Friday, September 30, 2005

Game list update

Added Caylus to my list. This is the second release from the publishers of Ys. I bought Ys and enjoy it despite the issues I have with the black gems. Caylus takes the token placement of Ys, the building of structures from Puerto Rico, the resource production/conversion from Keythedral, and combines them into a brand new feel.

All buildings that are built, while owned by the builder, are available to be "used" by other players. So if you build the Mason's House, for example, you get 4PP (prestige points), but anyone may now use that building to build new stone buildings. You can always use it for 1 denier (unit of money in the game), but others will usually pay more. Also, when other players use your buildings, you get 1PP.

The rules seem very solid, and there appears to be many paths to victory. This is the kind of game where players will spend a lot of time debating the best strategies--always a good sign.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The ekted effect

I have been an active member of BGG for about a year now. I assume if you are reading this blog that you are at least somewhat familiar with my posts and my style of discussion.

In high school, I had an English teacher who was very good at getting people engaged. He would say outrageous things in an attempt to get people to defend themselves. While not exactly the definition of the Socratic Method, its effect was the same.

Twenty years later, I am still a partial product of that experience. As a technical person, I am often involved in discussions that are very blunt. This is good. This is bad. This could be better. It's all very scientific. No one takes anything personally. Everyone learns.

Now, you'd think board gamers, being technical, intelligent, and logical, would be very similar. It seems this is not so. Making an off-handed observation about someone's favorite game is like insulting their mother.

I am obsessed about board games. I prowl around on BGG and other sites all the time looking for new games to buy. I read rules, look at images, read reviews and session reports, and (oh no!) ask questions. This is where the "fun" begins.

The highest compliment I can pay to a game that I do not own is to be on the forums asking questions about it. It means I already have the game on my watch list. Unless I find some fatal flaw, I am going to buy it. If you knew how picky I was, you would know that this is no small feat. Ultimately, I need to know if the game will be acceptible. This includes both rules and physical game quality.

I love reading game rules. This pasttime has kept me from normal reading for quite some time. I can pick up most board games in a single read, including Euphates & Tigris, Puerto Rico, and even Age of Renaissance. I'm not saying that I know every nuance of play, just that I understand how the game works, and can explain it to others.

If a rule book doesn't make sense to me after one time through, then it's either meatier than I expected (which is very uncommon) or not well written, period. Maybe I'll buy your game regardless, but I'm damn well going to say something about it. Why do people get all defensive when I do this? I don't really care that you can figure out how to play eventually. There's no excuse for bad writing from a major designer/publisher. Don't even get me started about spelling/grammar errors.

I despise hype. The publishers and designers can hype all they want. I am a customer, and it is not my job to sell games. If I like a game or like a ruleset, I will say so. When the Shadows Over Camelot hype began, I was very interested in the game. The traitor mechanism was very appealing to me. However, the forum was full of mindless fans hyping what they did not know. I couldn't resist. I threw in the ekted grenade: "DoW makes really nice-looking mediocre games." This was not some mean-spirited flame. I truly believe it, and I felt that some balance was necessary. Then all hell broke loose. Somehow I had insulted the gaming industry in general. All the trolls came out of the cracks to rally to the defense. Are we really that fragile? How sad.

Many people feel that we should all just be nice. We should only discuss the positive things in games. This is so wrong. It is a disservice to us all. Evolution demands that weakness be challenged. Without this we have fewer and fewer people buying more and more crap. If you hate a game, don't buy it. But if you like a game that has something wrong, let them know it! This is your one chance to give a little corrective push to a designer/publisher that is making something you like.

Consider the same situation without the evolutionary influences of enlightened gamers. Some company publishes a game. It's a hit, but it has a mediocre board. Everyone plays nice. To save a few bucks, the publisher uses a thinner board stock for their next game, etc. All of a sudden, no one is buying their games, so they stop making them. By your silence, you have killed the publisher of your favorite game.

So next time you see me with your game in my sights on BGG, don't start circling the wagons. It's on my watch/want list. I will likely be buying it. I am testing you. I am poking and proding to see where you are weak. I am helping you to be better. You can have my money; I just want your ear.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Winning is an interesting dichotomy in gaming. While the goal of each game--as printed in the rules--is to get the most Victory Points, etc., this is not why most of us play games. We play games for fun. What exactly makes a game or a game-playing experience fun is for each of us to decide.

