Sunday, 24 June 2018

Tesla vs Edison

Plays: 6Px1. (2nd edition rules using Powering Up expansion)

The Game

The backdrop in Tesla vs Edison: War of the Currents is the years 1880 to 1896 in USA, when the first electricity networks were being built. It was an age of invention, with companies competing to bring electricity to the masses. There was competition between two approaches in delivering electricity - direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). In history, we know that eventually AC won, but in this game, it is not necessarily so. You are the CEO of a company competing with others to develop new technologies and to install electricity networks in the many cities in northeastern USA. Game end scoring is primarily based on your company share value, but there are a few other ways to score. The game is played over a fixed 6 rounds, and scoring is only done at game end.

The map portion of the game board shows northeastern USA. It is completely blank at the start of the game. No one has built any electricity network yet. In the middle you can see three tracks in yellow, grey and light blue. These are the technology tracks. You need to have achieved specific levels of technological competency before you can build electricity networks in specific cities. Cities have different levels of requirement. The bottom section with many black boxes is the share value track.

This thin and long piece is the player board. It represents your company. The first card above it is you - the company CEO. At the start of each of the three phases of the game, you recruit an employee. The guy next to the CEO is employee #1. The four face-down cards below are divisions you can choose to create during the game. They give you points and unique benefits. The divisions of every company give different benefits.

The game is played over three phases, and each phase has two rounds. So the total is 6 rounds. Every round players take turns activating employees to perform actions. The CEO is considered an employee too. Bosses have to work too yeah. In phase 1, you only have two employees so you get to do at most two actions per round. In phase 2, you get a third employee, so you'll have up to three actions per round. Eventually in phase 3 you can have 4 actions per round. You can choose to combine the abilities of two employees to perform one action. However by doing this both of them are exhausted for the current round, and you will be taking one action fewer.

The icons along the left edge of an employee card indicate his abilities. Lightning bolt is invention skills, gear is manufacturing skills, dollar sign is financial skills, megaphone is propaganda skills. If there is a number next to the icon, the employee has the corresponding skill, and the number indicates skill value. If there is no number, the employee has no such skill, and cannot perform actions which require this specific skill.

There are only 4 types of action you can do - develop technology, claim a project, create a new division at your company, and do propaganda. Let's look at them one by one.

The three tech tracks are AC (yellow), DC (light blue) and bulb (grey). In the beginning, everyone starts at Level 1 in all three techs. The bulb tech is a prerequisite for the other two. E.g. if you want to make use of your Level 3 AC tech, your bulb tech needs to be at Level 3 too. You need either AC or DC tech to claim a project at a city, i.e. to build the electricity network for that city. Every city specifies a minimum tech level, but doesn't care whether you go AC or DC. Going AC or DC only matters to the company claiming the project. There is a track indicating the current electricity trend. If the trend is AC, and you run an AC project, your stock value goes up extra steps. However if you run a DC project, your stock value still goes up, but fewer steps than normal. You can choose to advance both AC and DC techs, but it will cost you more actions and may not be worthwhile. Most companies have unique abilities that drive them towards either AC or DC.

The action of advancing a tech requires both invention and manufacturing skills. If you have enough, you can advance more than one step. If the employee advancing the tech has financial skills too, he may claim a patent. In future anyone using your patented tech must pay you a fee.

The second action is claiming a project, i.e. placing your cube in a city. Every city awards its electricity project to only one company. After claiming your first project, you will want to claim projects in cities near your existing projects, because doing so in further locations incurs additional costs. When you claim a project, you are basically paying money to increase your stock value and your dividends received at the end of every round.

Claiming a project requires no specific skill, but if the employee doing it has financial skills, he can run projects more cheaply.

The third action is creating a new division at your company, i.e. flipping over one of the cards below your player board. Each division requires a different employee skill, and each gives a different ability. In the photo above, I have created three new divisions. The first division is my lab. With the lab, every time my CEO advances a tech personally, he gets 2 extra invention skills and 2 extra manufacturing skills.

