Classics: Power Grid

Power Grid

Power Grid is a game about buying power stations and managing an electricity grid.  As themes go, they don’t get much duller than that.  It also has paper money, far more adding up than even I (with a Maths degree) would want to do, and a very confusing system that prevents players from using certain parts of the board when playing with fewer than 6 players.

It sounds terrible.  And yet, despite being over 10 years old, it’s currently ranked 23rd on BoardGameGeek.  General opinion considers it to be the 23rd best game in the world!  How can it be that good?

The first time I played Power Grid, I had heard it was a good game so I had high expectations.  However, when you get it out and set it up, it doesn’t impress.  The wooden components are nice enough, if rather plain by today’s standards, but the artwork looks… dated.  It’s nice artwork, but it doesn’t make you think “Wow!”.  So then you don’t really expect much when you play.

By the end of my first game though, I got it.  I could see why people rated it so highly.  So what is all the fuss about?  Does it stand up to current standards of game design?  Let’s take a look…

At its heart, Power Grid is a pretty straightforward game.  Each game round consists of four main phases:

  1. Buy power stations;
  2. Buy fuel (eg. coal) for your power stations;
  3. Expand your power grid on the board – the more cities you reach, the more money you can earn; and
  4. Earn money for the number of cities you managed to power.

The turn order makes Power Grid what it is.

Whoever powers the most cities at the end wins.  The key mechanism throughout all of it though, is turn order.  The turn order makes Power Grid what it is.  It is elegant, yet strategically rich, having a subtle but very important effect in every phase.

When you buy power stations, there is an auction, but each player can only acquire one power station, so if people keep outbidding you for a power station, you’ll end up getting one really cheap at the end.

Going first means that you get to choose which power station is being bid on first, which might sound good, but when that auction has been won, a new power station becomes available, which is usually better than the previous ones.  So going last can be an advantage.

Unless you can pick power stations that you know other people want.  If you play it well, you can drive the price up and then let them win it.  You then have a choice of better power stations with fewer people to bid against.

Players purchase from the market in reverse player order.

When buying fuel though, players purchase from the market in reverse player order.  Being in last place is a big advantage here because the market cleverly adjusts the price: as fuel is bought, it becomes more expensive.

Players then expand their power network on the main board, but again this takes place in reverse player order.  Expanding first gives you more options and makes it cheaper so once again you really want to be in last place for this.

Finally, everyone earns money for powering their cities.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds though.  If you bought a really good power station, you might not have been able to afford to buy all the fuel you needed, so although you may have expanded to lots of cities, you might not be able to power them all.

Powering more cities obviously gives you more money, but turn order is adjusted for next round according to the number of cities players have.  Whoever has the most cities goes first and will then struggle throughout the entire next round as everything will cost them more.

It’s the mother of all catch-up mechanisms.  Being in last place is such a big advantage that a viable winning strategy is to place last for as much of the game as you possibly can and then use the accumulated advantage to surge forward at the end.

It’s like a long distance running race.

It’s like a long distance running race.  You really have to pace yourself.  If you peak too early, you will run out of steam as the inflated prices keep sucking all your money away.  Timing is crucial.  It’s a Euro through and through, but in so many ways Power Grid is a racing game.  It’s ingenious!

Like a race, you can’t go in with a pre-planned strategy.  You have to adapt to what the other players are doing.  If they are expanding their networks slowly, then you will need to do so as well.  Otherwise, you’ll end up out in front on your own and you won’t be able to finish.

Ideally, you never want to be in front until the very end.  Let the pace setters lead the way and position yourself for the final sprint.  I’ve never played another game like it.

It’s not a perfect game by any means, but it deserves its place in the hall of fame.  It can also run overly long with too many players.  As with many games, four is a nice sweet spot.  If you’ve not tried it, I would highly recommend it though.

Have you played Power Grid?  What do you think of it?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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