Some play just to play. They don't care if they win. They don't care if they even do well. They are just happy to be at the table. This type of gamer can be problematic in 3+ player games, since they are usually hurting one person more than another. They are unlikely to give you a challenge.

Some play to win, period. They must win at all costs. They are likely to gloat if they win and sulk if they lose. They want to play games they are likely to win. Many of these players take their games so seriously that winning is an obsession. They squeeze every last point from the game, churning numbers on every turn, working out the formulae and graphs during their 15-minute turns. You will be unsatisfied with the experience, win or lose.

The sweet spot is smack in the middle of the these two extremes. Above all, games must be fun. For me, fun exists socially and intellectually. I enjoy interacting with my opponents, and I enjoy "interacting" with the game itself. I strive to find ways to improve my position or hamper my opponents, while still able to appreciate a clever play across the table.

The challenge of winning is a large part of the enjoyment of play, but it is the journey, not the destination, which creates this feeling. The actual victory is just the icing on the cake. In fact, I find losing badly in a game that I like more "rewarding" than winning. It fuels my drive to play again, and try different strategies and tactics. If I win most of the time, I tend to get bored with the game.

I also expect the same attitude in my opponents. If I feel pressure to play poorly because my opponent will get upset if they lose, or if I feel that the slightest error on my part will result in an argument, then I will find new opponents. I approach each game with the stance that I will give it my best within reasonable limits, and that the winner should be congratulated.

On a related note, I find games with "openings" less enjoyable. I prefer games that are different enough each time they are played that you are basically forced to play "by the seat of your pants". Intuition gets more points than calculation.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Game list update

Added the following to my want list:

Vinci: Playing it now on Ludagora. It's pretty fun. I am new to civ games. This one is simple enough to play (no silly tech trees), but has enough going on to be interesting. Thanks to Mary (sodaklady) for the first-time guidance.

Removed the following:

Hive: The movement rules are simply not elegant. I have enough 2 player abstracts that I don't need one with "issues".

Lock 'N Load: Band of Heroes: I think Mark Walker and Matrix blew it--at least for me. The super bright/bold hexes obscure the map (bocage). The rules are not available online. The demo rules from the previous game are very poorly written. Maybe they are acceptible to wargamers, but they are not up to eurou-gamer standards. I am getting ambiguous answers to questions online, indicating that even other players are unable to agree on the interpretations of these 'simple" rules. There are known errors, even though they got all materials for approval (they decided to live with the errors). The publisher admits you need to use a knife to cut some counters from the frame. The box covering is not properly glued. The cards are terrible quality. All for a mere $55. No thanks. The biggest issue here by far is the availability of rules online. I could live with all the rest if I knew ahead of time that I thought the rules were reasonable. Nothing I have seen leads me to believe this. I would try the game if I could get my money back (including shipping both ways) if I didn't like it.

Lord of the Rings - The Confrontation: Deluxe Edition: Given that I have 18 games on my want list, I can live without this one for now. It's not compelling enough to keep. If I bought them all, this would be the last one played. And by the time I got to it, I would have bought another handful of games pushing it further down in the pile.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Game list update

Removed Carcassonne: Princes & Dragon from my want list. This is one of those games where the faq/errata is longer than the rules. Like Magic: The Gathering, they failed to cover all possible interactions between this expansion and the rules for the basic game and the other possible expansions, making it a nightmare to play. Even if you read all of the "official" and semi-official material posted, you are left with a feeling that it isn't quite right. A black eye for Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, Hans im Glück, and Rio Grande Games.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Let's avoid a debate over semantics; I will define what I mean by granularity up front. If you want to use another word for it, be my guest.

Granularity is the measurement of the size of scoring increments in a game. It can be constant from start to finish, or change as the game progresses. It is a concept that is not often discussed along with the usual theme/mechanics aspects when critiquing a game.

I tend to like games with either constant granularity, or games in which you have quite a bit of control over the sizes of the scores and can make decisions based on risk/reward. In the former, the scores you get each turn or each scoring event are fairly close each time. This can be 1 point or 10 points, as long as each time you score for something, it's relatively the same value. In the latter, the scores can change, but you have some control over when you get them, and may choose to allow others to get them to improve your position.

