Monday, February 2, 2015

Rise to Power, by Allen Chang and Alistair Kearney

Normally I adorn these first few paragraphs with quippy one-liners and phrases meant to draw the prospective reader closer to the bottom of the article, where surely I'll let loose some long-considered opinion of a game that redefines the way the reader sees games, and this game in particular.

Sadly, there's no time for that today. I'm so busy playing Rise to Power that its difficult to make time to check my my mail, let alone compose a flowery introduction. You'll have to make due with this: Rise to Power was the best game I played at PAX South, and perhaps the best game I've played in 2015.

If that's not enough to convince you to drop everything and go play it, read on! 

In Rise to Power, players act as corporate heads competing for wealth and power (pun fully intended). Players use a new source of power, PRISM, to fulfill contracts for various locations across their districts. When fulfilled, these contracts lead to various bonuses, effects, and of course, victory points.

Each turn, players take new contracts, may acquire new PRISM cards, power or upgrade districts by spending those cards, and challenge other players for control of unfulfilled contracts. The game ends at the end of the turn in which a player powers his or her eighth contract, at which point the player with the most victory points is declared the winner.

In the interest of brevity, I'll tell you quickly what I love about this game:
  • The art and graphic design is stunning. The cards, the rule book, the accompanying story with full-page art, all of it is amazing. It's not just ceremonial, either. The iconography is perfectly useful and well-defined, and the card art enhances the general feel of expansion present in the game. It's delightful, and accentuates the progression that so many of us love about this genre. 
  • Rise to Power has a lot of what I enjoy about Power Grid and Suburbia. Players make meaningful choices each turn from among limited options (often severely limited options), but play moves so quickly that I wasn't removed from the feeling of "flow" while playing. There's certainly not the level of machination in RtP that players may see and enjoy in Power Grid, but the general aspects of expansion and efficiency exist. 
  • As compared to Suburbia, RtP provides much of the same rewarding feeling of managing a municipality, though admittedly without the level of depth provided by the spatial planning aspects of Suburbia. In exchange for this lack of depth, there is very little upkeep, which means a faster and more free-flowing game that's suitable for all gaming opportunities and all game tables.  
  • It's easy to teach and play. Many tableau- or empire-building games are too deep to bring to entry-level game groups, and those that aren't are often too light to interest experienced gamers. Rise to Power fits right in the sweet spot, as its rules are clear and easy to assimilate, but gameplay provides for moderately deep decisions and enjoyment. 
  • It's reasonably quick and particularly engaging. A three-player game should take about 30-40 minutes, and despite being turn-based with no action-sharing, there's not a ton of consecutive downtime for players. Play progresses quickly, and even the most difficult decisions don't extend turns to longer than a minute or two. Because players have the ability to challenge for control of unfulfilled contracts, there's a benefit to paying attention when it's not your turn. 
  • The design is clever in surprising ways. For instance, there's a limit to the number of PRISM cards you can draw and hold in your hand, as well as a limit to the number of districts you can power. These limits can be increased by powering districts, and may be decreased by upgrading your own districts to score more points. This means players won't benefit from a focus on a single area of development (with respect to increasing abilities/efficiency), but have to balance their progression. 
  • The scoring system encourages competent play. For instance, players may "upgrade" a district by placing a newly-completed contract on top of an existing completed contract. Doing so allows players to gain the new district's bonuses without the need for an increase in the number of districts they can power. Predictably, players lose the bonuses conferred by these covered cards, but do score their victory points at the end of the game. Each upgrade scores an extra point at the end of the game. That small scoring concession is an example of clever, subtle design - the game rewards players for taking actions that might, at first, seem unimportant or counter-productive, but in reality are important in progressing the player's board and path to victory. 
  • There's a LOT of game here for $25. I've often said that Star Realms is the best game you can buy for $15. I'm not sure that's entirely true, as many thrift-shoppers have no doubt proved, but I say it to encourage folks to think about the value of a game as compared to its price. Star Realms is eminently replayable and demonstrative of the best aspects of its genre. I think Rise to Power fits that bill as a $25 purchase. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's the best possible game available for $25, but it's certainly one that I happily purchased and feel that I'll get tremendous value from. This is a "10x10" game for me, one that I'll likely play at least a dozen times before it rotates out of my "game night" box. 
There's more to Rise to Power than I've conveyed here, and I encourage you to view the successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign for more information. APE Games has picked up the rights to publish the game and plans to release it very early in 2015.

I'm not often so utterly impressed with a card game that I rush to review it immediately, but Rise to Power delivers such an enjoyable experience that I felt compelled to share it as quickly as possible!

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. Some of his reviews are also published in Ravage Magazine or at Tabletop Gaming News

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