The Play’s The Thing: Monsters, economics, and time travel, oh my!

Here’s another installment of The Play’s The Thing, with quick mini-reviews of what I’ve been playing this week.

One Night Ultimate Vampire

Published: 2015

Designers: Ted Alspach, Akihisa Okui

Publisher: Bezier Games

3-10 players

10 minutes

We played a few rounds of this deduction game with six players at game night Tuesday. I quite like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, the predecessor to this, and ONUV has a very similar feel with a few twists. You’re still assigned a secret role, perform your role’s actions when called by the moderator (either from the game’s app or a non-playing person), and try to identify the vampire in a discussion and vote at the end, but there are some substantially different roles, and there are other differences as well. The main one is the ability for certain roles to hand out hidden marks, which can alter other characters’ teams, ability to take actions and more. The marks can be quite interesting in certain cases, adding some complexity and variation to the game, but they don’t always work out perfectly depending on which roles wind up in the middle. Overall, I think I’d take Werewolf over Vampire, and both are mainly an occasional filler for me, but this may be a good new twist on the game for those who play ONUW a lot and are looking to shake it up.

Transylvania: Curses and Traitors

Published: 2015

Designers: Loren Cunningham and Jamie Cunningham

Publisher: WIBAI Games

3-6 players

45 minutes

Exploring the board in Transylvania: Curses and Traitors.
Exploring the board in Transylvania: Curses and Traitors.

We also played this Tuesday, and it felt a little underwhelming for me. Part of that may have been playing it with six, which substantially lengthened the time (it wound up taking closer to two hours than 45 minutes), and some of that may have been analysis paralysis on the part of one group member (who wound up winning despite that), so it may work better in smaller groups or with people more willing to take quick turns (it is quite possible with this). Even beyond this, though, this didn’t really work for me; there’s a feel of games like Arkham Horror or A Touch Of Evil, as you’re moving around and dealing with challenges to try and gain sets of cards in order to win, but there seems to be less strategy in this one. You don’t know what the challenges are until you flip them, so you can’t target ones that work with your character’s abilities, and none of the different locations really seem to offer much. There’s also a dramatic variance in the rewards from the cards. Some people never pulled any of the knowledge cards needed to win or anything that substantially boosted their abilities, while others got exactly what they needed. It also doesn’t really feel like there’s a chance for everyone to keep working towards a way to win. The twist of death possibly turning you into a monster and changing the win conditions is interesting, but this wasn’t a game I loved, and it’s not one I’d seek to play again.

Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant

Published: 2012

Designer: Martin Wallace

Publisher: Mayfair Games, Phalanx

3-5 players

120 minutes

Managing route networks in Aeroplanes.
Managing route networks in Aeroplanes.

I got to play my copy of this for the first time in over a year with some friends Thursday, and it was just as much fun as I remembered. Wallace is one of my favourite designers, and this is a very good design of his, translating the feel of building early airline networks very well with danger rolls for difficult routes, passengers needing to go all over the globe, and different planes with different capacities. There’s a money-balancing aspect, an area-majority aspect, three different eras of scoring, plenty of different strategies to target and much more. It all adds up to a pretty fun game for those who enjoy reasonably-tight economic Eurogames. I was edged out in the area-majority and profit scoring in the last round, but mounted a comeback thanks to some high-scoring passenger tiles (hurrah for Australia!).

Tinner’s Trail

Published: 2008

Designer: Martin Wallace

Publisher: Treefrog, IELLO, JKLM, more

3-4 players

60-90 minutes

Mining for copper and tin in Wales in Tinner's Trail.
Mining for copper and tin in Wales in Tinner’s Trail.

This was my first time playing this game, but it’s another very solid Wallace design. It’s about mining copper and tin in Cornwall, with a few neat twists; each area has water that makes mining more expensive, and there are various ways to try and drain the water (pumps, ports, trains and more) and increase your mines’ production, but all of those take substantial amounts of time. There are tensions about which actions to take and when, there’s tension in the price market (which fluctuates every round, and you always have to sell all the metals you’ve mined each round regardless of what the price is), there’s tension in whether to target known parcels of land in the auction or gamble on the ones where the minerals are yet to be revealed, and there’s tension in how much to invest and when (earlier investments bring more victory points, but may take money you need later). I wound up on top thanks to a great third round. I had a blast with this, and would happily play again.

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Published: 2004

Designers: Rob Daviau, Bruce Glassco, Bill McQuillan, Mike Selinker, Teeuwynn Woodruff

Publishers: Avalon Hill, Wizards of the Coast

3-6 players

60 minutes

Exploring the mansion in Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Exploring the mansion in Betrayal at House on the Hill.

