From humble beginnings in small towns, to conquering cities with nation spanning business empires. Franchise promises players the power to construct their own brand and plan their strategy for expansion. Can it live up to this promise, or does Franchise struggle to get off the ground?
Find A Map and Draw A Straight Line
The goal of Franchise is to have the most influential franchise at the end of the game. This corporate power struggle takes place on a colourful map of the various towns and cities of America. The cities are connected by a spaghetti sprawl of roads of different colours. Cities are numbered discs and towns are simply blank spaces.
Players will place buildings on cities and towns to gain an absolute majority. The number on the cities represents the number of points they offer as well as the number of buildings required to gain an absolute majority.
A turn consists of gaining income from the cities you have buildings in, then choosing one town/city to expand into. Expansion is done along the roads mentioned previously, with each different colour representing a different cost of expanding along it. After this, you can increase your hold on cities you have a presence in by buying additional buildings. As soon as a player has a building in more than half of the available spaces, a city scores. Once all cities in a region have scored, there is a bonus awarded for having the most presence in that region. Once a certain number of region bonuses are allocated, the game ends and the player with the highest score wins.
Escape to the City
Now, that all sounds relatively simple. Unfortunately, Franchise has a lot of additional rules which muddy the waters. These can make it a bit of a pain to play at times. For example, while multiple players can occupy a city, only a single building may ever be placed in a town. Further, cities only score when a player has an absolute majority… unless no player achieves this, in which case the city must be full to score. If this happens, the first player who placed a building in that city will break ties… but they will only gain half the available points.
There are also tie-breakers awarded for the region bonuses, granted to the first player who scores a city in each region. Again, scoring here becomes fiddly. When a city is scored, all the scoring player’s buildings are removed from it bar one. Every other building remains on the space. Region bonuses are granted based on who has the most buildings remaining in a region. In this way, the person who scores each city loses most of their presence. All of these exceptions and quirks do nothing to improve the clarity of Franchise. They do ultimately come together to make an interesting experience.
Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
The rules (quirks included) do come together to make an incredibly crunchy and interesting game. Even some of the visual design makes for fun moments! The interwoven nature of the roads is almost impossible to discern at a glance. You can think you have blocked an opponent from a city... Only for them to sneak in for free on the country lane weaving its way around the interstates! However, getting to a point where all players around a table understand the rules to a point where they can play a competitive game is unnecessarily taxing.
Even the most interesting part of the game sees confused faces around the table when explaining it. Your income is based on the cities you are present in, that much makes sense. However, the way income is calculated is by taking the sum of the highest visible numbers in the cities you are present in, then comparing it to a chart provided on a player-aid. Confusion begins to set in at this point, but it is still relatively clear. The real problem hits when you explain that the more presence you have in a city, the less money you make from it.
This is because as you place buildings on a city, you cover the highest visible number, reducing the value you can add to your income each turn. This feels incredibly counter-intuitive, and never fails to catch new players off guard. Further to this, as soon as a city is scored, it no longer counts for anything towards income.
Substance Over Style?
Mechanically, this is the rule which makes Franchise sing. There is a fine balance in getting enough income, but also being in a strong enough position to score lots of cities quickly. All while keeping an eye on your opponents and making sure they are not taking over any cities you are relying on for points. The game tends to end in a cascade of cities and regions being scored over the space of a round or two. After the slow and thoughtful build up, this feels incredibly cathartic and ends the game on a resounding high.
However, in the context of the theme, losing money after you are the dominant franchise is bound to cause confusion. By having the most buildings in a city you are showing that you have beaten your competitors and are the most established franchise in a city. Why then are you not getting any income from these places?
This is the best example of the unintuitive rules. It is emblematic of the underlying flaw of Franchise: it is incredibly difficult to teach well and have players not feel overwhelmed. Often, this means that the first few plays are ‘practice’ games which really holds Franchise back. When there are so many fantastic games available, some of which are likely already on your shelf, can multiple warm-up plays be justified?
Is Franchise Right For You?
There is certainly an argument to be made in favour of Franchise. If your group is made up of experienced gamers who are willing to stick with a game and really get to grips with it, Franchise could well be for you. Once the bumpy start is out of the way, Franchise is a fantastic success. It is a great puzzle, there is not a lot of down time, the production quality is superb, and it offers a unique experience.
However, if you are newer to the hobby, or if your group is not particularly patient, or even if you are experienced but tend not to play a single game dozens of times… Franchise may not be right for you. Even having played and taught this game plenty of times in preparation for this review, I felt the need to have the rulebook on hand to double check every aspect I have discussed!
Franchise needs to be approached with patience and a willingness to move past or justify questions relating to its theme. Why do I lose my income for having more stores? Why are a fast food chain and a garage competing for the same market? The answers are nowhere to be found. If you can move past this, then Franchise is a game which will keep you engaged through many plays. If not, it may prove more of a frustration than anything else.