John-Michael Gariepy

Power Grid: First Sparks – Respect: What Is It?

Let’s say you have a new public park in your city.  It’s nice and open with plenty of space for sports, a play yard for children, some grills… nothing too fancy, but there was a lot of thought put into this park.  Let’s say that after one week of the park being open to the public, a huge crevice opened up.  It’s about twenty feet across, five feet wide and ten feet deep, and stretches between the see-saws and the tennis court.  It was nobody’s fault:  There was a small underground cave here that no one knew about, and the increased foot traffic toppled the cave’s roof in.  Let’s say the park authority put a bunch of signs up and some traffic cones.  It’s been a month now, and this is it.  When people contact the park authorities, their response is “We informed the public about the hole, took out space in the local newspapers and clearly marked the hole so that no one could fall in by accident.  If anyone falls in and hurts themselves, it’s their own fault.”  How would you feel about that?

I feel that way every time I think of Power Grid: First Sparks.

Allow me to quote the rule book to First Sparks for a second:

“The most important hint: do not spend too much food on spreading your clan. If you do, you may not have enough left for buying the next technology card. This is the biggest possible mistake you can make in »The First Sparks«!”

Let me break that down for you.  There’s a way to play First Sparks and hose yourself.  Here’s how you do it:  During your first turn, expand as much as possible.  On your second turn, expand as much as possible.  On your third turn, expand as much as possible.  That’s it.  For the rest of the game you will make enough food to feed your tribesmen, and do nothing else.  You will sit and watch the three other players enjoy the game that they are playing for about an hour while you sit helpless in a hole.

Sound like a good time?

Now, I got to step back, because I know that I haven’t convinced everyone that this is such a bad thing.  The rules, after all, told you not to do this.  The rules specifically told you that if you do this exact thing that you will ruin your chances for victory.  If you’re not punished for a very poor choice, then how can the game resemble anything close to fair?  After all, you could lose a Queen in a game of chess in two moves.  People who leave themselves open like that shouldn’t be rewarded with a new Queen.

I’m quick to agree with that sentiment.  I’d also point out that having lost a Queen in a game of chess doesn’t mean you’ve lost the game.  Even if you were a Grandmaster playing another Grandmaster, there would be a reason to continue playing that match, if for no other reason than to see what happens.  But, also, you continue playing that game to fight against the odds so that, if for some reason you did reverse the game, you would have bragging rights for the rest of your life.  This is not that.  We aren’t talking about a set back, even a cataclysmic set back, you can recover from.  We’re talking about doing something at the ten minute mark that will make you lose a one hour game (barring that your friends didn’t fall into the same hole).

And, to be clear here, we’re also not talking about an unsolvable game rules problem.  The rules of the game could, instead of a warning not to do this, have a rule to help someone out if they chose to ignore the advice of the game designer.  There could be a rule that allows you to abandon some of your tribesmen and have them give you back a food.  You would have lost food and wasted time in the exchange, but you would be able to still play.  It’s the equivalent of taking a truck load of sand and dumping it in the crevice.  Sure, it isn’t pretty, but at least no one is falling in the hole anymore.

I’ve talked to a number of players about this, and scanned a few message board discussions on the subject, and, ultimately, someone will come back with this response: “Well, if it bothers you that much, why don’t you just ‘house rule’ it?”  There’s nothing wrong with house rules, but that’s not a reasonable response.  Of the five games I’ve talked to someone about or read about, no one employed the house rule.  Why?  Because it was too late.  They had fallen into the pit, the players were in the middle of the game, and one person, out of all the players, thought that changing the rules willy-nilly while you’re playing was a bad idea.  One person plus the rules of the game is most often a veto.

There’s one last line of defense for the written rules at this point.  It goes like this:  “Not all games are meant for all players.  Some players love what other players hate and vice verse.  If you try to make everyone happy with your game, you will bore everyone, since no one will be excited by your game.”

Fair.  I would never deny that.  But when you have an easy to resolve problem in your game that you don’t cover up because you aren’t interested in the opinions of the people who would fall prey to it, then we aren’t talking about player psychographics and targeting a specific audience.  We’re talking about respect.  You, as a game designer, are showing that you don’t respect the opinions of people who follow their own path.  You are showing that you don’t respect the opinions of people who prefer to discover how things operate for themselves and resent being told what to do.  You don’t respect people that are open and forward, and favor those who are cautious and pensive.  And when you don’t respect someone, you anger them.  It’s fine to target a specific audience and say “These people will understand my game.  I’m okay if other people don’t.”  That’s why specialty markets exist.  It’s a very bad idea, however, to get the people who don’t like a rule in your game to hate your game.  You want people that don’t appreciate your vision to move along to the next thing they enjoy.  You don’t want those people to stick around, angry, telling people who would otherwise enjoy your game how much of a failure it is.

So how is Power Grid: First Sparks?  It’s a good game.  A little quicker with the speed of play compared to the original Power Grid, which is a plus.  The artwork is good/funny and I like how the board assembles when you put the game together.  There’s lots of considerations to make while playing, and while the end of the game will make you do some math in your head, most adults and teenagers should be able to hack it.  The math is gradual, too, so you likely won’t realize how involved you are in the game.  That’s great, because if people took the time to math out every option they had, their brains would fry.  The gradual build-up, encourages people do what feels right, as opposed to solving for every possible scenario.  Power Grid, in general, has always been good like this, with every decision opening up a new decision tree, which keeps the game fresh no matter how many times you play it.

If only it wasn’t for that damned hole…


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2 thoughts on “Power Grid: First Sparks – Respect: What Is It?

  1. Could one make a rule that says you cannot expand 3x in a row and achieve the same resolution? I think it’s less about respect and really about pure laziness of rule-making…

  2. Unfortunately, the whole point is that later in the game you will be so powerful that you won’t win unless you are expanding three to five times in a turn. To win the game, you need to expand the most… it’s just if you do it too early, your game crashes. If the designer of the game restricted how fast you could expand, it would seem arbitrary and controlling… part of the point of the expansion thingy is a risk versus reward mechanic. Don’t spread out fast enough, and someone else will win the game. Spread out too fast, and you’ll be bogged down by your people’s needs. The problem is when players first begin to play the game, they don’t understand the intricacies of how the game operates. Often, they’ll be bogged down by a bunch of rules, say “I’m just going to do what sounds like fun, and figure out the rest later.” To a lot of those people, doing what the game designer told you not to do sounds like fun. For their idea of fun, they’re told to sit in the corner for 50 minutes and think about what they did wrong.

    I can, to some extant, forgive lazy game design if the product in question is by a third party and/or the game designer is new to the industry. Unfortunately, this error was made by a seasoned pro for Rio Grande Games. I certainly don’t think he’s intentionally disrespecting a player demographic. But, he obviously saw and acknowledged a flaw in his game. There’s a lot of reasons why he may not have fixed the error, but in the end, it’s going to come down to respect. If the playtest group took the time to acknowledge what it would feel like to fall in this trap, they never would have left it there.

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