This was a great way to cap off game night Thursday; it’s another game whose theme works around Halloween, but for my money, this is one far more interesting than Transylvania. It has some of the same problems in that you don’t know what events will come up in certain areas, and there’s a lot of randomness, but it just feels much more fun. It’s scenario-based, and the first half of each game starts with you all just exploring the house before the haunt kicks in, but each haunt has very specific rules and ways to win, and the ones I’ve played through felt like they were well-balanced with good chances for both sides to win. The whole game feels very thematic, and it goes quickly; 60 minutes or less is an appropriate length for it. Moreover, there’s a ton of replay value, as many of the scenarios are quite unique; the one we played Thursday had one explorer having nightmares which were escaping the house, and the rest of us trying to wake him up before too many get out into the world. It led to a lot of tension, and us finally waking him up just before the final nightmare escaped. This was another solid play of this, and one that was a lot of fun.

Chrononauts

Published: 2000

Designer: Andrew Looney

Publisher: Looney Labs

1-6 players

30 minutes

Chrononauts after some timeline-flipping.
Chrononauts after some timeline-flipping.

I covered this game a bit last week, but played it again with my wife Sunday and then played a couple of solo games Sunday afternoon. This is still holding up very well for me. The multiplayer game, which has three ways to win (align the timeline so you can get home, collect the artifacts to complete your mission, or just assemble power by gathering a hand of 10 cards), is a fun and often chaotic jaunt, with you each interfering with each other’s plans frequently. It’s much more strategic than Fluxx and its variants (also from Looney Labs), but it has some of that feel. The solo game, on the other hand, is much more controlled, but just as difficult; you have to get eight different time-travellers home in a single pass through the deck, which leads to tough decisions on when to flip which event. This carries the time-travel theme very well, and I’m not only happy to keep playing it, but will probably be looking to pick up some of the expansions down the road.

Thanks for reading! Have any thoughts on these games, or anything else you’d like to see on Board and Game? Leave them in the comments, or discuss them with us on Twitter or Facebook.

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Review: NHL Fastrack is a fun, light, and addictive dexterity game

You had a simple mission: get all 10 pucks to the other side. It sounded so easy, but that was before you and your opponent started frantically firing pucks at each other. Now, for every puck you get to the other side, there seems to be another coming back. Can you keep up with their pace? Will you have the accuracy needed to squeeze pucks through the hole? Or will all the pucks be in your side at the end?

NHL Fastrack 6
A look at the board.

NHL Fastrack

Published: 2008

Designer: Jean-Marie Albert

Publisher: CSE Games, BlueOrange Games

2 players

5-10 minutes

Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy! 

What the NHL Fastrack box looks like.
What the NHL Fastrack box looks like.

NHL Fastrack is one of the more interesting dexterity games I’ve come across, and one that might be well-suited for a wider crowd, not just traditional hardcore gamers. The concept’s incredibly simple, but can lead to a lot of fun. You have a rectangular board painted like a hockey arena, complete with faceoff circles, NHL team logos along the side boards, a launching elastic on each side, and a middle wall with only a small opening. Each player receives five hockey pucks and then, once you start, has to simultaneously use their elastic to launch pucks through the opening to the other player’s side. The game ends when all 10 pucks are on one side, and that’s all there is to it.

The back side of the NHL Fastrack box.
The back side of the NHL Fastrack box.

This leads to an entertaining frenzy, though. You want to fire pucks as quickly as you can, but that can diminish accuracy, so you have to strike a balance between lining up your shots and just blasting away. Also, pucks will frequently arrive at the slot at the same time or get stuck in the central slot, causing ricochets and adding to the chaos.

All the rules you need!
All the rules you need!

Pucks will occasionally flip up and over the central divider and into the opponent’s zone, which is legal, but if they sail outside of the arena entirely, they’re “in the penalty box” and out of play for the rest of the round (so then you only need nine on your opponent’s side to win). A single round can range anywhere from two to 10 minutes, depending on how evenly matched the players are and how much luck each gets, but both quick, frantic duels and longer battles of attrition can be quite fun.

A close-up of the board.
A close-up of the board.

The fun is where this one shines, and it’s what makes it suitable for a wide crowd. There isn’t a ton of strategy here, but there also aren’t a ton of rules or a long playtime, making this quick to explain and easy to get people into. Also, simply launching pucks with the elastics is a blast. This game proved to be a hit at a friend’s bachelor party this year, with all sorts of people getting into this and even a mini-tournament being formed. It’s a game that can be played in a beer pong setting or a more serious one, and it works fine for a whole tournament or just a few rounds with two people.

NHL Fastrack in action!
NHL Fastrack in action!

