Review: Viceroy provides a satisfying and clever pyramid scheme

“Viceroy! Their general is advancing on us, and they’ve sent an assassin as well! Should we bolster our scouting network, improve our army or mine for more gems? Will science, magic or defence save us? Can we pass a new law to get the populace on our side? We await your instructions, sir!” 

Viceroy 

Published: 2014

Designer: Yuri Zhuravlev

Publisher: HobbyWorld, Mayday Games, others

1-4 players

45-60 minutes

How Viceroy looks with the added gems and playmat.
How Viceroy looks with the added gems and playmat.

Viceroy‘s a short civilization-themed tableau-building game, with the tableau taking the form of a pyramid of cards that you play in front of you, and one of the neat twists is that the character cards (most of the cards you’ll be obtaining and playing) have different powers depending on what level of the pyramid they’re on. You’re also building different economic engines, collecting various sets and competing in auctions, which can result in mutually-beneficial arrangements or tough jockeying for particular cards. The thematic idea is that you’re creating your own kingdom and going up against others in the fantasy world of Laar, generating resources, magic, science, offence and defence. All in all, it makes for a satisfying brain-burner that can be played in an hour or less, one with significant replay value and a solid solo game. However, while there’s a lot to love here, and while it’s a game that thoroughly works for me, it also feels like one that’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Read more

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The Play’s The Thing: Orange rush, Cinderella crush, code hush

Welcome to a new Board and Game segment, The Play’s The Thing. (Yes, inspired by Hamlet; hopefully it ends with less death and destruction!) These will be reports of different gaming sessions I’ve participated in. Here’s the first one, from a gaming session with friends Tuesday:

California Gold

Published: 2015

Designer: Patrick Stevens

Publisher: Numbskull Games

3-5 players

120 minutes

California Gold is a pretty intense economic game, focusing on farming oranges in California. Each player is running their own co-op and trying to add orange groves to it; groves pop up in the different counties of California, and you can only collect them by building packing houses there and spending an action to take the card. The more orange groves you have, the more money you’ll collect; Valencia oranges are worth one dollar per card, while Washington Navel oranges are worth two dollars per card, but are more vulnerable to weather that can keep you from collecting from them.

The grove cards also come in sets that help you gain influence with different railroads, bringing in even more money. You’ll get money for each train token you’ve placed (which requires three grove cards with that railroad’s symbol), and more money if you have more trains with that railroad than anyone else. You’ll need more packing houses to get these cards, though; you start with one in one county, and to get a card, you need to have a packing house with capacity (each can hold three cards) in the county the card is from. Each packing house you build both costs money itself and makes it more expensive to keep your workers happy (something you have to pay for every round, or risk being affected by strikes), so you have to carefully consider your timing in expansion, and also which rivals you’ll be competing with in a particular county.

Money and actions are tight in this game, especially early on. You have to build a significant engine to make your collect dues actions efficient, but to get there, you’re going to have to carefully grab cards early on and also monitor what your opponents are doing. Later in the game, money becomes less of a problem, but there are more things you have to invest in, such as advertising to boost your revenues, additional buildings such as nurseries and agencies to give you free actions, and political lobbying and infrastructure improvements to protect yourself from attacks.

California Gold, early in the game.
California Gold, early in the game.

Attacks? Yes, there are attacks. What separates this from a lot of economic simulators like, say, Power Grid, is that there’s a ton of direct interaction as well. Competing for cards is one thing, and one of the possible actions you can do is to wipe and refresh the deck of available cards (which can be very mean if the next person’s targeting some; however, you only get two actions per turn, so you can’t do this regularly), but what’s even stronger are the event cards. Each player has a hand of six of these, and the start player in each round gets to play one (and then draw back up to six). Most of them are nasty effects that go off under certain conditions; for example, a drought prevents those who haven’t taken the irrigation action from collecting dues this round. This is done in a cool way; the one-per-round mechanic keeps them from getting overpowered, the necessity of playing one (and not requiring an action to do so) means that players both can’t opt out of it and can’t go for an attack-focused strategy, and the choose-one-from-six gives players far more agency than a random event deck would have. Also, it’s nice that while most of these effects are damaging, the majority are about preventing players from doing something for a round than taking something away from them. Thus, they’re more delaying than destructive, providing interactivity without stealing a player’s hard-won cards (important, considering that the win condition is collecting a certain number of groves).

