Food Chain Magnate
Times played: ~13
What is it? Food Chain Magnate (FCM) has players taking the responsibility of building a fast food chain from the ground up. It’s an economic supply and demand simulation that revolves around serving food and drink to the local neighborhoods. The game features heavy card drafting and engine building mechanics.
How thematic is it? The artwork helps create a feeling of 1950’s America and the tokens resemble the food that they’re mimicking. The decisions also seem to mirror the same challenges that local restaurants would have in starting up: pricing wars, marketing and producing enough food. While this isn’t an exact simulation, I feel like the theme and the mechanics give the player the sense of building something from nothing and conquering the fast food world. In addition, and this may be just me, I feel a connection with the employee cards. I’m not naming them but I know how valuable my Kitchen Trainee is and I feel their loss as they’re being upgraded to a Pizza Cook.
Is it easy to play? Yes*. The rules of the game are relatively simple to follow. Regardless of the strategy that a player invokes, the same principles should be at the forefront of the players minds with each game. They need to be aware of who to hire, who to train, who to employ and what to sell. Now, there’s a little bit more to this (what is marketed, how much to price something and most importantly, when to do something) but that’s the basis of FCM. I wouldn’t recommend this to a first time player of board games but there’s no reason that anyone that has played a few hobby style games couldn’t learn this. The complexity of FCM isn’t in the rules or the actions of the players; it’s in the reason why those actions are being chosen. FCM isn’t about what you’re doing in the here and now; FCM is about the next round, the round after that and the round you hopefully turn into the final round.
So what do you do exactly? Each turn you’re going to draft cards and use some of those cards to perform actions. It sounds simple because it is (more on this in a few). The player acts as the CEO and hires additional workers, which is as simple as adding them to your hand. Unlike an actual restaurant, you don’t necessarily need waitresses or burger cooks to succeed but what you do need are the means to meet the demands of the neighborhood.
I’ve heard about Milestones, what are they? The big mechanic of FCM are the Milestones; rewards that players get for being the first at something. This can be shared if multiple players perform the same action for the first time in the same round but typically what happens is that one player will get a permanent benefit over the other players for the remainder of the game. These are not to be taken lightly and are key to winning. FCM has a variant to play without so that players can learn the game but I feel like that is stripping FCM of the main component that makes it so unique.
How are the components? Great. The artwork, card-stock and tokens are top notch. The boards are small cardboard pieces that we haven’t had any issues with. You may wish that they were more colorful or vibrant but I feel like the ‘bland’ color pattern and layout was an important design choice as it makes it quite easy to follow the route of food and marketing. Nothing on the map seems ‘busy’. I do wish the box was bigger as the items don’t organize well in the box; which is a shame for a game that is 90% cards. Speaking of the cards, this game will require a lot of table space. With everyone drafting cards and adding to their flowchart of workers, the area around each player will grow and grow as the game plays. The board itself won’t take up much room but the cards, whether in your hand, in play or waiting to be purchased, will be everywhere. The only component that I’m so-so on is the paper money. It’s standard paper money but it just feels like it could have used better materials or a different measurement. Paper money seems so Monopoly and pales into comparison to everything else that comes in the box.
So the game is just a friendly market manipulation, right? Wrong. FCM is a cutthroat playthrough that can have players all but eliminated from the game. It’s not just a simulation of players building and running their company or a test of their ability to read and react to the map, but also a chess match against their opponents strategies.
What about player count? The game feels the best at three- and four-players in my opinion (probably three if I had to choose). The reason is that at higher levels, it feels like FCM devolves into mini-games that are based on distance and while that’s fine, it feels tighter at under three-players as each player has a distinct stake in the race whereas at five, there are too many options and instead of players competing for one or two markets over the entire board, they become too fixated on just their immediate market. At five, the game also feels like it can run far too long. As for two-players, I would only recommend FCM if both players are intent on seeing the game through. As the game is so unforgiving, a player that grasps the strategies early will run roughshod over their competition and this may not sit well in a two-player game. But if both players are comfortable losing (and possibly losing badly), trying different strategies and living with regret (over the move you didn’t make but should have), I recommend it. The learning curve is steep but rewarding. I loved learning about the potential strategies more than I enjoyed playing the game.
Playing time? From my plays, it seems that each player accounts for forty minutes to an hour of game time. There is a caveat to that though. That’s based on all players being on the same playing level and that level being experienced. An experienced player against new players? The game will be over before it even begins. There will be games that end much earlier and sometimes, you can see from far away that the game only has one outcome too. Games are flexible enough in length, even with experienced players, that you could possibly play two games in the time it took you to play your previous play of FCM.
How much randomness is present in Food Chain Magnate? ~Two percent. Every decision is made by the players. The only randomness can be found during setup when the board is created and when the reserve is decided upon (and this is only ‘random’ as you are unaware of what other players are putting into the reserve).
How interactive is the game? Very. Through direct and indirect actions, players will constantly be aware with one another and actively trying to best one another. Through marketing and making of food, players are interacting on the map whereas through their hiring and training practices they’ll be interacting through the workforce.
Is there much downtime? Much of the crux of the game can be handled simultaneously until the actions themselves are taken but there can be downtime dependent on your group. There’s so much planning ahead that players can get bogged down in the decision making.
Does winning feel satisfying? Yes. It’s hard to luck into a victory and for most of the games I’ve played, most players were within a range of victory that they felt they could have overcome with a change to a previous turn.
Does the same strategy work each game? Yes and no. FCM leans heavily into the meta of the group. It’s an incredibly dynamic game and requires players to react to one another every round. While a Trainer-opener strategy might work for you one game, it could fail spectacularly the next time thanks to the other players countering it.
Is this a good gateway game? Not really. Players can be out of the game early and that doesn’t necessarily equate a good time.
Can you lose on the first turn? Yes, you could totally take a Waitress. You’ll still technically be in the game but you won’t have any realistic chance of winning barring disaster. FCM has no catch up mechanics in the base game and will absolutely punish mistakes and sub-optimal plays by its players. Players will not only know that they’re in last; they’ll be reminded of it each round as their opponents grow stronger.
What should I know before my first game? Don’t play without the Milestones. They are a fundamental part of the game and playing without them feels like playing Ticket to Ride without routes. Don’t be discouraged either. It very well may take three games for you to decide if this game is for you or not.
Is it normally this price? Yes. Splotter games are printed in limited runs by a small company. Please see the comment below for further rationale.
Would I recommend this game? For most people, no. If you’re interested in playing FCM, I highly recommend trying the digital edition (which per the FAQ has received the approval of usage from Splotter). The cost of FCM is such a barrier that this is a game that I think you really should try before investing money into. Now, if you’re into this type of game, the price is reasonable as the components are quality and there is a lot of game here. There are so many strategies to explore, which is a godsend when compared to most titles that offer two or three optimal ways to play. I really wanted to love this game but it just didn’t click for me (shout out to my SO for playing this so many times with me). The reason it didn’t click may be because it didn’t click for my group. We liked pulling it out and playing it every once in awhile but it was never calling me to spend the time to learn those other strategies as my group wasn’t learning them (and I don’t blame them one bit; this game isn’t for everyone). The standard openings in FCM decide the game and the due diligence required to optimally play FCM is far more than most games its size because you need to know not just what you’re doing and why but also what your opponents are doing and why. You need to be able to sniff out the Recruiting Girl strategy immediately and not two rounds later. Unfortunately, playing FCM sub-optimally isn’t an option.