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FOOD CHAIN MAGNATE

reviewed by Joe Huber

Splotter Spellen, 2 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 120-240 minutes; 75€/$124.99

   I have been fortunate enough to meet, and become friends with, many game designers over the years.  In general this is a great thing from my point of view, as it’s given me the opportunity to playtest hundreds of foodchain1unpublished games, sometimes in the early stages of  development where there is a lot of room for feedback to impact the design.

But there’s a downside as well – I want all of my friends to be successful with their game designs, but – not all of them are for me.  Really, many of them aren’t for me; while I’d guess that the designers I know personally have a better hit rate with me than the design community at large, any given game isn’t likely to prove a hit with me.  I always prefer to focus on the positive, so I’ll talk and write more about the games that strike home with me – but with each new release I have some unease about whether I’ll like the game.

I’ve only met Joris once, when I went to Essen, but have been fortunate enough to see Jeroen each of the past four years, and get in a lot of gaming with him.  But Splotter’s games haven’t generally been hits for me – I love Indonesia, but it’s the only one that’s stood out in the past.  But the theme of Food Chain Magnate, designed by Joris Wiersinga and Jeroen Doumen, of drawing customers to your restaurant chain appeals to me much more than the themes in many of their games so I was optimistic.

Food Chain Magnate could, as my friend Dan Blum noted, have been named Human Resources Manager.  It owes something to the deckbuilding genre, even though
here, players have access to their whole deck every turn.  Each turn, players choose which of their employees to use that turn then, after determining the turn order, utilize their employees to hire more employees, train employees (only those not working this turn), start marketing campaigns, make food – and even add new restaurants and increase the total available market.

Then all houses with demands – until marketed to, no one in the game thinks to eat out – decide which restaurant to eat at from those that have what they want, based upon prices and distance.  Players then pay all of their workers except the trainees, even if they didn’t work – but most employees can be let go instead, if preferred.  Marketing campaigns cause demands to be distributed for the next turn, excess food is discarded, and the next turn begins.  The game continues until the bank breaks (the SECOND time; the first time, additional money is added based upon the players’ choices at the start of the game which can impact the length of the game by at most a few turns.

What really drives the game, though, are the milestones.  There are 18 milestones, some easier and some more
difficult to obtain.  Each milestone offers some advantage, likewise of varying importance.  For example, marketing the first hamburger causes a restaurant to be known as having the original hamburger – and earns that restaurant a bonus for each burger sold.  But while this could lead to nasty fights for turn order, instead, in Food Chain Magnate EVERYONE who achieves the milestone on the same turn receives the bonus.

My first exposure to Food Chain Magnate was to the prototype back in April, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t impressed.  The game mechanisms were interesting enough, but it was nearly impossible to shift gears in the game – and a game such as this really doesn’t hold up if you can’t adjust during the game.  But I was intrigued enough to try the game one more time with some different starting rules – which gave me enough hope for the game as to pre-order it.

Fortunately, in the intervening months the Splotter crew found ways to increase flexibility while still maintaining the complexity they wanted in the game.  From my first play of the published game on, I’ve found it extremely enjoyable – if extremely unforgiving.  Not everyone enjoys games you’re unlikely to win against experienced players – and I would not recommend Food Chain Magnate for such players.

The production of Food Chain Magnate has been far more divisive than I would expect.  I find the 50’s diner look used throughout the game to be charming and very fitting, the shaped wood bits both nice looking and functional, and the overall production very appealing.  But some have complained about the plain nature of the game boards.  Personally, I find that the style is very functional; as with a game such as (ironically) Fast Food Franchise, the color is added DURING the game; this makes it easy to tell what’s going on.  But it’s not a style for everyone and, if a simple style bothers you, it might impact your enjoyment of Food Chain Magnate.

Playing the game will require a fair bit of space. With all of the workers available in every game, not to mention all of the milestones, the game doesn’t have the advantage of most deckbuilding games in requiring a small subset of the game be laid out.  This hasn’t been an issue for any of my plays but it’s easy to imagine where it might be for some players dealing with a very restricted amount of playing space.

With all of the rule book issues plaguing many recent games, I’m happy to report that we’ve had no issue with the rule book, which left us with few questions, and answered all of those that have come up.  The only issue with the player aids is the lack of milestone information in the English player aids but this is being resolved in the latest printing, and Splotter has uploaded the improved aids to BoardGameGeek for those with earlier printings.

Splotter has published an impressive string of games, focused on depth of play rather than rules complexity.  Most of them haven’t really hit home with me, in no small part because the themes haven’t been of sufficient interest.  Indonesia was the very notable exception; the economic nature of the game provided a base of interest, and the theme worked well for me.  Food Chain Magnate was inherently of even more interest to me, and has worked so well that I’m giving serious consideration as to whether I prefer it to Indonesia.  I’m not quite ready to say that I am yet but I’m definitely enjoying Food Chain Magnate enough to consider it my favorite release from 2015 from among nearly one hundred different releases played.

Much as I enjoy the game, though, it’s certainly not for everyone.  Besides the aforementioned issue with the graphics, the game typically runs for a couple of hours, likely significantly longer on the first play for most groups.  And many gamers are not fond of games which are unforgiving to new players; this will not be a game for such groups.  The game is also quite expensive – providing quality in small print runs does not come inexpensively, unfortunately – but as with prior Splotter releases, I expect the game will retain its value better than most games.  For those not bothered by these issues, though, I can wholeheartedly recommend the game. – Joe Huber

 

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