Power Grid: First Sparks Review

Power Grid: The First Sparks board game in play

A game that I heard very good things about (as well as being named after a game that I love) is Power Grid: First Sparks.

First Sparks is the Stone Age themed prequel to Power Grid, and was printed for the 10 year anniversary of the original game.  In First Sparks, each round consists of four phases: buying new technologies & tools, going hunting and feeding the clan, spreading the clan, and upkeep (changing turn order, refill resources, etc).  (If you are familiar with the original Power Grid, then much of this may sound familiar to you.)  At the end of a round in which one player has at least thirteen members of his clan, the game will end, and the player with the largest overall clan will be the winner!

Ok - if all you're interested in is what is different between this game and Power Grid, then this paragraph is for you.  First off, First Sparks is shorter.  The main reason for that is that purchases are no longer based on auctioning.  Instead, each card has a fixed price.  Whoever is the first player will select a card that he would like to purchase.  However, before he gets the opportunity, all other players (in reverse order) get the opportunity to purchase the card first (with each player only getting to buy one card per turn).  The next change is that your cards generate a variable amount of food (which is like power and money all rolled into one).  Instead of each tool (power plant) generating a set amount of power, each card collects a certain amount of food based on how much is available on the board.  So, better cards collect additional food even when the board does not have much stockpiled, whereas cheaper cards do not collect extra food unless there is a major surplus on the board.  Third, in First Sparks, meeples are essentially cities.  They are the end of game trigger, and also how you win.  Instead of powering them, you have to "feed" them, by spending one food per meeple every turn.  Also, you need to place your meeples adjacent to any type of food that you intend to collect.  The final thing that comes to mind is that there are only two "phases" of the market, and you can place meeples adjacent to other players' meeples at any point during the game.  So, overall, it is very similar but is a bit simplified/streamlined.

Power Grid: First Sparks meeples on the board
Spreading the clan!
Now that I've appeased people that were wondering whether this game is actually like the original Power Grid, we can move on to the pros and cons.  My first pro for Power Grid: First Sparks is that I like the decisions that you are forced to make about when to keep tools versus when to upgrade them.  Each player can only have three tools, and so at some point during the game you will want to upgrade them so that you can collect additional food.  However, it is not an obvious choice of whether you should upgrade every round, or if you should wait and hope for better tools.  Sometimes a tool will give you only a minor upgrade, and you have to decide if it is worth gaining a minor long term benefit at the cost of having additional food right now.  Additionally, a third of your food rots at the end of the first phase of the round, so sometimes it will be beneficial to go ahead and upgrade a tool that only gives you a minor improvement in order to not waste any of your hard-earned food.

The second pro that I have for Power Grid: First Sparks is that I like that the game has both tools and technology cards.  I also like that you are limited on your tools, but you are not limited on your technology.  This is important because you would never purchase technologies if you had an overall limit of three cards at a time.  Yet, since technology does not count against your limit, it makes for interesting decisions about whether it is more valuable to upgrade your tools or if it is better to purchase a technology (which will give you long term benefits, but probably much smaller immediate returns).

First Sparks game technology cards
Different technologies to choose from
The final pro that I will mention for Power Grid: First Sparks is that I like that the value of your tools changes based on what tools are owned by other players.  Specifically, your tools collect a certain number of resources based on how many of those resources are available.  (For example, one of the fishing rods collects one fish (worth three food) if there are 1-5 fish available on the board, but collects two fish if there are at least six fish on the board.)  So, even though a certain tool may the the "best" tool currently available, it might not actually be the best right now - if everyone is hunting mammoths, then you might be better off taking from the plenitude of fish rather than hunting the scarce mammoth population.  But, if everyone changes over to fishing, then the mammoths might become a better choice again!

Now that I've covered some of the most significant pros for Power Grid: First Sparks, let's cover the cons.  First, I found that, though the game is a streamlined version of Power Grid, there can still be a tendency for the game to stall due to player decision making.  (Yes, I am fully aware that this is highly dependent on what players participate in your games.)  The specific thing I have noticed in First Sparks is that the decision of whether a tool is "worth it" is less straightforward in First Sparks.  In Power Grid, it was really easy to compare power plants - how much does each one generate, and roughly how much will it cost to power.  However, in First Sparks, since each tool collects additional resources at different times, it takes longer to "see" what will happen.  For example, if I am trying to determine whether a tool that collects two mammoths when there are four or more on the table is worth purchasing to replace a tool that only collects a second mammoth when there are at least eight on the table, I need to see how many mammoths will be on the board when it is my turn to collect.  And, to do this you must essentially play out everyone else's turn in your head - one collects an extra if there are six mammoths, another if there are seven, etc - and so you have to calculate the entire collection process to see which of those bonuses will collect extra and which will not, thus allowing you to know how many mammoths will be on the board when you finally get to hunt.

Meeple from Power Grid First Sparks
Do you see a baboon here, too?
My second con for the game is that it is not very obvious how much "money" you have.  Each food resource you have is worth a certain amount of food - wheat is worth one or three (depending on the color), berries are worth two, fish and bears are worth three, and mammoths are worth four.  As you play the game more, you will remember these numbers easily enough (except for maybe the wheat).  However, that still doesn't mean that you can immediately glance at your pile of three berries, two fish, and two mammoths and know how much food you have (20), and if, after feeding your clan, if it will be enough to spread to all of the different locations that you want.

My final con for First Sparks is that there are several instances of minor nuisances in the game and rules.  For example, there is a card called "Speach" (which my spell check is actively trying to get me to change).  Another example is that one of the captions talks about a hunting area with "beeries."  Additionally, some of the phases of the game aren't terribly clear the first time that you read through them in the rulebook.  Even with familiarity of the original game of Power Grid, there were a few sections of the rules that I had to read multiple times before understanding.

Overall, I give Power Grid: First Sparks a 7.5/10.  Overall, it is a good game, but I prefer the original game of Power Grid, and I'm not sure when I would choose to play this version instead.

If Power Grid: First Sparks sounds interesting, you might also check out Kingdom of Solomon, Yspahan, and Zong Shi.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, I was curious how this one compared to the original.