Friday, 25 November 2011

Power Grid: The First Sparks

Plays: 2Px1.

Meeples Cafe in Subang Jaya offered me a free game session to play some of the latest Essen 2010 boardgame releases. They visited Essen and brought back quite many new games, and they offered some free gaming sessions (drinks not included) to their members on specific days in November. I rarely visit boardgame cafes nowadays, because in my regular gaming group there are already more than enough games for us to play. However I couldn't pass up this opportunity to try some of the games that I was interested in, so I booked a Wednesday evening to visit them.

Meeples Cafe reminded me a lot of the Settlers Cafe in Singapore (although the last time I was there was a number of years ago). Many helpful staff. Gaming hours and drinks prices are good. Most importantly, game selection is very good. Log (the boss) told me they are nowadays usually full on Fridays and Saturdays, but when I was there on a Wednesday, it was full too. Good thing I made a reservation.

Just like what I used to do in Taiwan when visiting Witch House boardgame cafe, I read rules beforehand and made rules summaries, so that I could jump straight into the games, the first one being Power Grid: The First Sparks.

The Game

If you have played Power Grid, then I'll describe First Sparks as a streamlined and quicker version, simplifying the calculations required, and yet still preserving all the key elements of Power Grid.

Players are clans of hunters and gatherers in pre-historic times. They hunt for food and learn to farm, and with the food gathered they feed and grow their clan, spreading clan members across the board. Food is the currency in the game, and is also used to "buy" better tools and to gain knowledge, which will in turn help the clans hunt and farm more efficiently. The game ends when one clan reaches the size of 13 clan members, and whoever has the biggest clan wins.

There are four types of food that the players can hunt (or fish, or gather) on the board - mammoths, boars, fish and berries. All of them require the right tools, and are worth different amounts of food units. The abundance of these natural resources fluctuates during the game, depending on how heavily each is being hunted. If everyone hunts boars, then of course the number of boars will drop. So there is some competition for the same types of food sources, and it is usually good to go for food sources that others are ignoring.

The storage board for storing the available natural resources. The cardboard pieces with numbers on them are a handy reminder for how many resource pieces to replenish at the end of a round.

Players can also learn to farm, and this does not depend on positioning on the board or the abundance of wild animals / vegetation. You secure a regular supply of food.

Like Power Grid, turn order plays an important role in the game. The leading player (whoever has the biggest clan) is usually penalised. He is first to pick a tool or knowledge card to buy, and everyone else, starting from the last player, has the right to buy it before he does. He only gets to buy it if noone else wants the card. This is a different form of auction. The first player is also last to harvest food from the common pool, so by the time it is his turn, there is less to harvest from. He is last to expand his clan, so he may find that others have occupied spaces that he had intended to expand to, and thus will need to spend more food to expand.

The cards in the game are either tools (for hunting or farming) or knowledge. You can have at most 3 tools at any one time, but knowledge cards are not limited. Knowledge cards have special abilities, e.g. your food doesn't rot, or you pay less when expanding to spaces already settled by other clans.

The starting cards in the card market for a 2-player game. Tool cards have an icon showing the type of food they can be used to harvest. E.g. the bottom right card is a Spear tool card and it is for hunting mammoths. For this particular tool, if there are between 1 and 7 mammoths in the common resource pool, you can harvest one mammoth. If there are 8 or more, you harvest two. Technology cards have text describing their abilities. The Fire card on the top right is a technology card.

The number on the top left of a card is the "size" of the card, for comparison of which card is "better" and thus their ordering in the card market. The number on the top right is the (fixed) cost in food units.

The Play

I did a 2-player game with Han. The 2-player game requires a dummy third player. The game pace was very brisk. In fact it was so quick that we played more than half a game before realising that we had completely forgotten about playing the dummy third player. So we restarted the game. Food seemed to be sufficient all the time, as long as we were careful not to over-extend ourselves. Maybe we were too conservative in expanding. We didn't really need to compete much in the same types of food. There was only two of us, but four types of hunted (or gathered) food, plus farming was also an option. The game didn't seem very interesting with 2 players.

Our incorrectly played 2-player game. We got this far without realising that we had completely forgotten about the dummy 3rd player.

Game in progress. Each tile is made of two hexes, and each hex has 3 spaces. There is no limit in the number of clan members in a space, as long as they are from different clans. However it is more expensive to settle in a space that already has other players' clan members. Also it is more expensive to expand through mountains (the rocks).

The knowledge of Fire seemed to be a big factor. The player who has Fire doesn't lose one third of his food every round. In a two player game, there is only one Fire card, and whoever doesn't get it seems to be at a significant disadvantage throughout the game. We have yet to figure out how to overcome that advantage. The tool and knowledge card costs are fixed, so there is no bidding up the prices. Unlike Power Grid, you can't force an opponent to pay more for a good card. In the first halfway-abandoned game, I had Fire and did well all along while Han struggled a little. In the second properly-played game Han had Fire. I thought I managed my food and expansion well, but I didn't notice that he had been stockpiling a lot of food. When he reached the clan size of about 8, he suddenly grew his clan straight to 13 members to end the game, using his huge stockpile of food. I didn't see that coming, and I was nowhere near 13.

The Thoughts

I quite like Power Grid and don't mind its fiddly aspects. So I didn't find streamlining it (which is what First Sparks does) necessary. First Sparks is attractive and quick, and does retain all the key elements of Power Grid. For me personally, it feels a little unsatisfying, since I'm quite comfortable with Power Grid. First Sparks seems to be more suitable for people who don't like Power Grid (e.g. the maths involved, the fiddly rules). I'm already a fan of Power Grid. Comparing First Sparks against Power Grid:

  • No bidding up the power plant (tools / knowledge) prices in the auctions.
  • No need to decide whether to buy resources (or how much to buy) to run your power plants. In First Sparks you will always want to harvest food with all your tools.
  • In First Sparks your network won't be walled off as badly as in Power Grid. The cost increase to settle in crowded spaces is not as brutal.

I suspect First Sparks is better with 4 or more players. My 2-player game experience was not as interesting as Power Grid 2-player games that I have played.

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