First Look at Power Grid: The First Sparks

Image by Henning

It occurred to me that I haven’t talked about Power Grid here yet. Like Modern Art, it falls into the group of games that I initially didn’t care for but have learned to love.  It was one of the the earlier games that I learned, features a lot of very new concepts and experienced players most certainly have an advantage. My early plays were perhaps a bit colored by that perspective, but I’ve since come to really enjoy Power Grid.  I think it will certainly be considered a classic.

There’s no doubt that Power Grid has been a success for Rio Grande, so it isn’t too surprising that they’ve tried to capitalize on the success of its name.  Power Grid: Factory Manager held no interest for me; the name alone seems to imply they managed to find an even less interesting theme to put on a Power Grid game!

Then along comes Power Grid: The First Sparks.  At its core it is very much Power Grid with a stone age theme.  Instead of building out your power grid you are growing your clan and hunting for food.  I really felt it was going to be yet another attempt to cash in on the Power Grid name.  A friend of mine picked it up at Essen, though, and I’ve been able to play a couple of times:

Image by maeddes

+ Forget the ridiculous title: the theme actually works.  Different food sources (fish, bears, mammoth, etc.) require different tools to harvest.  If the group collectively over-hunts a source of food it will become scarce, forcing you to find other ways to feed your clan. New technologies like fire and speech give you a leg up on your opponents. The components and artwork go a long way to help sell the theme, too. Power Grid may look quite dry but The First Sparks does a surprisingly good job with the theme.

~ In theory the game should play faster than Power Grid. Friedemann essentially cut out the middle stage of Power Grid which somewhat messes with the pacing of the game.  It’s like the middle growth stage of Power Grid is gone and you go from the early stages of establishing your territory straight to the end game build-outs.  With experience I think it will result in a faster game, but it also changes the overall pacing. I’m not sure it is quite as satisfying as the end game will really sneak up on you. This could be a side effect of my prior experience with Power Grid or groupthink at the table, but I feel like the game’s escalation is a bit off.

Image by

+ I like that the map is randomly built each game.  There isn’t much variety in the tiles themselves but the map shape will greatly impact how the game plays out.  I also really like that your location is tied to which resources you can harvest.  It adds in another level of decision making as you not only want to grab cheaper locations, you also want to make sure you can get in on the resources you want.

I’m not convinced that The First Sparks will hold up as well as Power Grid in the long run; it certainly doesn’t have that “classic” feel about it.  I do think that the theme will go a long ways for those that found Power Grid unappealing, but don’t be fooled by the cute exterior – there is still plenty of crunchy math inside.

Do both Power Grid and The First Sparks deserve a spot on your gaming shelf?  Mechanically they differ enough but I think the overall experience feels very similar.  At the end of the day there’s no doubt that Power Grid is the better game, but I think the theme and shorter playtime will certainly appeal to some.

First look: Super Dungeon Explore

Image by Helljin

I love dungeon crawlers, digital and cardboard.  There’s something oh-so-satisfying about running around a dungeon, finding loot and leveling up.  Quite a few tabletop dungeon crawlers have hit the market over the years, from the epic Descent: Journeys in the Dark to the more streamlined Dungeons and Dragons series and video game conversions like Gears of War.

Super Dungeon Explore is the newest contender, and it tries to find a middle ground in complexity and play length.  It’s not purely cooperative as one player is the “Dark Consul” (which I will refer to as the Overlord to use Descent terminology) as they try and wipe out the pesky heroes.  What makes Super Dungeon Explore really stand out from the rest is its clear artistic roots in classic Japanese RPGs and gameplay in arcade-style dungeon crawlers like Gauntlet.  Characters are in the cute, super-deformed anime style while the players essentially run around an arena trying to shut down the monster spawn points and eventually take down the evil boss when he spawns.  The various stages of the game are even called 8-bit and 16-bit, which I appreciate as a video gamer.

I’ve only played twice, and the first time we played some rules incorrectly.  Here are some early thoughts from my brief exposure:

– Rulebook: First off, I thought the rule book was poorly written and laid out.  A friend of my picked it up, not me, so I’ve only read through it as we played but it’s terrible as a reference and I can easily see how we missed some key rules the first time through.  For such a simple game the rules could have been far more clear.  I’m okay with ambiguities in a game like this as you can easily go with what makes the most thematic sense, it’s easy to overlook some really important rules.

Image by thewickerman

+ Gameplay: Once you figure out the rules, though, you’ll find a pretty fun combat system.  Everything is based on action points which you  primarily use to activate special attacks.  Each hero is unique and has some really fun overpowered abilities; I always love when games like this can make you feel incredibly powerful right from the start.  As a hero you’ll be able to do all sorts of crazy awesome things your teammates can’t, yet you’ll still be jealous of the crazy awesome things they do.  Heroes will also have a chance to heal or find potions as they roll the combat dice, so you have to keep fighting to heal up.  It’s a fantastic mechanic that encourages the heroes to wade into battle.

