Magnate: The First City Review

At time of publication you can still pre-order Magnate here.

I’ve got to hand it to James Naylor, first time designer and publisher of Magnate: The First City. He didn’t play it safe. Not only did he make a somewhat obtuse game to dive into, where multiple pages of the rulebook are required to explain how you roll some dice to gain some resources, but he made the kind of gritty economic game where decisions actually, truly matter. I’m talking about games where, after you’ve finished, you can dig into your choices and figure out precisely where you made mistakes.

Once you get past some of the more persnickety concepts, Magnate is a relatively simple game. The learning curve reminded me of Power Grid, where the game does things you haven’t seen before, or takes familiar concepts and twists them around in unusual ways, but once you understand, you’ll stay understood.

Magnate is a real estate game with a devilish twist. Taking on the roles of property developers, the players will be buying land, constructing buildings, and extracting rent from tenants. The catch is that you’re doing this during an absolutely ridiculous property bubble. No joke, the price of land will nearly double before the second round before steadily moving up at a good clip every round thereafter.

The way Naylor designed the economics of this game reminds me of Food Chain Magnate. On its face it’s exaggerated and absurd, but when you think about it you realize that it serves the purposes of the game. The exaggerated parts are what the game is about, and everything unimportant to that mission is pushed down. Magnate is about scrambling and clawing to buy up land as fast as possible, flipping property for ludicrous profits, and turning that money around into bigger and bigger purchases. A more subtle, realistic model wouldn’t have pushed players nearly as hard in the proper direction, and the satire wouldn’t have been as clear.

While the price of land rapidly accelerates upwards, the cost to construct a building remains static, and the sale price of a building is only indirectly related to the size and type of that building. For example, if you have an empty house on a plot of land, that will sell for the exact same price as an empty giant skyscraper. Why spend $6 million on the skyscraper instead of $400,000 for the house? Because the former can attract more, better paying tenants.

Tenants multiply the sale price of the building they’re in significantly, on top of providing rent each round. But seriously, don’t worry too much about rent. Magnate is all about flipping. The sale price for a piece of property is the current value of land multiplied by a number of factors. Is there a building on it? Now it’s 2x the price of land. Is there a favorable adjacency bonus due to its location? 3x. Multiple bonuses? +1x for each one. Same for tenants. It quickly becomes absurd.

For example: say you’re in the middle of the game and land is selling for a cool million. You buy a piece of land and slap a building on top of it for $1.9m. Supposing you have an adjacency bonus you could immediately sell it at a profit: land+building+bonus is 3x the land price of $1m=$3m. Rad. But just sit on it a little while longer and tenants will come in. Suppose you roll well and attract 4 tenants to that building. Now you’re at a 7x bonus. Oh, and the price of land is now $1.3m. A quick glance at the handy multiplication table provided…$9.1m.

If all of this math sounds intimidating, first of all, it’s not as bad as it looks. Secondly, if you’re going to let some basic arithmetic get in the way of enjoying a game, I feel bad for you. No judgement, just…give it a shot? There are some incredible games where a calculator is helpful, because the cold hard reality of numbers can bring forth some of the most potent, thrilling gameplay experiences you can have.

One more paragraph on this tangent. One way (but not necessarily the only or best way) to measure the strategic depth of a game is to measure the “planning horizon” a game has. A perfect information game like chess has a complete horizon–given enough computing/brain power you can view all of the possible consequences of any given decision. There are no game elements to muddy that up, only the limits of your physical mind. A highly luck dependent game like Yahtzee has a very short horizon. You know the odds weighing your current decision and you know the current game state, but everything else is shrouded in fixed odds tables. That isn’t a condemnation of games with such shrouding elements–I happen to think Yahtzee is a pretty enjoyable game and there are plenty of wonderful variants on its push your luck template. 

I lied re: paragraphs. But there’s something exhilarating about these deep-horizon economic games, because they’re so interactive. Interactivity is often only spoken about in terms of direct zero-sum clashes–“I kill your units and take control of this area”–but that’s an incredibly simplistic understanding of the idea. 

