Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
Funkenschlag. Its title screams "German," but this game has a distinct American feel. The cover art is simple and subdued. Little thought has been given to how the components fit into the box. The cards, though made of a hearty material, resist all attempts to be shuffled. The board does anything but dazzle one's imagination. And a first glance leads one to believe that the game is simply another variant of the Empire Builder line.
But let me get this out of the way, I like this game. This is a meat-and-potatoes, no-nonsense, one-foot-after-the-other game that doesn't care that it'll never win awards for the way it looks.
Funkenschlag (also known as "the world's most carefully spelled game") is a slow burn. Put out snack bowls, poor some drinks, and prepare to spend up to five hours playing the full game with up to six players. The game proceeds river-like through five repeated phases: bookkeeping, auction, purchasing, building, and payoff. At times, players must wait while one player trickles through his turn. At other times, everyone cascades together through play. These ebbs and flows propel the game onward and the proceedings are never boring.
First thing you notice when you open the box is that designer Friedemann Friese has a limited grasp of space and dimension. The board, a thick sheet of paper treated on one side with a glossy finish, is folded over and must be massaged to make it sit flat. I learned that the crayon used to draw on the board might leave permanent marks, so I quickly opted to overlay the board with Plexiglas and use markers. What have I wasted $30 on? I wondered to myself at first. Then, at the bottom of the box, I found some nice wooden bits of varying shapes (a German game truism is there ever was one) and was somewhat relieved. After reading through the rules, I smiled.
The theme is one of building an energy grid to connect and power cities with coal, oil, garbage, uranium, wind, or hybrid power plants. Power plants come available by way of a round-the-table auction. Resources needed to fuel these plants are priced in a heartless supply vs. demand fashion. Anyone who's played a crayon rail game will be right at home building power lines to connect cities.
The mechanics feel rock solid, each twist in play adding to the drama of the game. During the auction, eight power plants are visible to the players, but only the four weakest power plants are available for purchase. Once a power plant is bought, a new one is drawn to replace it, and the eight are rearranged to reflect their respective power. This mechanic produces a horrible/wonderful feeling, since players can see which of the four stronger power plants they'd desperately love to own, but each player knows that the possibility of owning his favored power plant is far from assured.
Turn order, determined by how many cities a player has connected with his power lines, plays a strong role in strategy. Indeed, this game is very much an affair of "Oh God, please don't do that before I do." Players with the fewest cities connected go first during the critical buying recourses and building phases. Though it's almost always possible for each player to buy resources, the price goes up with every purchase. So where as the first buyer may scoop up coal for $1 or $2 per unit, the last player may be forced to pay a heart-breaking $8.
Building power lines first is essential as well. The game is divided into three time frames. During the first, only one player may build lines into any given city, thus making it a "first come first serve" dilemma. But carefully planning out your power line route is also vital, as each segment of your power line costs precious cash. Often, a player finds himself racing to a city only to realize he lacks the dough to make the final connection, and then the city is snatched out from under him. When someone steals the city you wanted, you'll have to save up to build to a city that's further away. Or wait around in a painfully static state for the second or third time frames, when 2 and 3 players respectively may connect to each city.
The Catch-22 to all this is: if you hold back on connecting cities you can buy and build first, but since the only way to get money in the game is to connect cities and power them, what good is going first? And conversely, if you connect and power a lot of cities, you'll rake in the money but at the expense of going last during the buying and building phases. A delicate balancing act quickly emerges.
To add to the stress, the designers point out that if a player makes a serious mistake near the beginning, he'll have a hard time catching up. To some extent this is true, and if I were playing with non-gamers I'd play the short "practice" variant included in the rules. But the gamers I played with had no problems figuring out how to keep up with the Joneses, and no one ever found himself out of the running, a nice thing considering the game's length.
The endgame is the best and worst part of Funkenschlag. The game ends when a certain number of cities are connected, but the winner is the player who powers the most cities with active plants. This creates a great deal of tension, as each player must struggle to hold off the end of the gameó or hasten itó until such time that he's acquired the best power plants to achieve the highest score. However, this tension can turn to frustration if players feel the need to analyze every possible path in their quest for victory. This is more of a problem outside the game than with the game. If overly analytical players are pressured to hurry along during the last turns, the tension never has a chance to spoil. Also, this problem isn't much of an issue if you play with 2-4 players instead of a full six.
This isn't a game for everyone. It's a game for the hobbyist. The rule translation is vague on some points and there are errata one should be aware of (mainly, plant 27 should supply 3 cities, not 4 as printed). But once youíve got all the rules straight (see Board Game Geek for help), Funkenschlag will give you a lot to feast upon.
Funkenschlag might not be the prettiest game I've ever seen, and it shouldn't be the first game a person just getting into the hobby buys, but the game's air-tight mechanics and constant ability to keep me wanting to make the most of my turns makes it one of my favorite "longer" games. A
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)