Food Chain Magnate
- Designers: Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga
- Publisher: Splotter Spellen
- Players: 2-5
- Ages: 14+
- Time: 120-240 min
Food Chain Magnate is is the eagerly-awaited new release from Splotter, and as is traditional for Splotter games it’s complicated, on the long side, and relatively unforgiving. If you’re familiar with any of their other releases you’ll feel right at home.
As one would expect the game involves placing restaurants on a board and attracting customers to them in order to make money. However, as one might not expect the board play is fairly abstract; players will only be able to place up to three restaurants each on the board and income comes from a relatively small number of houses on the board. Which is not to say that the board play is not important – it certainly is – but the emphasis of the game is on managing your corporate structure, said structure consisting of cards for your various employees arranged in an organizational hierarchy. (I should have double-dared Jeroen to name the game “Human Resources Manager” to see how many people would still buy it.)
Players start the game with just one card representing the CEO. However, more people can be hired each turn. Hiring like everything else in the game is limited by your employees; the CEO can hire just one person per turn, so if you want to be able to ramp up quickly later on you’ll need to hire recruiters. Other types of employees include marketers, waitresses, trainers, pricing specialists, drink fetchers (in the Food Chain Magnate world drinks are available at depots on the board), and the people who actually make the food.
All your active employees need to be in a hierarchy. The CEO and any managers you have each have a number of slots for subordinates and any employee you want to work on a given turn needs to be in a slot. You can leave employees out (“on the beach” as the rulebook puts it), but then they can’t do anything except get trained (and in fact you must leave them out if you want to train them). If you really don’t want someone any longer it is possible to fire them.
Players set up their hierarchies simultaneously but then take turns actually using most of their employees in order. Recruiters hire, cooks cook, drink fetchers fetch, etc. Some employees have abilities you won’t use every turn, e.g. adding a new house to the board, adding a garden to a house (which doubles what they pay for food), adding a new restaurant, etc., but those abilities are very powerful when you do use them.
Something you will do almost every turn is market. Your marketers can place campaigns of different types; the lowest-level ones can only place billboards, but with training they can do mail campaigns, airplane banners, and even radio advertisements. The lower the level, the fewer houses the campaigns tend to reach; a billboard only affects the houses it is adjacent to, for example.
The reason marketing is so important is that houses will only buy the things they have been marketed. When a marketing campaign “fires” tokens are placed on houses and that determines what the houses want to consume; a house will only go to a restaurant that serves everything they want, and won’t buy anything they don’t want.
So far this may not sound too difficult, but a complicating factor is that the marketing campaigns only advertise generic food and drink items, not your particular brand! If you make burgers you can put up a burger billboard to market them, but the affected houses will eat any burger, not just yours. Where a house chooses to eat is affected not only by what the different restaurants serve but also by their prices and how far away they are. You don’t have fine control over how far away things are (although you can build more houses, open more restaurants, etc.), but can control prices to some extent by hiring the right employees.
All of this continues until the bank runs out of money. However, that doesn’t end the game. At the start of the game each player secretly chooses a “reserve” card which puts some additional money into the bank, and those are revealed when the first break happens. When the bank breaks for the second time the game ends and the player with the most money wins.
There are quite a few details glossed over or not mentioned at all yet (such as salaries). The most important are the milestones. These are cards awarded to the first player to do various things: the first to place a billboard, the first to lower prices, etc. These are very important since they each come with a special ability which can be quite powerful. For example, placing the first billboard means that you no longer pay salaries to your marketers and all your marketing campaigns remain on the board forever (normally they have a limited lifespan). Lowering prices first means your prices are automatically $1 lower for the entire game, which of course does reduce your income somewhat but helps attract customers to your restaurant. Turn order isn’t an issue here, generally speaking, since all players who achieve the milestone in the same turn get the benefit, but it is still very important to determine which milestones you want at the start of the game and make sure you get them.
All of this may sound a bit overwhelming, and the first game can definitely be confusing. The rulebook recommends taking out some elements (including the milestones) for the first game, which you should consider unless everyone in your group is a hardcore Splotter fan or simply doesn’t mind getting themselves in a bad position. It is definitely possible to get in bad positions in a number of ways in this game: poor placement of your initial restaurant, poor hiring choices, missing a crucial milestone, etc. However, the game has been tweaked a bit from the versions I played to make it easier to solve your self-inflicted problems; it’s still not a gentle game by any means but I think experienced gamers will be fine rolling with the punches.
Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:
Joe Huber (2 plays) – I was very intrigued by the theme of the game – both the nominative theme and the HR Manager theme Dan mentions – but my first play of the game left me a bit cold. The game clearly worked, but it felt too easy to lock in to one path, and find no reasonable options to reset one’s position. But still, I was intrigued enough by the design to want to play again, albeit changed to better fit my preferences. And when I did so – with a couple of minimal changes – the game worked significantly better for me, to the point that I was prepared to purchase a copy when available.
I look forward to seeing how the game has developed since. I’m _very_ optimistic that the published game will be a better fit for me than the prototype. But I’m also certain that should that not prove to be the case, the game is strong enough that I’ll still be able to play it in a way that works for me.
Dale Yu (no plays, but I watched bits and pieces of three different games): I never quite managed to be free for the start of any of the playtests at the Gathering. I do think I got a decent chance to understand the game from what I saw though. I think that this is a typical “Splotter” game – with an unforgiving set of rules that can punish a player for a poor start for the duration of the game (which you also see in 18xx, Age of Steam, etc). This is honestly a bit more complicated than what I will usually play, but I have managed to keep Indonesia in my game collection, and I managed to even play it once last year and stayed somewhat competitive through at least two-thirds of that game, so I am keen to give this one at try. I also am hoping that this comes in an Indonesia-sized box as opposed to a Roads and Boats / Antiquity sized box for the sake of my luggage!
Larry (1 play): I got to play the prototype for this once in April of this year. I don’t think the publisher’s many fans will be disappointed with it. It definitely feels like a Splotter: heavy, detailed, intense, and pretty long. The game is themed around constructing fast food restaurants, planning a menu, and then marketing your products. But the main focus of the game is in building and maintaining your employee structure. There’s a large number of potential workers to hire (arranged in a structure which vaguely resembles a tech tree), properly training them is vital, and sacking people at the appropriate time is also important. Some of my opponents in my game built up their staff to several dozen workers, so planning and executing all this is quite a challenge. As is often the case with Splotter, I love the ideas, but find myself struggling to keep up with the deep gameplay. Gamers who do a better job of dealing with these challenges should certainly keep an eye out for this one. I’m interested to see in what ways Doumen and Wiersinga modified the game I played, although I still fear the title may wind up being a bit beyond my capabilities.