Nikola vs. Thomas, Part One

Which fabulous mane of hair will win?

Call Dirk Knemeyer what you will (“flubby,” “the red peanut,” whatever you want really), but the creator of the sublime Tomorrow and a string of not-quite-as-sublime titles must be granted at least one major concession: he has designed the only game — the only game — where you can have Mark Twain write a smear campaign against Sir Hiram Maxim. “The Maxim machine gun? Compensating much?” Twain says, receiving a packed auditorium’s thunderous applause and stamped feet. Hiram Maxim exits out the back, manfully hiding his tears behind a stenciled kerchief. Twain’s sponsor and Maxim’s chief competitor, Elihu Thomson, observes this scene via opera glasses, cracking his first smile in seventeen years.

Yes, it’s Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents, one of the most brutal contests in modern science put to cardboard. And it’s grand. Mostly.

One federal penitentiary at a time.

Light up America.

Thanks to The Oatmeal and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, we now picture Nikola Tesla as the soft-spoken weirdo who invented the alternating current, zapped up a few dozen spare Hugh Jackmans, and swaggered around with an impeccable taste in fashion. The part where he slammed Thomas Edison for having raunch B.O. in the New York Times usually gets left out, but hey, nobody’s classy all the time.

Tesla vs. Edison is all about the titanic conflict between those early pioneers in electrical experiments. Commanding luminaries of the age like Tesla, Edison, Maxim, Thomson, and Charles Brush, it’s up to you to hire the day’s greatest inventors and businessmen, invent and patent new currents and light bulbs, and make the candle-lit American countryside glow with incandescent brightness. If you happen to electrocute an elephant named Topsy, then sure, might as well blame it on your competitors. And if you’re lucky enough to be born Thomas Alva Edison, go right ahead and never pay patent royalties.

It’s imposing, wondrous stuff, placing you at the dizzying epicenter of a new industrial revolution. It’s also deeply let down by the fact that you’re not actually cast as Edison or Tesla, but rather as an investor bent on amassing an impressive stock portfolio. But let’s cover the good stuff first.

Meanwhile, defame your least-favored system of currents by electrocuting dogs and saying it was the other guy!

Manage your company’s fame, inventions, patents, and stocks.

First things first: Tesla vs. Edison is one of those oddities that’s both complicated and simple at the same time.

Let’s start with the simple. Each set of five years opens with an auction, a no-holds-barred spending spree for the best inventors and businessmen you can buy. Want J.P. Morgan running your finances or Stanford White bestowing tips on mustache grooming to all your employees? Then go ahead and snatch them up! Provided you can pay, that is. With that out of the way, everyone goes about the business of running their company. Nicely, there are only four actions, each consuming one of your underlings’ time. You can send your people to undertake propaganda, which can catapult your company to fame or leave a competitor hemorrhaging stock value. You can have your inventors work on new technologies, and even filing patents if you gauge it right. Or you can complete projects across America, installing generators and stringing power lines between cities. For the most part, the game is unusually straightforward, pruning the complexities of running an industry titan to a handful of basic options. It’s slick.

And then, down at the zoomed-in level, there’s the complicated stuff.

By way of example, let’s say you want to want to install power in Washington D.C. First of all, you need to make sure you have sufficiently eloquent technology to handle such a tall order. Washington is a class-3 city, meaning you’ll need Edison Bulbs or better — no Yablochkov Candles here! — and the correct level of electrical system in either direct or alternating current. If you don’t have those, the city won’t give you their business in the first place.

With that out of the way, it’s time to calculate how much the project will drain the ol’ pocketbook. Washington is a medium-sized place, which has a base cost of $8,000 to install your system. In Tesla vs. Edison terms, that isn’t so bad. But then you also need to calculate whether you need to leap across multiple cities to connect Washington to your current grid. This gets more expensive as time progresses, costing anywhere from one to three thousand more per city skipped. But! You can also use your current luminary to achieve a similar discount, which also grows as the years pass. So, counting it up, that’s $8k plus, say $4k for skipped cities, minus maybe $2k thanks to your chosen inventor — oh, and don’t forget to pay any patent fees if you’re using someone else’s technology (unless you’re Edison, of course). And just like that, you’ve got yourself an electric network in Washington D.C.! Your company’s stock value has just skyrocketed.