Examples of fairly constant granularity are:

Yinsh: 1 point for mking a row of 5. The only way to make more than 1 point is to form crossings where one row of 5 doesn't overlap any discs in another row.

Euphrates & Tigris: Scores increase 1 VP for laying a tile (usually) and winning internal conflicts. External conflicts are often a bit more but, in my experience, tend to be in the 1-4 range.

Hansa: You get 2-4 points per good sold based on the number of barrels, and 1 point for each unsold good.

Examples of changing (but controlled) scoring:

St. Petersburg: Money increases as the game progresses. This is used to buy more money- and VP-generating cards. All players follow a similar progression. If a player falls behind in VP somewhat, they may be putting themselves in a position to buy something worth more VP in the long run.

Carolus Magnus: Each turn, you may only place 1 tower maximum. However, when you take over an opponent's territory, you replace all his/her towers with yours. This can make the game go from 8-5 to 4-9, for example. You have control over reinforcing something valuable (many towers), but may choose to risk it to steal/maintain control in the court, etc. This game is about at the extreme level of granularity for my tastes; it is so damn elegant.

Carcassonne: All versions. There is a fairly constant availability of all manner of scores throughout the game: 2-point cities, 3-point roads, 9-point cloisters, 12-point cities. There are also some very high-scoring areas (large cities and fields) that, to some extent, all players have a chance to fight for. If you choose not to, or are unable, there are ways to mitigate the loss.

Uncontrolled granularity, in my opinion, is where many games fall apart. Players fight for 1- and-2 point scores the whole game. Then BAM! One player gets 50 points. Not fun. The awards organizations seem to love giving props to games where luck of the roll/draw/guess counts more than skill.

Examples of this are:

Ticket To Ride: If you make a 20-point ticket, you get 20 points. Otherwise, you lose 20 points. What the %$@# kind of rule is that? Well, this game won some fancy schmancy award, has some nice quality bits, and it grabs the attention on non-gamers for being a pretend-train-game, but puh-lease.

Niagara: I might say this was more a chaos issue than granularity, but they are related here. Although you score for dropping gems at the base 1 at a time, through no fault of your own, you can go from 2-2-2 (1 in your boat) to 0-3-4 because 1 gem was stolen and one of your boats went over the falls. A 4-point swing may seem small, but in this game it can mean everything. You can argue that you have control over all this, but it just isn't so. Thankfully, BSW implemented this game. Now I know it's awful and will not buy it.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Games games games!

This is my current list of games that are on my "Want" or "Under Review" list. Some are new games, but most are reprints of games I failed to acquire when they were in print. Coming into real board gaming only recently, I am only now discovering some of the classics.

Carcassonne - The Princess & the Dragon

Another Carcassonne? Yes. I love I&C and T&B expansions. This one adds the fun of forcing meeples off the board in various ways. The sad part is, this is the first expansion I have looked at that adds enough tile/meeple interaction that the rules do not cover every case (see Magic: The Gathering). This sours an otherwise excellent series.

El Grande

By the time I wanted this one, I could only find new copies for $100. The good news is it's being reprinted for October! I've played lots of San Marco and Carolus Magnus, so I'm familiar with Area Influence games. This one is supposedly the grand daddy of them all, and it is different enough to claim a coveted spot on my crowded game shelf.


This game is too pretty to pass up. I am not a huge fan of games where historical machinations force the theme (more on this in a future post). However, I've read the rules, and it's fairly smooth and simple. It would be easier to justify if the full game played with just 2 players, but I think I can live with just the scenarios in that case.


I've never liked the looks of Blokus. Maybe it's the square board, or maybe it's just the cheap-looking plastic pieces. GemBlo answers both of these issues for me. If it ever becomes available at one of my normal US retailers, it's mine.


I read the rules to this game last year and wasn't impressed. This year I've been on a rules reading binge. I read the rules again, and this time something clicked. I don't know if I'll ever be able to get people to play this, but I think I want it anyways.


Nice looking game. Portable. The rules could be written significantly better. It's fairly fun, but the movement is not elegant: sometime you count spaces, and sometimes you count hex edges (sort of). I am on the fence with this one.


This game seems like the perfect answer to the absolute randomness of Settlers of Catan. In fact, other than the fact that people just keep playing what they know (eg Monopoly), I don't know why Keythedral doesn't overtake Settlers.

