One of my favorite games is Through the Ages. It is a long, complex game where every decision matters and the weight of those decisions give the game a very noticeable tension. It is a game where the experienced player has a clear advantage and any big mistakes can put you in a position to lose the game. Those aspects of Through the Ages draw me to the game and make it stand apart from many other games in my collection. When I heard about Food Chain Magnate having many of those same characteristics I was instantly interested.
Food Chain Magnate is a game about running a new fast-food franchise, making food, and trying to be the dinner destination for the people of the town the game occupies. To start, you are running a one-man shop. It’s just you, the CEO. But obviously running an entire restaurant is a task far greater than one person can handle. It’s time to hire new employees to help grow your business. What you sell and what your company looks like is up to you, because right now you aren’t actually making anything and nobody is buying. This isn’t for a lack of desire. The people just don’t know what they want yet.
As mentioned above, in Food Chain Magnate you start off with a blank slate of a company. On the table before you is a variety of new employees eagerly waiting for you to hire them. There’s just one problem, as CEO, you believe in nurturing talent and promoting from within. If you want to hire a more capable burger chef, you’re going to have to hire an entry-level employee and train him to do the job. You have before you a Human Resources tech-tree just waiting to be unlocked. There are a variety of career paths your employees can take. They can work in the kitchen as a burger or pizza cook, pick up beverages from vendors on the board, be a waitress providing you with a cash bonus every round, or begin learning the ropes in marketing. If you really want to unlock their potential you hire them as management trainees. From that position they can really help your business hit its stride. As management trainees are trained they allow you change your food prices, hopefully edging out your competition; allow you to expand your business to new restaurants around the town; and even build new houses that will create new customers for you to compete over.
Food Chain Magnate is a very interactive game and the player that isn’t paying attention to what others are doing will likely have a hard time. For example, let’s say your restaurant is located nice and close to two lucky houses. Your marketing employees have done a great job singing the praises of pizza and hamburgers, and you have been fulfilling the desires of your customers for several turns. Everybody is happy. What you didn’t notice was your competitors over at the Fried Goose and Donkey (yes, that’s a name of one of the restaurants in the game) has been training Alex in marketing for the past three turns. He’s just been promoted to Brand Director and found a way to edge out the competition (you). Suddenly lemonade is all that is on the minds of your loyal customers and there you are without anyone to produce any type of beverage. Now it will take a few turns for you to hire an employee and train them in the skills required to procure lemonade for your restaurant. In the meantime, the Fried Goose and Donkey is making money off of what were your customers. Brand loyalty is fleeting.
To make things more interesting there are certain milestones that you can achieve for almost every aspect of playing the game. These milestones are bonuses that give you a special advantage for being the first to achieve various objectives. If you are the first to train an employee you will receive a discount on employee salaries, first one to place a billboard allows all of your marketing to be free for the rest of the game, and many others. Fortunately being first applies to everyone that turn, so multiple players can achieve the same milestone. Milestones give the players specific objectives to work towards and they will help define your strategy during the game. Some of them are extremely powerful and again encourage players to keep an eye on each other. One in particular gives a player a free CFO for their company, which adds 50% to all money earned each round. The milestones allow you to differentiate your strategy from the other players and make sure there are some things that you just do better.
The game progresses until the bank is emptied of cash twice; the first time is a predetermined amount of money based on the number of players, but the second time is an amount that is player determined. Each player selects a denomination ($100, $200, or $300) and that amount is placed in to the bank after it is emptied the first time. This allows the players to have some control over the length of the game, selecting the smaller amounts for a shorter game or the larger amount for a longer game. Once the bank is emptied on that second time, whoever has the most money is declared the winner.
There are a number of aspects to the game that can be considered negatives depending on your outlook on games in general. For one, this game can have a runaway leader problem. Food Chain Magnate expects the other players at the table to slow down a player that is starting to rake in all the money. There is no catch-up mechanism. As a result, some games can be decided well before the game actually ends. Does this count as a design flaw? As stated before, it depends on your outlook on games. Surely there is something the other players could have done to prevent one player from shooting past everyone else, but by the time it was realized it was too late. This also means that a more experienced player will almost always have the edge in the game. Knowing how all the mechanics play off of each other and how to react in certain situations will always give the player that is more familiar with the game a serious competitive advantage. Another negative for the game is its price. There have been countless discussions on BoardGameGeek and other sites about what you are paying for when you purchase a game. Are you paying for the design or the components? If you’re on the components end of the argument then you will not feel this game is worth your money. The graphic design is very flat, but done so to evoke a 1950’s design aesthetic and also to keep the board legible when halfway through a game and there is a lot of information to absorb for the turn. Finally, the game can be relatively long. This isn’t a negative for the game in terms of the way it plays, in fact I would say the game feels like it plays quickly despite its length. The length is a personal negative because it means that I will have a much harder time getting it to the table. Fortunately, there’s a solution to that problem.
At the beginning of this review I mentioned Food Chain Magnate had several things in common with Through the Ages which make them stand apart from other games I typically play. They are both long games that make them difficult to get played regularly. Fortunately another similarity between these two games is that they both have an excellent online implementation. In fact most of my plays of Food Chain Magnate have been online. BoardGameCore has an excellent implementation of the game that makes it easy to play an “almost live” game or a game where you just take a turn or two a day.
Overall Food Chain Magnate is a game that has a certain audience in mind. That audience is gamers that enjoy a deep, highly-interactive game that rewards good play, and lets the other players punish you for your mistakes. If you are in that audience I think this game hits a lot of high points and will reward you for exploring the depth that it has to offer. If you are not in that audience then this game will likely feel like an unfun, lopsided slog through 2-4 hours. I enjoy this type of game in moderation, and knowing what to expect out of Food Chain Magnate means it will hold a prized place on my shelf in the long term.