This isn’t necessarily a mind-bending equation, but the point is that you’ll be spending a whole lot of time going through it, dotting every i and crossing every t and still forgetting those damn patent royalties. By the end of the game, it isn’t uncommon to be paying out ten or twenty grand every time you want to finish a project. Even so, this is very compelling, very fun stuff, all sorts of little things taken into consideration that might let you get ahead. Hiring a money man will let you score some serious discounts, while making sure to nab those patents means you might be rolling in the dough once the smaller contracts have been claimed. Halfway into a game of Tesla vs. Edison, it isn’t uncommon to feel like you’re actually a giant, straddling the world of commerce and invention and industry.

And then the stock market brings it all crashing back to Earth.

I'm speaking of Oliver B. Shallenberger's famous mustache rides, of course.

The real reason everyone’s talking about electricity.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the stock market portion of the game. It works fine. The idea is that every company’s per-share value is constantly tracked, and players are able to buy and sell stock certificates in any company. New inventors also bring shares with them, giving you other opportunities to pick up stocks that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive. Buying stock, much like filing patents or completing projects, will increase your stock value; selling stock, on the other hand, tanks it.

What follows is a game of pure manipulation where you want to acquire stocks when they’re affordable, tank stocks that are too powerful, and make sure you have a healthy spread of options by investing in multiple companies. It’s perfectly functional stuff, even devious at times. Compared to everything else in the game, it’s also profoundly dull.

And that’s the unresolved childhood trauma at Tesla vs. Edison’s core. The game presents a compelling neck-and-neck competition where no holds are barred and no method is too grimy, where cash changes hands easily, where setting up an unbroken strand of power lines and glowing lights is a pure joy in and of itself. And then, when it comes down to it, none of that stuff really matters all that much.

Sure, it matters, in a technical sort of way. You need a healthy company stock price in order to reap profits, which in turn gives you the ability to manipulate more stocks. But all that other stuff isn’t what counts when it comes time to tally up the points. Rather than being a game about the War of Currents that happens to have a hand in the stock market, Tesla vs. Edison is a game about the stock market that happens to have a hand in the War of Currents. Its priorities are all mixed up.

and in the game etc

The stock market tends to overshadow everything else.

Which is too bad, because other than the stock market, Tesla vs. Edison is effortlessly compelling. Forcing your inventors to work overtime to land that patent out from under your competition feels deliciously wicked. Lighting up Niagara Falls for double stock bonuses will have you humming electric at the accomplishment. Cleverly messing with the propaganda scene to tank an opponent’s popularity or screw with their stock portfolio perfectly befits a gentleman inventor. All in all, this is the sort of thing that would normally receive my enthusiastic recommendation. With the stock market standing monolithic over everything else, however, that recommendation finds itself somewhat downgraded, as though someone had vindictively deflated all my stocks at the very last minute.

The good news is that there’s an expansion coming, and one of its central aims is to the correct the game’s overemphasis on stock manipulation. And next week, we’ll have the skinny on whether it elevates Tesla vs. Edison to the heights it absolutely might achieve or deposits it into the gutter with Thomas Edison’s unwashed armpits.

Posted on April 26, 2016, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. That was an extremely fair write-up of a very good but very flawed game. I love every minute of TvE, right up until everyone switches from inventing light bulbs and powering cities to bullying the stock market. Then it’s just about calculating which luminaries give you the best financial advantage and buying/selling at the right times. Incredibly boring compared to everything that came before. If there’s to be an expansion that livens it back up, I’m in!

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