Game Review: Fun, Intriguing “GigaWatt” Board Game

gigawatt board game boxThe era of coal and gas-burning power plants has passed and it’s time to help migrate the power grid to using green and clean power sources. The challenge is that you can’t just shut everything down because there’s an ever-increasing demand on the grid: People need electricity to light their houses, power their factories, charge those electric cars and keep everything in our modern world going. This leads to the dilemma at the heart of the terrific new board game GigaWatt: How can you transition your regional power grid from dirty to clean energy while meeting demand and maybe even making a profit?

GigaWatt, just wrapping up a very successful run on Kickstarter, is a 1-6 player engine building and worker placement game from designers Milo van Holsteijn and Wouter Vink. In addition to being passionate gamers, they’re both also engineers in the power industry, which helps bring a great sense of verisimilitude to the game. GigaWatt is tough; it’s all too easy to go bankrupt trying to meet the needs of your region!

I opted to play the solo variant to get a sense of the game and it’s quite similar to multi-player with the exception that every region other than your own becomes autonomous, either producing a surplus of power or a surfeit of energy and therefore able to trade with you so you achieve the desired neutral balance at the end of each round.

GIGAWATT SETUP AND BOARD COMPONENTS

Let’s start with the board and token layout:

gigawatt board game review - board and basic layout

You can see that it’s a board covering the European Union, broken into a half dozen regions: North Sea, Pyrenees, Central Europe, Baltic Sea, Adriatic Sea, and Carpathian. In addition, there are three peripheral regions: Russia, Middle East, and North Africa. Regions are connected by power lines, and by default one energy unit can be sent along a route for the purposes of trade. Upgrade them with better transmission wires and you can send up to 4 units at a time, a huge step towards being able to better balance supply and demand.

Each region also has 13 areas in which you can build power plants or energy storage facilities. Some have specific icons, which means a new facility on that location has to match. Others have more difficult construction terrain and cost an extra 1, 2, 3 or even 4 monetary units. The tiles represent different types of power plants or energy storage facilities (lower right). Green cubes are energy, red cubes are demand: Match them up 1:1 and they cancel out. Demand met. Phew.

Here are two types of GigaWatt power plants, wind turbines and hydroelectric:

gigawatt board game review - power plants facilities

The first value indicates the required phase – I, II, or III – and the second number with the tiny lightning bolt is the power generation capability of the plant. Notice on the hydro plants that phase I can produce 3 units each round, while phase II can produce 6. The wind turbines have two values depending on the weather. A full circle means it’s windy so they work at their optimal level, producing 4 ,8, or 12 units per round. If it’s too calm, however, the turbines don’t turn and the plants only produce at 50% of maximum, 2, 4, or 6 units. Finally, a few tokens have a tiny green, red, or green and red diamond with a teensy little number: Those can actually store excess energy (green) for a round or meet excess demand (red) for a round. This proves critical at any point the differential between energy supply and demand is high.

gigawatt board game review - track and tech cards

There’s a track around the outside allowing you to track both your capacity to produce power and your region’s demand. I admit, I don’t understand the icons (the hand with the lightning bolt is demand, the crane with the hook is capacity). Initially, production capacity and regional demand are the same, but that changes as the game proceeds. From my games, it seems like the trend is that supply outstrips demand early in the game, but then your region grows and soon enough you’ve got demand beyond your power generation capacity.

In the above, you can also see the Technology Cards. Generally, they are valuable and help you produce better, cleaner power, but in the deck are a half-dozen CO2 tax cards that force you to immediately pay a carbon offset tax or declare bankruptcy if you lack the funds. A slightly simpler game involves omitting these cards from gameplay, and that’s what I did for this particular playthru.

Building is critical to the game, and the cost of buildings goes up as the game proceeds. That’s triggered by demand and as you either gain production capacity or your region demands more energy, you move from phases I to II to III. The player reference card includes cost and capacity for each available building and facility, organized by phases. Here’s Phase I:

gigawatt board game review - player board

You can see that gas (smokestack with building) and coal (smokestack with flame) are cheap, but the goal of the game is to replace all of these, so building is at best a temporary solution. Nuclear (yellow) is expensive, 20 to produce 6 power each round, but in the long run, it can be a great investment. Green power costs 7 and produces 3, hydro (blue icon) costs 9 and produces 3 but offers storage for one green or red cube, and solar (the red icon) is locked at level I.

On the far right, transmission line upgrades cost four but let you forevermore send up to 4 cubes in either direction on each round. You cannot build energy storage facilities in level I.

