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.

Pandemic: the board game

Most board games have a narrative element to them: Monopoly has the struggle for one business to drive all the others to bankruptcy, Cluedo (or Clue if you are American) has the story of a murder mystery, but Pandemic is one of the most narrative-focused board games. The story of the Pandemic board game is that of a group of scientists racing to save the world from a deadly disease outbreak. The actions which the players take form the narrative of saving the human race.

In Pandemic, the players work co-operatively to stop the spread of four diseases from city to city around the world. Each player has a specific character, with a skill set that helps end the pandemic. The diseases spread while the players try to contain it and find the cures. If the players can eradicate all of the diseases then they win, but if the diseases spread too far then humanity is lost.

The narrative of Pandemic is most similar to that of a thriller; it reminds me of the opening third of Steven King’s The Stand or 28 Days Later. There is the race-against-time aspect of the game – an essential component of any thriller – and there are also clearly defined characters with professional relationships to each other. The board game explores these professional relationships through the way in which the characters interact with each other, in much the same way as TV shows like CSI do.

Having several different geographical locations is another key element of the disease thriller, and the dramatic action of Pandemic takes place across several locations around the globe, much like zombie-based virus thriller World War Z. The narrative of Pandemic explores how the infection pans out in different places and the players see the disease affecting different parts of the world through the characters they play.

The characters of the Pandemic board game are all reminiscent of a science fiction story; there are scientists, researchers, medics, operations experts, etc. These characters certainly pay homage to the sci-fi archetypes of works such as I am Legend and The Andromeda Strain. The narrative of a global disease outbreak is also familiar from science fiction stories such as 12 Monkeys and Children of Men. The narrative of a game of Pandemic thus shows all the hallmarks of several well-known science fiction stories.

The level of co-operation between players in Pandemic is unusually high amongst board games. In Pandemic, the players work together against the game itself – it is in essence a very complicated, constantly-changing puzzle. The mechanics of the game create an accurate simulation of the spread of a disease within the limited medium of a board game. It is brilliant how this game efficiently recreates a real-world process through board game mechanics. Other games do this as well (Power Grid is a good example), but the accessible way in which Pandemic models the spread of disease is a thing of beauty.

The game does have some competitive elements to it, mainly through the addition of a bio-terrorist character in the On the Brink expansion pack. This character plays against other players to aid the spread of the disease, and wins if the human race is wiped out. This addition of an antagonist opens up the narrative to layers of interpersonal conflict (human beings against each other), where as before Pandemic only had extra-personal conflict (humans against natural forces, i.e. disease).

The bio-terrorist functions in a similar way to Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) in 12 Monkeys, he puts a human face on the threat of disease and provides a character that the protagonist can have an adversarial relationship with. This makes the narrative more engaging as we can see human conflict play out next to environmental conflict, aka the spread of the deadly diseases. This makes the game of Pandemic more fun and the narrative more engaging.

The mechanics of Pandemic are very well suited to modeling the spread of a disease around an interconnected globe and the international response to this outbreak through the mechanics of co-operative play. As well as the co-operation mechanics, the involvement of narrative in Pandemic’s mechanics is unusually high. There are other games where the actions of players form a complex narrative, such as the galactic power struggle of Twilight Imperium, but it is rare to find narrative given this level of importance within game mechanics. What makes Pandemic so much fun to play is the way in which the players construct a narrative as they play.

The narrative of a game of Pandemic has many similarities to science fiction or thrillers. Many of the recognisable elements of these stories are present in Pandemic; the only difference is that the method of exploring the thriller or science fiction narrative is through the different medium of a board game. The story of a game of Pandemic is just as compelling as 12 Days Later or The Stand, but the means of engaging with the narrative are different.

5 sci-fi board games

When I mention science fiction games, what comes to mind is something like Mass Effect or Halo - typically a first-person shooter on a console. Occasionally people think of PC strategy games like Starcraft or Command and Conquer, but there are a growing number of science fiction board games which capture the archetypes of the genre. The complexities of intergalactic power struggles, the subtle differences of species, the perils of the wider universe can be encapsulated very well in a board game. Below I have chosen five of my favourites, arranged in order from most accessible to most complex.

