Saturday, February 16, 2013

Game Night Recap: the Weirdest-Ever Game of Power Grid

Making progress toward fulfilling one of my gaming resolutions for the year, I've played Power Grid twice in the past month, and yep, had a great time both times. The first was a few weeks ago; we played on the USA map, and things didn't work out so well for me. In Power Grid, it's essential that you have a place to expand your ever-growing electric empire; when you (like I did) get boxed in between the Great Lakes and the Southeast, it's nearly guaranteed that someone has taken the Rust Belt/Northeast area, and the connectionts (represented by those horrible golden circles) make the cost to get out west prohibitive in the early game.

For our more recent game, we went with Germany, which tends to play a little slower because those massive connection costs are more pervasive throughout the map. The first turn saw the purchase of a few reasonable power plants for the early game; 05 tends to go up for auction first in just about every game we play, and 07 and 08 are useful for pursuing a slightly more aggressive strategy. Then, if it's available to you, it usually behooves you to buy a card in the tens on your second or third turn: I admittedly far overvalue 13, and 11 and 15 are often compelling choices too.

Power Grid's biggest (arguably only) source of variance is which power plants come off a random stack, but there are a couple of balancing mechanisms that ensure the market won't become flooded with early-game plants late in the game (where they are no longer useful) or vice-versa (where you'd love to have them but can't afford them yet). In general, it works great: there are only a couple games of Power Grid I remember playing where a complete mismatch between the board state and the power plant market state persisted for longer than a fraction of a turn.

Then this happened.

One of the "balancing mechanisms" is that once any player has built n settlements, power plants of base cost n or lower are removed from the game immediately. For reference, the eight power plants on display at the beginning of the game are always 03-10, and the first to flip off the deck is always 13. So in this awkward configuration, we had already purchased 05, 07-10, and 13, corresponding to exactly one turn with six people buying one power plant. But nobody had yet built three or more settlements, indicating we were very early in the game.

Power plant 30, on the other hand, is a decidedly end-game plant. It has the potential to provide a lot of power at a relatively small resource cost late in the game, and I've seen it as a cornerstone of quite a few winning strategies. The only problem with 30 in the early game is that it's a massive strain on anyone's cash flow: even if you can afford it, buying it likely means you can't buy the resources necessary to use it that turn, let alone expand your network to take advantage of your new capacity.

So it left us with an interesting decision: is 30 worth buying on turn 2? You're acknowledging that it's going to cripple you for at least a turn (probably two), but with the expectations that 1) nobody is likely to contest you buying it, so you'll get it at- or near-cost, and 2) you will never have to replace it for the entirety of the game. In other words, what's the opportunity cost of punting an early-game turn or two compared with the cost of a late-game scramble to buy an adequately big plant?

Ashley decided to go in on 30, indeed buying it near-cost at 32, which made the most sense for her of anyone at the table. She had my beloved 13, meaning that she was guaranteed to power one city without the need to buy resources. So she could simply bide her time until she could afford three trash (which piled up awfully quickly in a six-person game), settle a few more cities, and fire it up. She didn't quite ride her strategy to victory, but it was an interesting strategic move that I'd never seen before, and it was a fun puzzle to think through.

Another, mostly unrelated, odd part of the game was the win condition. In a six-player game of Power Grid, the game ends on the turn where someone has built their fourteenth settlement, and whoever powers the most that turn wins. Usually, only one or two people reach the win condition, and maybe it comes down to a resource battle or a tiebreaker between them. In our game, Zach, Tom, and I all built to fifteen settlements, and we all powered all fifteen. The game was decided on a tiebreaker, in which Tom beat Zach by about ten Elektro, and Zach finished ahead of me by eight.

Has anyone else experienced a game of Power Grid where the game state was so out of sync with the power plant market? Did it spur any unusual strategy, and did that unusual strategy work?