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Power Grid: Factory Manager

Reviewed by Joe Huber

(Rio Grande Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 60 minutes; $44.95)

 

powergridfactmanFriedemann Friese first gained attention with his game Wucherer, later re-released as Landlord, which first appeared at Essen in 1992. While his other release from that Essen – Dimension – was doomed to obscurity, Wucherer sold well enough to catch the attention of Abacus and to allow Friedemann to continue to publish his own designs under the label of 2F Spiele. By 2002, he graduated to professional production with Fische Fluppen Frikadellen. Soon after, Funkenschlag was re-designed as Power Grid (featured in the Fall 2004 GA REPORT), rising to become the third ranked game on BoardGameGeek. It’s not surprising, therefore, that he has decided to attempt to extend the Power Grid brand with the release of Power Grid: Factory Manager.

However, Factory Manager isn’t simply a redesign of Power Grid but is, in fact, a totally new design. Oddly, this has drawn a lot of negative comments; apparently, when a brand name is used, many gamers would rather play more variants than playing something really new. Since Power Grid has been well supported with variants and add-ons, I would think it of far more interest to have the opportunity to play a game that feels new, if thematically related. As someone who is rarely fond of expansions, I was thrilled to see something fresh from Friedemann.

So, given that Factory Manager isn’t about supplying electricity to various cities, what is the objective? Well, in Factory Manager players are using the electric power to produce nondescript goods. Unlike Power Grid, victory is purely determined by cash at the end of the game. The game is played over five rounds, with each round consisting of five phases. The first phase is the player order auction – but bidding is performed using workers, rather than money. There are as many turn order tiles available as players in the game, each offering discounts for the purchase phase varying from $0 to $4. Once each player has a turn order tile, the second phase begins, and players prepare the market. There are six types of factory components in the game: machines, production robots, working robots, storage, control, and optimization. These tiles are each in a column, where the best – and most expensive – tiles are at the top of each column. Players must pull as many tiles from the BOTTOM of one or more columns as they have available workers. In games with more than two players, the final player has the option of pulling additional tiles. Only the tiles which have been pulled down will be available for sale that turn.

The third phase is the meat of the game: purchasing. In turn order, players use their workers to purchase tiles from the available pool and tear out old and outdated equipment. The last action players may take in this phase is to hire seasonal workers, who become available through the end of the purchase phase in the next turn. The purchase phase is followed by a bureaucracy phase. First, any tiles not sold are returned to their positions on the component board. Then each player determines her current energy consumption, production, storage, and worker usage. Players may turn off machines and robots to lower energy use and make more workers available, but must have at least as many machines in operation as robots. Finally, the energy price is adjusted. Each turn ends with the income phase, where each player’s income is determined by the lower of her production and storage minus her energy costs. In the fifth and final turn, this amount is doubled.

I had the opportunity to play Factory Manager as a prototype, and it immediately moved onto my must-buy list. The reason was simple – I’m a fan of good economic games, and it was clear to me that Factory Manager not only qualified, but qualified with a play time well under an hour, once players were experienced. Players have a significant degree of control over each phase of the game; if you feel that worker robots are the key to the game, you can invest there; if you feel that optimization is the critical ability, you can invest there. If you can’t get the items you want because you’re late in the turn order, you’re compensated by a larger discount. And the game plays well with two, three, four, or five players – though Friedemann’s advice to gain experience with the game before playing with five is reasonable.

powergridfact2The heart of the game – the idea that makes the game stand out – is the preparation of the market. Here, going first is a significant disadvantage – the really interesting components are almost never easily within reach, so the player going first has to rely on her opponents to bring out the good choices. But the other player will often be in a position to bring out components that only they can afford, due to their discounts. By the middle of the game players can usually afford any component – but never all of the components they desire. This in turn makes for interesting and tough choices in the third phase. However, one of the key dimensions of the game is the variable cost of energy, and the rules recommend using a “no adjustment” energy cost tile first when playing with inexperienced players. I would only use this recommendation when the majority of players are playing for the first time, as it takes away many of the interesting decisions; there’s really little incentive to worry about energy costs early in such games, and no chance that energy costs will reach the painful maximum of $8.

The keys to the game are production and energy use. Storage is necessary, but is best solved once; it’s sometimes worth picking up a small storage unit early to boost production, but after that I’ve seen it most effective to grab all the remaining storage needed for the planned maximum production at once. So, how does one maximize production? Start from the theoretical maximum – 20. That requires three 3-production machines, three 3-production robots, and a 2-production optimization unit. I’ve never seen a production of 20 be necessary to win; usually the winner of the game has production of 13-15 for the final turn. Since up to eight workers – including seasonal workers – can be used the final turn, there’s usually no need to keep a worker robot in use. With six slots at two production each – and two production from optimization – a player can reach 14 production. But it’s MUCH easier to reach the required level with two three production machines or robots. This probably requires going first, or perhaps second, on the third or fourth turn, and then pushing that column.

The way to be efficient with energy is simple – either buy an inexpensive control tile early, and enjoy the savings over the course of the game, or buy a large energy unit late. While players can’t reduce their energy usage below one, if buying a control unit before the final turn it’s often better to buy a better unit than needed to keep the last turn energy usage – when it’s most expensive – as low as possible.

One critical element is having enough workers each turn. Seasonal workers aren’t a bad choice, but they’re fairly expensive; sometimes it’s cheaper to cut production (the initial machines are particularly inefficient). And an EARLY worker robot can be invaluable. But after the second turn, worker robots are usually not worth taking. The corollary to this is that when required to pull tiles, but faced with no good choices, worker robots are a good way to waste picks from the third round on.

I’ve found that when going late in the turn order, the best choice is usually to pull out as many of the type of component I want as possible – even when pulling ones I can’t afford. Players going earlier may be able to afford the better components, leaving the one I’m trying to get available. And by concentrating on a single type, it’s rarely the case that everyone purchasing earlier will try for the same type.

Factory Manager is my favorite 2009 release. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much, as I didn’t find 2009 a particularly good year for new games. And there have been a lot of legitimate complaints I’ve seen lobbed at Factory Manager, which any potential buyer should be aware of.

The first complaint is that the game leads to runaway leaders. This one is the easiest to deal with – it certainly can happen. Coming from behind is hard; if you manage to fall behind across all dimensions (production, storage, energy use, workers, and money), you’re not going to catch up unless the leader makes mistakes. But I have seen players come from behind on some of these factors; in particular, a player who’s behind in production, storage, and money, but has lots of workers and is very energy efficient can often go late in the turn order (so as to survive with less cash), pull out a lot of tiles, and build back up. Often the best option here is to steer the choices towards only production or storage, so that the leader can’t increase her balanced factory in the meanwhile. The next key complaint is that the game is subject to analysis paralysis. Unfortunately, this is true, and there’s not a lot to be done about it. Players can use a lot of time in the third phase, and it’s hard to argue with. The choices are rarely easy, and there’s limited planning that can be accomplished, particularly when playing with four or five. Probably the biggest complaint I’ve seen, though, is that the game is dry. The game is all about increasing production and increasing efficiency, and if that isn’t of interest this game will not be one you’ll enjoy.

Factory Manager is readily available and reasonably priced. The production is very functional, but not fancy. The artwork is notable for its 60s style – the cover would fit a 3M Bookshelf game – and has drawn mild criticism from those not fond of the style. The primary theme of “business game” comes through but, much as with a 3M game, everything else has been abstracted. Here, though, the abstraction is to a level that makes for a game easily played in 45 minutes. I would recommend the game to any fan of economic games, particularly those looking for a shorter option to go with some of the longer classics in the genre.

 


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