Galaxy Trucker

This is a really fun and very innovative game, in which you build and fly a cargo truck through a hazardous area of space. Galaxy Trucker has two sections: first you must build your truck, against the clock, using pieces from a pile of upturned ship components. Make sure you do not leave any internal sections exposed or modules loosely connected, or you will be in trouble later! Then you fly your ship around a system, collecting cargo, dodging asteroids and fending off pirates. Any weakness in your truck from the building stage will be quickly exposed as bits fall off, are knocked off, or are blown off.

Galaxy Truckers is unadulterated fun, from the panic of trying to piece together a working truck to the nerve-racking encounters on your cargo-hunting voyages, this game is an emotional rollercoaster. It is rather light on the details of specific sci-fi concepts, but there is enough to evoke the sense of the genre. The only flaw of this game is that if your ship falls apart completely early on, then it can be a dull round, but there are three rounds in a game and after the first I became pretty skilled at putting together a ship that would (mostly) survive. It is no secret that this is one of my favourite board games, which I would recommend to any serious board gamer or sci-fi fan. There is also a special bonus board on which you can build the Enterprise. Full marks for fan nods.


Pandemic is a contemporary-Earth-based game, but the story comes straight out of a science fiction novel. Several diseases are ravishing the world and a group of scientists, doctors and emergency response personnel must save humanity before it is too late. Pandemic is a globe hopping, disease fighting, cooperative game. Each player chooses a role (medic, researcher, etc.), and they must work together using each character's strengths to stop the spread of disease and research a cure.

Pandemic is different from most games because the players must work together against the game mechanics, the spread of disease. It is somewhere between an unusual board game and a very complex, constantly-changing puzzle. If you are tired of competitive board games causing family and friends to fall out, then Pandemic could be a solution. However, if you have a particularly bossy friend, they can make this game unpleasant by taking over. The story Pandemic tells is different each time and the narrative formed by the battle against the diseases is very engrossing. The game also becomes a lot more fun with the addition of the On The Brink expansion, which adds a Bio-Terrorist role whose mission is to work against the other players to aid the spreading of the diseases and bring about the end of the human race. Now what could be a more typically sci-fi villain character than that?


Eclipse is a game with a lot of replay value. The map can be put together in any number of ways and each player chooses a different alien race that has varying abilities at war, research, trade, etc. They then occupy areas of the galaxy and build a space fleet to engage with the other players. The board is built from segments as the player's fleets explore it, meaning that each game will have a different configuration.

The process of capturing space territories, extracting resources and building fleets is a lot of fun, as is customising the design of your warships with different components that your scientists research. The options are almost endless, which is why Eclipse is never boring. There are a lot of rules, and being a new player facing experienced players can be frustrating until you learn the game's details. This game perfectly captures the archetype of space opera in the range of weapon, shields and drives that are available. Finding all the different ways of fitting them together is what makes the game so addictive

Twilight Imperium

A full scale galactic power struggle between diverse aliens, taking into account environmental, culture, political, military and technology differences modelled with painstaking detail is how I would describe Twilight Imperium. On the surface it is similar to Eclipse as you have different races with different characteristics, these characteristics vary the resources, technologies and warships each race has, then spaced-based combat occurs. The difference with Twilight Imperium is the variety of play options: it has more races, more technologies and more worlds, but more importantly there are more ways for players to interact with each other. As well as military conflict, Twilight Imperium has political, scientific and economic competition, which each race handles differently.

Twilight Imperium’s selling point is that it is more complex, more involved and more realistic than most similar games. Despite its complexity and how long it takes to play, Twilight Imperium is a lot of fun. It really allows players to be devious and underhanded in many ways, as well as providing lots of different tactics to suit the style of the player. Certainly this is not a game for board game beginners, but avid gamers and sci-fi fans will find lots of fun here. Twilight Imperium really does capture the scale of galaxy-spanning epic science fiction, and the imagination that has gone into designing each race, its history, each world and all the technologies is commendable. The realism of the simulated conflict in Twilight Imperium has inspired the details of several writing projects of mine, as the plot produced by an individual game of Twilight Imperium can be as complex as Dune.


Android is a complex narrative based noir/detective/sci-fi game. It takes place in a vaguely Blade Runner-esque future and revolves around different detectives solving a crime. Similarly to Twilight Imperium, the appeal of Android is the sheer variety of ways that the game can be played. The entire game is set up around a complex narrative with various events pushing your character towards optimism or depression, as well as towards any series of solutions to the case. Unlike Cluedo (Clue for our American readers), where the solution is fixed at the beginning of the game, in Android everything is constantly in flux and as you peel away the layers of the narrative, the culprit changes.