Lock 'N Load: Band of Heroes

I'm really trying to get into wargames a little. This one might be the answer. It's WWII--one of the only genres I can tolerate. It's mounted map boards (sorry grodnards). The rules are very short compared to most other wargames. The three issues that keep me from ordering it right now.

1. It's not available at any of my US retailers yet.

2. Everyone says the cards suck. For $70, having cheap cards is an insult.

3. The online rules for the previous version of this game are over-simplified to the point of being incomplete. If the rules are A/B/C/D, and you ask a question, the answer should not be E. I want a game I can play with the rules alone, and not some FAQ that is longer than the rules themselves. I have no idea yet if this is the case since they will not publish their rules. I am not going to give them the benefit of the doubt that the BoH rules are better than the others. I will wait to hear more feedback. So far, the answers I have gotten online to my questions lead me to believe that the rules are just as poorly written. It almost seems like there's this set of "unwritten grognard rules" that everyone in the hobby takes as default. If you haven't been playing wargames for 20 years, then you have no chance of understanding a new game from its rules alone.

While this game is on my review list, it is definitely at the bottom.

Lord of the Rings - The Confrontation: Deluxe Edition

I don't own the original, but it seems well-liked by most. I probably can't go too wrong as long as it's not $50. The only down-side is the inevitable FAQ that answers all the questions not in the rules. (I need to do a post on rule writing too I guess.)

Magna Grecia

I ignored this one for so long because of the ugly mustard yellow board. Well it appears the newer version is much more faded, so I read the rules. It seems like a lot of fun. I am fond of the connectivity mechanic.


Thanks to Mark Johnson for turning me on to this one. I own Modern Art. On the surface, this game seems like a Knizia rip-off of Knizia. But Mark's detailed discussion in his audio show proved this false.

Mini Inkognito

I've been trying to get a new copy of the board game for a long time. Funagain was only able to acquire a used German copy. So I read the rules to the card game version. It seems to work well, and provide almost the same kind of play as the original.

Die Neuen Entdecker

Thanks again to Mark Johnson. Another must-have. It has the tile laying + feature building of Carcassonne (without the roads), but the play and scoring are different enough to warrant it. Being able to choose your starting location, then risk a number of tiles to explore sounds awesome.

Oltremare - Merchants of Venice

I wasn't too fond of the tiny box and game from the original. The reprint looks like it will be a normal-sized box. Hopefully it will also be a little better quality. The game itself is a very nice design--overlapping good and bad aspects on the cards that you need to decide how to deal with.


One of my favorite games of all time, but I've only played on BSW. Now that it's being reprinted, it's time I get my own copy.

Railroad Tycoon

I had Age of Steam on my review list forever, but not being to able to get the slightest glimpse at how this game was played forced me to remove it. If you do not post your rules online, or allow others to do so, you don't get my money. I don't care how detailed a review is. It is not the same as a rulebook. Enter Railroad Tycoon. Called "AoS Lite" by some. For me, it's just enough of a game to be meaty, but light enough that I think it will come out often. Kudos to Eagle for making this and for posting full-color rules.

Reef Encounter

I have yet to play this, but already Richard Breese gets my vote for designer of the year. These rules are daunting. The game has many intricacies, requiring a few passes to wrap your head around it. However, the rules really are complete. I say this about so few games. Eagerly awaiting the reprint.

San Juan

I was reluctant to even learn this on BSW because their implementation of Puerto Rico is so horrid, but I finally broke down. Being only a card game, it does an amazing job of capturing the feel of its big daddy, with only 2% of the setup time.

Taj Mahal

Strangely, I ignored this one for some time because of the theme. Shrug. I finally read the rules, and now I want it. Like El Grande, I was able to find a rare copy in shrink, but for an outrageous price. With the reprint coming, I'll wait for normal prices. This game combines a lot of mechaics that I've played in other games, all of which I like.


There's not much info on this yet, but game is another pretty one. The idea of a short-ish civilization game is very compelling. I'll be checking this out for sure.

