Power Grid: The First Sparks

Friedemann Friese
2 - 6
12 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

Our review copy of Funkenschlag: Die Ersten Funken (the German edition) was kindly supplied by 2F Spiele. Thanks a lot!

Ten years ago, the first version of Friedemann Friese’s Funkenschlag was published in Germany. Most people don’t remember that edition of the game where you still drew your power lines on the board; I only know it by reputation myself. Three years later a new edition was published under the same name. Gone were the crayons and the washable board, replaced by a map with fixed power lines for players to fight over. This edition was translated to English as Power Grid. The rest, as they say, is history. Power Grid is one of the most popular strategy games still, currently holding a fifth place on Board Game Geek’s boardgame ranking. A whole bunch of expansions are now available, most of them containing additional maps to play on, from Brazil to Korea, and each map with different conditions to adapt to beyond geography. Despite all that, the first edition was published in 2001, making last year the 10th anniversary of Power Grid. To celebrate, designer Friese wanted to create a new entry in the series, something that was more than an expansion or a remake. And here we are with Power Grid: The First Sparks.

[pullshow/]The First Sparks‘ setting might not seem like an obvious choice in English: the stone age. In German the connection is more clear: Funkenschlag can be translated as “flying sparks”, and the first sparks that really mattered were our distant ancestors discovering how to make fire. Despite this radical change of setting, Power Grid veterans will find almost everything in The First Sparks familiar, the game mechanics survived the change of setting very well. But The First Sparks is more than a new skin on an old game; it creates something new and exciting from the same elements.

Evolution of the Spear
Evolution of the Spear

Lets start with a clear difference to Power Grid: there is no static game board. Before the game starts, each player places one tile of the gaming area, creating very different setups every time you play. Each tile consists of two hexagonal hunting areas where your clansmeeple will be able to hunt berries, fish, mammoths  or pigbears. We couldn’t agree whether the tokens for game – the food, not the hobby – are supposed to look like pigs or bears, so our [pullthis]neandermeeple eat pigbears[/pullthis]. When the geography is set, the lava flows have stopped, some vegetation has grown, it’s time for our meeplolithic clans to move in. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this review is a treasure trove of meeple-based neologisms – meeplogisms, if you will – and I’m going to shamelessly abuse it to get ahead of my quota this year.)  These meeple are adept hunters and gatherers. They even carry a spear. They are meeple with a spear – that’s a bonus point right there.

Once our tribe has moved in, the game begins, and now everyone who played Power Grid will feel at home, because first in each round we’re buying technology. Well, as much technology as there is at the time, so we’re talking about bows, spears, fishing rods and baskets to gather berries. All these tools are used for hunting in the various hunting grounds. Besides those there are fields to grow grains, bringing you some food without the need to be in an appropriate area to hunt, and some rare technology cards. Those, elusive as they are, have a big impact on your strategy when you can get them – I’ll mention them where appropriate.

The Clans
The Clans

Eight cards are visible in the technology market, but only the four with the lower numbers are available. The first player choses one of them to buy, but before he can take it home all the other players get a chance to buy it first – so if the last player wants the card, he’s the one who will have it. A new card is then added to the market in the right place and the first player – or, if he actually got the card, the next player that has not bought a card this round yet  – choses the next card to sell, until every player has one. As you can see, being the first player is not all that desirable in The First Sparks. Now that is something very familiar from Power Grid, a game that someone once described to me as “the art of being in last place until you win.” And it will get worse for the unfortunate caveman in first place, just you wait. At least here, to compensate for someone snatching his technology away, he has the chance that a better piece of Silicon Valley grade high tech will become available for him to pick. What makes one spear better than the other, anyway? The ability to collect more food with it. And since you can only hold three tool / field cards at a time – four with a transport sled – you can’t succeed simply having enough bad tech, you need to upgrade. All the technologies have a fixed price now, replacing the original Power Grid‘s power plant auctions with this faster process.


