When Powering Up Is Also a Reboot

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History, science, and technology have a magnetic pull for me, which makes me a natural customer of Dirk Knemeyer‘s publishing company Artana Games. I couldn’t resist last year’s Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents, and was quick to pick up its new expansion, Powering Up. So was this trip to the past worth my time?

It’s not as simple a question as you might think. Most expansions start from the premise of “you liked the game we made; here’s more!” Powering Up had a harder row to hoe.

The original Tesla vs. Edison is a smart, evocative game full of period detail. The board’s colors, fonts, and label names evoke late 19th century America. The cards depict the heroes, scoundrels, and events of the age, with plenty of historical tidbits to read along the way.  Based on the components, the game is all about advancing your technology, boosting your game, building networks of electricity and pushing your stock price to dizzying heights.

The trouble was, the game didn’t quite live up to that promise. You could do all four of these things and make a pretty profit, but manipulating the stock fed directly into the win condition. You could spend almost all your time in the stock market and overwhelm unwary or inexperienced opponents. Industrial production took a back seat to arbitrage, which — as our own Gilded Age has demonstrated — is realistic but not much fun.

Stock manipulation didn’t quite break the game, but it made enjoying a level playing field difficult. I spend a lot of time teaching new games to other player. Tesla vs. Edison made it hard to sidestep a winning strategy, and the importance of the stock market was never clear to new players who wanted build networks and fight over fame. This quirk made teaching the game harder.

The plethora of technology and justly infamous stock market

Powering Up Through the Problem

Many players complained about the stock market, and Artana Games had to address it. They did so by a careful rejiggering of the core loop. Most of the game remained the same: players hired characters, then tapped them to take actions. However, the popular action of visiting the stock market to buy and sell was limited by moving it to the end of the turn. This both highlighted and limited the action.

Without the stock action in the regular workflow, players would have too many actions relative to the other parts of the game. Knemeyer soaked up the extra actions by adding a headquarters that you could upgrade for victory points and special powers. This also helped differentiate the factions, letting players decide when they would enhance their strengths or counter their weaknesses.

Less stock market action also meant the stock market was less volatile and less useful as a sink for cash. This problem was balanced by introducing event cards. Each card shifts the stock market a little, and many of them require players to win an auction to benefit from the card.

This little cluster of independent systems makes an elegant solution to the stock market problem. Even with a modified victory point system, owning stock is still a critical part of the game, but most of market manipulations are now indirect. Players don’t feel they’re missing out on victory by focusing on the theme of the game.

Better is Great, But More Is Good Too

Powering Up also adds the more traditional “more” to the game. The biggest addition is a sixth player position represented by Madam C. J. Walker, believed to be the first female self-made millionaire in America. The cosmetics magnate had no direct involvement in the War Of Currents, but that didn’t stop my elder daughter from grabbing her and building her team with every female luminary character she could get.

Simple card-driven AI opponents let you add seats to the table or play solo games, and there are a bunch of new luminaries and propaganda cards. There’s even a sub-series of propaganda cards that gave me the opportunity to tell Elder Daughter all about obscure 19th century presidents. Words can not express how thrilled she was by that addition.

The new goodies are just icing on the cake, though. What makes Powering Up special is how deftly it lifts one system out of the game and replaces it with something better. By making the game more playable an accessible, it’s taken an okay-to-good game and made it kind of great.

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Copyright 2016 The Roaming Designer

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