Power Grid: The Robots – a review

Friedmann Friese’s Power Grid is one of the acknowledged classics of the modern Eurogame genre. It embroils 2 to 6 players in a simulation of running power companies, competing to light up the most cities. Strategy involves a mix of positional play, resource management, and (most entertainingly) competition for new plants in an auction every round.

Since the game’s original release in 2004, Rio Grande Games has published an alternate power-plant deck and five pairs of expansion mapboards, introducing minor rules variations and new tactical challenges. My wife Cathy and I own all of these; we have been fans of the game since almost the date of release, and regularly compete in the World Boardgaming Championships Power Grid tournament.

With Power Grid: Robots, the game’s developers take off in a completely new direction. This expansion introduces robot players, assembled at random from tiles that define how they will behave in the auction, resource-buying, and city-building parts of each turn. With six possibilities each for five behavioral slots, one may face almost 7776 robot variations.

To give the flavor of the expansion, here are a couple of the easier-to-understand behavioral rules:

(Always bid for) plant using cheapest resources

Special ability: Start game with 100 Elektro (game money – 50 is normal)

In step 1, build one city: in step 2, build 2: in step 3, 3 cities (up to the limit of the robot’s cash).

My wife and I have played three 2+2 games – two human players plus two robots. We’ve seen 29 of the robot tiles in action, the 30th being disallowed in games with two or more robots. While there is a lot more behavioral space to be explored in other combinations, this is enough experience for some generalizations.

First: is this expansion worth your money? At less than $15 SRP we think the answer is an unequivocal yes. While it’s difficult to imagine the robots actually winning a game, they are surprisingly effective as spoilers and complicating factors even against players as experienced as Cathy and myself. They make it possible for two people to play a “honeymoon game” that is nearly as interesting as having four humans at the table.

Power Grid is one of those games that generally gets more interesting with more players. Four or five is generally considered optimal (most of the players I know rather prefer the five-hand game), and the most obvious use of this expansion generalizes what Cathy and I did with the honeymoon game for play sessions where you can only round up three or four players. I’m quite looking forward to trying a 3+2, 4+1 or 5+1 game with our Friday night group.

I shall at some point try playing a solitaire game against 4 robots just to find out how that goes, though I’m a little skeptical that the challenge level will be high enough to be interesting – seems to me you need human competition for spice at least in the auction round. In general I’d recommend at most a 50-50 robot/human ratio.

Second: Another promising use for the robots is as an instructional aid – you can invite a new player to start by running a robot until he or she feels competent enough to abandon the algorithm.

Third: Do the robots affect game balance? Yes, they do. They make being first up in the power-plant auction something to be more sought and less feared than in the base game. The reason: because you know the robots’ bidding rules in advance, you can manipulate them to buy junk plants you don’t want. Obviously this makes it easier to bring up plants you do want. In combination with the “Buy all resources” rule some robots have, you may even be able to throw the robots plants that will induce a fuel-scarcity squeeze for your human opponents.

Because the robots mitigate the risk of being first in the auction round, they tilt strategy towards building cities fast to get out front of your opponents on that curve, and then letting your capacity catch up. In the base game, of course, this strategy can crash hard if several successive auction rounds lead off with crappy, low-efficiency plants – but the robots give you a place to dump those.

On the other hand, the robots’ rules for Phase 3 tend to make them as prone to resource-hogging as the most rapacious human players. That aspect makes play a little more difficult, especially for the top-of-the-order player who must buy resources last. On the whole I don’t think that completely negates first player’s auction-manipulation advantage, but reasonable people could differ on this.

The result of these changes is a slightly different game, though not a less complex one. I think it will appeal especially to hard-core strategic minimaxers (er, like myself) who enjoy having more tools with which to manipulate the game state and more different pathways to victory.

Fourth: Are there any bugs in this expansion? Well…it does suffer from the chronic Power Grid problem of poorly-organized rules written by people who were thinking in German rather than English. It is not difficult to patch the rules for places where they’re a bit ambiguous, but if you have to do that it definitely helps to think like a computer programmer. My wife, a practising attorney who is thus no stranger to carefully parsing complex legalese, was nevertheless a bit at sea early on.

The production values are an improvement over the scratchy B&W printing of some previous expansions, and the robot tiles are done in an appealingly goofy retro-techno look.

All in all, if you are a serious Power Grid player – or even a casual one who has trouble putting together a table of 5 – you want this expansion. It’s fun, different, and genuinely adds something to the game.

