Eurogames are one of those durable little genre labels, that despite being declared dead or outdated, continue to be around. That‘s partly because genre lines have always been diffuse, so pointing out how a game isn‘t quite or just barely a eurogame is missing the point. A genre is more like an wide-open field with some landmarks spread throughout. It is not an air-tight box to trap games in. Which is why genres can undergo changes and trends and still remain relevant. In the early 2000s a title like Carcassone was representative of eurogames with something like Power Grid the complex outlier. Today the roles seem reversed with games like Underwater Cities or even Great Western Trail more likely to be labelled a typical modern eurogame.
Electropolis harkens back to old school sensibilities of this flawed genre. The rules are relatively few, exceptions even fewer. It’s about as complex as Carcassone with an expansion thrown in. In your attempt to secure victory points you first choose how many square tokens you will take from the display. This also determines turn order with fewer picks going earlier in the round. Then you place your tokens on your board, following two simple rules: be adjacent to any previous tiles on it, and confirm to the limitations on the development card you’ve picked along with your tokens. You do this eight times, and then score VP based on the power plants you can supply with resources. You also lose VP based on how much pollution you’ve caused and offset by your popularity rating. A few additional VP scoring cards add more direction to play, to let you aim for more than just filling up your board.
Like its genre predecessors, Electropolis’ theme is not really about bringing a specific experience or emotion to life. You don’t even have a clearly defined role in the game to identify you. Instead you simply act as some quasi-omniscient being placing power plants and public spaces on your board for victory points. The disembodied hand depicted on the game’s box is about as close a representation of you as the game is willing to grant you. Instead the theme serves as a mnemonic device to make handling rules and components easier.
A coal-fueled power plant requires a coal token to generate energy, obviously. Gas-fueled plants need gas. So you know which tokens you have to couple to create points. A nuclear power plant additionally needs a place to store its radioactive waste, so you need three distinct tokens to score with those. These small packages of theme don’t paint a particularly evocative picture but they serve to increase the game’s usability. And at the end of the day, all design is dedicated to increasing usability.
Eurogames have rarely aimed for immersion and were far more interested giving players challenging decisions to make. Electropolis is a grey unassuming box, that delivers the type of polished, well-crafted and carefully curated experience that many entries in this genre promise but never quite pull off. That’s partly because eurogames have always had an undercurrent of bitterness to them. The inevitable moment where the pleasant accrual of accomplishments wound down and the knives would come out. Once you put together your VP engine your attention would turn towards denying others the same opportunities, because they might end up with a better score than you. In other words, eurogames are the board game embodiment of the boomer lifestyle.
Many designers believe that competition births both ingenuity and tension, which like many boomer beliefs is self-serving nonsense. Electropolis proves that it is a well-adjusted challenge that propels players towards being clever and ambitious. It doesn’t attempt to create tension by making you dependant on what others do or randomness going your way. Instead it gives you decisions with easy to grasp risks, without ever becoming fully calculable. The more control you want to have over the tiles you pick, the more you run the risk of not filling up your board in time. But the more tiles you take, the less control you have over how to combine them effectively. That’s why a big VP yield at the end feels earned and based on the risks you took, as opposed to the numbers you crunched or how you avoided getting picked on by others. There is no secret reservoir of schadenfreude that Electropolis taps into to provoke some emotional reaction. There is no big, swingy finale to try and make the game seem more memorable than it is. Your accomplishments feel earned, because they were down to how you navigated the game’s challenges.
This isn’t accidental but down to carefully applied design craft. Each turn begins with committing to how many tiles you will pick up. By adding a small incentive to the central action space, players gravitate towards that option. This in turn splits the row into spaces with distinct tactical advantages and disadvantages. It’s a small detail that contributes to an impeccably well-paced flow throughout the game.
The muted color palette drenched in grey is deceptive, which is also perfectly in line with eurogames. This game is unlikely to kick off a new trend in game design, or popularize an unassuming style of games. Electropolis is merely a perfectly hewn little gem, that should delight anyone who appreciates the artistry of polished design craft.
It’s an engaging mental challenge that never runs the risk of frustrating you with dead-ends or gotcha moments. It doesn’t take multiple plays (and failures) to learn how to avoid VP pitfalls. It doesn’t punish ineffective or wrong moves by denying you opportunities to participate. The luck of the draw doesn’t keep you from making strategic decisions; and it doesn’t need players to be petty and spiteful to create tension. Eurogame purits tend to praise those elements of the genre as giving it spice, but to most people it becomes a reason to stay away. Many eurogame designs have tried to downplay this bitter aftertaste by reducing negative interaction or increasing alternative VP paths. Much like how you would add milk or sugar to make your coffee go down a little smoother.
But calling Electropolis merely smooth is doing the design a disservice. It is – excuse me – a damn fine cup of coffee. I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee I’ve had in my life and this, this is one of the best.