Funkenschlag at Fifteen: The Story of Power Grid

Game History by Chris Wray

 

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of Funkenschlag, the first forerunner of Power Grid.  In a hobby that is often defined by the “cult of the new,” Power Grid (which is still called Funkenschlag in Germany) is a perennial favorite among gamers.  It has long been in the BGG top 20, a rare accomplishment among older games, rising as high as #2 for several months in 2007-2008.  Power Grid has nearly 100,000 logged plays on BGG, has sold tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of copies in more than a dozen languages, and has been in-print continuously for more than a decade.  To honor the anniversary of this great game, I interviewed designer Friedemann Friese.  What follows is our retrospective on the story and impact of Funkenschlag and Power Grid.

Friedemann Friese Founds 2F-Spiele

In 1992, Friedemann Friese, then in his early 20s, founded a game company called “Spiel-Bau-Stelle, Bremen” to publish his game Wucherer (or “Landlord”).  He had gotten the idea to start publishing games a year earlier: “I went to Essen first time in 1991 and saw several small companies just with one table showing handmade games. I thought: If they can do it, I can do it, too. I had already designed several games for friends of mine, sometimes as birthday presents.”

He booked a booth for Essen 1992, managing to snag a booth even after registration had ended.  “In these days it was very cheap to get a small booth in Essen,” he recalled.  He formed his company and sold three games that first year, with Wucherer being the one that garnered the most interest.

In 1994, he renamed the company to 2F-Spiele, because there was another company with a name similar to Spiel-Bau-Stelle.  He also started branding his games by starting them with the letter “F” and using his signature green graphic design.  He published a few games over the next several years, such as Falsche FuFFziger (1994), Foppen (1995), FrischFisch (1997), Friesematenten (1998), Frischfleisch (1999), and Flickwerk (2000).  

Friedemann Friese and 2-F Spiele Publish Funkenschlag

Friedemann had long been a fan of crayoning games like Dampfross and Empire Builder.  That inspired Funkenschlag: “One day I had the idea to make a crayon game, but not drawing railways, just another network.  The first idea was power lines and almost immediately, everything needed came in my mind: power plants, resources, resource market, cities, rivers, mountains on a map, money to earn.”  

Once he had the idea, the mechanics started coming naturally.  The costs to build the network were inspired by Empire Builder, and the resource market came from classic games like McMulti and Playboss.  He wanted turn order to be an important part of the game, seeking to do it so that “the leading player gets the biggest disadvantage.”  He wanted limited space for the power plants, similar to what he had done in Friesematenten.

Minor tweaks were made as the game went through development, but as Friedemann said, “In the beginning almost everything was there.”  Early playtesting focused on the numbers and other values of the power plants, the game end condition, the resource replenishing rates, the map size, and number of cities per region.  He also made it so that only powered cities counted in the end.  

Funkenschlag was first sold at Essen 2001 in a limited edition of 1,600 games.  It was immediately a critical success, garnering a nomination for the International Gamers Awards.  The game remains well regarded today, and it is still highly-rated on BGG.  

Funkenschlag Becomes Power Grid

With Funkenschlag sold out, several gamers were asking for a reprint, but Friedemann wasn’t very interested.  Then publishers joined in: Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games asked about doing a new version, and so did another another German company.  But there was a catch: the developer wanted this game without crayoning.  Friedemann said he was “shocked” (pun possibly intended): “Crayoning was the reason to design the game, but I already had designed some games and already knew that sometimes the last step in developing a game is to trash the source of inspiration from the game.  Strange, but true.”

So Friedemann set out to make a new version of Funkenschlag.  The new version was still called Funkenschlag on the German market, but the Rio Grande edition was called Power Grid.  The game was shorter, and the crayoning mechanic was gone.  Friedemann ultimately turned down the other German company that was interested: they had wanted to switch the theme to a medieval one, and they had a two-year delay on publishing.  He instead published the game himself through 2F-Spiele.  

The new version was a success, which came as a pleasant surprise to Friedemann.  He said both he and Jay Tummelson were “really surprised” by the game’s success.  “Jay did not start with a big print run,” he continued.  “It was a slow burner, but after 3 years it was big and Jay and me are still surprised at what happened.”

The game earned wide acclaim, getting even more critical praise than its predecessor.  Power Grid earned a recommendation from the Spiel des Jahres jury, a nomination for the International Gamers Awards, a Meeple’s Choice Award, and several other honors.  For several months in 2007-2008, it rose as high as #2 in the BGG rankings.  The only award it missed out on was the Deutscher Spiele Preis (DSP), which Friedemann attributes to the mistake of publishing the game in late summer after the awards cutoff.  Power Grid stands as one of the most revered games of all time to not receive DSP honors.  

The game went on to be printed in more than a dozen languages, and it has been in-print continuously for more than a decade.  It is still popular today.  

The Legacy and Future of Power Grid

Power Grid spawned numerous expansion maps, both by fans and by Friedemann himself.  A few of the more popular maps include (in alphabetical order): Australia, Baden-Württemberg, Benelux, Central Europe, China, France, Indian Subcontinent, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Québec, Russia, Spain/Portugal, and United Kingdom/Northern Europe.  Many of these new maps had releases corresponding with new language editions and new regional publishers.  