The fourth and last action is doing propaganda, and you need the propaganda skill for this. You exhaust one of the available propaganda cards and use its powers. All propaganda cards give you some money. They also allow you to either adjust fame (player order) or adjust the electricity trend. Your employee doing the propaganda also gets to use his own propaganda value to adjust either fame or trend. Usually you want to be earlier in turn order, and usually you want the current trend to match the electricity type your company focuses on.

At the start of the game, everyone holds four shares in his own company. You can never sell these shares. Throughout the game, there is a limited number of shares of each company that can be bought. The four shares you control is a lot. Your fate is pretty much tied to your company. You have every incentive to make it successful. You can't get rid of your shares like in other stockholding games.

At the end of every round, you have the opportunity to trade one share, and then to buy one share. Trading means selling one share and then immediately buying another. You earn (or pay) the price difference. Buying is often not easy to do, because money is tight. Often you can't afford to buy. At game end, the VP worth of company shares is based on the ranking of their values. The highest valued shares are worth 6VP each, the next highest 5VP each, and so on.

Buying and selling shares affect their values. When you buy a share, the value goes up $1 per phase. When you are in Phase 1, that's only $1, but in Phase 3, it's $3. When you sell a share, the value drops one stage. What this means is on the board, the share value marker moves sideways to the left. Refer to the photo above. If a share is at $34, it drops directly to $30. This horizontal drop is the same in Phase 2 and 3. This was something we did wrong in our game. We had thought it was one stage per phase. Needless to say, shares being sold was a nightmare for every CEO at the table. We inadvertently played an ironman version of the game. This was the only part of the game that made me uncomfortable. Your share value can get destroyed rather arbitrarily. If someone buys your share in Phase 1, then sells it in Phase 2 or 3, you will be hurt badly. It was afterwards that we realised our error.

In the very last round, i.e. the second round in Phase 3, share prices are no longer affected by buying or selling. This protects your shares from last-minute manipulation just before game end.

Victory points from shares take up a big portion of the final scores. You also gain VP for cash in hand - 6VP for the player with the most cash, 5VP for the second most, and so on. If you have created divisions at your company, you can earn up to 10VP. The Works division of each company grants a unique scoring method. That will give some VP too if you have created that division and fulfilled its scoring requirements. Scoring is all done at game end. Throughout most of the game, you are positioning yourself for that. Interim situations during the game do not matter. What's important is getting into a strong position at game end.

The main story line in Tesla vs Edison is advancing your techs so that you can claim projects in the various cities. You grow your share value. At the same time you also pursue the other ways of scoring, hoping to line everything up precisely at the end of the 6 rounds.

The paper money should be called card money. Each note is big, thick and solid.

These are the company shares you can buy. Not many are available. The company founder's four shares will always be a big portion of a company's shares.

The horizontal track with yellow and light blue is the trend in electricity tech. The marker is now at level 2 of the yellow side, which means AC is the current trend. If a company starts an AC project, its share value will increase 2 extra steps compared to the norm. Conversely if a company starts a DC project, its share value will increase 1 step fewer.

If you examine the tech track carefully, you will see that the purple, blue and green players are focusing on AC (yellow) while the red, black and white players are focusing on DC (light blue).

At the start of Phase 2 and 3, when bidding for new employees, these new employees each come with a free share. Such free shares are semi-randomly assigned. So you not only need to consider the employee skills, you also need to consider the share value.

The Play

We did a full 6 player game. This game should be played with a high player count, probably at least four. You need to have enough players on both the AC and the DC side to make things interesting.

The early game was relatively uneventful. We took our time to "chup" (book) our first cities, which would more or less define the regions we would be competing in and who we would be competing with. After those initial cities, it took a long time for us to get busy claiming other cities. Throughout the mid game we spent more time on advancing techs, manipulating share prices. It was by late game that we started busying ourselves with the spatial element of the game again.

