Food Chain Magnate ★★★★★
No one’s born with an appetite for beer and hamburgers but once billboards surround your house and menus flood your mailbox you might start thinking otherwise. Splotter’s latest title, Food Chain Magnate, puts us into the cutthroat restaurant business and takes us on a satirical fight for riches, publicity and hungry stomachs.
Food Chain Magnate is the first breakthrough hit for Splotter, a two-man operation from the Netherlands known for their economic games. They have released some of the most intriguing games in the genre like Roads & Boats, a love-letter to logistics, and Greed Incorporated, a game about taking companies down from the inside for personal gain.
They are all excellent games and so is Food Chain Magnate, which captures their usual features in a leaner package. Like their previous titles it’s a no holds-barred fight in which you are as likely to suffer the wrath of your opponents as you are to strangle yourself. It’s innovative, refreshing and a lot of fun.
The game feels similar to deck builders despite not being one. In fact, it might be closer to Citadels and other role-selection games than it is to Dominion. We start by ourselves, just able to hire one person per turn out of the large pool of available staff. From there, we grow our business with cooks, trainers, waitresses and specialists such as real estate developers and CFOs.
This is a simple and refreshingly direct process. If we want to hire an employee, we can just do that. There’s no randomness nor drafting process. There are only two limitations. The first is that most employees can only be obtained by training and the second is that good employees need to be paid a salary.
Unlike other games, who provide us with a steady supply of customers, we have to get them ourselves. We need to hire marketing agents to induce demand, plastering houses with billboards, bombarding customers with publicity campaigns and blasting them with radio commercials. But the demand created through publicity can be fulfilled by any player.
Customers prefer to spend as little money as possible, including the cost of driving. Lowering prices and aggressively placing restaurants next to their houses allows us to undercut the competition and get their sales. The interplay between prices, training and our capacity for cooking enough hamburgers drives the game forward and is extremely fun.
One aspect of Food Chain Magnate I particularly enjoy is that it’s deeply satirical. From the design to the illustrations, it paints a cynical picture of the fast food business and the mid-century American culture that gave birth to it.
You don’t have to pay your untrained staff because, well, you are pretty much recruiting teenagers. The gender roles displayed on the cards, as well as the smirk on middle managers reminds me of those old commercials raving about the benefits of smoking cigarettes. It’s great stuff and fun to look at.
It’s not window-dressing, either. The satirical aspect is constantly communicated through gameplay. The ruthlessness, price wars and over-the-top advertising is as heavy on the strategy as it is on the setting. The idea of plastering a giant billboard in front of a house so that their inhabitants have no choice but to stare at it seems ridiculous, but that’s pretty much what London’s Piccadilly Circus or Madrid Metro look like.
It’s also fun. There’s something funny about flooding the board with hamburgers or driving food prices negative just to crush the competition. You can even get Zeppelins to get drinks and plop down houses simply to sell more food. The brutality of the gameplay drives home its satirical message, without resorting to clichés such as fast food being unhealthy, unclean or its consumers dumb.
Food Chain Magnate has simple rules, but it’s a difficult game to play. The lack of restrictions make for a fun experience but it also means small differences in skill result in large disparities. When you win in this game, you don’t just sell more burgers, you sell all the burgers and if your opponents can’t deal with that, well, too bad.
I think coming to the board with the expectation that you’ll sell some food, reinvest the benefits and do a bit better next time will result in a very sour experience. Food Chain Magnate is a race. And in a race, there are two ways to beat the competition: To run faster than them or break their legs. Food Chain Magnate, being a friendly game for friendly people, allows us to do both.
That said, claims that the game snowballs are not accurate. Having more money does not help us sell more food, only employees do. In fact, the most aggressive strategies will reach high amounts of cash very quickly but will inevitably lose ground to slower, more powerful corporate structures. The point of the game is to find the right tools to cross the finish line before your opponent does.
Similarly, Food Chain Magnate does not take four hours to play. Once you are acquaintanced with the game, a match should not take longer than two hours. The extremely long play times reported by some are caused by not knowing the cards and playing in an extremely conservative manner.
Food Chain Magnate is an indie game and hence does not have the production values one might expect from large publishers. And by that I don’t mean that its components are poor, but that the priorities behind them are different.
Food Chain Magnate is designed, first and foremost, for clarity in play. The illustrations are nice but their main goal is being easy to recognize from across the table. The board follows the spartan principles of the 18XX series and seems empty in comparison with the detailed, but harder to follow, boards of other contemporary releases.
Some will find the 75€ price tag galling. While the hundreds of wooden tokens are not cheap, they will disappoint those who value games by their pieces. Still, there are some minor issues. The game is in dire need of an organizer and the board tiles, plain or not, aren’t perfectly cut and don’t fit each other. Like most economic games, the paper money is inadequate and best replaced by poker chips.
There’s no mincing words about it: Food Chain Magnate might prove disheartening at first. Some will be crushed on their first match and vow to never play again. But what makes it great is its sharpness, it’s high level of interaction and punishing gameplay. It’s up to us to rise up to the challenge and overcome its learning curve.
|FOOD CHAIN MAGNATE (2015)|
|DESIGN|| Jeroen Doume|
|ART||Iris de Haan|
|PUBLISHER||Splotter Spellen||LENGTH||120 Minutes|
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||2-5 (Best with 3-4)||SCORE||★★★★★|