Newest addition to my list: Freidrich
Most likely to leave my list: Lock 'N Load: Band of Heroes
Last game to leave my list: Inka

Monday, September 05, 2005

Carcassonne: The Math

No, this is not some bizarre new variant. It is a discussion of one aspect of the tactics of play: the value of a tile. So often I see new players making odd choices. They fail to understand the simple math behind the tile placement. For the sake of clarity, I will be ignoring other aspects of strategy. This discussion is for the basic game only. Many of the expansions significantly affect the evaluation of scoring.

The Basics

There are 72 tiles in the basic set. That means each player in a 2-player game will be placing 35 or 36 tiles over the course of the game. In my experience, final scores tend to be in the 100-150 point range. That's an average of 2.8 to 4.3 points per tile played. Do you need to score this much every time you play a tile? No, but there are considerations to maximize profit.


Roads would seem to be the least favorable play since each tile is only worth 1 point. Even so, new players love to take otherwise useless* road tiles and add them to one of their roads. This practice is often inferior.

In general, roads should be a secondary consideration. However, since roads appear on many tiles and must be connected as tiles are played, there often exists many 2/3/4+ unoccupied but connected road segments. If your meeple situation warrants AND the road(s) are reasonably situated, it is usually better to take advantage of an already created road than to extend one (1 point vs. 3+ points).

You can also get some sneaky points with roads. Consider the following case. You have a meeple at A on the south side of a 4-way intersection.

......... +-------+
+-------+ |...x...|
|...x...| |xBxxxxx|
|xxxxxxx| |...x...|
|...A...| +-------+

Adding the 4th tile and placing a meeple at B completes the road under A for 4 points and scores an additional 2 points for the new road.


These are perhaps the most misunderstood features for new players. Since they are worth 9 points, there is a huge incentive to play and complete them. However, each tile is still only worth 1 point for that cloister. Adding a tile to a cloister is the same as adding a tile to a road. Unless you need the meeple back, or there is some other reason, do not simply add a 1-point tile to a cloister.

The real value of a cloister is in its initial placement. 4 to 6 points is not uncommon. Also, placing a cloister against an opponent's feature means that your opponent will need to help you if they want to complete their own road/city. Also, 2 cloisters side by side allows for 4 of the tiles to be shared. This is still only 2 points per tile, but better than 1.

Always consider the value of a cloister as "in the bank". As yourself what you add specifically by playing the tile. Do not think of it as getting 9 points only when you complete it.


Cities are the most complicated of scoring issues. They can be worth 1, 2, or 4 points per tile depending on the size of the city and any shield icons present. Also, cities give points to farmers.

Unless you are trying to score farmer points, avoid making 2-point cities. Also, rather than starting a city for yourself each time, favor extending an existing unoccupied city cap with a non-cap piece.

If you have 2 or more incomplete cities, favor placing new city tiles onto the largest of them. This way you will more likely finish the larger cities, leaving the potentially incomplete smaller ones for the end game scoring.

If you have the option of extending a city or starting a new one by extending an unoccupied city tile, opt for the latter if you can spare the meeple. This is worth 4 points instead of 2.


Fields are very straight forward, but because their total value is accumulated until the end, they create an ever increasing tension as the game draws to an end. In addition, players incorrectly feel the need to attack opponents who have large fields.

Here's an example. Player A has a farmer (A) in a field with 5 cities (C):


This is worth 15 points (new farmer scoring). Player B wants to attack this field. To do so, he must play a tile/farmer, then later play another tile that connects the field. This means he must play 2 tiles AND take the risk that he'll even be ABLE to connect. Why not do this:


It's a single tile, it's no risk, and it still grabs all 15 points.

A related example. This time not all the cities are on the same border of the field:


Player A still has 15 points. Again Player B could attack this field with the same 2 tiles and risk. Player B could also play the same way as in the previous example:


Player B gets 9 points to A's 15. This is particularly good near the end game.

Cities + Fields

If you already have a field that you think you can keep control of, then the creation of cities changes quite a bit. Forming a 2 point city nets you 5 points overall. That's 2.5 points per tile. Using the "double cap" tiles to complete an existing city AND start a new one at the same time can earn you 10 points for 3 tiles.

In Summary

Always ask yourself how many real points you are adding to your score, counting just the tile being played. This will help you evaluate your options when you add in all the other factors that occur in the game. If you find yourself simply adding to a feature you already control, you may want to think again.

* I would assert that almost no tile is useless. If you can't directly help yourself, you can either indirectly prepare for some future opportunity, or attack an opponent by trying to negate/steal/block a feature.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Anyone there?