I had a lot of fun with California Gold, and not just because I wound up winning with 21 groves. There are plenty of interesting decisions in this one, and it’s a great underutilized theme with what looks like an impressive attention to historic detail (while still keeping it game-focused). Our play with three players (and the Northern Counties expansion) did take a little over the listed 120 minutes, and the others said it felt a bit draggy at the end and is better with more people (which doesn’t necessarily make it take longer, as the numbers of groves to collect for victory decrease), but I enjoyed it fine with three. If you like economic games, and also like more interaction than they often provide, this may be one to check out.

Too Many Cinderellas

Published: 2014

Designer: Nobutake Dogen, Nao Shimamura

Publisher: Grail Games

2-4 players

10 minutes

Too Many Cinderellas.
Too Many Cinderellas.

We played this fun little filler Tuesday after wrapping up California Gold. A fourth player had joined by this point, so we had a few quick rounds of this. In summary, Too Many Cinderellas features 18 possible Cinderellas, each with traits and rules. The traits, along with the Cinderella’s number, help determine if they are the real Cinderella if left in your hand; the rules come into effect if you play them to the table instead, and help restrict who the real Cinderella is. Perhaps she isn’t young, or doesn’t like ice cream, or doesn’t have glasses. Players get four cards and take turns playing one until everyone has two left in hand. After playing a card, there’s a vote to see if its rule will take effect; everyone else has the opportunity to reveal a “No,” which nullifies the rule, but which each player can only do once per game. This leaves everyone with two candidate cards, plus one revealed off the deck. The real Cinderella is the one numbered closest to 1 (unless the cat has been played, which reverses the numbers). A good quick game; there’s only some strategy, and a lot of chaos, but it has fun moments.

Codenames

Published: 2015

Designer: Vlaada Chvátil

Publisher: Czech Games Edition

2-8 players

15 minutes

Codenames.
Codenames.

Codenames is a blast, and is quickly becoming one of my favourite party games. There are two- and three-player variants that I haven’t played yet, but the base game with 4+ is fantastic. You divide into red and blue teams, each with a spymaster, deal 25 clue cards out of a deck, have the spymasters look at a location card that shows which word card corresponds to which agent, and then have them proceed by giving their team one-word clues with a number of words the clue links to. (For example, “Imperial 2” might mean “tie” and “fighter”.) The team must then discuss among themselves (if there’s more than one team member guessing; with four players, each team has just one spymaster and one guesser) and point to the card they think is indicated. If they’re correct, an agent of their colour’s revealed, and they can take another guess. If they’re incorrect, it can be a bystander (neutral, but ends the turn), an enemy agent (helps the other team advance towards winning, ends the turn) or the one lone assassin (instantly ends the game in a loss for the team that picked it). The winning team is the team that reveals all of their agents first, nine if they received the first turn or eight if they didn’t.

Codenames is very simple and easy to learn, but has tons of replayability, and forces your brain to think hard and make clever connections. It may be somewhat better with groups that know each other at least somewhat and know what references they can make, but there are enough connections between these words you can get there without too much trouble most of the time. I’ve played this three or four times so far and had a blast each time. This is currently the top-ranked party game on BoardGameGeek, and it might be the best one I’ve played too.

Review: Power Grid packs a fascinating economic simulator with a surprising amount of theme

Hermann sat at his desk with his head in his hands. The decisions he made next would likely determine the fate of his company; would they continue as one of Germany’s top power providers, or would they be surpassed by their rivals? Should he convert their plants from coal to oil to try to take advantage of market price fluctuations, or would it be better to pay the high-upfront cost to invest in renewable energy? Should he expand their network at once and pay the price, or could he gamble that others would leave compelling cities alone until the next year? None of these calls would be easy ones to make, but together, they would lead the company to staggering success or complete and utter failure…

Power Grid: 

Published: 2004

Publisher: 2F-Spiele, Rio Grande Games, others

2-6 players

120 minutes

Power Grid's USA map, one of two (with Germany) in the base game.
Power Grid’s USA map, one of two (with Germany) in the base game.

