Power Grid Recharged is the latest version of designer Friedemann Friese’s Funkenschlag. This is a brand new version though it incorporates some changes brought in in the deluxe edition. Published by Rio Grande Games the game sees 2 – 6 players spend 2 hours becoming power barons; using oil, garbage, coal, nuclear and green power plants to supply homes. Via route building, power plant auctions and utilizing resources players will attempt to finally score points. However, is this a boring science lesson or a light bulb moment? Let’s find out!
Setting up players gain houses and a starting 50 Elektro (the in-game currency). A market of cheap power plants is created with the rest of the deck shuffled and a special Step 3 card added to the bottom. Based on the player count this deck is slightly reduced, then a refill card is added to the board as a reminder for between rounds. Lastly, the starting resources are added to the spaces at the bottom of the board. The only difference between the two sides of the board is that on the USA side all left over coal is added to an 8 cost zone – otherwise leftover resources are piled next to the game board.
Power Grid is played in rounds made up of 5 phases; across up to 3 steps (stages of play). Individual rounds are simple, though sound potentially long initially. Firstly, the player order is determined based on the number of houses players have purchased, with ties split by power plant value. In the first round this is just randomly determined.
Secondly, in player order, comes auctioning. The market is made up of 8 cards but only the lowest four plants can be auctioned off – with the cards always being put into numerical order. The starting player chooses one of the four available and starts the bidding. The starting bid must be equal to the number on the card, unless it is the cheapest where it gets reduced to a starting bid of 1. Each player can buy only 1 power plant each round, though are not forced to bid at all. Once players have 3 additional power plants replace one of the three they already have.
Phase 3 is to buy resources from the market – the bottom section of the board. Done in reverse order this gives those behind a bit of an advantage. As resources are purchased they slowly increase in cost, with sections priced in 1 Elektro intervals. When players have power plants and resources they’ll need something to do with them. Phase 4 is all about building a connected network of houses to power. When not using the expert variant, with pre-chosen starting locations, the first house players buy can be anywhere in the active region of the board.
Future houses must connect to your network by paying not only the cost for the house but also any connection charges. These are denoted on the board and are calculated between the new city and the cheapest route to one you already have a house in. Players can skip cities, something important as in Step 1 only the 10 Elektro house spaces are available – with more expensive 15 and 20 cost spaces opening up as the game Step increases.
Finally, it is time to power the houses and make money – in the bureaucracy phase – before a few admin bits. The admin bits include somewhat refilling the resources market and sorting the power plant market for the next auction. To power houses players spend resources from their plants, with each plant able to perform the denoted resources to power trade once. Depending on the number of your houses powered you gain Elektro. Then the cycle continues back up at the top of the phases with determining player order.
The tricky thing is that technically step 3 may never arrive or could come before step 2. These steps trigger based on specific events. Step 2 is triggered when any player has connected a set number of houses: 7 for 2 – 5 players though only 6 with 6 players. Step 2 opens up the ability to purchase the second space at a location for 15 Elektro and also reduces the market by 1 power plant card – still 4 are available for auctioning.
Step 3 comes when the special card appears in the power plant market. This unlocks the 20 Elektro spaces in cities but also shakes things up somewhat. While in Step 1 and 2 the largest numbered power plant is discarded and replaced in the admin phase – cycling the deck – the lowest is discarded. Also, another card is removed from the market but all six become auctionable. Step 3 may never happen if the game ends early, though if it occurs before step 2 both are instantly triggered.
The game continues round after round until one player builds a predetermined number of connected houses, the amount dependant on the player count. This signifies that it is the final round. In the fifth phase (bureaucracy) where players would normally make money instead the number of houses they power is their final score. Therefore, it may not be the person that triggers the end of the game whom wins if they cannot power their houses.
Players can pull ahead but it isn’t a certainty that they’ll win because of it. Get too far ahead on houses for instance and you’ll have a few bumper rounds of powering more houses. You will also have spent a lot out on houses, and potentially resources, opening up the opportunity for players to out bid you in auctions. There is also a dwindling return. The first house boosts your income from the minimum of 10 to 22 (a 12 Elektro increase). The 20th house you can build increases your income from 148 to 150 – only a 2 Elektro increase.
Learning the game is perhaps harder than it needs to be. To the extent once past the slight barrier things seem remarkably straightforward. Helpfully each player is given a phase reminder card, which doubles as the Elektro income chart, coming with plenty of icons. However, while the iconography used as a reminder is brilliant for when up to speed with the game it can take some time to decipher until you get the rules. Then, other aspects could do with an icon reminder for those new to the game. For example, there could be a symbol for the spaces in cities that can be brought in the given Step of the game you’re in, there as a gentle nudging reminder for new players.
There is no getting around that the Power Grid box is an oddly tall and thin box. It seems like a small niggle to pick on but it does make it irregular for storing. Then, a lot of the components inside aren’t overly inspiring, yet they fit the relatively dull theme. Production wise my biggest gripe is that oddly the resource pieces don’t match their symbols. It makes the game harder to read for an initial play and there seems to be no reason for it.
The fact that a two sided board is included from the offing is however more than just a nicety. It hugely ups the replayability of the game. Just like any game with a map expansion, when you are getting used to one board you can shake things up, with a few minor rule tweaks and get playing a different puzzle again. This is perhaps more obvious at a lower player count as not only are different boards available but you’ll also be only using some of the board area each time too!
The major difference between the two sides, other than the obvious different map and connections, is the ability to always purchase coal when using the USA side. Despite coming with a high price it perhaps sounds like it would drastically alter the game more than it does. It makes a resource type almost unlimited, though when playing with 3 or below it is rarely touched until the late game. Holding onto coal heavy plants becomes a more viable tactic though, and turn order less important for purchasing coal, so it isn’t without impact.
There is one thing in board gaming that I inherently detest – sometimes more than it deserves – and that is a dummy player 2 player variant. Alas, something is needed to get Power Grid at 2 players to the heights it reaches with only a single extra player. Attempting to play without it resulted in a market that wasn’t overly dynamic, a Step 3 that didn’t appear and the left the housing and networking element feeling a tad to loose. As a testament to Power Grid it is a game even with a dummy player that I would play if someone asked, though it is certainly more preferable at 3+. Simply, the problems the dummy player are there to fix are solved by actual players making interesting decisions not mechanically predictable ones.
It is clear why Power Grid has remained in the top lists of many gamers, despite being out for years. The first game might be a slight slog, and you’ll almost inevitably lose to an experienced player. Breakthrough the stiff ruleset though and there is an incredible puzzle underneath to crack. It’ll make you constantly ask questions. How much is too much to bid on a power plant, when should I splash out and buy a few houses, and what is this resource actually worth to me? Some of these will perhaps be an AP (analysis paralysis) prone player’s nightmare. It is the choices and attempting to calculate the best opportunities that makes each element, each phase work harmoniously together – getting the cogs turning in just the right way. You might come out of a game thinking you’ve done a mental workout but hopefully you’ll have proven yourself the best networker too!
[Editor’s Note: Power Grid Recharged was provided to us by Asmodee for review purposes. The game is currently available on 365 Games for £43.99. It is also available from local board game stores, find your local store here]