That Magnate Moment

Once again, I struggle to escape from the shade of "Magnates, How Do They Work?" as the best title for anything ever.

James Naylor’s Magnate: The First City is an ambitious opening act, a fact only made more appropriate by its wicked irony. In my preview, I compared it to Monopoly. Plastic buildings, paper money, rents, dice. They even share a setting, focused as they are on unregulated property development. It’s almost as though the entire real estate industry is so shot through with corruption and profiteering that its only natural gamification is get-rich-quick fantasies.

Unlike Monopoly, though, Magnate’s satirical perspective hasn’t been neutered by corporate plagiarism. Instead, it rushes toward a single inexorable conclusion. This will undoubtedly be the game’s most controversial aspect, but to strip it away would be to remove the whole reason Magnate works, both as a plaything and as a statement.

I’m speaking, of course, about that game-ending housing crash.

The cantankerous airborne house from Up? I'll take it.

This is what no zoning laws will get you.

For most of its play time, Magnate behaves almost exactly as expected. It has big boots to fill. Property development isn’t a new setting to games, I suspect in part because it lets us act very badly but not too badly. Sure, The Estates lets you crush your competition beneath a failed high-rise and Food Chain Magnate sees you putting the competition out of business, but it isn’t like lives are on the line. Okay, so perhaps The Big Short disabused us of that notion. Still, there’s real appeal to play-acting the faceless investment banker who snaps office blocks into existence or desolation according to the runes on a spreadsheet. At least it lets us imagine how it would feel to collect all those rents and mortgage payments instead of shelling them out.

And for about an hour, maybe ninety minutes, that’s exactly the fantasy Magnate peddles. You’ve stumbled straight into a developer’s paradise. This picturesque town has resisted development for decades. Until some crooked city counselors opened up the whole thing for development overnight. Now it’s time to buy buy buy so you can build build build.

The result is joyously cynical, marching you straight through the beats that make its peers such a dirty pleasure. Almost like running down a checklist: there’s an auction, and a dice-rolling minigame for attracting tenants that you can shamelessly manipulate with enough advertising, and their rents are paid upfront, and as soon as you need cash for a larger venture it’s time to sell off your property for a truly embarrassing payout. It feels like riding a rocketship with your fellow billionaires, residential homes giving way to apartment buildings and factories and shopping malls. The smallest bill in the game is the hundred thousand dollar note, and it isn’t long until it’s useful only as change for the larger denominations vanishing from your wallet. Ever wondered why the top one percent of the top one percent are such rumps? Play Magnate, except remove some portion of your cash as “taxes” every round. No, I didn’t think so. That’s why.

And still, there is no One Billion note.

A game’s lowest denomination tells you what kind of game it is.

Don’t let me overstate it. At times, Magnate is also a persnickety game, and that’s before we broach the topic of The Crash.

For example, consider that rocket ride. There you are, spending and earning, sorting your cash and making plans, doing whatever the kids call “hustle” — and then, outta nowhere, it’s time for some arithmetic. Now, I don’t have anything against arithmetic as a principle. We get along fine. Arithmetic is a perfectly serviceable mathematical practice. It’s just that arithmetic has a tendency to insert itself into a good time at the least welcome of moments.

These stutters arrive at two key moments. The first is during that aforementioned tenant-attracting minigame. Tenant tokens fill the board with unsightly clutter, stacked among the plastic buildings before the game even begins. Attracting them is a case of counting the proper population type “nearby” — on the same or adjacent neighborhoods — then adding or subtracting modifiers from adjacent spaces, and finally rolling the resulting number of dice to make sets that will add more tenants, and therefore more clutter, to the table. It’s a bit of a mess.

It’s also an appropriate microcosm of Magnate’s make-or-break attitude toward real estate. Mirroring the game’s broader objective, the goal is to get something for as little investment as possible, both during the round’s turn order auction and using pricey advertising to guarantee the right outcome. Spend too much and you’ve spent too much. Spend too little and another player might gobble up the most desirable tenants before you even have a chance to roll. The first time I played Magnate, the inclusion of a dice minigame felt bewildering. Now it’s hard to imagine Magnate without it.