This game borrows heavily in terms of tone and plot from the sci-fi noir of Philip K Dick and Adam Christopher, and all of the different possible options means it has a complex and varied plot. Each game is like reading a different novel, which gives Android a lot of replay value. It is however, very complicated due to the sheer number of possible narrative changes. Generally I enjoy complex board games like Twilight Imperium, but even I thought Android had too many game modifiers and additional rules. It is impressive how they have managed to create a game mechanism which realistically recreates the feel of a novel narrative. I would recommend this game to any lover of sci-fi stories.

These are my choices, what are yours? Is there anything I have left off? There are sci-fi board games I have wanted to play but I have not had a chance yet, such as Space Cadets and the Starcraft board game. What are these like to play? Let me know below.

Agricola: the board game

Sometimes you just need a huge, complicated board game. Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola is a game that is difficult to learn and harder to master, but doing so creates enormous satisfaction; its appeal lies in its complexity.

Agricola is about as realistic a simulation of a medieval farm as it is possible for a board game to be, without getting unpleasantly close to manure. The rules are quite complicated and I won’t go into them here, but the essence of the game is to allocate your farm workers to tasks which either gather resources or spend them improving your farm. Each task can only be allocated once per turn, creating fierce competition for the task cards. However as the game progresses, new tasks are made available which alleviates the pressure somewhat. At various points, your clan of farm workers will require feeding, so you have to keep one eye on your food resources while attempting to expand your farm.

Though it is mainly focused on resource allocation, the narrative of farm life is carefully woven into the game. You must build new rooms in your house before new workers can be born, showing that the family is expanding as it matures. Fields must be ploughed and sewed before bread can be baked. Each section starts with a spring breeding season when your animals multiply, and ends with the autumn harvest when your family must be fed. The story is subtle but ever-present as your farm grows from a few wooden rooms into a medieval manor house with its own livestock, kitchens, grain fields and vegetable patches. The game is beautifully designed, with hundreds of cards and small wooden counters.

There are a host of occupations, minor and major improvements, food and building resources that players need to keep track of to avoid ruin when it comes to totalling up the scores at the end. Great attention is paid to every detail of medieval farm life. A range of building improvements and hired hands are available for your farm; there is a card for every occupation from a basket weaver or stone mason, to traveling players or a pastor. Similarly your farm can have an outhouse, a stone oven, a duck pond, a clay pit and so on. Serious time and effort has gone into including as much medieval farm iconography into Agricola as possible and making it all work within the game mechanic.

One of my favourite aspects of the game is that so many of these cards are exceptions to almost every Agricola rule. Even failing to feed your family at a harvest can be cleverly reversed using the right combination of minor improvements and occupations. The sheer number of cards in Agricola means that there are no certainties and that no two games are ever alike. The key skill Agricola encourages in its players is efficiency in the allocation of tasks, in other words getting as much done in as few moves as possible. The scarcity of task cards means that when you do allocate a worker, the move must accomplish as much as possible. Many of the cards allow you to do two things at once, such as expand your house and build a minor improvement. When you choose a task you must make it work for at least two strands of your long term strategy. Similarly the game teaches you to always have a backup plan, as the task you want to allocate will often be snatched by the player before you.

All of this multitasking is geared towards making your farm as diverse as possible, and so are the many-pronged strategy and the backup planning. When scoring time comes at the end of a game, points are allocated for how many different types of animals and crops you have. Specialising in cattle will only take you so far and the points deducted for the areas of the game you did not explore will offset any bovine benefits. Only a diverse, rainbow farm will secure the player a winning score.

Agricola is not perfect; the competition for task spaces can create a perverse incentive whereby blocking the strategies of others is better than advancing your own. This leads to games of stifled growth and tit-for-tat plan-stumping where mutual cooperation would perhaps be better, or at least more fun. This aside, Agricola is the most fun it is possible to have when indoors, wearing a dressing gown, and pretending to be a farmer. If you like your games long, complex, and with an edge of realism, look no further than Uwe Rosenberg’s masterpiece.