Power Grid, Friedemann Friese’s 2004 design (which is a reimplementation of his 2001 design Funkenschlag), remains a classic of the boardgaming world over a decade after its release. It’s currently the 12th-highest-ranked game on BoardGameGeek, which says a lot about its staying power, and, so far, it’s spawned 16 official map expansions (in packs of two), two variants (The Robots, The New Power Plant Cards) and even two spinoff games (Power Grid: Factory Manager and Power Grid: The First Sparks). It’s had a 10-year anniversary deluxe edition, and is about to spark another new variant expansion, The Stock Companies. So, after all this time, what value is there in still talking about it? Well, from this corner, there are a few things. Power Grid‘s well-crafted design manages to marry theme and mechanics in a way not frequently seen, while its balance and elegance make it both approachable for newbies and rewarding for veterans (as well as a go-to case in point for discussions of mechanics), and it also provides an excellent example of one of the best approaches to expansions. After over a decade of playing it, it’s still probably my favourite game ever, and it’s one I hope to play many more times in the future.

The Germany map, one of the two in the base game of Power Grid.
The Germany map, one of the two in the base game of Power Grid.

Why does Power Grid work so well? Well, let’s begin with the theme. This may not be something that first springs to mind for many, given this game’s focus on mechanics and lack of flavour text, and it’s possible that these mechanisms could still have produced a game with another theme or without a theme at all. As with some other great Eurogames, though, there’s an argument to be made that Power Grid is very strongly thematic. The mechanics really make you feel like you’re running a power company, through the tense decisions on what form of power to pursue, the challenges of when and where to expand your network, and the competition with other companies. The expansions also play into this perfectly, as the different maps come with different resource supply tables and often some different rules as well, all of which reflect the particular circumstances around generating power in those countries.

Those mechanics deserve further discussion. I won’t go into a full analysis of how to play (the full rules can be found in a PDF download here), but the game involves an elegant five-phase turn structure that manages to stay relatively simple while still providing a ton of depth. The first phase is just determining player order for the turn, but that’s so crucial in this game that it’s even re-evaluated after the second phase of the first round. Going last is a huge advantage in Power Grid, as that allows you to potentially buy the most-advanced plant available in the auction and certainly get the best prices on resources and the first opportunity to expand your network. The game uses this as a crucial catch-up and balancing mechanism, making the player who’s in the most cities (or, in the case of a tie, has a higher-numbered and at least theoretically more advanced plant) suffer the penalties of going first.

A vertical look at Power Grid's Northern Europe map.
A vertical look at Power Grid’s Northern Europe map.

The second phase is the vital auction of power plants, which allows players to buy one plant each (or none at all) from a selection of coal, oil, garbage, nuclear and wind (or ecological) plants. The third phase, buying resources, and the fourth phase, expanding your network, both proceed in reverse player order, again reinforcing the importance of being last; resources can be much cheaper if you buy first (especially if you’re targeting one of the same resources others are also using), and many cities are closely contested (especially as the game only uses a limited number of regions at lower player counts, creating plenty of tension). The fifth phase is just a bureaucracy phase, which sees players paid for how many cities they’re able to power and the resource and power plant markets restocked. One note with this phase is it can be greatly sped up if there’s an experienced player at the table; the gap to entry isn’t that high in general, as Power Grid can be mostly figured out by new players who have read the rules, but if someone who knows the game can handle the various adjustments in the first and fifth steps, that can really reduce the learning curve for newbies.

The end game is worth discussion, too. Unlike many economic games, money isn’t the be-all and end-all in Power Grid, and it actually only serves as a tiebreaker. The game ends at the end of the round when someone builds to 17 cities (21 in a two-player game), but the triggering player isn’t always victorious; the winner is the player who powers the most cities at the end of that round, so if you don’t have sufficient power plants or resources for your network, or if someone’s able to build to and power 18 or more cities after you go, you’re out of luck. This end game works on several levels; it (aided by the turn-order mechanism) helps prevent runaway leaders, as leaders need to accomplish a lot of different things to actually win, and it often leads to exciting finishes, with several players coming close to the goal. Victories by just one city are common, as are ties broken by money.

Power Grid's Quebec map.
Power Grid’s Quebec map, where the cities of Montreal and Quebec City play a critical role.

So, how does this actually play out? Well, one key component of the game is tension. Almost every decision in Power Grid is tense, from how much you can afford to bid in auctions to when to grab a different type of power to when it’s worth expanding your network. A brilliant source of tension is that turn mechanism; expanding your network to more cities gets you more money, but the rewards diminish over time, and you have to carefully weigh if it’s worth it compared to the extra resource cost you’ll receive for going first and the diminished city selection you’ll receive in the next round of network expansion. The auctions are always interesting, too, as you have to balance not just a plant’s intrinsic value, but how it fits with your other sources of power (diversifying can be crucial) and how it compares with what everyone else has (if you all have coal plants, the price of coal is going to shoot way up, making those much less desirable in the future).

