Magnates, How Do They Work?
There’s nothing quite so good that’s quite as bad for you as fast food. Food Chain Magnate gets this. Want to sell crummy burgers at $9 a pop, plus some watery lemonade for $15 a glass? Just call them deluxe and you’re set. Slap up a billboard, talk about how cheesy your pizza is on the radio, and they will come. Heaven help them, they will come. Tomorrow, they’ll be slobbering for more.
If nothing else, Food Chain Magnate succeeds at feeling aptly satirical, tracing the birth, journey, and settling down of our appetites. It doesn’t matter that the corner fast food joint is selling the same crummy burgers as their competition, as long as they’re snapping mouthwatering pictures of them, moist and fat, and projecting them onto our retinas. It doesn’t matter that a company only pays three of its employees, electing to fire its senior staff the instant they’ve outlived their immediate usefulness, as long as it’s gluttonously profitable. The world as presented by Food Chain Magnate is populated solely by the chum-tossing wolves and the automaton sheep who might as well be mulching machines for ground beef and pepperoni.
It’s a sardonic game. So sue me, it seems to gargle, chubby lips spread into a goblin’s grin because it’s pored over your state’s legal code and knows full well you can’t litigate when you discover a human tooth in one of its patties.
And to be clear, none of this is bad. This is what’s so great about Food Chain Magnate. You’re a proud franchise manager who desperately wants to get rich, and you’ll resort to anything technically legal to do so. Like price-gouging, hiring interns for “experience,” and undercutting your competitors by setting up shop directly across the street from them. Let the other guy pay for the marketing research; it’s the Burger King way.
Gloriously, most of this is a cinch to manage. Rather than bogging everyone down in the minutiae of running a business, most of the conniving takes place at a comfortable remove. At the outset of the game, your CEO — who is you — can hire a worker. That’s it. The first round almost feels perfunctory, everyone going around the table and choosing who to recruit. Will it be a Recruiting Girl, letting you hire more and more people each round? An Errand Boy to go out and buy beverages for pennies, the very same ones you’ll be selling at ten bucks per? Or maybe a Waitress, whose sweat-earned tips will become your earliest income?
Like an avalanche, every round after the first is an exercise in growing bigger and crushing everything in your path. By your fourth turn, you’ll have a decently diversified staff. By your fifth, you probably won’t be able to decide who to have come into work that day.
Though perhaps you will, because Food Chain Magnate rewards planning ahead with an almost religious fervor. The decision of who to hire on the very first turn can bring serious ramifications, even many rounds down the line. This is thanks to what the game calls “milestones,” which unlock with the chipper ping of a video game achievement — if video game achievements then showered mind-boggling perks on your pretty little head forevermore. Only the first manager(s) to reach any given milestone will earn it, everyone else watching in distress as it disappears from the table. And to be clear, these are brutal. For example, the first person to throw away food at the end of the round — all unused food spoils — will be the only person who can install a refrigerator, letting them squirrel away their unsold wedges of pizza for the morning crowd. Other milestones are even more powerful, like being able to sell your wares for an extra $5 if you were the first to market their type. That’s a 50% markup. Or, if that sounds too good to be true, how about the milestone that’s awarded for the first person to reach $100 in their account, which bestows a 50% bump on every single dollar they earn for the rest of the game.
While the upside of these milestones is a constant sense of racing against the herd for fear of being left behind, they also undermine Food Chain Magnate’s otherwise sandbox-style gameplay. Inventive strategies like undercutting a competitor’s chain by making their neighborhood crave pizza and beer while their shop only provides burgers and lemonade are wonderful, but rarely feel entirely supported because your time is often better spent chasing those milestones. This isn’t to say the process of crowning yourself the sausage king of the neighborhood doesn’t require creativity or shrewdness, just that the milestones occasionally position themselves at odds with those goals.
The other issue that takes some of the fizz out of Food Chain Magnate’s soda is its perpetual barrage of dreaded math. Calculating whether a household that wants burgers, lemonade, and beer will go to a nearby restaurant or a cheaper one a little farther off is simple enough; calculating it twelve times a round starts to get tedious. And that’s merely the beginning, as milestone bonuses and employees like Pricing, Luxuries, and Discount Managers can send your sale prices in new and exciting directions. As I said, this is a problem of volume rather than of the individual trickiness of each sale. Just remember to bring some scratch paper.
This is, after all, meant to be a thoughtful game, and those looking for something cartoonish and thematic may find themselves disappointed. Decisions matter. Consequences are harsh and plentiful. The winner tends to triumph by a mile rather than a hair. And new players will be utterly and completely lost, watching as experienced managers set up increasingly complex corporate structures, launch airplane banner ads, and rake in hundreds of dollars a night while they’re still pilfering their waitresses’ tips. The rules themselves may be straightforward, but the effective application of them is anything but.
It’s possible that I sound ambivalent about Food Chain Magnate, and that’s largely because I am. It’s a brilliant, exciting game, teeming with possibilities, but most of my time with it had been spent wringing through sales prices or counting the actions that would let me reach a particular milestone, rather than, say, feeling like a Machiavellian franchise owner who hatches delicate feats of sales jiggery-pokery while licking fry grease off his fingers.
Which is to say, for all its brains, I’m not sure it’s the most enjoyable fellow to spend an evening with. Fast food is so good that it’s bad for us; a part of me wonders if Food Chain Magnate doesn’t replicate its source material a little too faithfully in that regard.