14 thoughts on “Power Grid: The Robots – a review

  1. I agree with Eric’s comments, overall, with one exception. I’m not convinced that being able to manipulate one or more robots via the auction is a win–except in a two-player game with two robots.

    On the other hand:

    1) Knowing the rules by which the robots address the phases is a HUGE advantage, made more huge by the fact that the amount of money a robot has is PUBLIC information.
    2) Some of the robots have rules that require them to buy as many resources as possible–either all the time, or in specified circumstances. That makes the game a lot harder for the human players.

  2. Interesting. I’m trying to think how this robot model could work for Race for the Galaxy, but I don’t think it’s quite possible. While it would be interesting to have the robots generating phases that the two human players are not selecting (but which the humans could of course participate in), I don’t quite see how the robots could select phases in a way that isn’t completely random.

  3. Slightly off topic: I’m thinking of getting Carcassone for our (husband and I) evening game rotation. Any thoughts on it? We are definitely not hard-core gamers.

  4. >I’m trying to think how this robot model could work for Race for the Galaxy, but I don’t think it’s quite possible.

    There’s actually a set of bot rules included with RFTG. I’ve never tried them.

  5. >I’m thinking of getting Carcassone for our (husband and I) evening game rotation. Any thoughts on it?

    Good game. Relatively light. Get the Traders & Builders expansion.

  6. Robot players are very rare in board games (except for solitaire games — anyone remember Mosbey’s Raiders? Eastern Front Solitaire?)

    Seven Wonders has a complicated set of rules for 2 players. I tried a simpler variant — the robot plays a card at random, without worrying about the resource cost. This works fairly well (except that you need to give the players extra money, say $3 per age, since the robot won’t buy resources from them).

  7. Other than the typical Monopoly, Risk, etc. I played as a child I’ve never played board games. However I am an avid player of a number of computer-based ‘board games’ particularly those produced by Paradox Interactive (HoI2, EU3, Victoria, etc.). These are dramatically more complex and built around the presence of lots of AIs, but nonetheless they seem like a very similar concept. It’s fascinating to see a manual board game essentially introducing a basic AI. So I would be interested to know if you have ever played these sorts of computer games and, if so, what you think of them compared to board games? They would seem to permit dramatic increase in complexity and number of players without imposing overly burdensome admin requirements on the human players, instead shifting that back into code.

  8. I enjoyed Carcassonne, for awhile. But we eventually got tired of it. Also, we bought every single expansion published, for awhile, and it started to get cumbersome to pack up the game after playing (because each expansion added new tiles to play with). I agree with Eric that the Traders and Builders expansion is fun and probably one of the better expansions designed for the game.

  9. On Power Grid Robots: Adds realism to the game, given how many power companies are managed.

    On Carcassonne: My nephews played the game at age 4 and enjoyed it very much (though their concept of getting a high score was somewhat dim). I have found that a few house rules make the game better. We score a tile before placing a man. This means we don’t allow placing a man in a town on the round you close it. Then we let each player start with 2 tiles face up in front of them. Each round you draw one tile and and get to play any of the 3 you have. This adds several levels of skill and strategy to the game.

  10. Thanks for all the input on Carcassone. I’m debating where to extend our gaming set next: RFTG Rebels vs . Imperium expansion, Carcassone+Trader&Builders, Loot!, or something else.

    San Juan sounds intriguing, but I am wondering if it would feel too much like playing RFTG given that the engine seems very similar.

    It’s great that there are so many games available in the light & quick genre.

  11. @Cathy: RFTG Rebels vs. Imperium was an interesting expansion, but not indispensable. I suggest going for Carcassone and its Traders and Builders expansion instead.

    San Juan feels nothing like Race for the Galaxy to me, probably because the card universe in it is very small (maybe 50-60 total) compared to Race which has well over 100 cards even before you get into any expansions. If you know and like the game Puerto Rico, you should try San Juan–it’s really more of an attempt to play Puerto Rico with cards. I can’t figure out why I don’t like San Juan, since I love Puerto Rico, but in any event you should try it.

  12. Thanks for all the input. We ended up getting Carcassonne with Trader & Builders, plus all 3 RFTG expansions. So far we’ve gradually worked up to playing with the first two expansions and just recently added playing with takeovers.

    Carcassonne has been a good game on nights when we don’t feel like dealing with the complexity of RFTG. It has largely replaced Lost Cities in the rotation.

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