Housing Crash: A Look at Magnate

Naturally, I reflexively went with "Magnates, How Do They Work?", but that title was already taken by my Food Chain Magnate review. Sigh.

It’s both accurate and misleading to say that James Naylor’s Magnate: The First City is a good version of Monopoly. Accurate because it’s a satirical take on unbridled capitalism that would do Lizzie Magie proud. Misleading because the two really don’t have much in common, aside from paper money, city development, plastic houses, and dice. Okay, saying that out loud makes them sound really quite similar. They’re not.

Seriously, they aren’t alike at all. You should keep reading. I promise.

Ignore the industrial buildings right next to city hall.

Look at this cheery rural paradise. It’d sure be a shame if someone overdeveloped it.

The story of Magnate will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever had the displeasure of sitting in on a city council meeting as your elected representatives grin and grunt to the whims of property developers. Humbleburg has been a shelter from big city development for decades, a sleepy town with pristine lots, good freeway access, and a town hall that’s actually generating positive revenue. It’s the kind of place that gets good wifi and provides a view of the mountains, where you can smell horse manure in the morning and still visit a bookstore in the afternoon. Utopia.

Or it was, until the city council decided to reverse all zoning ordinances and development restrictions. What an utterly unfascinating non-mystery! Hmm, how’d that happen? someone asks, pretending like everybody in the world doesn’t notice the chairman’s new coat or how after the meeting he peeled out in a Porsche while smoking two imported cigars at the same time. Now there’s blood in the water. The sharks are circling.

You are one of those sharks. A great white, if you like.


A happy little suburb. Each house costs $300,000. Per year.

At first glance — and I mean the barest corner-of-the-eye glance from across a crowded room while a hurricane pounds on the windows — Magnate is handsome without seeming like anything particularly special. As is the case with plenty of modern games, you take three actions each round, bounced between players to eliminate downtime. Some of those actions are fairly simple. Consultancy earns money on the side, while buying property claims a lot for your company. At some point you’ll want to develop your land, slapping down a thick wad of cash to place a building. How thick of a wad? Anywhere between $400,000 and $6,000,000. To provide a more relatable sense of scale, that’s the difference between four hundred thousand seconds and six million seconds. Pretty zany.

But these buildings might prove far more valuable than their pretty presence on the table — or far less than the money you sunk into them. Just as the properties in Monopoly became valuable as hapless players bumbled past to pay rent, all of Magnate’s houses and factories and strip malls and not-strip malls are valuable because of their tenants. But to understand why, first we need to talk about property values.

Think about where you live and where you work. How far apart are they? Would you prefer they were closer together? Magnate capitalizes on the laziness of the average citizen (better known to predatory developers as “wage slaves,” “debt sacks,” and “blood boys”) to generate a simple formula. Each building has a certain appeal to tenants depending on its proximity to other types of properties. Offices and retail, for example, aren’t worth beans unless they’re near the homes that will provide a clientele. Those houses and apartments, on the other hand, desire access to both offices and retail outlets. In the first case, you count up the nearby residential population. In the second, you take the lower of the nearby office or retail capacity. And there you have it: how many dice you’ll be rolling.

Yes, dice. Keep your trousers on, I’ll explain.

They have an Apple Store, a Google Store, a Facebook Store, and a Best Buy.

Nobody expected a mall might fail in the internet age.

As with real-world property investments, there’s a strong element of risk at work in Magnate. But the risk isn’t the property itself. It’s the people and businesses you can finagle into tenancy. Any old-money shlub can pour his trust fund into a shopping mall. There it will sit, a hollowed-out monument to incompetence. The trick is to fill your buildings with the folks who will pay.

Hence the dice. At the start of each round, directly after bribing the city treasurer for a good place in the turn order, everybody rolls for tenants. Pick a building, count up how many dice it gets, and toss them. Cleverly, there are loads of positive and negative modifiers to consider, adding an extra dimension to the lots you select for purchase and development. Wooded areas appeal to residential properties, plazas round out office buildings, and enormous parking lots are great for shopping malls. There are even more complicated features to consider, like airports and solar farms. It’s also possible to front-load your odds with copious advertising — although this brings its own risks. If your roll was high enough, you gain a tenant. Maybe even multiple tenants. More importantly, you gain their first month’s rent. Every turn, that rent will squirrel back into your ledger.

And it’s still not enough.

Renting is one thing. But behind the black curtain there’s an even darker, more shriveled heart whispering spiteful things about voluntary charity and Christmas movies. Because you aren’t here, you great white shark, to help Humbleburg prosper. You’re here to build, build, build — and then to sell, sell, sell. Because the market is going to crash. As certain as the sun sets after a summer day, this tidal wave will break upon the shore.

You know this because you’re hastening it along.

Think it's 2019? Look again. 2008 is there, dogging your footsteps.

2008 is never far from where you are.

It goes like this. When everybody is done taking actions, the market readjusts. Certain behaviors, like tons of advertising or enough property sales, will see property values creeping up. Early on, a single lot might cost $300,000. Within a turn or two, it’ll be double that. By the end of the game, expect to pay well over a million dollars for a single space.

But that isn’t the insidious part. As tenants are depleted and, again, as more properties are sold, risk cards are drawn. Depending on what they reveal, these move a second marker down the track, starting high and dropping fast. When this marker (an ominous red) meets the property value (a benign gray), the market plummets. And I mean it plummets, all those discarded risk card kicking in a second time to drop the value of land lower and lower until it’s practically subterranean. It’s the downward slash of a stock market crash. The panicked hustle of substandard brokers. The weeping of lost retirement plans. And it applies to everything you own.

Which is why smart players won’t own anything when it arrives.