I asked Friedemann if he had a favorite map, and he said “not really.”  He said he plays German most often, as it offers a good base for rule changes.  He said Benelux is good for a shorter game, adding that he’s still intrigued by the split market on the Korea map.

Power Grid has spawned three different “spinoff’ games, including Power Grid: Factory Manager (2009) and Power Grid: The First Sparks (2011).  There are other accessories available for the game, including an expansion that offers rules for an automated player (Power Grid: The Robots); and the popular expansion from Spiel 2015 (Power Grid: The Stock Companies); and several promo cards.  

PGDeluxe

For Power Grid’s tenth anniversary, Rio Grande and other companies released Power Grid deluxe: Europe/North America, which includes premium components, new gameplay elements, and new maps.  Power Grid deluxe itself continues to rise in the BGG ratings, and it currently sits at 166, climbing a few spaces each month.  

At Spiel 2016, 2F-Spiele and Rio Grande Games will release Power Grid: The Card Game.  A few of the Opinionated Gamers got to try the game at The Gathering of Friends in April, and Dale will be releasing a preview of the game tomorrow.  

PGTCG

I asked Friedemann if there was anything he would change about Power Grid after all these years, and he said, “I think would add the 2 players rule from Power Grid deluxe to the normal Power Grid.”  He said Power Grid deluxe is his new base for developing future Power Grid products.  

As for Friedemann, he continues to release games.  His game 504 was on top of many hotness lists at Essen last year, and Terra has earned praise around the hobby.  2F recently inked a strategic partnership with Stronghold Games where Stronghold will co-publish all new future 2F-Spiele tiles in English.  

Conclusion

Congratulations to Friedemann Friese on the success of both Funkenschlag and Power Grid.  Few games are still popular the year after release, let alone a decade and a half later.  Power Grid is one of the most enduring evergreens of our hobby, a game beloved by both long-time and new gamers.  It has made it fifteen years, and I bet it is still popular in another fifteen.  

—–

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Chris Wray:  A little more than five years ago my graduate school roommates and I were starting to play more and more games.  One of them who traveled frequently to Germany brought this game called Power Grid, which he had heard of over there.  I had, at that point, been playing the gamer basics: Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride etc.  Power Grid was eye-opening: it was my first gamer game, and it showed me what was out there.  

I still have Power Grid in my top five games of all time, and I’m excited every time it hits the table.  Here’s to hoping this game does as well in the next fifteen years as it did in the first fifteen!  And I, for one, have Power Grid: The Card Game as one of my most anticipated games of the year.  

Joe Huber: I picked up Funkenschlag shortly after it came out, and was immediately taken in; it offered a lot of what I liked about crayon rails, with a more interesting economic system and more interaction.  Oh, and in spite of some of the reports I heard elsewhere, for me a playing time consistently under two hours.  When Power Grid came out, I picked up a copy – only to discover that while I still liked the game, and it was a little shorter, it just wasn’t as enjoyable.  So for a decade now, I’ve been continuing to play Funkenschlag, while hoping that Friedemann might find a way to distill the game even further, making a significantly shorter game with enough differences in the mechanisms that I wouldn’t be continually comparing it to Funkenschlag.  Fortunately for me, Power Grid: the Card Game _is_ that game.

Larry:  I first played Funkenschlag soon after it came out and was immediately entranced.  In fact, it’s one of the best first plays I can recall and we were all completely blown away by how much good stuff Friedemann had stuffed into the design.  Despite less than ideal components and a 3 hour duration, it continued to get a lot of play and it was well ensconced in my all-time top 10.

Three years later, Power Grid was released and I was anxious to see if Friese had somehow improved his masterpiece.  There was much to like.  The components were far better and the playing time had been slashed to a more manageable 2 hours.  I thought the way he replaced the crayon drawing was very clever and while there was a certain charm to the original way of drawing lines, the new version saved so much time that I found I didn’t miss it.  And it was good to see that the disadvantages of going first on a turn had been eased a bit; they were still present, but they were positively oppressive in the original game, to the point of it being pretty much impossible to have a wire-to-wire victory in Funk.  So all that was great.

However, like Joe, I found I liked the original Funkenschlag more than its better looking offspring.  My main issue was with the pacing of the games.  In Funk, there tended to be three stages in buying power plants:  getting your first three bought, then grabbing two or three more as an intermediate stage, and then finally buying the last two or three that would be powering your cities at the end of the game.  Because of the smaller number of turns in Power Grid, that intermediate stage was gone.  After picking up your first three plants, you pretty much had to start planning for the endgame.  I found I very much missed that intermediate stage.  PG is still a great game, but it’s a little hard to completely fall in love with a title when you know there’s an earlier version that you consider to be superior.  Unfortunately, because of original’s substandard components and greater playing time, I doubt I’ll ever be able to play it again.  So I enjoy my occasional plays of PG, but it isn’t quite the same.  What I’d really love is to find a variant or expansion that slows the game enough to add those three stages of power plant buying back into the game.  I’ve yet to come across something like that, but I remain hopeful.

