Nikola vs. Thomas, Part Two

"Dearest Mother: My obsession with creating the world's largest spool of iron wool has led me to dark places. I finally accept that I need help."

You’d think Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents would be right in my wheelhouse. History? Bitter feuds? Stolen patents? I am intimately acquainted with all of these things in my genuine everyday life, so why not in a game? Tragically, Tesla vs. Edison was an excellent game marred by a single major issue, which is almost worse than simply being a bad game. As I wrote in last week’s review, because everybody loves it when a man quotes himself:

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.

To my credit, I didn’t place that quote over an image of a snow-drifted prairie. And to Tesla vs. Edison’s credit, the expansion Powering Up! entirely erases my complaints about its tedious stock jockeying.

Especially that cute moment when Nikola and Thomas decided to take a glamor shot while holding each other's light bulbs. They loudly and repeatedly insisted it wasn't Freudian. Adorable.

All this stuff? It matters again.

Okay, so those of you who played vanilla Tesla vs. Edison are probably wondering how they did it, right? Surely they didn’t just strip the stock market out, since that would mean a third of the board would suddenly be pointless, not to mention the fact that every single thing in the game — the electrical projects that gradually lit up America, the filing of patents, the vacillating popularity of the AC and DC electrical systems — would suddenly mean zilch. Surely they didn’t resort to that.

They did. They totally did.

No, I’m not referring to the stock market itself. It’s still there, and the lion’s share of a player’s performance still rests on how well they bully it. Rather, I’m referring to the stock market action, a full quarter of the game’s options when it comes to what your company’s employees can do, entirely yanked out, leaving a humming electrical socket in its place. Gone are the days of spending half your late-game turns dinking around with stocks. Instead, you’re gonna be running an honest-to-goodness titan of industry.

Stock certificates are still a thing, and it’s still possible to mess with a company’s bottom line by selling them, then hoovering up your main competitor’s stocks to forcibly share in their success. The exact way a stock is valued has been changed, and a few other things like cash in hand and your company’s headquarters (more on that later) also factor into your final score, but the original game’s manipulative behavior is still there, every bit as clever as before. It’s just that you can’t opt to spend actions on it. Instead, all of that has been relegated to the bookkeeping phase, where you can make one trade and one purchase per turn. A clever broker still has the potential of coming out on top, but what dominated the original game is now just one more way to get ahead.

Bunch of a-holes messing with our stocks is what this was.

The addition of events makes every game a new challenge.

Some of the additions in Powering Up! are the usual expansion fodder, a few new luminaries and some extra propaganda opportunities to exploit. Nicely, most of these additions feature the unsung female inventors and innovators of the era, such as Mary Anderson (most notable accomplishment: inventor of the windshield wiper), Josephine Cochrane (creator of the dishwasher, which won her the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair), an oddly powerful representation of Fannie Farmer (who applied domestic science and nutrition in her Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and is currently the expansion’s most useful luminary), not to mention the formidable Madam Walker, whose appearance marks the addition of a sixth playable inventor. Solo play has been added via programmed decks — cutely noted as coded by Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage — though I haven’t had a chance to try these out.

Meanwhile, two of the expansion’s features entirely transform the way the game plays. The first is a deck of event cards that forces everyone at the table to adapt to unexpected circumstances, such as the Pullman Strike slowing down a company’s development, the Panic of 1893 halving everyone’s income for a turn, or Allan Pinkerton launching aggressive investigations into one of your luminaries. These also massage everyone’s stock values, and the occasional dip in company worth is a nice occurrence now that people aren’t playing with stocks as readily.

The second big addition is the headquarters, a set of four new cards for each inventor. These bestow all sorts of interesting abilities. Edison, for example, can utilize his famous Menlo Park Laboratory to boost a particular system’s popularity the instant he invents it, while Tesla can finally hire someone to help him file those darn patents, Maxim can set up boardinghouses for extra points at the end of the game, and Brush can hire John Philip Sousa to write a march about how sexy he is, because nothing is more sexy than fourteen tubas rocking those offbeats. Each of these upgrades is considerable in its own way, but all require the player to exhaust one of his luminaries to build. This new action is a replacement for the stripped-out stock market, and it provides yet another sticky trade-off in a game brimming with the things.

They can also freely assign the most fabulous mustache in their retinue to be an "assistant." Mmhm. There's some assisting going on, all right.

Inventors — including the new Madam Walker — now have a host of purchasable abilities.

All in all, I’m extremely impressed. Powering Up! takes Tesla vs. Edison’s grand invention, strips out the broken parts, tinkers with the layout, adds on a few bells and whistles, and transforms this into the game I always knew it could be. Whether you’re conquering America’s electrical grid, sprinting down to the patent office, expanding your company from a rented space to an industrial giant, manipulating stocks, or just plain lying about your competition, Powering Up! turns Tesla vs. Edison into one of the best games of business chicanery I’ve played in a very long time.

You can help fund Powering Up! on Kickstarter until the 25th of May, right over here. And yes, you can get both games for a good price if you’re so inclined.

Posted on May 2, 2016, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Wow, that sounds sharp. I really did enjoy the original TvE, but the stock market, as you noted, was just too much. I’ll be backing this shortly.

  2. Not gonna lie, I’m now very excited about this. Like pretty much everybody else (except maybe Knemeyer himself, from the sound of things), I found the stock market portion of the game to be an intrusion into everything else on offer. Toning it down sounds like the right way to go.

  1. Pingback: Best Week 2016, Lessons! | SPACE-BIFF!

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