Magnate: The First City is a fascinating game. Set-up will certainly draw a crowd. There are brightly coloured chunky buildings all over the table. Like the cardboard and plastic magpies we all are, boardgame fans will flock to this. As with many games, on first inspection Magnate: The First City looks quite busy and complicated.
There are a lot of things to look at just on the separate round board alone, let alone the seven city tiles. But you will quickly become acclimatised to this world and realise how well built this city is. Some say it was built on rock and roll, others say it was built with a careful and acute understanding of board gamers and how people like to consume game rules. I will let you be the judge.
Let Me Walk You Through It
The game comes with an excellent rule book but the first thing you will notice about this is that it tells you not to read it! There is a deck of cards labelled The Tutorial Deck which the rule book directs you too instead. The tutorial lays out exactly how to play your first game.
It points you in the way of the rule book for the main table set-up, but this is all very simple, and you quickly return to the tutorial deck and stay with this, and this alone for the remainder of your first game. It is a very interesting experience and one that will ease any player into this game.
Interestingly, it asks you to play this first time as a five-player game, no matter your actual player count. This is so that the game can show you as many different turn options in as short a time as possible. But also crucially, explaining the bidding round in full which works a lot better with more players.
The tutorial will let you re-set down to whichever player count you are playing after a couple of quick rounds and finish your game yourself. I don’t think everyone will use this tutorial, but those that do will appreciate it and learn the game almost in full in a very easy manner.
Oof, That’s Gonna Cost You!
Playing Magnate: The First City feels like a delicate balancing act. You want to spend as quickly as possible, as efficiently as you can strategise, but also in as timely a way as you can plan, as first is not always best.
Although it mostly is! Everything is based on two key factors. First, how much does land currently cost? Second, how close to crashing is the marke? At the start of the game, land is relatively cheap, and you will want to buy up what is available as best you can. But so will everyone else, and generally there is less land than players have money. As such turn order is key.
The game recognises this and each round starts with a bidding phase for turn order. If you see a key plot of land has become available that you think others will go for that you also want, then you can make sure you get first dibs by bidding high for the first player marker. Again, the game recognises the importance of this by making everything about money.
If you want to bid high to go first you have to do so without the knowledge of what other players may have to bid against you, also whilst remembering you cannot bid so high that you are then left with a shortfall of cash to do the thing you were bidding to do first anyway. And of course, all the time knowing that every dollar you bid away is points lost at the end of the game.
The game is won by who has the most money at the end of the game. Money is kept secret hidden in player wallets during the game, so you will not ever know exactly how much other players have.
Bluff And Bravado
There is some bluff and bravado here of course, but it is mostly about strategy, timing and considered planning. You need to structure your turns accordingly to build up your financial clout to be ready to strike when the market is ripe for the picking. But low. Sell high.
And all before the market crashes. And yes, you guessed it, the game recognises this too. The market is highly volatile and unstable in this game and reacts to one thing and one thing alone. What did the players do in the previous round?
The game starts with the bidding phase for turn order, then everyone has a chance to attract new tenants to previously built buildings and earn rent from them. Each player will then have three turns to buy more land, build more buildings, earn more money from consulting, and selling land. At this point, the game then adjusts the gameboard based on all these actions.
The more land you have sold, the more advertising you have spent to encourage new tenants into your buildings, and the more tenants you have brought in, this all affects the market. A certain amount of risk cards will be drawn based on these factors, which everyone knows, and each risk card can move the market zero to three steps closer to crashing.
Players can work together to ensure fewer risk cards are drawn, and the price of land is drawn up if it is in their favour as they have land still to sell and need time to do it. Or one player may work against this and try and push the market into a crash as they have already sold their land and want to hurt the other players.
Will the market crash before you have a chance to sell? If so, you will inevitably lose a lot of potential profit. If you can time it so you sell at the top of the market, just before the other players get the chance, this is how you win big.
When you sell land, your sales will drive the market to crash faster, meaning the other players are potentially forced to sell at the bottom of the market. Timing this all is hard. Crazy fun. But hard.
Too Much Plastic?
The stand-out thing in this game is the buildings. As we have talked about, they look great. And there is no denying, when you save up a few million in the game and get to place a new building on your owned land, it feels great. But it is a lot of plastic! Sure, lots of games could be labelled with this criticism, but just because lot’s do it, doesn’t make it right.
The question is, does this game need this much plastic? And of course, the answer is a resounding no. The game is better with it. It looks cool. It’s way more fun placing miniatures down than tokens or cards. But like most miniatures in games, it doesn’t really add anything to the actual game or its mechanics.
Some argue they actually hinder the game a little by blocking the view. Each space of land is relatively small and when you add tenant tokens to these spaces, the buildings do make it hard to see all these tokens clearly. Although this is not a big issue for me. Just adjust your head a little and its fine. I cannot blame the game or designers for this. They are simply doing what the market wants.
And most of us love this stuff. But this box is big, heavy and full of plastic. So, you need to make up your mind as to whether you want this in your collection or not.
Will This Pull You In?
Magnate is a very clever game. It feels more like a simulation than an arcade-style game. This is not trying to make land ownership and building work fun, it’s trying to make it realistic. But in doing so, there is so much fun to be had with this. When you sell land, it all works in multiples. You check the current land price, then multiply this by a number of things. First, one for the land and one for the building.
Then one for each tenant there, which could be a lot of you have multiple tenants or high-value ones. Then you multiple by any relevant symbols on nearby land or tenant tokens, which again could be multiple. There could be some reductions here based on houses near airports for example but hopefully, you built well and were not messed around with by the other players.
As such, sales of land can be well into the multiple millions. It is so fun to work this out and take your hard-earned money! Stuffing wads of paper money into your wallet genuinely feels great! And I am not sure why but have asked myself some serious questions since. Maybe I am a capitalist after all?!
Some criticisms of the game have come from the luck involved in the timing of when you sell. Or to be more specific, the randomness this brings. When you sell lots of land, it drives the market towards a crash and you will just ruin the game for the other players if they have not sold their land yet. But this is literally the game.
Once you get an idea for the strategy which really does take at least one game, maybe more; I think a lot of people will realise there are a lot of very clever things in this game that brings board game joy. Being able to earn a few million by turn three after bringing home a few hundred thousand in turn two feels great.
Spending a few million on a large piece of coloured shiny plastic that you get to place on the board feels wonderful! Selling this all for eight-figure numbers after multiples drive up the land value… well, you may be hooked by this point.
All In All
In your first few games, you may be caught out and the market could crash before you want, and you will be left with a lot of low-value land that you paid a lot of money for. But after a game or two, you will get what drives the market and what causes the crash and you will be able to both manipulate it in your favour and the time when you act. Understanding and using this to your favour is very satisfying and creates a wonderful game experience.
This game has been compared to Monopoly due to the paper money and the act you are buying property. So, I can see this. But it couldn’t be further from Monopoly in terms of the strategy to luck ratio, and universal joy this brings to all. Largely, when you earn big in Monopoly, you do so at the expense of another player.
When you earn big in Magnate, you do so due to your good timing and strategy and take the money from the game. Also, it only takes an hour or so in a two-player, a bit more with more players, and I don’t end up hating myself and everyone.