Published by Spears (UK) and Power Games International (USA)
Designed by Monte B Young
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
2 to 4 players
about 60 mins
Spears have always represented a gaming soft spot for me. A local company, steadily successful through conservative releases, until very recently a family run affair and, importantly, purveyors of some pretty good games - not least Rummikub, Nile and Scrabble which have all been stalwarts here over the years. But a year or so ago all that changed. The company was bought out by Mattel and now things are changing down Enfield way. Power is one of the first releases under the new regime and a less Spears-style game would be hard to imagine.
Power is an abstract wargame, initially designed and released almost ten years ago by an American company, with nods in the direction of Shogi, Diplomacy and Risk. It plays with two to four players, but because of the symmetrical board, only the higher even number works as the designer would wish. Rules for three players include a non-player character fudge (you each get to try and use the spare units) which didn't function too well when we tried it, and the two player game is very much an exercise in prolonged abstractism. Each player starts with identical forces clustered around his home base which is located in a corner of the square map - so each player, in the four player game, has opponents left, right and front. The board depicts a series of land masses, islands and sea channels, with a centrepiece of 'X', the Power equivalent of Poland, which sees a lot of strife throughout the game. The idea is initially to deploy units in enemy territory - to gain power points for builds - and then to gradually weaken and eliminate your enemies. A player is taken out by capturing his home base 'flag', as in all the best military game situations - echoes of Private Benjamin and paintball fighting.
There is a range of units available in the game (initial allocation and power value in parentheses) which each have a movement number and combat value: Infantry (2, x2), Tanks (3, x2), Fighters (5, x2), Destroyers (10, x2), Regiments (20), Heavy Tanks (30), Bombers (25), Cruisers (50) and MegaMissiles (100). Some of the units can be combined to make larger units of the same type (three infantrymen make up a regiment), and the ultimate weapon, the MegaMissile, is effectively a tactical nuke with strictly limited utility, as we shall see. As you'd expect, some of these units, especially planes, are good for swift raids into enemy territory but weak in combat. Others, like the lethal destroyers, cruise around slowly as a powerful threat in being. The word deterrent has real meaning in Power. Production of all this interesting stuff is impressive. A great big box, with a vaguely seventies look, contains a superb board, the timer, pads and a whole pile of plastic pieces, like those from Axis & Allies, but clearly following a course of steroids. Laid out, the whole thing looks rather good.
Your forces are built up through power points. These can be swapped in to buy bigger, better units and have a peak of usefulness in the early and mid game. Towards the end, players have usually got at least five excellent units in action, with on map reserves, so the building of new units is less relevant. Or it has been for us, anyway. There is a slight time delay in building and then more in deploying, but broadly speaking if you need some back up it can be there in shortish order.
Movement of these units is effected through writing orders (groan) and simultaneous resolution. There are two unusual twists, which I think save the game from the Perils of Plotting. Firstly, you may only ever plan the moves for a maximum five units. Secondly, there is an egg timer which keeps you honest. Okay, so how does it work? Each area on the map is labelled with a unique code. On an order pad (which you get through with frightening speed) you indicate unit, location, new location. You can also designate any builds you are making using power points, deployments from reserve or launches of rockets. Everyone reveals their pads and the orders are implemented. Units are moved to their new location and if it remains empty of rival pieces, you stay put. If there turns out to be an enemy there of equal value there, you bounce off and go back from whence you came (Diplomacy again). More likely though is that there is a numerical imbalance of forces, and this is where it gets interesting.
Combat is the key to the game and once you have got it wrong once, you learn very quickly how it works. Indeed, if you make two or three errors of judgement, just like Chess, you will likely as not be dead. How so? The calculation is as simple as adding up the units in an area and comparing totals. The higher of the two wins and the loser loses everything while the victor is untouched. Sounds bad? It gets worse. The units you have lost are exchanged for similar units in the victor's colour and go into his reserve ready for deployment next turn. So his loss is literally your gain. If you lose the odd plane or infantry unit on this basis, it is a pain but not disastrous. But if you lose a lot of stuff, say a couple of ships, bombers or a regiment or two, which instantly become available to your enemy (okay, he has to deploy and move them forward) there is a double whammy at work. From what I remember, this is reminiscent of Shogi and is both a novel mechanism to keep the game short and also makes you think carefully before piling in.
With this in mind then, you enter combat situations very cautiously and this is where the game really betrays its abstract roots. "If he moves his bomber and fighters there, my infantry are outnumbered by three. However, if I send one extra tank there, I will win in three moves. If at the same time I move my bombers to his HQ and gamble that he doesn't move backwards to protect it, then I'm in good shape." You plot, he plots, and something completely different usually transpires. Given this is the pivotal action in the game, and the most exciting, I have to say it is a refreshing change from dice, combat tables and cards. It is not a change I want to stick with, since I very much like some randomness in such things (Footmania Syndrome), but it is a change.
An oddity, perhaps because we have misunderstood the rule, is the MegaMissile. This would seem to be a one shot weapon that clears an area of its entire contents. Powerful, but commensurately expensive to buy. The problem is that, because it has to be plotted like anything else, there may be nothing there by the time it is launched. Odd. There is also a strange phenomena, especially in the middle game, where you fear that your key units (especially planes in enemy areas) will be pounced upon, so some of your precious five moves are often used in Scud-like evasive manoeuvres. This is a pain, but is again a key part of the game. Losing your 'scouts' is rarely painful in terms of units expended, but is costly in the loss of power point income and the need to recruit a replacement and get it out there again.
There is one slight drawback which I haven't yet covered - Power is an elimination game. By that I mean that a player, who either has a bad run, cods it up (easily done with the combat system) or is simply picked on by everyone else, can be out quite quickly. The game does not stop here, it carries on until the death. So in a four player game, almost certainly the best number, two players will be doing nothing, often well before the finish. Not ideal and I am rather surprised that Spears would produce a mass market game with this feature. However, I do not have an accurate feel for what is acceptable in the family game market and I am told, by experts, that this would not be considered a problem. It is for me, and I guess some gamers, so it is worth mentioning. In fairness though, in all the games we have played, the game quickly gets to the point where one player is clearly ahead and each battle he wins takes it further towards a certain victory - especially since when you knock out a rival, you gain his forces. So, two of the games have been surrendered, and one was over soon after the third player was eliminated - and of course with less players it speeds up as each player can move only five units, however many he has available, and they tend to be the more powerful ones.
Power is certainly a different design. It seems to work in almost all respects, it has definitely been well developed, and it gave me no difficulties in learning and getting into play very quickly. I had thought I would find the order plotting onerous, but it turned out to be no problem and I have yet to see any player use the full timer allocation. The game therefore moves along quite quickly, it has that Diplomacy plus of finding out where the other guy decided to go, but unlike Dip some of these units can move large distances making the game far more dynamic and fluid. If I had to give it a subjective rating, based on three games, I would say it is good, certainly a game I wouldn't mind playing again, but isn't great. For my tastes it is too abstract and lacking in flavour to compensate. It also lacks that mystery ingredient. That said, it has gone down well across the board and players have asked to play again - a comparative rarity. Limited slightly by its narrow useable player range, and perhaps a trifle overlong, this is nevertheless a game I can recommend. I look forward to Spears next release with interest.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell