Unplugged: First Sparks gets Power Grid back to basics

April 6, 2012

Previously in GU, I discussed Power Grid, a game that I respect but hate playing. For me, the game simply requires too much work; every move has to be carefully evaluated to the point of encouraging analysis paralysis, and the return in fun for the effort invested is just not there. If someone could take the basic mechanics of Power Grid and streamline it a bit, I’d probably like that game very much. Amazingly, this is exactly what Power Grid designer Friedemann Friese has done with Power Grid: The First Sparks.

Set in prehistoric caveman times, First Sparks tasks you not with generating electricity to power cities, but rather with gathering food to keep your growing tribe alive. The board is comprised of a number of modular two-hex units, with each hex being divided into three areas and having one of four resource icons (berries, fish, bear, or mammoth) indicating what can be collected/hunted in its areas. Each player (up to six) starts with two cave-meeples on the board and an herb field that generates a paltry one food a turn.

In the first bit of streamlining over the original, there is no cash in First Sparks; everything is handled using food. Technologies and knowledge have replaced power plants in the auction block, but the basic structure of that hasn’t changed: the four lowest-ranked cards are the ones that are available, and the “futures market” contains cards that might or might not become available as cards are purchased. The storage board serves as an equivalent to the resource market of the original game, although representing the food sources that can be harvested instead of raw materials to be purchased; a space in each area indicates how much of each resource is added to the supply each round, dependent on the number of players and the number of corresponding hexes on the board.

The phase order is almost identical to Power Grid‘s, but there are only two “stages” to the game: pre-shuffle, and post-shuffle, with the only difference between the two being how many cards are available for auction. And really, “auction” isn’t quite what goes on during First Sparks‘s first phase. Rather, the player currently in the lead selects one of the four available cards; then each player in turn order indicated whether or not they would like to purchase it, with the last player who wants it being able to do so for its printed cost, regardless of how many other players expressed interest.

This process repeats until all players have either purchased a card or passed; the lowest-ranked card offers a bonus of one food (equivalent to a one-food discount, really) to give straggling players an additional chance, but First Sparks is much more unforgiving to poor planning than its predecessor, as we will see in a bit. Players can only have three technologies, just like the original’s power plant restriction, but knowledges do not count against this total (and one even allows you to have a fourth tech); knowledges are restricted to one copy per player, although really only one would have any effect in multiples anyway (well… a second would, were it not unique in the deck). After purchasing cards, each player (without knowledge of fire) loses one-third of their remaining food stock (rounded down) due to rotting.

Next up is hunting and gathering, using your various technologies to collect food. This happens in reverse turn order, so whoever’s in last place gets first crack at the very limited supply of food; players in he lead can easily find themselves without much to hunt if they aren’t careful. As usual, the technologies become more efficient as the game progresses; this is humorously represented in the art, in an amusing touch. Hunting and gathering is hungry work, however; immediately after collecting food players have to feed their tribesmeeples one each; berries are worth two food, fish and bears three, and mammoths four.

If a player in unable to feed everyone, the “starved” meeples die and have to be removed (while keeping the tribe connected). Since the object of the game is to reach a tribe size of at least 13, this might be a problem. Making matters even worse? If you don’t have the food to feed your tribe, you also don’t have the food to expand it in the next phase, or to buy a new technology in the following round that will let you gather more food than you are now.

This can very easily result in becoming trapped in an evolutionary dead-end, forever stuck and effectively eliminated. It’s much easier for this to happen in First Sparks than in the original game, and the instructions even warn against letting this happen to you. Thankfully this trap can be avoided without much effort, but you still have to be paying attention to what you’re doing. The easiest way to fall into this trap is by over-extending in the next phase, expansion.

Expanding the tribe costs a triangular amount of food (one for one, three for two, and so on up to fifteen for five new meeples, the max for a round), further taxed by having to share spaces with other players; it costs an additional X food to share a space, where X is the order in which you arrived on the space. If you’re the second one there, it will cost you two more food, and three if third (the max a space can contain), although having knowledge of “speach” [sic] can reduce this. This adds up fast, and as mentioned being too greedy here is the fastest way to wind up dead.

On the other hand, raw numbers is the only victory condition (food is a tiebreaker); you don’t actually have to be able to feed your tribe in order to win, unlike Power Grid‘s “cities powered” win condition. It’s not unheard of for a player who is currently at eight tribesmeeples to surge into a massive, game-winning population burst, although this would be very expensive and thus probably all but impossible without fire and/or some other knowledge(s) helping out.

As I mentioned, First Sparks is a streamlined version of the original Power Grid, to the point where a game of First Sparks will rarely take much longer than an hour once everyone knows how the game works; initial games will probably be a little longer, but not much — and certainly nowhere near the two-hours-plus of the original. Distilling all resources down to just one and greatly reducing the amount of math involved in expansion goes a long way toward making the game experience less work and more fun, and removing the somewhat unintuitive win condition doesn’t hurt either. Where I started out optimistic towards Power Grid and quickly cooled to it over the course of about a month, First Sparks impressed me from my first play. This is exactly what I wanted, no, needed Power Grid to be, and now I have it.

Power Grid: The First Sparks retails for around $45.