Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents

Artana had a big booth dedicated to Tesla vs. Edison at Gen Con, and the game certainly merits trying. I have just the one playthrough under my belt, but everyone enjoyed it. The game supports multiple parallel and conflicting strategies and mechanics on the path to victory.

The theme is dear to nerd hearts: the competing current standards and the electrification of America. Tesla is a geek hero, so players are naturally drawn to him, with Edison cast as the villain. The game remains neutral on that question, although Edison’s special ability is to ignore patents. The potential player characters also include three lesser names in electricity.

You are running an electric company. Your company founder gives you certain stats and abilities. Supporting luminaries are recruited via bidding. Each round, you and your luminaries can research technology, build a project, engage in propaganda, or play the stock market. You are competing not only for science but for hearts and minds, as the value of your stock is affected by whether the public thinks AC or DC is the current standard of the future. Yes, people have strong opinions about that. At the end of the game, whoever is holding the most valuable stock portfolio wins. (You start with four shares of your own stock, so unless you are pursuing a very aggressive stock market game, highest stock value should tend to win.)

The strategy comes from which actions to pursue and in what order. Do you push for an early technological advantage while your competitors are building small projects? Advance technology slowly and bleed your opponents with patents? Start with a propaganda push so that your later actions are more valuable? You are also trading off what helps you, what hurts your opponents, and what benefits the allies you still want to beat. Allies arise naturally from whether you are pursuing AC or DC power; everyone on one side of that divide has aligned incentives, but you do not want to spend your money helping your fellow-AC competitors get ahead of you. You can use the stock market to take advantage of competitors, but then your success is tied to theirs and there can be only one winner.

The game has no uncontrolled randomization at all. There is variation in which options are available this game or turn, but there are no dice and all cards are face up. Unpredictability comes from opponents’ strategies. Will you spend big to outbid for the best luminary, or will you take a second-tier one on the cheap? Opponents can block you on the map or with a patent, but you can leapfrog either. With multiple paths to victory, you cannot afford to ignore any completely, nor can you successfully control all paths.

I have not played enough to comment on long term balance with experienced players, but as one of the old quotes from the D&D forums would have it: “Taste that indecision right there? That’s balance.” So long as none of the starting company founders are inherently better than the others, the game tends to balance itself as all players have all actions available to them. It is possible that a few actions are game-breaking in the sense of “whoever picks that one first has a 10% higher chance of winning,” but even that can be self-balancing in a multi-player game where getting ahead can unify competitors against you.

Recommended with more players. Our initial game had three players, and that tends to lead to ugly decisions where two competing players hand victory to a third, or a natural alignment of two players on one side of AC/DC against a lone opponent. You could also see that as a virtue; I suspect that two, three, four, and five player games all play out very differently.

: Zubon