There are a few downsides to this. If you want more strategy in your dexterity games, this isn’t the one for you; games like Flick ‘Em Up and the upcoming Cosmic Kaboom might fill that niche better. If you want a firm hockey experience, too, this isn’t really the game for you; using pucks and having the NHL license is cool, but this is much closer to air hockey than actual hockey. (Games like NHL Ice Breaker may work better there.) Also, this is limited to just two people at a time, so in a larger setting, you’ll need to take turns or set up a tournament. That works fine, as rounds are short and this is fun to watch as well, but this may not be the pick if you want to get a large group all involved at once.

Another action shot.
Another action shot.

With that said, though, NHL Fastrack does a great job of providing a fun, light game. It’s highly addictive and replayable; you’ll probably have at least a couple rounds every time you’ll pull it out. It’s something that will interest a lot of people, and even if it’s not a hit with someone, the short round time means you haven’t locked them into something long-term.

It’s well-made, too; the elastics on my copy are still holding up perfectly after at least 50 rounds have been played on it, and the official NHL logos on the pucks haven’t faded much at all. The pucks do tend to get some scratches, which doesn’t bug me much. They also do tend to leave some black marks on the white ice of the board after repeated plays, but those can be easily cleaned off with a sponge or a magic eraser; my copy still looks good even after this many plays. This is a game I’m happy to have, and one I’ll likely pull out at times for years to come.

What the board looks like after over 50 plays (after a little quick-and-easy cleanup with a magic eraser). You can see specks where the coating on the pucks is starting to come off, but the logos are holding up well.
What the board looks like after over 50 plays (after a little quick-and-easy cleanup with a magic eraser). You can see specks where the coating on the pucks is starting to come off, but the logos are holding up well.

The Play’s The Thing: Clockwork customers, cosmos conquest, Cuban cigars, caught between cities and chronological campaigns

Welcome to another installment of The Play’s The Thing, a regular piece with thoughts on the board and card games I’ve been playing. Here’s what I’ve played over the past week. 

Steam Park

Published: 2013

Designers: Aureliano Buonfino, Lorenzo Silva, Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino

Publisher: IELLO, Heidelberger Spieleverlag, others

2-4 players

90 minutes

The Steam Park box.
The Steam Park box.

My wife and I played this one this weekend, and we both had mixed feelings on it. There’s a cool theme of building a steam-powered amusement park for robots, and it incorporates real-time elements, die-rolling, resource management, bag-building and spatial placement into a design that’s still relatively light and fast. You’re trying to build a park that will leave you with the most money after six rounds, and you’re doing so with dice. Each face of the custom dice lets you do different things, and all players roll all their dice, locking in ones they want to keep after each round. You can reroll as many times as you want, but there are rewards for stopping and grabbing turn order tiles; once there’s only one tile left, that player takes a dirt penalty (dirt is bad, and can cost you the game entirely if you get too much or cost you money otherwise) and has just three remaining rolls to try and get what they want. Dice let you build rides or stands, play bonus cards for money, seed the bag and then try to pull visitors from it that match the colours of your rides, or clean up dirt. Rides let you attract visitors (who give you money each round), while stands give you special powers to manipulate your dice, your visitor draws, your dirt cleanup and more.

A closer look at my Steam Park.
A closer look at my Steam Park.

All of this works quite well, but one big challenge is the spatial placement; the game rules only allow you to place rides or stands of the same colour adjacent to each other (and even then, they can only touch at one spot), while everything else can’t touch orthogonally or diagonally. You also can’t buy two rides of the same size in one round. Given how small the starting grounds are, this leads to a significant slowdown when trying to figure out how to optimally place rides, and also plenty of dice being spent on extra grounds to expand your park (but these don’t even expand it by that much, creating placement tension again). The idea of rewarding you for specializing in one colour (something that also works with the bag-seeding idea) isn’t bad, but this seems to be an awfully-finicky process for what’s generally a light game, and it feels very restrictive. (That could be easily modified with house rules if it bugs you, though, and the tension of placement may appeal to some.) A more minor knock is that the theme’s present, but could maybe be worked in more; each ride looks different (there are roller coasters, slides, etc), but they all behave the same way, so this isn’t necessarily a full theme park simulator. It doesn’t provide the same feeling for me as something like the great computer game Roller Coaster Tycoon. With that said, though, this is still an interesting game, and one that can be quite fun. You should just be aware of what it is and isn’t before buying and/or playing it.

An overall look at Steam Park.
An overall look at Steam Park.

Tiny Epic Galaxies

Published: 2015

Designer: Scott Almes

Publisher: Gamelyn Games

1-5 players

30 minutes

A look at Tiny Epic Galaxies.
A look at Tiny Epic Galaxies.

