Today we’re thrilled to dive deep into a game with endless utility, Power Grid. In our recent readership survey, it was by far the most requested game for a design analysis, so naturally we are happy to oblige.
As our reader Rob noticed way back in 2014, Power Grid is our favorite design reference point, an excellent example of so many concepts in game design. Focusing solely on Power Grid will help us tighten our coverage and really dig deep into this pinnacle of strategy game design.
Nevertheless, we’re convinced that nobody loves Power Grid quite as much as we do, and we’ve decided to commemorate this occasion by taking a deep dive into the game and treating it to the design analysis that it so richly deserves. Unlike most of our design analysis articles, which focus on the concepts we’ve described most recently, here we’ll pick the most salient concepts that apply to Power Grid from all of the various articles we’ve written.
Balance – Positional Balance
Power Grid is basically synonymous with positional balance, a concept that we described more than two years ago in our first article series. Positional balance refers to the in-game adjustments that a game’s mechanics enforce to prevent runaway leaders and enable players who fall a bit behind to catch up; in other words, positional balance ensures that an early lead represents a later advantage and not a path to sure victory.
Nearly every aspect of Power Grid is finely tuned in terms of positional balance. The diminishing returns of the payment schedule for powering an increasing number of cities ensures that the first player past the post of a certain number of powered cities is not automatically the winner–and it enforces an interesting choice when, later in the game, expending resources to power cities may actually be a net expense instead of a net positive.
Additionally, the turn order resetting after every round ensures that the players powering the fewest cities have the chance at buying the cheapest resources. Furthermore, the players nominally in the lead have the chance to open bidding on whichever power plants they want the most–but the players toward the back of the pack can control the flow of the auction by strategically passing on the earlier options in a given round and waiting for the right moment to bid on the exact right plant.
Plenty of games have positional balance elements, but Power Grid takes one of the most clever approaches to it, by using the notion of positional balance to create the opportunity for strategy. It’s possible to succeed in Power Grid by getting out to an early lead, playing from ahead, and mitigating the positional balance wrenches that the game tries to throw at you–or you can succeed by sitting in last place for most of the game, coasting on cheap resources, and making a decisive move to sweep across the board.
Despite the intricate strategy that Power Grid demands, it’s a reasonably easy game to understand in terms of what you’re supposed to be doing. Power Grid accomplishes this by instilling a clear and immediate sense of purpose (construct a power network that spans more of the country than any of the other networks) and of clarity (you start from somewhere and expand outward; even if you don’t have a grand plan at the beginning of the game, you at least have a short-term goal to accomplish).
Similarly, Power Grid is an astoundingly easy game to convince people to play despite its aggressively Euro qualities and two-plus hour timestamp. That ease of convincing is mostly attributable to its approachability. A player who has never seen or heard of Power Grid before can be told, succinctly, that it is a game about, well, establishing a power grid, and this small assurance can make the game leagues more palatable.
When we first described the purpose axiom of approachability, we discussed the importance of the endgame condition and checkpoints along the way. Power Grid uses an entirely arbitrary and slightly obtuse end condition of “player who powers the most cities once someone has added 21 cities to their grid” (or, less than 21, depending on the player count). But it’s an objective finish line, one that the players can continuously monitor throughout the same and have a clear sense of how close the game is to ending. Power Grid also uses checkpoints in the transitions to Step 2 and Step 3 that mark, approximately, the transitions to the midgame and endgame.
The clarity axiom argues that a strong–or at least well-established–theme is essential to providing context for the players’ actions. Power Grid has what we might call a “persuasive theme,” one that isn’t intimately tied to each and every design decision in the game but that does help the players to “buy in” to what the game is selling. The way that Power Grid is designed, it doesn’t necessarily have to be about electricity, but it can’t wander too far from being about a network of some sort before it stops making sense. Telling an inexperienced player “you win if you have the biggest network” goes a long way toward making the game more approachable, even if that player doesn’t yet understand the intricacies of how to construct the biggest network.
Power Grid handles player scaling through practically all of the methods that we identified when we first described scalability. It changes the physical scale by including a number of accessible regions equal to the number of players from 2-6, which can produce some funny-looking maps but also ensures that Power Grid feels subtly different every time it is played. It changes the ending conditions, with the aforementioned number of cities connected required to trigger the end game decreasing as the number of players increases. And it adjusts the availability of resources by making the market regenerate faster to accommodate more players. These operations allow the experience of playing Power Grid to seem approximately the same regardless of the number of players participating, in terms of the amount of space, number of resources, and game length.
Another dimension of games where Power Grid scores highly is the slightly more abstract “player control,” which we defined as the degree to which a player’s actions help to determine the outcome of the game. Generally, player control is inversely proportional with variance, such that games with high player control are either open-information, low-variance games or games with extensive ability to mitigate variance.