This is when Magnate flips a switch. It was clever before, a game about making money the way a rocket departs the launchpad with precipitous velocity. When the market crashes, it’s clear that this is borderline brilliant.

Sadly, there are no options for "Gambling Debtor" or "Doomed to Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Soda Store."

The advanced tenants add some complexity, but also spice up your options.

Selling property represents yet another risk. As with attracting tenants, a simple formula applies. The details aren’t important for now, the sum of tenants, the building itself, and any neighbors who make the lot more or less attractive. What really matters is how you calculate your final payout. That sum, which you can bully upward for yourself or depreciate for your opponents, is taken and multiplied by the current value of land. Which, as you might recall, trends upward.

Let’s do some envelope math. A midsize property — perhaps an industrial unit — with a full tenancy and good neighbors, might sum to seven or eight. Thereabouts. Early on, then, you’ll take the property value and multiply it by the current property value. Say, for a payout of four million dollars. That’s a lot of nickles. Certainly it’s a good increase over the one million dollars plus advertising you spent building and renting it.

But if you’d waited a turn? Two turns? Longer? For those who wait, you can expect payouts that’ll heap up a Kilimanjaro of nickles.

Then again, it almost goes without saying that every waited turn is a huge risk. The market crash is always looming. Worse, because the factors that appreciate land values and depreciate the crash marker are visible — not wholly certain, but front and center for your evaluation — it’s entirely possible to make the crash arrive sooner. Maybe even after someone has sold off all their properties prematurely and then shattered the market, forcing everybody else to sell their holdings for their fractional endgame value. Although it’s hilarious when a rival earns a measly three mil on a mall they dumped seven into, it’s a real kick in the genitals when it happens to you. Or maybe you’ll play mastermind only for the crash to delay one turn longer, letting everybody rake in the dough on inflated property values. Womp womp.

"Not a blade of grass in sight that isn't manicured by immigrant laborers," the developer said, dusting his hands off. "My work here is done."

There we go. Just like everywhere else.

Abusive risk. That’s Magnate: The First City in a nutshell. Every action is loaded, burning money or daylight or both. A rival might bribe themselves into line ahead of you. A desirable lot might be snatched away before you can purchase it. You might finish a shiny new office building only to discover there are no additional law firms looking to rent a floor. That or you can’t attract them because the neighborhood is too dumpy. You might sell too early. Or too late.

No matter what happens, you’re the one shoving these events into motion. One of the ones, anyway. That’s the takeaway here. Bubbles inflated and burst, with both the swelling and the eruption turned to profit. That’s the final thing Magnate has in common with Monopoly: it’s entirely possible to miss its incisiveness. Its bite. Its scorn for those who roll dice with the market and, by extension, the stability of entire cities and nations.

And here’s the crucial difference: unlike Monopoly, it’s easy to miss the point because you’re having too good a time slashing through the properties market to care.


A prototype copy was provided. Magnate: The First City is funding on Kickstarter between 20 November and 12 December. You can support it right here.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on November 13, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Holy schmoly, those are pics of a prototype copy? I don’t even understand boardgames anymore.

  2. Wow, this sounds amazing. I’ll keep my eye peeled for the Kickstarter. Thanks for covering stuff I haven’t heard of before, Dan.

  3. Daddy likes. Daddy wants. *makes note to keep an eye out for this on November 21st*

  4. Are there multiple market crashes or just one? Is it possible to recover from mistiming it? I love the idea of the crash, but am worried at the idea of the game hinging on a single decision. Are my worries justified?

    • Good questions! There are multiple market fluctuations, whether the property cost inflating or the market cap deflating, but there is only one crash, triggered when the property cost and market cap overlap. At that point, property values immediately plummet and everybody cashes out.

      As for your central worry, I’ll put it this way: your apprehension is justified to some extent, but there are mitigating factors to consider. Yes, there’s a single market crash, and mistiming it can spell disaster for your company. But first of all, Magnate only lasts about 90 minutes, so it’s not as though you’ve ruined an entire evening because of one flub. It’s best to play this one with folks who don’t mind a disastrous final move. If anything, we’ve laughed pretty hard at some of our last-minute errors. Second, your decisions up to that point still matter. You’re free to wager on further development or hold onto your cash in later turns; it’s just that if more turns present themselves, you might miss out on more opportunities. Third, you’re also free to manipulate when the crash happens, so it isn’t occurring entirely at random (although randomness is a factor). And finally, since you can see the crash cards that have already presented themselves, you have some notion as to how bad the final market drop will be. If you’re behind, maybe it’s worth the risk to wager on a huge project right near the end. After all, a clever player might use the crash as an opportunity to swing their fortune back into the black.

      But yeah, if you don’t like the idea of a single moment possibly obliterating your score, I would steer clear.

  5. Holy bankruptcy Batman! The Kickstarter is $89, not including shipping. Is this juice worth the squeeze?

    • That’s a good question. As a policy, unless a game’s entry point is truly outlandish — and I’m talking hundreds of buckaroos here — I don’t usually comment on price. What’s expensive to one person will seem cheap to another, and some should wait for a sale while others will want to experience a game as soon as possible. I can’t make that call for anybody else.

      But I do like Magnate a lot. For a first-time designer, Naylor has made something compelling, playable, and smooth. I was surprised to discover he hadn’t published anything before this.

  6. Played the prototype at the 2018 UK Games Expo and really enjoyed it, so I second the recommendation. However, I blanch at the Kickstarter price, too.

  7. How would you compare this to The Estates?

    • They’re such different design spaces that I wouldn’t really place them alongside each other, despite the (largely superficial) similarity that you might lose money. Negative scores are common in The Estates, but it’s an auction game. Magnate won’t put you negative, and it’s a game about making wise investments and choosing when to exit the market. Their main parallel is their shared development setting.

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