Power Grid: the board game

A good board game accurately reflects how something works in reality. Some of my favourite board games are simulations of a real life situations or events. Puerto Rico models the managing of a colony during the Caribbean ascendancy, and Agricola is a simulated medieval farm. Both of these games use their mechanics to illustrate the processes involved in these situations, from growing crops to trading goods, and the cards and tokens are used to represent how these situations happen in reality. In these games, the mechanism is a simplified version of real life situations.

Power Grid is a simulation of economic forces and the game's mechanics are a simplified economy. The players have to compete in a market to buy resources (power plants), and increased competition for these scarce reassures increases their price. Similarly a decrease in competition causes the price to fall to make it more attractive to consumers. This is a simplified version of a real life economy, which is what makes Power Grid so interesting.

Power Grid has four fuel commodities: coal, oil, garbage and uranium. In each turn, players purchase some of these commodities for use in their power stations. Each commodity has its own market, and the price fluctuates from turn to turn based on the demand for a specific commodity. Power Grid also has three distinct phases, each consisting of many turns, in which the rate at which resources are replenished varies. In the early stages of the game, coal and oil are replenished in larger quantities than garbage and uranium, which means the price will be generally lower for these commodities unless competition for them is very high. Later in the game other commodities replenish more quickly which makes them more attractive to purchase.

These game mechanics simulate the price mechanism and show that it is subject to two prominent forces. Firstly, that changes in competition affect price, as increased competition for scarce resources drives the price up. Secondly, it illustrates how technological change in the long run affects supply and price. The changes in the replenishment rate of resources between game phases reflects the changes in technology. As the technology for extracting uranium improves and it becomes more abundant, the price falls. Similarly, as oil and coal deposits become rarer and more investment is needed to extract them, the price rises.

In the short run (turns), the supply of commodities is static and changes in demand control price. In the long run (phases), the supply changes and this affects price. This in turn affects demand, as some resources are now a more attractive investment prospect because of their greater replenishment rate. This changes the demand in the commodities market, and thus changes the price of resources.

As phases pass, power plants become available which can use the same resources more efficiently, and thus in turns affects the demand for goods in the commodities market. There are other long run changes such as new sites to build houses on. All of this demonstrates the effects of technological change on the economy in the long run. Power Grid uses all of its game mechanics to simulate economic forces and principals.

The objective of Power Grid is to build houses and supply them with power produced by your power stations when they are fuelled with the resources purchased from the commodities market. Power Grid has a leader-goes-last mechanism, the leader being the person with the most houses. This keeps the game from being dominated by one player and makes fairer play.

The simulated economic forces are also used to make the game fair. The leader-goes-last mechanic means they are the most affected by price changes in the commodities market and the power plant market. This system is used throughout the game when buying power plants, houses and resources from the commodities market. It ensures that no one player dominates the game from the beginning, which can happen in other similar games like Monopoly. In short it keeps the game fun and interesting.

Power Grid is a very fun board game. It is not as complex as the rules and volume of pieces makes it appear, or my explanation of the economic forces which underpin its mechanics. After one turn, each player will have an understanding of how the game works.

Power Grid is not a real economy, as this is much more complex: the price of labour, the level of overall demand in the wider economy (what economists call aggregate demand), elasticity of supply, foreign trade, government investment and many other facets are left out. However, Power Grid is a simple and very effective illustration of economic forces and principles. What I find most enjoyable about Power Grid is that the commodities market behaves like a real market, with competition and the availability of resources dictating price.

Unlike a real economy, Power Grid is fair and has built-in mechanisms to stop one player dominating from the start. These fairness mechanisms do not detract from how believable the game is as an economic simulation. Power Grid also illustrates that if checks and controls are built into our economic system to prevent a small group from dominating the economy, then everyone has a fairer shot.

The contrast with Monopoly is apt, as a few lucky rolls of the dice early on in the game can put one player ahead of the others; this player then uses this economic advantage to widen the gap, and other players cannot catch up. Not only is this not very much fun, it illustrates how a few individuals who are lucky at birth use this early advantage to remain economically ahead of the rest of the game.

Real life is a lot less fair than a game of Monopoly. If you had ten players, each representing 10% of the UK population banded by wealth, then the player representing the richest 10% of our society would start out owning ten properties. The poorest five players would have two properties between them. (The data for this came from this Guardian article.)

Unlike Monopoly, Power Grid has a built-in mechanism to make sure that the less well-off do not fall too far behind the most well off. This allows every player to compete in the commodities market and prevents all the assets being owned by one player who is lucky early on in the game. This illustrates that a greater emphasis on equality of opportunity would benefit our society.

Power Grid is a superbly designed game: the board and cards are beautifully illustrated, the game is a clever simulation of a real economic forces, and the mechanics ensure that the game is both realistic and fun to play. All of this means that I think that Power Grid is one of the best-designed board games of all time.