SETTING UP FOR A SOLO GAME

Playing the solo game in GigaWatt means that you start out with more power capacity (4 coal plants and 1 gas plant) and higher demand:

gigawatt board game review - starting position north sea solo

Each adjacent region gets five green (production) cubes or five red (demand) cubes. Since solo play only allows you to transmit power a single hop, there’s no reason that I populated far distant regions like the Middle East and North Africa but… it looks cool, right? Any time a region is empty, you roll an external market die to determine whether it is assigned energy capacity or demand.

PLAYING GIGAWATT: SOLO VARIANT

A round consists of buying and replacing Technology Cards (and dealing with CO2 Tax cards if one is revealed), buying and building or upgrading facilities, rolling dice to determine additional energy demand for your region and ascertaining the weather consequences for your solar or wind plants, earning income from demand, trading and moving energy around to try and achieve production and demand equity, and a closing auction where you can buy the right to decommission a gas or coal plant. Remember, the goal of the game is to shut down all your gas and coal plants while still meeting the energy demand of your region!

After a splendid first round, I now have two wind turbines chugging along, giving me a maximum energy production capacity of 3 + 3 + 3 + 4 + 3 + 4 + 4 = 24:

gigawatt board game review - facilities

It’s looking good, I have a production capacity of 24 while my energy demand this round is only 18. That means I have a production surplus of 6. Here’s how this is represented on the track:

gigawatt board game review - track early in game

Notice there’s also a play order tracker on the board, something that is much more helpful with a multiplayer game: I basically ignored it while playing solo.

Further into the game, I’ve built an additional hydroelectric plant and have a power storage facility, along with upgraded transmission wires to all three adjacent regions (denoted by the light blue power poles straddling the relevant wires):

gigawatt board game review - mid-way

The challenge with how I’ve developed my production facilities is that they’re quite reliant on weather. How reliant? A few turns further I found it, in the worst of ways. A period of low wind means that my two wind turbines produce half their usual power, producing a production deficit of 8 units.

But with demand growing quite rapidly (by Phase III you roll all three dice to calculate additional demand each round) I’ve ended up with a total energy deficit of 15. Ouch:

gigawatt board game review - demand outstrips production

Ingeniously, the production token can split into two pieces to help you remember max production when your actual production falls short. The difference between 52 and 46 isn’t too bad – we can buy some excess power from adjoining regions, but having a bad weather period is just painful. In fact, this round I could only produce 38 energy against a demand of 52.

Once I add all those red energy deficit cubes, here’s how things look:

gigawatt board game review - end game 1

I have managed to close down one of my gas plants, replacing it with solar, and have an excess energy storage facility, but haven’t been able to produce a surplus, so it’s empty. This means that I have to figure out how to fulfill far more energy demand than I can produce. Remember, even if a remote region has surplus energy, I can only transfer a max of 4 units per area. I can store some, but it leaves me with 6 energy demand I can’t fulfill. No rolling brownouts, I have to pay 3 per remaining unfulfilled demand unit, meaning that I owe 18. Sadly, I do not have that much cash remaining, which means that I lost this particular game after declaring bankruptcy.

The lesson, which seems torn from the headlines, is not to rely on weather-related energy production facilities if you don’t have excess energy already stored for that proverbial rainy day. Next time instead of focusing on matching and removing surplus energy earlier in the game, I will seek to store it against the later phases when demand seems like it inevitably outstrips production capacity.

THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS

I really enjoyed GigaWatt quite a bit and am eager to set it up and play through another game as I learn to anticipate future changes in energy production and demand. Solo mode does feel a bit like a work in progress, however, and I would like to see a way to transfer power cubes from further than a single hop away. It might also be interesting to have some energy storage from the beginning and the weather die might be more appropriately rolled per facility rather than once to apply to every matching production plant in your region. To refill an empty external region, I’d also like to have two dice, one indicating quantity and the other denoting whether it’s surplus or demand cubes. This could let those regions flip flop between green and red faster, adding an interesting layer to the game. Finally, I suspect that the North Sea might not have been the best starting point for a solo game.

The visual design is simple and straightforward. Since I was playing with a prototype, some of the components and design will change in the final post-Kickstarter game but this is a keeper, whether you want to play it solo or shanghai a couple of other budding regional power managers to compete on replacing all those stinky gas and coal plants with greener alternatives. Recommended.

GigaWatt: A Power Play For the Future, 1-6 players. $59 standard edition, $79 deluxe edition. Late Kickstarter Orders: Click Here.

Disclaimer: designers Milo van Holsteijn and Wouter Vink sent me a copy of the game for the purpose of this review. Thanks, guys!

dave taylor vertigo film swirl backgroundPlanet Dave is run by Dave Taylor, who has been writing about film, cars, games, and his lifestyle for many years. He's based in Boulder, Colorado and assures readers he's only occasionally falling into a gravity well or temporal distortion field.

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