New Game Weekend: Africana

westsideFor the second time this year I found myself in Los Angeles for work this past week, and once again I also wound up linking up with the West Side Gamers. The meeting of the group I attended at an IHOP just south of Culver City was the organization’s 510th consecutive club get-together. The group meets weekly in local restaurants, camping out over several tables and booths chocked full of dozens of games toted along by attendees. A weekly theme game is featured, but players split into groups to play whatever people are up for from about 6pm until well past midnight.

This past week’s featured game was Power Grid played on the recently-released Quebec map, although more than a dozen different board and card games were played throughout the evening. More than a couple dozen players spent the evening munching on diner food and hunched over tables of games.

20131010-233030.jpgOf the many games being played that evening, I  had the opportunity to play a game new to me, 2012’s Africana from Z-Man Games. Playable by up to four participants, Africana uses a few familiar card-driven mechanics within the context of the travel and exploration of the African continent. The game board features a map of Africa divided in two by the equator and laced with routes between cities. Each player’s expedition uses color-coded movement cards to trek between locations. A series of five adventure cards at the bottom of the board allows a player to pick a starting point for a research expedition to another location. Setting off on an adventure gains either a movement card or silver coins used to buy from the two adventure books.

africanaEach turn, players may either draw movement cards, move their explorer aroundthe board or purchase up to three pages from the wooden book racks. Purchasing pages from the adventure books north and south of the equator provides another quest opportunity to gather artifacts or hire additional workers to help move your expedition along the board. Collecting combinations of artifacts and completing adventure routes gain more coins and score victory points at the game’s end. While having multiple workers in your hand can help move you quickly around the board, holding too many at the game’s end deducts points from your total. As the game progresses, adventures become more valuable and players may be working on several adventures at once. Once all the adventures are drawn from the deck, the game ends and the player with the most victory points wins.

20131010-232920.jpgThe travel mechanics of Africana don’t allow for a lot of opportunity to really block other players on the board, although completing adventures ahead of the competition or acquiring valued artifacts from the books does allow for some strategic play. Moving your pawn to key port cities such as Cape Town allow for quick moves around the continent while moving inland is a bit more circuitous, so choosing adventures wisely is also key. The player who won our game focused on high-value adventures late in the game while my second place finish was scored mainly through the collection of artifacts. Even in this relatively light travel game, akin to something like Ticket To Ride, I could see the possibility of trying varying strategies.

Deep down I dislike just about everything about traveling for work — cabs, hotels, airports, living out of a suitcase — but heading to Los Angeles and a chance to meet-up with the folks at West Side Gamers makes the trips to the West Coast a bit more worth the journey.

New Game Weekend: Power Grid

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This year I’ve been fortunate to have both the time and a revolving line-up of patient opponents at Metropolitan Wargamers to introduce me to nearly 30 new games. Lots of times I’ll hear the name of a game or references to its mechanics tossed around by other members, and I’ll just file that name away in the back of my head for a future gaming option. One of the games I’ve heard come up again and again is Power Grid, and this past weekend I finally got my first shot at playing it.

What a fantastic game.

Power Grid is a game of building power plants along a grid among interconnected cities and managing the resources to power the system. Originally published in Germany over 10 years ago, Power Grid began as a crayon and paper game. The version available since 2004 from Rio Grande Games is a more typical Eurogame with a two-sided playing board (Germany and US maps on either side), cards and scores of wooden playing pieces.

The game play unfolds over a series of turn phases. First, player order is determined by the player with the most cities built. Player order is very important in the second phase when power plants are auctioned among players. Some primitive coal, wood or trash-burning plants may come cheap but power few cities or require lots of resources to fire them. Other plants, like solar fields and wind farms, come at a higher initial cost but require no resources to fuel them since the wind and sun come for free. At the far edge are high-tech nuclear plants which can power many cities but require the rare and costly uranium fuel.

And so that leads to the third phase of buying resources. In turn order, players buy coal, wood, trash and uranium which fluctuate in a market of varying demand and pricing throughout the game. Each player’s plant holds double the resources it requires, so a coal-fired plant that requires two coal to run it can hold four coal resources. In terms of strategy, players buy resources for use in their own plants, but they may also choose to stockpile resources and rob other players of the ability to buy resources for their plants.

In the fourth phase, players build cities and their grid. Building cities begins at a $10 value but rises to $15 and then $25 as the game progresses and the grid becomes more crowded with development. Connections between cities also costs money, so creating a close network of cities along a compact grid can make things cheaper for you and more expensive for your opponent as the game goes on. To wrap a turn, players fire up their grid, burn resources and collect income based on how many cities they are able to supply with power.

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Power grid is a fantastic game of economics, resource management and area control, hitting all the marks of a classic Eurogame. A mix of strategies of building and resource management makes for a realistic yet streamlined game requiring just some basic rules, no reading during the game and simple components. The

Numerous expansion sets are available for Power Grid, including additional power plant cards and additional two-sided regional maps from around the world such as France/Italy, Central Europe, Russia/Japan and China/Korea. A rabid international online fanbase has also created custom homebrewed maps of just about any country or region on the planet.

With the topic of energy and natural resource consumption on the front page of just about any paper in the world on any given day, it’s easy to see why Power Grid resonates so widely. The game also plays without any reading required (other than a basic understanding of one of the translated rulesets), adding to its international appeal. Not only is the game a huge draw for hardcore gamers, I could also see it as a very instructive tool in teaching any group of engaged kids on the challenges of managing ever-increasing power demands.