In Magnate, for example, you may be at a point where you’re trying to decide what building to build on a particular plot of land. Surveying the game board, you notice that two other players own vacant lots adjacent to yours. What will they build there? That’s partially dependent on what you build, as certain building types encourage other building types. But what you want to build is dependent on what they will end up building. Do you negotiate with them and try to influence their decision? Do you spend this action on something else, delaying construction? What’s the opportunity cost in tenant rent for doing so? How will that factor into what you intend to do during the turn order bid?

Magnate is an interlocking set of incentives reminiscent of the best kinds of economic games. Where you buy land, where you build, and where other people build can be the margin between victory and defeat. Creating situations that nudge others into doing what you want them to do is an exquisite puzzle. Figuring out the end game position you want to be in for the biggest sales is the big league play, but doing so requires a certain level of vision and the ability to rewind that back, back, back into very early game decisions.

That’s not to say that Magnate is all crunchy hair-pulling calculations. Naylor sprinkles in just enough unpredictability to mess with your most carefully laid plans. The tenants that are available are pseudo-randomly determined–new people trickle in each round based on draws from a deck of cards. Which plots of land go on sale is determined by pulling chits from a bag–though you can always pay a premium to buy an empty lot adjacent to one of your buildings. And the severity and timing of the crash is likewise determined by cards.

Oh, right, the crash. Like Lacerda’s Escape Plan from last year, Magnate stakes all of your progress on a critical late game decision. Many people will scoff at this, as they did at Escape Plan, but such people should learn the thrills of losing in spectacular fashion. At the end of each round a certain number of “risk” cards are pulled, bringing closer the fatal needle that’ll pop this real estate bubble. As soon as the bubble bursts, the price of land drops off a cliff, everyone sells their remaining buildings at the new price, and the game ends. The key, then, is to sell everything you have just before this happens. Sometimes that’ll be quite evident, and the crash won’t matter much. Most of the time those behind in the money race will try to delay the game longer, holding onto their properties in an attempt to delay the game one more round, while those in the lead will sell, pushing the market to draw more risk cards and ending the game. The best games of Magnate will end with the players standing up in anticipation, hoping their high-stakes risks pay off.

Magnate isn’t perfect, however, though it is very good. Everything involving tenants is a bit of a mess. The tokens themselves don’t fit particularly well with the building models I got with the prototype. It’s too much stuff on too little board, and you’ll often have to lean the tokens against buildings or work out some overlap system to display them well. Not that I’d necessarily want the board to be bigger or the buildings to be smaller–the board is large as it is and the sculpts are nice.

More frustrating are the tenant rolls. I’ve never played an economic game with so much dice rolling. If you’ve got someone well versed in the game, they can take charge and do the calculations for how many dice everyone rolls and which bonuses they get, but until you get to that point it’s like counting route values in an 18xx game on top of figuring out equipment modifiers to an attack roll in D&D.

Ultimately you’ll spend a healthy portion of the game counting, rolling, and resolving the tenant phase. Some solid decision making comes into play, particularly when you use the advanced variant, which I highly recommend, as it introduces different types of tenants for each building type. With the basic tenants the game is much more calculable as each building’s tenants will always give the same adjacency bonuses. With tenant variability, that can change, and pushing for a certain type of tenant can result in some nasty surprises for your competitors if you play your cards…err, dice right.

The different tenant types also require different dice rolling thresholds to attract, which means that the decision space around when to use your tokens that shift any die to a “5” is much more interesting. I won’t ever play with the basic rules again, and the rules overhead for this “advanced” variant is not particularly steep.

Still, I can’t quite get past how cluttered this portion of the game can become, both visually and mentally. The rest of the game, from bidding for turn order to the rapid action phase, to the easy to understand cleanup phase, is so sleek and potent that I can imagine a smaller game that captures the same cutthroat feeling without as much puttering around.

I’m willing to forgive a lot of design sins when the core gameplay is compelling, and Magnate is certainly absolved. As a first design it’s audacious, focused on a singular thematic vision of trying to capture the ruthlessness of speculators in the midst of an economic bubble. It will ultimately be polarizing, driving away people who can’t get past the calculation and token rummaging, and drawing in people who see the tense, interactive gameplay into which they can sink their teeth.

Review based on prototype from publisher

Score: 8/10

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