete or dumbed down. If you specifically like the spatial element in Power Grid though, then the card game is probably not for you.

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