Food Chain Magnate has built up a bit of a reputation in the board gaming world, partly earned but also partly as a result of the mythology that surrounds any challenging game.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll start by stating my position for the record – I think this game is one of the best economic games out there… so, let’s have a look at it why I think that.
The Game and Set Up
Suitable for 2-5 players, Food Chain Magnate is all about making the most money by the end of the game. There are only two ways to make money in the game – either from waitress tips, or from selling your fast food products to the ever-hungry public. Most games will be won by the latter.
The board is randomly created by the players from a series of neighbourhood tiles, with the number of these tiles being determined by the number of players (more players = more tiles). A common critique aimed at the game is how plain these tiles look. True, the graphics are minimalist, but this actually avoids any confusion when choosing where to place restaurants etc. as the game develops.
A player turn tracker is placed near the board, along with a tile for each of the players. These tiles will indicate where each player goes in the turn order. The initial turn order is randomly determined and the tiles are placed on the tracker so that everyone knows the order of play for the first turn.
A number of chits of various sizes that represent various types of advertising (postal, billboard, airplane banners and radio) and extra customer houses and gardens are also placed next to the board.
The two-hundred chunky wooden food and drink components are sorted into piles.
The 18 different milestone and the 32 different job role cards are sorted into piles and placed where everyone can reach them.
If you lay-out all of the cards, this game is definitely a table hog, but it certainly looks impressive.
The Bank is created, with the amount available in the bank being set by the number of players.
Lastly, each player receives three tiles to represent their restaurants, a CEO card (this is just one of the job roles), three bank reserve cards and a highly thematic player menu that clearly explains the steps in each turn, all of the milestones that can be earned and the various job role cards that will be available to purchase during the game.
On the first turn, each player places one of their three restaurants on the board, adhering to a few simple constraints.
Once the initial restaurants are placed, each player selects one of their bank reserves cards. The selected cards are then all revealed at the same time and the total of the revealed cards sets the reserve funds possessed by the bank. If the players put in larger amounts, the game will tend to play longer, smaller amounts tend to mean a shorter game. Winning by collecting waitress tips is easier in shorter games, much harder in longer games.
After that, you are all set and ready to play!
How to play
Turns are resolved in a series of phases, roughly following the activities of a fast food business.
All players first choose which of their employees (represented by employee job role cards that they have acquired in previous turns) will go to work and which will take a day off.
Some cards (including the CEO) are managers. They can have other cards reporting to them.
Each player then creates a hierarchy of employees, starting from your CEO at the top, including all of those employees that you have sent to work.
The order of play is determined by the number of empty “slots” in the hierarchy (i.e. places that you could have put an employee card but choose to leave blank). This allows players to manipulate their position in the order of play (which can be key to your success as the game progresses).
Players then take turns working through all of the abilities on the cards that they have put into their hierarchy. These might allow you to hire more employees (for example, the CEO has this ability), make pizzas or burgers, send lorries out to buy beer, lemonade or pop from third-party suppliers, train your employees to make them more effective, initiate a marketing campaign etc. These abilities drive the entire game and you shape your organisation’s hierarchy and employees to fit the strategy you want to follow. This allows for an incredibly flexible game and you are continually having to plan your own strategy whilst making adjustments to try and counter the emerging strategies of your opponents.
Once everyone has completed all their employee abilities, your hungry customers start to appear. Demand for fast food in the game is purely driven by marketing. If someone markets burgers to a property, that property will want to buy a burger next turn. If someone else markets beer to that same property, then next turn they will only buy from a restaurant that can provide both burgers and beer. Marketing campaigns can become incredibly powerful, controlling the demand in large parts of the board. Of course, anyone that has the required products can sell to the market. Once it has been created and this gives wonderful opportunities to steal customers from the person doing the marketing.
If more than one restaurant can provide the required product, the distance from the buyer to the restaurant and the price per item will determine which restaurant actually gets the sale. Of course, some employees are masters of pricing and are able to undercut your competition’s price. Netting you the sale and them some anxiety. A particularly canny player might manipulate you into a situation where you are getting the sale. But at such a low price that you are making a loss on every sale and end up going bankrupt (which knocks you out of the game). This is a fairly rare event – in 10+ games, I’ve never seen someone go bankrupt.
Every product sold gives you cash, which is the proxy for your score in the game. If you train employees, they upgrade to more powerful variations on the same theme. But once upgraded, you may also need cash to pay them a salary each turn.
Conversely, if you spent your turn making pizzas and nobody has marketed a pizza, then your pizzas are thrown in the bin at the end of the turn.
Other employees let you open new restaurants of place new buyers onto the board.
Alongside all of this player and employee action, there are a set of milestones. A given milestone can only be claimed in a single turn. More than one player can get the milestone if they all get it in the same turn. After that turn, the milestone is removed. Each milestone gives a one-off. (e.g. you immediately gain a pizza chef who makes lots of pizzas but costs money to keep employed.) Or a permanent boost to the player that achieved it. Your radio marketing campaigns generate twice as much demand for a product as normal. Some of these can be extremely powerful (you get a CFO who increases all cash you earn by 50%) so they are an important element in the game.
Each rule is simple in itself, but they all add up to deliciously fluid gameplay. However, this raises a potential problem for players – an experienced player will almost certainly destroy less experienced players as they will know how to make the most of their employees, marketing campaigns etc. This can be very disheartening for new players. It is also very difficult to recover from bad decisions unless everyone is making them. We’ll come back to that…
Final Thoughts on Food Chain Magnate
There is a myth that it is a complex game. That isn’t really true - the rules of the game are actually very straight-forward. It is however difficult to reliably win against equally experienced players, but that difficulty comes from trying to predict the strategies and actions of the other players.
This is a great game but is definitely not for everyone. Firstly, if you like direct and aggressive competition where you are trying to out-think everyone else every turn, this game could well be for you. If you want a co-operative experience, look elsewhere – this is about as far as you can get from that.
If you have a highly competitive playgroup who are willing to play the game multiple times and develop their own strategies over time, then it will be very rewarding and you should buy it.
A quick explanation of the scores (below): The artwork score refers to the employee cards and the player aids. Both are very evocative of the 1960s theming. The component quality is referring to the map tiles, which a probably a bit too spartan. The chunky wooden food and drink tokens are nice but don’t really add to the gameplay significant.
Related Product (Games That Are Similar)
In my opinion, Food Chain Magnate is pretty unique. There are other economic games where you have to think about supply and demand or cornering a market (e.g. Smartphone Inc. or Kanban) but neither quite captures it in the same way as Food Chain Magnate does.