First Look at Power Grid: The First Sparks

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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:

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+ 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.

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+ 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.

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