Hixie's Natural Log

2005-01-10 15:09 UTC Management: of Power, of Junkyards, and of Empires

Last week I played a lot of Risk, both Risk 2210 and some version of Risk with Gods, with friends from work. Risk is a completely unbalanced game. The more territories you control, the more power you have to control more territories. The moment you gain the slightest bit of an edge, the only way you can lose is by making a stupid mistake. Similarly, the only way you can win if you are unlucky with the dice and lose ground is to hope your opponents are stupendously stupid.

The sad thing is that while the Risk variants (such as Risk 2210) make the game more fun, they don't really address this fundamental imbalance, and so they all suffer from the same poor gameplay. Overall, fun games to play, but ultimately unsatisfying.

On Sunday I played with another group of friends. We played three games: first a five played Power Grid, then a five player Spank the Monkey, and finally a three player Tigris & Euphrates.

Power Grid is an awesome game. You're supposed to run a power grid (surprise!) and to do so you bid for power stations, buy raw materials (fuel) and connect up cities. It has some very important game mechanics, such as favouring the smallest player, and varying the cost of power stations, fuel, and connecting cities based on demand.

Favouring the smallest player leads to an interesting game dynamic, which is that players sometimes actively hold themselves back so as to have the advantage in the next round. It also makes the game more interesting all around, because unlike Risk, where once someone in the lead the odds are very good that they will win, in Power Grid you have to always look out for the underdog suddenly splurging and buying everything that you (the lead player) want, sending the prices sky-rocketing and causing you to fall behind.

The cost variance is done in three different ways for the three different game components. Power stations are put up for auction, so the price goes up higher if more people want a particular one. The price of one type of fuel goes up each time someone buys that kind of fuel, and goes down again a fixed amount each round. Since you can stockpile resources, this leads to a speculative market where players are looking several turns ahead and planning their purchases according to everyone else's needs. Finally, the cost of buying contracts to power cities from your power stations goes up as you get further from your starting position and start overlapping with other players on the map. Much of the game consists of managing your accounts so that you don't over-commit funds during the early phases and end up with not enough money to buy the rights to power a city.

The main problem with Power Grid is the rather abrupt endgame. This could probably be improved by changing two rules.

The power station bidding phase could be changed so that if nobody bids for any of the stations, they are all thrown out, replaced, and the bidding phase immediately restarted (instead of doing what the rules say, which is to just throw out the lowest-price station and continue with phase two).

Some changes to the winning conditions could also help. The official rules give as the winning condition "being able to power the most cities at the end of the first round where a player has n cities" (for some value of n dependent on the number of players). This encourages playing with an endgame gambit, where one player suddenly stops planning for the future, plans to control n cities by the end of that round, and wins the game by effectively mis-managing his company.

A more satisfying endgame would probably be something like being the first to power n or more cities for three consecutive rounds, with no cities left unpowered during those three rounds. Break ties as follows: if there is more than one player to have won according to this winning condition, the person powering the most cities for those three rounds wins. If two or more players powered the same number of cities for those rounds, the one who would be able to power the most cities in the next round (without buying any more fuel) wins. Repeat that tie breaker until either one of the players can be declared a winner, or all the tied players have run out of fuel (e.g. because they both have equally sized renewable fuel power stations). If there is still a tie, the one with the most money left wins. If there is still a tie, the game is a tie.

That probably sounded really complicated if you have never played the game. It'll all become clear once you've played. (I hope.) I haven't yet playtested these two proposed changes, but I really think it would help to make the game more enjoyable at the end.

Despite the endgame abruptness, though, Power Grid is still an excellent game.

The second game we played was Spank the Monkey. Our game didn't really last long enough for me to form a strong opinion. It seemed funny but did not really do it for me. For those of you who are still reading and are curious as to what it is about, it's a card game in which you have to build a tower of cards to reach a certain (continuously varying) height from whence you have a random chance of winning.

Finally we played Tigris & Euphrates. I really liked that game, once I worked out what on earth it was about. The rules really don't make much sense when you read them through, but once you start playing a lot of the rules turn out to be "obvious". For example, it's blatently obvious to me now that a leader can only be next to a temple (otherwise how would you resolve internal conflicts?), that you can't connect two empires with a leader (where would you put the friendship token?), that a black leader takes victory points of all colours unless there's a leader of that colour (blacks are rare, so the black leader has to be good for something else — but similarly, it can't override a natural colour match, that would make no sense), that you need a green "farmer" leader to collect treasures (otherwise you could just put one leader next to each empire and connect it to the next and get the treasure), etc.

No, seriously, it's a brilliant game. One fun aspect is that your score is secret, so while other people can see when you score, unless they are taking notes they really don't know if you're doing better or worse than you. For the entirety of the game I played, I guessed that I was far behind the other players, but the uncertainty stopped it from being depressing like losing at Risk. (Ironically, it turned out in the end that I was actually quite significantly in the lead.)

The winning condition is pretty funny as well and leads to an interesting game dynamic. During the game, you score little wooden "victory point" cubes coloured red, green, blue and black. They are then grouped into sets, a complete set consisting of a single cube of each colour (one red, one green, one blue and one black). In addition there are little white cubes called "treasures" which you can treat as any colour. For example, red, green, white, black counts as a complete set. At the end of the game you score one point for each complete set you own, and the winner is the one with the highest score.

So during the whole game you spend most of your time trying to balance your income of each kind of coloured victory point to make sure you rake them in at an equal rate. It doesn't help you at all to have twenty red victory points if you only have three black ones, because then you can only have a total of three complete sets.

The start seems to consist of small turf wars, the midgame of significant battles over key parts of the board, and the endgame of huge devastating attacks that can decimate entire parts of the game board, each with a corresponding torrent of coloured victory point cubes going to one person... except that since these blocks of points are all of a single colour, this can quickly end up leaving you with a seriously unbalanced income.

Depending on which colour each player most needs, their strategy will differ, leading to different players fighting for different things, which is also interesting, especially when one fight can end up incidentally severing connections in the empire that are actually needed for another player.

Overall a very good game. I would guess that it is much better suited for three players than two (which would probably be too boring, like two-player Risk) or four (which would probably be too chaotic).

I'm currently planning on buying Power Grid, Tigris & Euphrates, and 1856.

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