Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column about card games, board games, and everything else non-digital.
In real life, scarcity isn't fun. Scarcity is the rising price of gas, or the difficulty of finding a job. In a game, however, scarcity can be incredibly compelling, and make for a very unique play experience. Enter Power Grid, a board game by German designer Friedemann Friese which uses scarcity at every level of its design to produce one helluva strategy title.
The player's task in the game is to power as much of the country as possible (United States on one side of the board, or alternatively Germany on the other). As heads of various power companies (think Montgomery Burns or whoever runs PG&E), your tasks are to buy power plants, purchase resources, and allocate those resources to control as many houses in as many cities as possible. Money's not the deciding factor here; players will be judged and ranked solely on the amount of power they're pushing.
At the heart of Power Grid is its resource economy mechanic. Tokens representing coal, oil, garbage, and uranium are positioned on a special resources table on the board, representing the quantity of each resource. As more resources are purchased, the price of each resource also rises, as indicated by the table. These resources replenish after each round of gameplay, but at a dwindling rate through the game's three phases.
The message is clear: the game uses finite resources, and players must be careful to keep track of their resource needs relative to their price and availability on the market. Coal is initially abundant and cheap, but enough power plants rely on the resource to make its price rise dramatically as it becomes scarce in the endgame. Alternatively, oil starts out more expensive, but if few players rely on oil-run plants the price drops rapidly, causing a sudden rush to buy up those power plants in the game's climax. In one play-through, a power plant starting at 49 "Elektro-bucks" went for auction at over 200 -- a true testament to the power of scarcity.
In fact, the only non-scarce element of Power Grid is money, but generating income requires a delicate balance of the game's other components. In the end, careful strategy and keen market watching will win out over brute capitalism. Turns out money can't buy power after all.
Final Verdict: An instant classic for board game lovers. Those turned off by pages of rules and slow learning curves should give it a shot anyway.
Scott Jon Siegel is an awesome game designer, a phenomenal blogger, and a modest mouse. His words and games can be found at numberless, and he still wishes he felt a little less like death. Hooray for illness (again)!