04th Sep2019

‘Power Grid Recharged’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

grid-recharged-box

For those who haven’t heard of it, Power Grid is a classic game about economic strategy, route planning and efficiency. The players compete to build power plants, purchase the raw resources required to power them and ultimately, to power the most cities on an ever tightening board. In the minds of most board gamers, Power Grid is almost certainly Friedemann Friese’s finest design, as well as one of the best games for players who want to take their first steps beyond gateway games and into longer, heavier and more complex experiences.

Although Power Grid was first released over 15 years ago, it has been re-released and expanded many times, and several spin off games exist in the same universe (if you can call it that.) On this occasion, we’re reviewing the latest version of the game, known as Power Grid Recharged, but for anyone wondering whether they need to upgrade their existing version, I can tell you now that the differences between Power Grid and Recharged are very, very subtle, to say the least. Let’s flip the switch and find out if this classic lives up to expectations.

Firstly, Power Grid Recharged does feature some component upgrades, at least when compared with the older version of Power Grid that I have played in the past. The inclusion of slightly more attractive pieces to represent each resource is more or less the key difference between the older version and Recharged, although there are also a few minor rules tweaks and a refined instruction manual. I did notice some subtle changes in gameplay when re-familiarising myself with Power Grid Recharged, but the changes aren’t even so drastic that I can remember them, and new players won’t know or care anyway.

Whilst this was always the case in the base game as well, the Recharged edition includes a double sided map that features the USA on one side and Germany on the other. Players from other locations like the UK or Benelux can purchase additional boards and any of numerous expansions to add to or diversify their experience. For the player just starting out with Power Grid, there’s more than enough in the box to justify the cost of entry, since depending on player count, you’ll almost always block off some sections of the map and choose different starting locations.

Another feature that leads to more replay value is the randomisation of power stations, which form one of the key elements in the game. The players will bid for these power stations at the beginning of each round, with more efficient power plants usually costing more, but potentially also needing more fuel (or more expensive fuel, in the case of nuclear plants) to power them. As I will discuss when walking through the turn structure, larger power plants are needed to power more cities, which is ultimately the key way to win a game of Power Grid and therefore has to be a key part of a winning strategy.

When walking through the game structure at a high level, you might be forgiven for thinking that Power Grid was quite complex game. The good news is that once you actually begin to play it, you’ll realise that it is actually very logical and easy to live with. The objective of the game is to be the first player who powers a specific number of cities, with that number determined by player count. To do this, players will move through five phases each turn, with the game split into three phases that are each signified by a reminder (either a wooden divider or a card in the power plant deck.)

During the first phase of the game, only one player can power each of the cities on the board, but once a number of cities have been connected, phase 2 begins and each city can be connected to by two players. When the step three card is drawn from the power plant deck, the same thing happens, only this time, three players can connect to each city. As indicated on the board, each player who connects to a city will pay five dollars more than the previous player, making it relatively expensive to end up in a position where you frequently build connections after other players.

In each round of the game, the players will play through the five phases one by one, with each player participating in every phase. First of all, the players determine who will act first based on the current number of cities powered, with the player who has the largest (highest numbered) power plant breaking any ties. The player who has the most cities in their grid acts first, with the player who has least acting last. Next, the players auction power plants, with the player who is acting first choosing which plant will be put up for auction initially, and then each following player choosing one to auction.

Whilst I won’t go into detail about it here, there are always four power plants to choose from, with another four visible to the players so that they know which plants will enter the market. A discount marker is placed on the cheapest (discounting the minimum bid to one) and whenever a player buys a plant, a new plant enters the market and all plants are reordered based on the number shown. In this way, players who buy plants earlier generally have less choice than those who buy later, but in any case, each player may only buy one plant each auction which can leave the last player with an opportunity to snatch a good plant at a low cost (because their bid will be unopposed.)

After power plants have been auctioned and purchased, the next phase involves purchasing resources. This step is performed in reverse player order, with the player who is last on the track purchasing their resources first. There are several resources available – coal, oil, trash and nuclear, and each one will be partially replenished with each new round. The less of a resource there is, the more expensive it will be per unit, so during this round, what tends to happen is that the players that act earlier will buy up a fair chunk of the resource, making it more expensive for the player who is currently leading.

There are a few details here worth noting, such as the fact that each power station can hold exactly two times the number of resources as it takes to generate power, but only of the kinds of resources it uses. For example, a coal station that burns three coal to power cities is able to hold six coal, but it cannot store any other kind of resource. Some stations use wind or solar power to generate and therefore have no resource requirements, but at the same time, they cannot store any either.

With all the resource purchasing done, play moves on to building houses on the board and again, this phase is played out in reverse player order. The players simply take houses of their colour and add them to the board, paying money equivalent to the value shown on each space that they wish to occupy. Connecting spaces can only be occupied by one player, but as I described earlier, cities may be occupied by one, two or three players, depending on which phase of the game they have reached. In general terms, having spent some of their money on power stations and resources, players will only usually expand into between two and four new spaces on average.

In the final phase, the players actually power their cities. This is done by burning resources on each power station until a total number of cities has been powered. Players may be able to power more or less cities than they are connected to, but they will always be paid based on the amount they can power. Any excess power is wasted, and any city that is connected but cannot be powered will not pay. Once this is done, the resource market is replenished and the power station market is refreshed, allowing for the next turn which will begin again with the auctioning of power plants.

As always, I’ve kept the turn overview detail to a relatively high level here, but in a nutshell, that’s the basic flow of Power Grid. There are several things that I think have contributed to give this game its classic status, which boil down to the fact that it is very attractive (especially the Power Grid Recharged version) and whilst the theme is hardly electrifying (yes, I went there) it is highly relatable to anyone and everyone. Whilst being fairly strategically deep, this relatability really helps with explaining each phase of the game, and ultimately, that makes Power Grid easy to teach and to play.

In the truest sense, Power Grid is a game that is simple to learn and hard to master, and it really rewards groups who are willing to play the same game over and over to explore different strategies. This is perhaps also one of the key reasons why so many map expansions exist – because where you start on the map and how you expand can have a huge bearing on your financial position and ability to expand from one turn to the next. Every decision is important – from choosing the right power plants to placing your houses, and even, choosing when to try and stay behind everyone else so that you can buy up the resource market.

At fifteen years old, Power Grid has defied the odds when you think that most older games have been superceded or replaced by more modern updates. Power Grid sits just outside the top 30 best games of all time as ranked on BoardGameGeek and that position is well deserved, given the quality of the design, how replayable and how balanced it is, despite having been played and tested probably hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of times. Power Grid remains as good as it ever was in this Recharged form, with the added benefit of looking gorgeous now, and I strongly recommend that it be added to any collection.

**** 4/5

Power Grid Recharged is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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