If you read this blog and are a gamer, please reply. I'd like to know if I should keep doing this, or if I am just wasting my time. I'm getting a reasonable number of hits for a new blog, but almost no feedback.


Power Grid design review

Although I am a fan of Power Grid, I have been fairly critical of the design of the power plant market mechanic. It is too fiddley; there are too many things to do and too many special cases. It is not elegant.
  • Specific initial plants 3-10 (13), but shuffled deck.
  • Special rule if no power plant is purchased.
  • Special rule if power plant numbers are less than or equal to leading player's cities.
  • Special action at end of phase 5 to bury highest power plant.
  • Special action at step 1/2 transition.
  • Special but different action at step 2/3 transition depending on phase (2/4/5).
  • Change in power plant layout during step 3.
  • Special action in phase 5 during step 3.
In my personal attempt to come to terms with all of this, I am going to analyze the intent of the mechanic and how all the above craziness came to be. This is purely speculation; I do not know Friedmann Friese, and have not interviewed him.

Let's start with the basic premise: players need to buy power plants to power their cities. Since the number of cities will grow as the game progresses, players will need plants capable of powering more cities later in the game. So a good starting place is to put all the plants in numerical order:

3 4 5 6 7 ... 40 42 44 46 50

Well, this works, but it's not very interesting. The plant order is always the same, and it's predictable. The game could be completely analyzed leading to specific opening plays with expected value for each plant based on the number of players, etc.

So we want some randomness. Let's shuffle the deck of plants.

31 11 44 26 19 ... 4 40 28 7 33

Hmmm. This causes some problems. Some starting plants cannot be afforded early in the game (purchase price + cost of fuel), so players will get nothing. And near the end of the game there will still be many low-numbered plants that no one wants any more. Completely random is worse than completely sorted.

How about sorted with a small amount of localized randomness? Sort the deck in numberical order, then change each plants position by a small but random amount up or down in the deck.

5 6 3 11 4 9 14 ... 37 36 44 50 42 35 46

This works very nicely, but the effort required to do it is prohibitive. If Power Grid was only a computer game, this might be the way to go as it would be exceedingly simple to "shuffle" in this way. So how do we get a result similar to this without all the work?

Let's start with Power Grid's initial setup: remove the first 8 plants (and 13), and shuffle the rest of the deck.

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (13) ...

The power plant market is a moving "window" on the shuffled deck of cards. As plants are bought, a new card is added, moving this window 1 place to the right.

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 13 27 42 30 15 39 21 ...

The fixed initial power plants guarantee that there is something affordable and appropriate for all players. However, since the rest of the deck is random, unwanted plants (too low and/or too high) will ocassionally fall into the window. What are the issues at this point?

Players will each be positions to want different sizes and types of plants over the course of play. One player may want a plant in the 20's and another in the 30's. So in this sense, having a nice random selection of plants is a good thing.

... 27 42 11 30 15 39 21 46 ...

There will be plants that no players want any more. These will be the plants that have too small an output. These are essentially useless in the game at this point. The rules allow for this by removing these plants from play.

... 27 42 (11) 30 15 39 21 46 38 ...

(goodbye 11, hello 38)

There will also be plants that no players want YET. These will be the plants that are too expensive right now, but may be desired in a later turn. The rules allow for this by placing these plants under the draw pile until step 3.

... 27 42 30 15 39 21 (46) 38 23 ...

(goodbye 46, hello 23)

All of the above serves two purposes: it de-randomizes the power plant order enough so that appropriate plants are available when needed, and it moves the "window" along at approximately the same pace as the players' actions. Since this changes from game to game (and with number of players), the progression of the window must adjust itself accordingly.

So it really works?


Then why does it bug me so much?

There's eight special rules to manage this window, and it doesn't scale.

Doesn't scale?

If you used the same mechanism for a longer game or with 8 players, it would fall apart. A good analogy would be to look at a graph of the function y = x^2. It's a curve, but when you look at certain local areas up close, you might mistake it for a line. This is what Power Grid does. The power plant mechanics work just good enough for 2-6 and for the number of turns that typical games take that it gives the illusion of "being a line". But I can see the hidden curve on either end.

Can I think of something better?

Maybe. Some day. If I do I will present it here as a possible variant.