– Playing the Bad Guy: On the flip side I found the Overlord not nearly as fun to play.  In the style of Gauntlet most of your monsters will drop with a single hit, meaning you need to quickly swarm the heroes to stand a chance until your big boss monsters come out to play.  Thematically it works and there is room for tactical play, I just didn’t find it all that satisfying.  It also doesn’t help that you may have up to six or seven different types of monsters on the board at any given point in time, each with their own stats and special abilities.  It’s quite a bit to take in.  While diversity is nice, I would’ve preferred fielding fewer types of monsters per mission.

+ Tactical Combat: I love how much positioning and movement come into play, especially for the heroes.  There are lots of movement-based skills and area of effects which I always find fun.  Yes, it slows things down initially as you come to grips with how it all works, but once you figure it out I think there’s a lot of tactical fun to be had.  Pushing and pulling monsters, running around and performing extra attacks, enemies knocking down and swarming heroes… it all works really well and I think is the strongest point of the game.

+ Loot: The loot is also quite a bit of fun and makes the heroes feel even more powerful.  Good loot is key in a dungeon crawler and I think they did a great job here.

Image by petejacko

– Game Length: Unfortunately the game takes longer that it feels like it should.  Combat flows pretty quickly but with the Overlord spawning monsters at each spawn point every turn it can easily turn into a slog if the heroes fall behind.  I do think there’s a level of efficiency the heroes can achieve with experience, but these early plays did outstay their welcome a bit.

– What’s in the Box: There certainly is replay value in the base set, but just a little more would’ve gone quite a ways to making the game feel more like a complete package and less like a base set waiting for expansions.  For example, there’s only one boss so every game will have the same final battle.  I’d be fine with one boss figure but a few different cards giving it different abilities just to mix things up a bit.  It’s not a big deal but I’ve come to expect a bit more robustness in games these days.  I think it very much shows the company’s roots in miniature gaming.

I’m looking forward to giving Super Dungeon Explore more plays, although I do have some concerns about its longevity.  It also seems to be far more fun to play as the heroes than the Overlord; the heroes get fun loot to look forward to but all the Overlord has is the same set of monsters to keep respawning. If the play time can come down to maybe 90-120 minutes I think it may hit the table more often, but we pushed well over two hours for each play which is a bit much.

We’ll see how it holds up in the long run and what our excitement level is for getting it on the table again.  It does a lot of things right and I think dungeon crawler fans will find a lot of to love, and fans of houserules and modding have a great base game to experiment with.

Now to wait and see how 2nd edition Descent turns outs… I have high hopes!

1000th play

It’s official: I’ve logged over 1000 plays over at BoardGameGeek. Now, this number is not entirely exact as I don’t log games I’ve played online, I consider multiple plays of the same game on one night as a single play, and I’ve probably forgotten to log several. Still, that’s a lot of games played! Now to bore you with some completely pointless stats that nobody really cares about:

* 1003 logged plays and counting
* 297 different games played
* 70 games with 5 or more plays
* 20 games with 10 or more plays
* Click here to see all my game plays over at BoardGameGeek

There is some really interesting diversity in my most played games; here are quick thoughts on some of them:

* Dominion (19 plays) and Pandemic (19 plays) – Pretty much what I expected. Both pack in a ton of gameplay for their short play time. If I played several rounds of Dominion on one game night I only log that as a single play, so I’ve really played these more than the count implies. Dominion is very much a “must have” in my mind, while Pandemic has been replaced by Defenders of the Realm unless I need the shorter play time.

* Descent: Journeys in the Dark (15 plays) – Wow, really? I had no idea I’ve managed this many plays of Descent. That is fantastic! It’s been a long time since this got tabled up, though. At this point I’m now holding out for the 2nd edition, coming next spring. If that turns out even remotely as good as I’m anticipating I expect it will log a lot of plays.

* Runewars (13 plays) – Yes, it’s quite likely my favorite board game of all time, but I still hadn’t realized I put in this many plays. Needless to say that makes me quite happy.

* Agricola (12 plays) – This has only seen so many plays due to popularity in my gaming groups. It’s fun enough with two or three, but any more and there are many more games I’d rather play. Probably my least favorite game in those with 10 or more plays.

* Britannia (7 plays) and Sid Meier’s Civilization (6 plays) – Both of these games need to be played way more often.

Given these numbers you can certainly tell I prefer playing a diversity of games over digging deep into a single game.  Not that I’m opposed to playing any given game a lot; we just tend to pick up all the latest and greatest and love seeing new designs as they come out.

Image by Surya

So what was my 1000th play, you ask? Belfort, by Tasty Minstrel Games. I received it just before Thanksgiving as part of the BoardGameGeek Secret Santa and have played a couple of times now. Expect more on this game later, but for now I’ll just say that I’ve really enjoyed it so far and look forward to tabling it up again.

Image by hatemachine