Before you proceed to the next phase, there is still the most unpleasant part of the game to remember. And do try to remember, it’s easily forgotten: discard rotten food. Unless you know the secret of Fire, one third of your food just rots away. Dealing with fuel for the power plants was so much easier. But fear not for your survival, little neanderthal, because right after it’s time to go hunting and gathering. Fields simply give you a fixed amount of food, tools are a bit more interesting. Each tool has different thresholds of how much of the matching kind of food needs to be available for you to hunt a certain amount of it. This is easiest explained with an example: a beginning bow might enable you to hunt one pigbear as long as there are any in the supply, but two pigbears if the supply has seven or more. An end-game level spear with GPS tracking and laser sight will still give you one pigbear at least, but gives you two already when the supply has four of them, and with more than six in the supply you get three. That’s progress! But if the supply for each type of food is limited, and you can hunt more the more the supply still contains, doesn’t this make player order very important again? Yes, yes it does, little neanderthal. And of course the hunting starts with the last player in player order, because that messes most with the first player. When everyone has fishing rods, the first player shouldn’t rely on catching anything. And this time, there is nothing he can do about it except not being first player any more.

How would one go about that? Easy: don’t grow your clan in the next phase. After hunting and gathering, you feed your clan – one unit of food per clan member, where grains count as one unit, fish and pigbears as three and mammoths even as four – and then get a chance to get new cavemeeple on the board. You can grow your clan by up to five members a round – there was not much to do in the evening back then without a TV – but the more you grow at once, the more food it costs you. Also, you can only have one neandermeeple in each area of the board, and to enter a new area that is already inhabited costs additional food – slightly less if you know Language. After every clan spread out – or not – the largest clan is now set to go first, the smallest last. In a tie, the more advanced technology goes first. Growing your clan is also done in reverse order, so the current first player decides last how many hunters to send out into the world – the only thing the first player has full control over is becoming a not-first player. That tells you something about priorities in this game.

Cave Paintings
Cave Paintings

Unfortunately, the size of the clan not only decides over who goes first but also over who wins – obviously not the player with the smallest clan. When one player grew his clan to thirteen members or more, the game ends after this round, the winner being the player with the largest clan. Having your thirteen members first is not enough, someone else might still outgrow you or have more food left at the end, which is the tie breaker. And so the trick is not just to have a big clan, a lot depends on the right timing. Find the perfect time to abandon the last place and win. “The art of being in last place until you win” might be the best description you will find for The First Sparks as well.

But although this basic piece of wisdom remains the same, and although the mechanics for buying technology, gathering resources and determining player order are almost unchanged from Power Grid, the resulting game is very different. For one thing, The First Sparks plays more quickly, it rarely goes on for longer than an hour – an achievement we only managed in Power Grid between two determined players. Speaking of achievements: an ultimately pointless but very fun idea in The First Sparks is the inclusion of achievements as you might know them from most newer computer games – only manually. On a double sided sheet of paper, you can record who was the first winner in each colour or in each year, but also more interesting things like who managed to win with four knowledge cards in their possession – no one yet in our group – or who ends a game tied for victory in clan size and left over food – Sizi, Niko and me actually managed a three-way tie, so yay us. As I said, the idea is ultimately pointless but I enjoy it.

The most important queue you'll ever be in
The most important queue you'll ever be in

The First Sparks is also lighter than Power Grid. It’s still a game that requires a good deal of strategy, but there are less long breaks while someone tries to do the math of what would be his optimal turn. And besides all that, The First Sparks is nicer to look at than Power Grid – of course, the Stone Age does give the artist more chances to shine than the exciting world of modern electricity, but having multiple illustrations for the different levels of tools goes beyond what is required and beyond what most games do. And then of course there is the spear-wielding cavemeeple.

Would I recommend The First Sparks if you never tried Power Grid? Wholeheartedly, it’s a very good game. How about if you have a Power Grid already? As well, it’s different enough that you won’t feel cheated, and when you don’t feel up to a long game with deep strategy it’s a great alternative. And if you tried Power Grid but didn’t like it? It depends – if you didn’t like the mechanics of Power Grid, then The First Sparks won’t do much for you, either. But if the old game was just to mathy for you, then this one is just what you were looking for.

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