Beyond that, you also have to try to get into your opponents’ heads. What type of power are they going for? Do they actually want what they’re bidding on, or are they trying to drive the price up? Will they expand to that city you’re targeting this round if you don’t, or are they likely to go another way, giving you some breathing room? Thus, there’s a ton of player interaction and potential conflict here, making this anything but the oft-derided multiplayer solitare.

Power Grid's Spain and Portugal map. No nuclear plants are allowed if you're only in Portugal.
Power Grid’s Spain and Portugal map. No nuclear plants are allowed if you’re only in Portugal.

An advantage of Power Grid is that despite its high interaction, it’s rare to see complete screwage. Yes, someone may take the plant you want or the connection you were targeting, but you can always pick another plant or build through a city to go somewhere else. Yes, players may buy the cheap resources you wanted, but you can usually still do something, and you can change plans to focus on a different form of energy. Moreover, the turn order mechanism slows down the leaders and benefits those who are falling behind, keeping them invested in the game. (That may seem artificial, but it can be thematic as well; expanding a real power network without consideration for the greater resources needed would likely seem to be expensive as well.) This is a game that keeps most of its participants in it throughout, and that’s a good thing in a game that estimates two hours of playing time (this can vary substantially though, as less players makes it go faster, experienced players make it go faster and some gaming groups can play through this quickly, while others may take longer to make decisions); there aren’t too many games of Power Grid where someone’s completely out of it.

One of my favourite parts of Power Grid is how it’s been expanded cleverly over the years. The different maps add a lot of replayability to the game, as they all feel very different given the different geographies, resource refilling tables and location-specific rules. Some maps, such as France and Italy, are mostly just twists in geography and resource supply, while others, including Australia (uranium mines), China (state control of the plant market), Japan (starting two separate networks), and Korea (different markets for North and South) offer bigger changes to the game’s rules. These expansions have been done well; each feels like you’re really playing with the constraints in that country, and the different maps are unique enough to provide a new experience and flavour, but not so game-altering that they change the difficulty curve or add significant hurdles for new players. The new power plant cards also provide variety without dramatically altering the game. Power Grid is a great game out of the box, and would have tons of replayability even if the base set is all you bought, but the expansions add significant value and give you new ways to enjoy the game without overcomplicating it.

Power Grid Northern Europe
Power Grid’s Northern Europe board, with money, resources and power plant deck set up. Each of the countries on the Northern Europe board focuses on different types of power, and hydro power is a key part of the game.

Something else that should be discussed is how well Power Grid scales. The two-player game can be a lot of fun, as can the six-player game, and the time added with more players isn’t always that substantial (especially if one experienced player can organize the bureaucracy and turn order phases and keep the game moving along). A big part of this is the rule that you play in fewer regions with less players, which keeps the competitive network-building interactions at a frenzy regardless of player count. Six players is probably my favourite for this, as the auctions get particularly interesting with that high of a count, but I’ve played lots of two-player Power Grid (both with and without the dummy player variant The Robots adds) and always enjoyed it. BoardGameGeek user GameRulesForOne’s unofficial solo variant is also a lot of fun.

This game isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, of course. There is math involved in playing well, calculating how much money you’ll need for a particular network expansion or a new set of resources, so if you hate numbers on sight, Power Grid probably isn’t the game for you. The economic/network-building/power-generating theme isn’t something that appeals to everyone, either, and the way it’s implemented (largely through mechanisms rather than text) may not draw everyone in. Also, collecting large numbers of expansions is probably only for those who love it; I’d recommend trying the base game (which has plenty of replayability itself!) first, and then perhaps researching and seeking out the specific expansions that appeal to you. With all that said, though, this is still a fantastic game, and one I’d recommend most gamers at least try.

Would Power Grid still do well if it was published for the first time in 2015? From this corner, absolutely. Yes, there have been plenty of valuable developments in game design in the decade since, but nothing really stands out as something missing from Power Grid. Its elegance, approachability, mechanical balance and theme make it a game that still stands up well today. It’s still one I always enjoy, and one I hope to play for decades to come. Power may corrupt, but Power Grid mostly just causes addiction.

Thoughts on Power Grid? Thoughts on what you liked and didn’t like about this review? What you’d like to see more of in the future? Leave them in the comments, or discuss them with us on Twitter or Facebook.

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