Power Grid: A Lesson in Teaching a Board Game

funkenschlag-power_grid_28339321674629A friend of mine, Kai, for the last month has been consistently asking, “when are you going to play Power Grid?” Little did he know that I’ve had a bit of trauma with this game and I was a little hesitant each time he said that he wanted to play Power Grid for a games night. 

To give you a bit of context, the first time I was introduced to Power Grid was less than a decade ago. I was in another friend’s basement and he was teaching me Power Grid. At the time, I was just starting to learn more about the board game hobby, and I figured that Power Grid would be a great Euro game to add to the collection. You hear from a bunch of people that this was a good game to get and so taking a test run wouldn’t hurt…right?

That night, I had bit my tongue to prevent myself from saying something that I would regret. I know that my friend had good intentions to teach me this board game, but I was just so confused about what was going on. Many times with fairly complex board games like Power Grid, they are taught by just getting your hands dirty, and by learning the mechanics while doing. However, that night, I couldn’t pin point why I hated this game so much. Essentially I gave up on this game, even though I still continued to hear great things about it. 

So a few nights ago, despite my hesitation, I decided to give Power Grid one more go. From previous games, I know that Kai is a very good rules teacher, and is definitely patient with new players. He quickly goes through the main actions, and then we start getting into the thicket of the game. That night, I had so much fun playing Power Grid. I was trying to methodically figure out my finances so I could have enough to purchase resources, power plants, and connection fees. I understood the strategies quickly to block certain opponents from getting territories. And I quickly learned that timing was crucial when it came to buying or building. At the end of the game, even though I ended up with a fourth place rank, I wanted to play the game more just so I can adjust my strategy and play better. 

Due to my friend’s explanations on Power Grid, I nearly missed out on playing a really good game, but Kai put me back on track. So I couldn’t figure it out. Why was it that when my one friend taught the game, I felt anxious, tense and angry, but when Kai taught the game, I felt confident and highly capable to play this game?

And then it hit me. When my friend taught me the game, the one thing he was doing was telling me strategies over rules. As I was stumbling throughout my first go at the game, my friend would come in and say  things like “You should buy this power plant”, or “you gotta buy these pieces of coal” or “I recommend placing your power grid here”. And it frustrated me because I had no idea why I had to perform these actions. By the time I had some grasp of what was going on, the game was already half over, and I was significantly behind. Not surprisingly, my friend was so far ahead that trying was kind of pointless, and taking the beating would be more of a signal to me that we can finally stop playing this monstrosity and try something new. 

When Kai taught this game, he went through each action first. He said “let’s go through the auction phase first”. We would go through it. He explained that more expensive power plants are more efficient in using their resources, so I developed a strategy on my own based on that tidbit of information. He said “now let’s buy resources” and points out that the prices of the items change as players buy the resources. I now had to adjust my strategy so I could buy the cheapest resources. Finally Kai explained how to buy houses on the board, and it made more sense now why I had to place a house on the east coast (although I was blocked off significantly since everybody else wanted to build there). 

My friend taught me stategies, and I had no explanations why I had to perform those actions. He gave me hese recommendations because they would help me in the long run. Kai taught me the rules and he knew that I would struggle at first, but I would be able to figure out why certain strategies would work for me. . And with a board game, it’s that initial struggle of trying to understand what symbols mean, what actions you can take, and what things you can buy that makes you understand a board game better. 

Think about it. Most people who have read this blog have probably at some point or another have played Settlers of Catan (or any Euro Game for that matter). Remember when you first learned the game. Either you were the person that was responsible for reading the thick manual and then relaying it to the rest of the group, or you were the student who was going to learn from the manual reader or from the expert who learned before.  If you were that student, you will notice that it was much more effective to learn the game when they were telling you what the numbers on the chits are, what the dice rolls mean, and how to get the resources as opposed to being told “this is where you’re supposed to build because the probability of getting a resource here is greater”. You essentially start focusing on the two red areas and not focus on the other numbers, or what resources you actually need to build important structures, which will lead to your downfall if you can’t adapt quickly. 

So how do you teach a board game so all players have the satisfaction in understanding and playing the game? I go back to a piece of advice I got when was still in University working on my education degree. There is a difference between teachers and professors and experts. Experts know every aspect of a subject and are able to say any information regarding that subject, but when it comes to teaching the subject, they may not necessarily slow down and take the time to go over important information, which frustrates the student. Teachers may not be experts in their own subject area,  but they have the patience to slow down and take time to go over information to ensure that their students get it before they move on so that both student and teacher learn together. It’s about building the foundations of a game and letting players experiment, struggle with, and test out strategies that would work for them. 

If you are a person who knows a board game thoroughly and come face to face with a new player who has no idea what they’re doing, there is no rush to bring this guy up to speed buy giving him or her a vast amount of information which includes strategies. It is important that players understand the mechanics of the game first even if it means slowing down. Heck, when a group of  Players will eventually get their own strategies and they may come up with ones that are more superior than the ones that their teacher had come up with. 

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