Food Chain Magnate is maybe the funniest board game I’ve ever played. It doesn’t have single moments of hysterical laughter like you might find in party games like Balderdash. It’s just…nearly every part of Food Chain Magnate is kind of funny. This is odd for a game that advertises on the box that it’s a “heavy strategy game” for “serious gamers”. Honestly they’re selling themselves a bit short. It’s true that Food Chain Magnate is an unforgiving game, but it’s surprisingly easy to learn. You’re going to lose your first game, but you’ll know how to play.
Food Chain Magnate is the product of the small Dutch publisher Splotter Spellen, known for producing fantastic strategic and economic games in limited print runs. The result: very high price tags and a kind of mythos surrounding the company. Splotter is the kind of company where, if you can imagine the ultimate board game hipster, they would proudly proclaim that they were “totally fans before Roads and Boats.”
But seriously, this game is not cheap. Here in the US it’s very difficult to find a copy for under $100. And that doesn’t get you an elaborate production or detailed minis. You’re mostly going to get a bunch of cards and a small bucket of wooden pieces. If this game cost half the price I would recommend it to you immediately and without hesitation. It’s very very good and I can’t wait to play it again. Is it worth a three-digit price tag? Maybe.
Corrupting the Corruptible
The players in Food Chain Magnate are all attempting to establish themselves as the premier food chain establishments in a weird-ass bizarro town that only tangentially exists in the reality that we now. The town is constructed out of randomized square tiles and contain roads, houses, and an unusual number of beverage stands. The town begins as a Buddhist utopia, with none of the houses having any desires whatsoever. As capitalism takes hold and fast food enters the space, everything changes.
The players corrupt this quaint village through that great institution of our times: rigid management structures. Every player begins their fledgling business with only a CEO, which, as the card so helpfully explains, is “YOU!” You can hire one person from a large array of trainees who specialize in various tasks.
That is turn one. Maybe you hire a recruiter, who also lets you hire a person. Now you can hire two people! So you giddily hire a kitchen trainee so you can actually make food, and a marketer so you can construct billboards. Fantastic. But you now have a problem. As you look at your little corporate structure you are struck by the realization that the CEO (I mean, YOU!) can only manage 3 people. So next turn you hire a couple of management trainees to help out with the managing bits, and you notice that they look like 12 year old children. Oh well. Flash forward a few more turns and you’ve constructed a labyrinthine corporate family tree.
The sort of pure enjoyment gained by organizing your corporate structure cannot be overstated. Frequently you may find that you indeed have too many employees, or that some have become worthless to you, and need to send people to “the beach”. The rulebook seems to play it somewhat straight that this does actually represent some kind of mini-vacation, but I like to think that there’s some dungeon-like windowless basement room in my corporate fast food headquarters with a sticky note on the door that just reads “the beach”.
“Training” at “The Beach”
The beach is also where employees go to be trained. You can’t rule supreme in the dog-eat-dog world of junk food with a bunch of child trainees. They need to be traded in for fully grown adults. The problem is that adults need to be paid, while child labor is absolutely free. But, just like any small business owner, you begin with absolutely no money.
How do you make money? Well, you can hire waitresses, who provide you with “tips”, even if you don’t sell any food. (Don’t think about it too hard.) Or you can actually sell food. Unfortunately no one wants any food, so you need to advertise to them first. So grab a billboard and slap that thing immediately next to one of the houses, because that’s the only way to break them out of their desire-free existence. Next turn they’ll want whatever you’re advertising. Great! Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be visiting your restaurant.
Back to Bizarro Town
See, the residents of this town are thrifty, so they’ll go to whichever restaurant is cheapest, but they’re also lazy, so they’ll factor in the distance to each restaurant into the cost, and they’re also demanding, so they’ll only visit a restaurant if it meets every last one of their desires.
This is where the game gets interesting, because advertising is the only way to advance the game and get to the actual money-making part, but it’s also a collective action that may backfire. Because everyone is going to quickly get cooks to cook pizzas or burgers, or truck drivers or zeppelins (yes, zeppelins) to gather drinks, it’s very difficult for one player to corner a particular market and make a killing on it. You might get the advantage in a particular round, but the other players are going to react quickly.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
This makes Food Chain Magnate a game of constantly trying to one-up everyone else to squeeze out as much profit as possible. It also makes it a game of being flexible and trying to predict future actions. Not only do you need to elaborately manage your own employees, but you need to pay attention to who all of the other players are hiring and training, and make projections based off of that. In addition, you need to pay attention to the order in which marketing campaigns will resolve and in what order the people in the houses will queue up to eat. This is difficult stuff. There are a lot of variables to keep up with, and players who have trouble with what we call “analysis paralysis” may fall flat on their proverbial faces here.