Power Grid is nearly a perfect-information game. The amount of currency that each player has is nominally hidden information but can be tracked exactly if the other players pay enough attention. Beyond that, the only thing that’s hidden in Power Grid is each player’s internal valuation of how much each plant is worth.
As a skill-intensive game, Power Grid can see its player control diminish if the players have very different levels of skill or experience; however, the biggest danger of false decisions in Power Grid is those plant valuations, which are naturally clued and bounded by how much the other players are willing to pay. Player-driven chaos can be a problem as well, largely at high player counts, where multiple players can conspire (willingly or not) to cut off all of another player’s strategies right before that player gets to take his turn. However, Power Grid mitigates what slight loss of player control exists by effectively avoiding both of our warning signs: there aren’t effective means to chain actions, and it’s not a heavily offense-based game.
Game Structures: Decision Points and Player Ecology
Our most recent overarching analysis framework involves looking at the most important mechanical structures that define the beginning and middle of games (we haven’t reached the end yet!). Alex looked at Decisions as an early-game structure, where the player decisions made early-on drive the players’ enthusiasm and the outcome for the rest of the game. We couldn’t talk about Power Grid and not mention the Energy axiom, which holds that decisions should occur out of a player acting out of interest rather than out of obligation, and we’ll also look at Metamorphosis, which states that decision points should mirror the progression of the game.
Though some competition for territory naturally means that players will occasionally take actions that hurt the other players more than helping themselves, the vast majority of actions come back to the simple beauty of the game: players are motivated to act through a desire to expand their networks. At any point, players are free to examine the map and decide what their best course of action is to be able to expand ever outward. There can be many choices, but few of them are false.
And as players make these decisions to expand their territories, the progression of the game follows naturally. Establishing an early base in Koln means that a clear short-term strategy inevitably involves expanding to Dusseldorf and Essen. But as Alex pointed out, Power Grid does have a similar deficiency to games like Settlers of Catan and Terra Mystica, which is that your initial draft of a starting position can disproportionately affect your outcome later in the game, particularly if another player likes your starting spot as much as you do, and you’re forced to battle over a handful of cities.
More recently, Alex also described a mid-game structure that we called Player Ecology, a crucial element of which is scarcity. As any economist knows, the scarcity of goods available on the market changes the way that actors respond to those goods. Power Grid remains a classic study of scarcity: the demand for the various resources on the market changes dynamically with the stage of the game (which affects their replenishing rate), the price of the resources (which affects how good of a decision it might be to buy them), and how many other players are also interested in the same resources (which affects the psychology of how eager you are to engage in a conflict over them).
The motivation to acquire these resources can strongly determine the greater strategies that the players embrace. For instance, if I see a path to the end game within my reach, I may buy six units of oil and hoard them until I can make my final push, even though I only need three units to power my plants. If I see an especially attractive coal plant coming to the market next turn, I may pivot toward buying coal now, even though I have no desire to fire my coal plant this turn. Or, if your friend Jeff knows he can’t win the game but has it out for you, he can buy up all of the trash just so you can’t win either.
To wrap things up, we’ll take a look at what makes Power Grid such a satisfying game to play–and why it never seems like a terrible experience even if you end up losing. In our discussion of Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction, we identified three key takeaways for each concept.
Power Grid achieves net-positive satisfaction by making the addition of a new city to your network feel more good than the lost chance for someone else to add it feels bad. It offers smart restrictions by slowly increasing the number of networks that can incorporate each city, such that planning your network exactly right feels like an accomplishment, but losing an opportunity doesn’t mean you’re shut out for the rest of the game. Finally, the end condition is tuned so precisely for the number of players that the game almost always feels like ends when there’s nowhere else to expand and no more power plants worth buying.
On the other hand, Power Grid avoids net-negative dissatisfaction through a lack of truly aggressive mechanics: I can’t singlehandedly wipe all of my opponents’ plants out of commission, for example. As we’ve mentioned previously, Power Grid might be best experienced when all of the players have at least some sense of what’s going on, but at least there’s no Puerto Rico-esque “script” that is necessary to follow in the first few turns to have any chance of winning. And just as Power Grid feels like it ends at an appropriate time, player elimination is not a problem, either actual elimination (which cannot happen) or constructive elimination (which is very unlikely thanks to the abundant catch-up mechanics).
Thank you to all of the participants in our recent readership survey, your feedback is instrumental in helping us prioritize content you wish to see. We’re hard at work on several additional topics we think you’ll be interested in.
What’s up next for Games Precipice? Look for the conclusion to the Mid-Game Structures series soon, followed by a new round of Mechanic Archetype articles on pool-builders. Thank you for reading!