The second arithmetical intrusion comes whenever it’s time to sell something. The equation is more long than complicated, but there are just enough factors that in my plays everyone tended to rely on the one or two people who’d committed it to memory. This kills the pacing, but it’s perhaps the most important action in the entire game. There’s a keen balance to be struck between waiting for land prices to increase and selling property early enough that you can reinvest your profits in another enterprise. Waiting a single turn might see the value of a property increasing by well over a million dollars, but the specter of opportunity cost lingers over every decision. Being the first to drop a few million dollars on a shopping mall can be the difference between hoovering up all those fancy restaurants and boutiques or becoming the proud owner of yet another struggling retail desert.

I know this looks complicated. It's the game's most technical portion. Really, though, it's fairly easy to read once you've gone through the steps one time.

The impending crash looms large on the horizon.

If the possibility of being scooped by an opponent casts a long shadow, it’s nothing compared to the blackout eclipse of The Crash.

The basic concept works like this. At the end of each round, the property market is updated by a range of factors. Which tenant markets have dried up, how much advertising was spent, how many properties were sold, that sort of thing. Many of these factors drive up the land price. This makes it more expensive to purchase empty lots, but also skyrockets the going rate for developed and inhabited property. Hence the temptation to sit on your holdings for as long as possible.

But. But. Those same factors also prompt you to draw risk cards. These gradually tick the “crash track” toward a tipping point. When that happens, the land price plummets. Worse, the game ends as everybody is forced to panic-sell their properties at the new, bottomed-out valuation. Properties that were once worth millions might go for a few hundred thousand.

This is exactly as dire as it sounds. More dire. Direr. Dire-rer? Whatever. The point is, that acute U-turn on the property value graph is the culmination of everything Magnate hopes to accomplish, both as a game and as a statement.

Here’s where things get dicey. Not unlike a roll of the dice, The Crash might very well determine who wins or loses Magnate. Also like a roll of the dice — at least the dice of Magnate’s tenant minigame — there’s more going into it than you might first think. It’s easiest to think of The Crash as a funnel. If you drop a bunch of colored marbles into it, there’s no telling which color will be the first to escape the spout. But what if you’re allowed to add more of your chosen color? Or subtract pesky non-favored marbles? Or very carefully ensure that one handful is added before another?

Magnate’s conclusion can come as a surprise, but it’s a surprise you know is coming. Whether you collaborate with your opponents, take big risks when everybody else is pruning their investment portfolio, or carefully measure out when you buy and sell property, how you preempt that surprise is the whole point. And it’s an appropriate point. Magnate isn’t just about land development. It’s about practices of land development that will inevitably cause a property crash. The trick is handling those practices without burning your own fingers.

Of the few additions found in Tycoon, this is the fun one.

One of the expansions, employees, adds new ways to get ahead.

Of course, the intentionality of Magnate’s fragile simulation doesn’t dull the sting of an unexpected or undeserved defeat. So it’s good news that Magnate’s odds of success can also be loaded in its favor.

While technically playable with two or three players (or even solo, for the enterprising), Magnate functions best with four or five. That’s thanks to the way the game’s incentives pile up. It’s one thing to build a house next to a park or a forest; another entirely to plop it down next to a pleasant suburban family and a convenience store and watch your property values double. That’s the pattern throughout: more players means more plots for sale, more adjacency bonuses, and more ways to tangle with Magnate’s economy. This is a social creature, and it thrives on interaction.

This is also one of the reasons the basic auction system is such a flub. In the base game, money is bid to determine the first player, with everybody else placed clockwise. There are natural advantages to going first, giving you the jump on tenants, and going later, letting you see others’ plans unfurl or letting more population trickle onto the board before you make your own rolls. The Tycoon expansion adds a rule for bidding on specific positions — an enormous improvement, both for how it lets you fine-tune which advantages you’re hoping to utilize this round and for how it doesn’t actually require any additional components. The other additions are nice, especially the optional employees, but it’s that tweak to turn order that gives Magnate the biggest edge. Frankly, it should have been the default.