I got to play the prototype for the Power Grid card game once at the Gathering and it showed great promise.  I’m not as certain as Joe is that it’ll become my favorite version of PG, but it would be pretty cool if it did.  A shorter game that packs the wallop of Funkenschlag and Power Grid would be awesome.

Here are a few more notes about how well Funk and Power Grid did with the gaming awards.  Both games actually finished second in their respective IGA voting.  I seem to recall that PG came particularly close to winning the 2004 award (it was edged out by St. Petersburg) and this remains the closest that Friese has come to winning a major award.  Power Grid was also one of the winners of the Meeples Choice Awards in 2004.  Considering how small 2F-Spiele was when Funkenschlag was released, its sales, ratings, and award performance were really outstanding.

Finally, while First Sparks can legitimately be considered a spin-off of Funk and PG, since it represents a new take on the powering concept, Factory Manager really can’t be.  Friedemann has always been very open about the fact that the inclusion of Power Grid in the Factory Manager name was purely for branding purposes; the game itself has nothing to do with either Funkenschlag or Power Grid.  Although some thought that a bit tawdry, I thought it was just smart marketing.  Factory Manager, in my opinion, is a very good game in its own right, but it has nothing to do with the PG line.

Matt Carlson: I have never played “Funk” and have only played Power Grid a few times, despite owning the game and a couple expansion maps.  I have enjoyed the game, but it is a real brain burner.  We joke about only playing it if there’s a calculator handy.  I find the penalize the leader mechanism to be interesting.  However, I have also found it frustrating.  I have seen more than one game where someone is leading mid-game, realizes they shouldn’t be “out front” for too long, but just can’t manage to fall behind enough to actually win.  The fact that you are currently ahead, but are fairly positive you will lose is not a pleasant feeling.  Due to the need for long-term planning (to not leap too far ahead), the game isn’t at its best during a player’s first game.   Due to the need for experience, added to the heavy math involved (I don’t mind, but can easily slow the pace of the game) I just don’t get it to the table.  I suppose I should trade off my copy, but I have to admit it is a classic and is a unique titled in my collection, so it won’t be leaving soon.

Michael Weston: I have exactly the same take as Larry on Funk vs. PG: I don’t miss the crayons, but very much miss the 3 distinct stages of the game’s progress. Maybe someday he and I can get together and work out that “perfect” variant that tweaks PG just the right amount. Until then, I’ll play PG at any given opportunity, and eventually will actually play the maps I have that I haven’t even busted the shrink-wrap on yet. I think it’s certainly one of the masterpieces of gaming and expect it will still be hitting the table 15 years from now.

Dale Y: I prefer the longer game of Funkenschlag, and given my choice, I’d choose the original crayon game over Power Grid.  However, I’ve found that I’m clearly in the minority opinion; and as a result, PG hits the table more often.  When I was playing the game often, the expansion maps for PG also helped keep things fresh on that side, so maybe that’s a point in the favor of the non-crayon version.  Regardless, I’ll play either if anyone ever suggests it!

Fraser: My physical copy of Power Grid will be turning 12 years old in a few weeks and it still gets regular plays.  It is one of the few games, possibly the only one, that I am completionist about.  I have all the official expansions, although I must admit I have not chased down all of the international editions, but I do have the ENbW and Megawatts base sets (they were the only way to get the relevant maps back in the day).

I like that each of the expansion maps is a tweak on the original game, it is not a new and different game, but the same game with some interesting differences.  Sometimes the differences are subtle and sometimes not so subtle, but you know you are still playing the same game, just in effect a different scenario.

I have always enjoyed the mini games that go on within a normal game of Power Grid.  

The auction – how much am I prepared to pay for that plant?  How much am I prepared to try and force you up to for that plant?  If I let you buy this plant is there likely to be anything useful for me? Will that plant get the player to end game position? Etc.

The map – Am I going for cheap connections now?  What positions will that leave me in step 2 and step 3?  I am going to try and block you?  Will I try and break out?  

The turn order – Do I want to be first?  Do I want to be last?  Do I want to be somewhere in between.  I have seen people lead and win from the front and others stay back in the turn order before making their move at the end of the game.

Power plants – Is this a good resource to be in? Do I need to replace this power plant sooner rather than later?  Is this an end game power plant?  If I buy it, will I be able to afford to power it?

Resources – What is the price and availability of this resource going to be this turn?  Next turn? Should I stockpile?

The Stall – There are whole articles on this on BGG.  My short theory, if you are making more money than the other players it is a good thing, if you are making less money than the other players then break it.

There are so many things going on in any given game which is why I keep going back to it.

Things I have done with Power Grid over the years.  Back when there were only 14 maps, we played all of them back to back over two and half days.  At PAXAus the year Power Grid Deluxe was released we managed to get 21 out the 23 available maps in play simultaneously (the shortage was players not maps or sets). I also submitted rules to 2F-Spiele for using the New Power Plants deck with the Power Grid expansion maps.

Remember as the t-shirt says – Money isn’t everything, but it is a tie breaker in Power Grid.

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