Because the game requires the players to think so much about the long term, Food Chain Magnate is one of the strongest strategic games I’ve played in a long time. So far in our few plays of the game the winner has been the person best at adapting to the board state created by advertisements, but it has been very clear that no one was being particularly efficient with their hiring and management. As we improve, I think our strategies will become more focused and streamlined, and a few common early build orders will emerge.
“Home Of The Original Donkey Burger!”
Helping this is probably the most intriguing part of the game: milestone cards. These are perks given to the players who are first at accomplishing a number of goals: first to advertise a certain product, first to get $20, first to hire a waitress, etc. In any other game, these perks would be minor benefits, but in Food Chain Magnate they absolutely dominate the game. The entire early game is a matter of finding out which milestones you want to accomplish, and beating the other players to them. They then completely direct the kind of strategy you are going for.
Consider some of the benefits. The first person to train a worker gets a $15 discount on salaries for the rest of the game (as you would expect, everyone from the pizza cook to the VP gets the same $5 wage). Not only is this potentially $15 every round in your favor, it means that the people who don’t receive this actually have to either market and sell goods before they can train anyone, or get waitresses, who take up valuable spots in the corporate structure. A mere $15 may not seem significant, but trust me, it’s a huge momentum shift.
The first person to place a billboard gets the “eternal marketing” perk. Everyone else who places advertisements only has a limited number of turns before they have to place another. Eternal marketing does exactly what it says: all marketing that player places stays for the rest of the game.
The first person to get $100 turns their CEO into also a CFO, which gives them a whopping 50% bump on all profits made from then on out. Everyone else has to train a manager all the way to the highest tier to acquire a CFO.
You start to see how significant these milestones are. In my first game I didn’t look particularly closely at them and got absolutely destroyed by the people who did. But, because the milestone cards go to all players who accomplish the relevant task that round, the first few turns are very tense as players posture and position themselves to get the bonuses they want. It also makes going last in the turn order particularly valuable in the early game. If everyone else hires a recruiter as their first action, the last player can decide to snag a trainer to beat everyone else to the training bonus.
This milestone card business makes the game extremely unforgiving to early mistakes. And because the cards reward efficiency, the best players in the early game will also snag the more long term milestones. Once you fall behind in Food Chain Magnate, it’s incredibly difficult to catch up. This alone might sour the game for many people, because it’s never a pleasant experience finishing a game for an hour or two knowing you have no chance at winning.
It’s Just Fun
However, this also makes Food Chain Magnate absolutely engaging from start to finish. There are never any dead turns or unimportant decisions. Literally the first decision of the game can set the tone for the rest of your strategy. For people who want games to challenge them, this is what you’re looking for.
I don’t, however, think that the game is exclusively for the hardcore competitive player. While a more laid back player might have a hard time with a group of competitors, I don’t think the game would fall apart as a more lighthearted experience because every individual part of the game is fun. Building your management tree is fun. Placing giant billboards next to houses or flooding every resident in the town with a massive desire for lemonade with a radio campaign is fun. Getting crazy bonus powers from milestone cards is fun. Just looking through the player guide, which is delightfully designed in the style of a restaurant menu, is fun.
And don’t forget the ridiculous cognitive dissonance of it all. This is a tough economic game, yes, but everything has this retro 50’s art style to it. One of the restaurant names a player can choose is “Fried Geese and Donkey”. You can place gardens on houses, which increase the number of desires they have from 3 to 5. It also causes those people to pay double for their food for who knows what reason.
Unlike Anything I’ve Played
Food Chain Magnate is a difficult, thinky, ridiculous, silly, and immensely clever game. It has a certain audacity that I don’t see very much in board games. Maybe the benefit of being a small in-house publisher is the ability to take risks like this. I don’t know how they managed to make the milestone cards work so well while being so powerful. I can’t think of any other game where the players secretly and collectively determine how long the game is going to be right at the start.
It’s a crazy game, and I get the feeling that it’s going to hold steady in the long term. But given how precariously balanced it seems to be, I do have my doubts. Strategic engine-building games like this generally go one of two directions in the long run. Either the best strategies are discovered and the game comes down to adopting one of them, running on autopilot, and hoping that favor will swing in your direction (in a game with very little randomness like Food Chain Magnate, “favor” might mean turn order variables), or there are multiple good strategies, and high level play consists not just of picking and executing one of those strategies, but of carefully reacting and responding to the other players.
It’s those kinds of games that turn out to be masterpieces. Here’s hoping Food Chain Magnate is one of them.
Splotter recently announced that they had made their final print run of Food Chain Magnate. It’s still in stock right now at the few online retailers I checked, but I don’t know how much longer that is going to last. So if you have the money and think this game is for you, you should probably pick it up sooner rather than later.
+ Strategically deep with a lot of emphasis on planning for the future
+ Surprisingly easy to learn
+ Every part of the game individually and combined is fun
– Very unforgiving
– May take a long time with AP-prone players