How Power Grid Works


The colorful map that comprises the "Power Grid" game board depicts the U.S. and its major cities. The other side of the board represents Germany.
The colorful map that comprises the "Power Grid" game board depicts the U.S. and its major cities. The other side of the board represents Germany.
Courtesy Ed Grabianowski

Power Grid is a popular board game in which players compete to purchase power plants, expand their power networks into cities, then buy enough natural resources to power those cities. It combines an economic system that simulates supply and demand with an auction round that pits players against each other as they try to buy the latest power plant technology.

The game was originally created in Germany under the name Funkenschlag. In the original incarnation, Funkenschlag was a crayon game: The connections between the cities weren't fixed – players drew them in with crayons, which could be wiped off the board when the game was over. The second edition of Funkenschlag removed the crayon mechanic (made famous by the Empire Builder series of railroad games, among others) and replaced it with fixed connections between cities. When Funkenschlag was adapted and translated to English via U.S. publisher Rio Grande Games, it got a new name: Power Grid. While the basic version comes with a two-sided board depicting the U.S. and Germany, there are expansions and international versions available that depict Italy, Japan, Central Europe, Korea and other nations or regions [source: Rio Grande Games].

While Power Grid is a fun game that creates many interesting competitive situations, it's also a very effective educational game. Kids who play Power Grid will learn about basic economic principles and environmental issues, and their math skills will get a serious workout.

If you want to know how to play Power Grid -- and better yet, how to win -- you've come to the right place. We'll start on the next page with the rules.

Power Grid Game Rules

The goal of Power Grid is to extend your power network into a fixed number of cities (usually 17) and then power more cities than any other player. The game is designed for three to six players -- Power Grid doesn't really work as a two player game, so make sure to invite some friends over. The game scales perfectly to the number of players by simply reducing the number of map sections used.

The game board shows a nation (either the U.S. or Germany in the basic U.S. version, depending on which side you choose) divided into six regions delineated by color. Cities on the map have three spaces for players to place colored wooden houses that show control of that city, plus connections between cities, each marked by a number which shows the cost for connecting cities along that route. Other tokens on the board represent resources used to generate power.

Each turn is divided into a series of phases in which all players act. The order the players take in each phase is determined by the number of cities they control, and is set up to create a disadvantage to whichever player is in the lead. This natural handicapping mechanic keeps games pretty close. Determining player order is actually the first phase of a turn.

The second phase is the auction phase. Cards depicting various power plants are arrayed on the table. Players take turns bidding on these power plants, which differ by the amount of power they generate and the materials they consume to do so. At the beginning of the game, the power plants will be very inefficient, but as the game goes on, more advanced plants will show up on the auction market. For example, an early plant might consume two coal resources to power two cities. A later plant might consume three oil resources, but power six cities. Wind-powered plants power cities without consuming any resources.

The third phase allows players to purchase the resources that they will later use to power their plants. There are four resource types: coal, oil, garbage and uranium. The available resources are arrayed on the board on a market that shows their prices. As players buy resources, any remaining resources of that type will cost more (effectively modeling supply and demand).

Phase four is the city purchasing phase. Players actually purchase access to each city to expand their power network. At first, only one player can build into a city, and it costs 10 Elektro (the game's currency) to access a city. There is also a connection fee for bridging the distance between cities, which varies from city to city. Later in the game, a second and third player will be able to move into the electric market within a given city, but it costs more: 15 Elektro for the second connection, 20 for the third.

In the fifth phase, players will expend the resources they purchased to power the cities they own. The number of cities powered determines how much a player earns to use for the next turn's batch of auctions, resource buying and city buying. This is also a clean-up phase. Resources are added to the market in fixed amounts, and certain power plants are removed from the auction market to make sure it doesn't get stagnant and keep new technologies moving into the market [source: Rio Grande Games].

In the next section, we'll talk strategy, with tips on how to come out on top when you play Power Grid.

Power Grid Game Strategy

This shows the power plants currently up for auction. The bottom row is available to be bid on, while the top row shows what plants will be coming up to auction soon.
This shows the power plants currently up for auction. The bottom row is available to be bid on, while the top row shows what plants will be coming up to auction soon.
Courtesy Ed Grabianowski

The most basic strategy in Power Grid is a balanced approach. You want power plants that can power as many cities as possible using as few resources as possible. You also need the resources to power your plants. Finally, you have to have cities to power. If you have plants that can power 11 cities, but you only control six, you won't be able to earn the maximum amount of money each turn. Similarly, if you buy access to 10 cities but your plants can only power four of them, you've wasted some of your Elektro.

However, particularly in games with four or more players, an aggressive unbalanced strategy can be effective. As the game goes on, access to cities becomes more and more expensive, and eventually players will be blocked out of cities entirely. If you purchase many cities early in the game, you'll spend less on them and force other players to spend more. Controlling a lot of cities also gives you some say on when the game ends. The last turn occurs whenever anyone controls his or her 17th city, so you can trigger this when you're in a position to win the game.

Later in the game, power plants tend to use more resources, so resources naturally become more scarce and expensive. Players have a limited ability to store excess resources, so it is difficult to "corner the market" on a resource and artificially manipulate its price. Multiple players can collude to drive up the price of a particular resource, or even buy out the entire stock. This can cripple a player who goes last during the resource buying phase (typically whichever player leads at the time).

The power plant auction phase is crucial. Wind-powered plants are highly sought-after and may be worth a premium price, but don't get carried away by a bidding war. They will often sell for slightly more than the amount of Elektro they would earn in a single turn. The most important thing to remember about the auctions is to avoid resource competition. If you notice that no other players are using garbage-powered plants, purchase one of those and you can get the garbage resource at a cheaper price. Make sure your own plants use diverse resources, too. You don't want to compete against yourself for resources.

Most importantly, keep an eye on the numbers. As someone gets close to controlling 17 cities, you need to make sure you've got enough resources to go for the win. Take a look at your opponents' power plants and check how many cities they can power. This will determine crucial late-game power plant and resource purchases. The last two or three turns, things can get pretty cut-throat around the Power Grid table!

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Sources

  • Rio Grande Games. "Power Grid." (Accessed August 3, 2011). http://www.riograndegames.com/games.html?id=5