Review: Power Struggle

Posted by James (admin) on April 8th, 2010

Power Struggle had a lot of great feedback at Spiel 09 in Essen.  It hadn’t been on my radar before that at all and, unfortunately, I didn’t get to play it.  Now I have I can see why it was so well received.  (It’s quite a complex game to explain so excuse the longer-than-normal review).

The game is based on creating departments in a company and having dominance over the business to win the game before anyone else does.  It may not sound very inspiring but is a lot more interesting than it may sound.  The setting is good Eurogame stuff and it’s a theme that lends itself well to the gameplay, especially as there is a touch of humour too.

To win Power Struggle, a player needs to be the first to earn 4 victory points (VPs).  At the top of the board are 5 score tracks – 4 of these are straightforwards and show each player’s level of influence, the amount of shares they own, their level of corruption and the number of main departments they have created.  The later spaces on each track are shaded in green and any player’s scoring marker that lays in a green area is worth 1 VP.  The fifth track is different with spaces for Legal Counsels in each division – having a Legal Counsel in at least 3 of the 6 areas is worth 1 VP.

One other way to score a VP is by beating your ‘Nemesis’.  At the start of the game, each player is given two secret cards – one says which other player is their Nemesis, and the other shows the 3 scoring areas in which they need to beat their Nemesis.  Any time that a player is scoring higher than their Nemesis in all of the 3 areas on their card, they score 1 VP.  (If your Nemesis card shows your own colour, you earn 1 VP by having a higher score than any other player in 2 of the 3 areas shown on your card.

I found this scoring system felt fresh and worked really well.  Players can choose which areas they want to focus on in order to gain their VPs which allows lots of different routes.  Also, whilst you can see how many VPs a player has on the score tracks, the secret element of the Nemesis VP means you never quite know if they have an extra point in their hand.  As a result, the game can be quite tense towards the end as you don’t know how much time you may have before another player declares they have enough points to win.

The board shows the Chairman’s office at the top, the board of directors below that and then all the offices below that which are arranged in 6 columns – each representing a different division with an office for each Division head at the top of each.  Each player has meeple of their colour which represent their managers (who may get promoted to Divisional Heads or higher).  All players use a central pool of grey cubes to represent lowly employees.

During the game, players can place their managers with employees into empty offices in any division.  One manager plus at least one employee in an office is called a ‘Department’.  If two Departments merge, there will be two managers and this is called a ‘Main Department’.  The distinction between Departments and Main Departments is a critical one, and the similar terminology can be quite hard to get used to, especially when reading the rules for the first time.  Not only does creating a Main Department increase one of the players’ score tracks, but it also survives if there are no employees in it; whereas, a Department with no employees is completely removed from the board.

Each round is made up of 5 to 8 phases.  During each phase, an event card is revealed, which has various general effects plus it can alter the current morale level.  Then, each player performs one action in clockwise order.  At the start of each round, the player who is the Head of the Communications Division determines the order of the round’s 8 event cards.  The first 4 cards always include a Dividends event (where players get income based on the shares they own), and the last 4 cards always include a Board Meeting event (which immediately ends the round).  So, only the Head of Communications knows how many phases there will be before the Board Meeting ends the round. 
The actions that a player can choose from are quite varied:

  • Create a new department – place a managers on an empty office with 1 employee
  • Add employees to a department or main department
  • Merge two departments to create a Main Department (2 employees must be fired)
  • Buy shares which are in limited supply
  • Attempt to bribe a player
  • Promote a Divisional Head (if they have any) to the Board of Directors or to Legal Counsel.

In the last case, all employees that work for the promoted managers in that division are fired.  If promoted to the Board of Directors any managers in their division also get promoted to the board too.  If promoted to be Legal Counsel, the managers of Departments are fired.  So, any promotion of a Divisional Head results in the loss of any Departments the player may have in that Division (main Departments remain but with no employees).

At the start of each round, the player who is the Head of a Division gets the relevant favour card.  This gives its owner a special power, such as receiving one more share than they paid for, and so on.  During the game, player’s can bribe the holders of these favours – if accepted, the bribing player gains the favour card for their own use which is more powerful than normal if earned through bribery.  The act of bribery (and sometimes the act of agreeing to it) earns the player a point on the Corruption score track, so failing in a bribery attempt is still worthwhile (and sometimes may be the player’s main goal) than gaining the favour card itself.  The current morale level affects the power of the favours too.

During the Board Meeting event, various upkeep actions happen including the pay out of bonuses to Directors, Heads of Division, etc.  This adds a real time-pressure to your actions as there’s little point being the Chairman only for the period when they don’t receive any bonuses.  So, you really do feel the pressure to make gains before a round ends, but also timing is critical – seizing the Chairman role is good but if the round goes on for a round or two more you may get replaced.

It may sound like it’s incredibly complicated but, after a round or two, it’s actually quite straightforwards.  However, there are always many more things you want to achieve than you have time to do, and deciding what to do is where the fun of the game lies.  You feel like you have control over your destiny, but are at the mercy of other people’s actions too because other players may do what you want to do before you do.  So, there’s a push-your-luck element involved as you sit tensely waiting your next turn hoping to perform an action before anyone else does.  There’re a lot of choices open to you on your turn so you feel like you have options.

My main criticism about the game would be the rules.  They’re okay but could be a lot more clear.  The terms Department and Main department are very confusing and it isn’t helped by not having a clear definition of them in the rules.  The examples in rules are good but a few more would have helped as not all of the simple situations are covered.

Some people like the Nemesis rule (where you can gain a victory point by performing better than one of your opponents) and others don’t.  It can be slightly unbalanced if multiple players are all competing in one area, whilst one player is unchallenged.  However, I think this could be overcome by the game including different sets of cards for determining the Nemesis, based on number of players, so they are always evenly spread out.  Also, if the players aren’t equally experienced, then it can be much harder, or more easy, to beat your nemesis; however, I don’t see this as too much of a problem as any imbalance of player’s skill level in a game that is not driven by luck will always create these sorts of situations.  In my opinion, the Nemesis rule added some excellent tension (a kind of informal paranoia and suspicion) as well as driving the game along as players raced to finish before someone else stole victory.   So, I liked the Nemesis rule.

I’ll be interested to see how it plays with 3 players and I suspect it is better with 4 or 5.  It’s a shame it doesn’t play with 6 players too – I don’t think this would have been difficult to add (especially if there was a set of additional offices that only get used in a 6-player game).

Overall, I really enjoyed Power Struggle and it was a nice surprise.  I definitely want to play it again.


[Played with 5 players]

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