Either way, though, Magnate is one of those titles that stands large in the gaming landscape, and not only because its box is inappropriately girthy. This is the end-point, it seems to say, of all that spending. At some point, the bottom will fall out. Something’s got to give. Monopoly ends when everybody but one has been ruined, but the economy is still going strong. Magnate takes the opposite approach. Everybody at the table can profit. It’s the people underfoot who lose everything.

"Even its opponents are advocates of capitalism." — I dunno, some advocate of capitalism probably

Why does Magnate have a little big digger? Capitalist excess, that’s why.

For all its provisos and fiddliness, Magnate: The First City is one heck of a debut. Its satirical bent cuts to the heart of why land development is such a sinfully attractive setting, letting players revel in the highs of raising structures for rents and then abandoning them for quick cash. That game-ending (and sometimes game-wrecking) final collapse of the housing market is its most important element, driving home how a tiny minority can profit from uncertainty. It’s a bold inclusion that makes for a bold game, and a better game besides. I wish more games were this thoughtful, this harsh, this dedicated to giving us hard decisions and harder truths over easy morsels.

(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.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on November 17, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. You mentioned that the bidding for specific positions rules from the tycoon expansion do not require any additional components. Do you know where I can find the rules for that because I did not get the expansion.

    Also, did you play with the paper money or did you use poker chips? If you used the paper money, did that work alright or was it tedious as with other economic games, in particular cube rails and 18XX?


    • We used paper money, and it worked perfectly well. As for the rules for bidding on turn order, it’s just a blind bid (everyone simultaneously reveals some amount of money), ties broken in reverse turn order from last round, with the winner picking which turn order slot they want and then going down the line until everybody is assigned.

  2. Make a game about the 17th or 18th centuries? Half the review is self-flagellation.

    Release a game during a homelessness crisis about how building houses is evil? You’re a bold visionary attacking capitalism.

    Shit like this is why I don’t like moralistic criticism.

    • I’m not sure where you live, but in my neck of the woods the goal of residential real estate developers is to capture 30-40% of tenants’ income in perpetuity, not to relieve homelessness.

      • “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Housing built for selfish reasons is still a societal good.

        And what makes wanting the value of your house to stay sky high or wanting to “preserve the character of the neighborhood” a more legitimate selfish material interest than wanting to get rich building apartments?

      • It’s definitely within the interests of real estate moguls to crash their own market.

        Feel free to continue quoting Smith out of context, in a circumstance counter to the concept of “enlightened self-interest” he espoused, as a rejoinder to an argument nobody has made.

    • readingcomprehension

      When you invent what the author is saying out of whole cloth, you can express outrage over anything.

  3. “Property development … lets us act very badly but not too badly.”

    Hmm, have you not played Friedemann Friese’s Landlord? ( Bombs, murders, dodging the cops…

    • I’d never even heard of this! Sounds bananas. Also looks like it isn’t very good… any opinions there?

      • Wucherer/Landlord/Friese’s Landlord is not a game to take seriously, but it is a blast – chaotic, anarchic fun. Players do need to know what all the cards do, though (Bang! has the same issue), so a crib sheet is very necessary. And to understand that putting up a decent building with high-paying tenants is an invitation to anyone with a bomb. Or the removals man…

  4. Would an Age of Steam style auction improve things, where the first to pass goes last but pays something less than their bid (or nothing, I don’t remember), and as others go out they pay half (for the middle positions) or all (for the top positions) their bid to get the next higher remaining spots until all have passed?

    Nice review and preview.

    • Hm, not sure. I’d have to try that in action. Cool idea for some theorycrafting, though.

    • This AoS style bid is such a good bidding mechanic, I’m not sure why we don’t see it in more games. I wonder if it’s because it feels like it “belongs” to Age of Steam, and no one wants to be seen as “stealing” the mechanic? I agree – it seems like it would fit perfectly in this game and I had the exact same thought.

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