Buying and selling shares was crucial, due to how they affect the share prices, and the big role shares play at game-end scoring. Money was always tight, and often we could not afford to buy shares. Sometimes when we did, we had not enough money left to claim projects in the next round. The money to be earned from the propaganda action did not look like much, but since money was so tight, every little bit felt precious.

There were a few things we constantly fought over. Turn order was important. It was usually beneficial to go first. Also the 1st player enjoyed a share price boost every round. The player holding the highest patent could also get a share price boost. These were tactical wins that kept us on our toes. Every company had unique abilities, and we tried to make use of them as much as possible. Dith played Edison, and one of his abilities was he could earn money by promoting DC. He pushed the marker on the electricity trend track towards the DC side frequently, and he made a lot of money. This also meant he was naturally inclined to develop DC himself.

Although the game is every company for itself, due to how some would tend to go for DC and others AC, there is some collaboration among those going for the same tech type. The relationship is not really a cooperative one though. It is more like hoping others will do your work for you (pushing the electricity trend towards your side).

You don't have many actions. You have at most 18 for the whole game. They feel precious. You spend them carefully. Money is scarce too. Everyone is trying to position himself for the end game. Sometimes you pull some nasty moves on your competitors' share prices. Sometimes you invest in their shares because you believe they will end up strong. There is group psychology in the share buying and selling. It's not always straightforward to compare two companies. You can compare the board positioning, patents, turn order and current techs, but sometimes a mere whim of the group can decide which share is invested in and which is abandoned. After all, everyone wants to go where everyone else is going. This sounds a little scary, but it is partly because we had played the share selling rule wrong. Share prices would be less volatile and less subject to sabotage with the correct rule. Also, the company founder always holding 4 shares means everyone is still mostly vested in his own company. The stockholding is not as freeform as other stockholding games.

The map only started filling up in late game. Expansion was slow in mid game.

This was my company at game end. Other than shares of my own company, I had bought and kept some Thomson shares. The unique ability of Thomson was its share price was not affected by selling. Since we played the wrong rule in share price reduction, this ability became very attractive. Thomson shares sold out quickly. I managed to create all four new divisions for my company - the cards below the board were all flipped to the active side.

These were the final share prices. Allen's Tesla (dark blue) shares had the highest price, followed by Jeff's Thomson shares. Kareem (red) and I (green) were very close. Too bad I could not boost my share price past his. Dith's Edison did worst (at the far left - $13), but it was partly because of our rule mistake. When we dumped his share, it crashed like a lead ball.

Dith had so much cash! It was like ghost money! (joss paper / hell money)

The Thoughts

Tesla vs Edison took a long time to play, but it's more a medium weight game than a heavyweight. You only have 4 action types, and they are not complicated. I like how each company has some unique abilities and how some will incentivise them to go for AC or DC. There is a constant tug of war between the AC and the DC factions. This is a development game. It feels good to progress your techs and to expand your network of cities. It feels good to create new divisions for your company and enhance your abilities.

The stockholding part of the game makes me a little nervous. Stockholding games have always been my weakness. Even if we had played with the correct rules, I would still have been anxious. However, compared to other stockholding games, Tesla vs Edison would be more "safe" for me, because it is less freefrom. Every player still has a big stake in his original company. Company ownership is much less volatile than full fledged stockholding games.

The VP value of shares is based on ranking and not absolute value. This may be a concern for some. Let's say the top four shares are all very close. The top share is worth 6VP, but the fourth will only be worth 3VP. That's half of the top share, when their actual share values may not be far apart. This can feel cruel. It is all about relative positions, and not about actual value. I am not too bothered, but I imagine this feels like a disjoint for some.

Tesla vs Edison is a decent Kickstarter game. It has an interesting premise, a fun dynamic and excellent production.

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