Scott Almes is one of my favourite designers out there, producing the tremendous Kings of Air and Steam (one of my most-loved games), the brain-burning Harbour, the Tiny Epic series and a whole bunch of upcoming ones, including Best Treehouse Ever, Loop Inc., The Great Dinosaur Rush and more. I think he’s found another hit with this one; I’ve played it both solo and with a five-player group, and it shines in both settings. This is one of the fastest-playing 4X space empire building games you can find (Eminent Domain: Microcosm‘s even quicker, but that’s about it), and it has some neat mechanics; you advance in two resources (energy and culture, which let you reroll or follow others’ actions respectively), you can land on planets and immediately use their actions or go for the longer process of adding them to your empire through diplomacy or economics, and you can upgrade your empire to roll more dice and bring in more ships. The multiplayer game is great, and the solo game stands up to it, finding a way to provide a terrific experience (with variable difficulty levels) that keeps most of the feeling of the multiplayer game without too much fiddling. I played this one solo this weekend, and had a blast with it, as usual.

Another look at Tiny Epic Galaxies.
Another look at Tiny Epic Galaxies.

Mafia de Cuba:

Published: 2015

Designers: Philippe des Pallières, Loïc Lamy 

Publishers: Lui-même, Asmodee

6-12 players

10-20 minutes

My friends opted to open up game night with a seven-player game of this Tuesday, and it’s pretty interesting. It’s a social deduction game along the lines of One Night Ultimate Werewolf or The Resistance, but the difference is that each player gets to pick their role. A cigar box full of diamonds and role tokens is passed around, and everyone can either steal diamonds or grab a role. Each role has different win conditions, as you’d expect. The godfather then starts interrogating people to try and figure out who’s stolen his diamonds; loyal henchmen want to help, thieves don’t want to be accused, FBI agents want to be accused, and the driver wants whoever’s on his right to win. This was quite interesting for the first few rounds, but overstayed its welcome a bit for me; we opted to play a full seven rounds so everyone could be godfather (as where you are in the selection order does alter things quite a bit), and that felt like too much for me.

Between Two Cities

Published: 2015

Designers: Matthew O’Malley, Ben Rosset, Morten Monrad Pedersen

Publisher: Stonemaier Games

1-7 players

20 minutes

We then went into a seven-player game of this, and I loved it. It’s 7 Wonders-style card drafting, but you’re building cities like in Suburbia, and the twist is that you have to build two cities simultaneously, one with each neighbour. Your score at the end will be the score of your lowest city (à la Tigris and Euphrates, plus lots of other games), so you have strong incentives to try and advance both and to work with both your partners (and what they’re doing with their other partners). It plays very quickly, even with seven, and there’s lots of strategy involved both in what cards you place and where you place them. I wound up winning this one in the end. It’s not surprising that I had so much fun with this, considering that it’s from designers I quite like (Rosset did the great Brewcrafters, while O’Malley has done The Princess Bride: A Battle of WitsDiner, Knot Dice and more, and Pedersen is a Stonemaier developer who particularly specializes in creating solo variants) and a publisher with a great track record (I’ve enjoyed lots of Stonemaier Games’ different offerings, including Viticulture, and Jamey Stegmaier’s blog is terrific), but this was still a terrific experience.

One of my cities from Between Two Cities, mid-construction.
One of my cities from Between Two Cities, mid-construction.

Chrononauts

Published: 2000

Designer: Andrew Looney

Publisher: Looney Labs

1-6 players

30 minutes

We split off into two groups to finish off the night Tuesday, and I played this one (I’ve been wanting this for a while, but just got it as a present from my wife) with two others. It’s such a fun time-travel game, with clever ways to alter and rewrite history and a great ripple mechanic. The multiplayer game has multiple ways to win, including acquiring the three artifacts needed for your mission, changing three moments of the timeline so you can get home, or accumulating enough power (10 cards) to dominate in the timeline you’re in, and it also has some excellent interaction between players as you each try to alter the timeline to what you need (and even that can change over time; our game saw President Kennedy flip-flop from dead to alive about five times, with the same player changing his status multiple times to take advantage of certain cards). It’s not a complicated game, and there is luck involved, but there’s plenty of strategy as well, and history buffs like myself will likely love it; there are very funny moments in this too, both from the cards and from player interactions. The solo game is also terrific, but very different, providing the challenge of manipulating the timeline to get all eight of your travellers home.

A look at the timeline of Chrononauts, set up for a solo game.
A look at the timeline of Chrononauts, set up for a solo game.

Thanks for reading! Have any thoughts on these games, or anything else you’d like to see on Board and Game? Leave them in the comments, or discuss them with us on Twitter or Facebook.

 

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

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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