I finally got to play these two games.
Merchants of Amsterdam is one of the more overlooked Knizia designs. People seem to think it's just okay, and there's considerable debate about the damage-prone timer. We decided to each put a finger around the timer as the auction was going on. There was still tension, but the timer wasn't banged nearly as hard as it could have been.
I enjoyed the game. There are many arenas to remain balanced in, and the scoring rounds always seem to come around just before you get that ruling market in Africa (or wherever). I like the decisions about where to lay cards. It's a gamble, and it doesn't always pay off. Finally, the maligned timer is actually a great addition. The tension is just ratcheted up by not having the luxury to sit back and debate whether you'll increase the last person's bid. I'm not very good at auction games, and I'm always suspicious that a good strategy is to not buy anything (same goes for Modern Art), but what kind of lame game does that make for? Why would I want to spend 90 minutes playing a bidding game and not bidding? I'm still debating whether to purchase it before it's gone forever, but I'd definitely play it any time.
Power Grid is an enigma. I can think of few games that received more gushing praise over the last year, so I was really anxious to finally play it. As an aside, I think the map art is magnificent. Some complain that it's too busy but I just love it.
Three of the four players had never played before...and that was good because I think this is one of those games where someone who's played before has a huge advantage over a novice. First, the game is really fiddly--I don't particularly enjoy having to check off a bunch of little housekeeping things every round. The auctions are interesting. You see that great plant in the Futures Market, but do you wait and hope it comes up this round, or just buy something else? The commodities market is great. I love how certain commoditites get more scarce and thus more expensive, while others slowly beome cheaper and cheaper. I'm surprised I liked this game at all, simply based on the amount of math involved...but I did. It one of those games that after one playing I feel like there's a lot bubbling just under the surface--I felt this with Liberte, and Euphrat & Tigris too.
I definitely want to play again. And since the map is two-sided and you only play with limited sections, the replayability is through the roof.