Burgers, pizza, beer, pop (cheers, Midwesterners), and lemonade. As an American food enthusiast, what’s not to like?
Food Chain Magnate (FCM) is a relatively new game, published in 2015. This is the first Splotter Spellen game I’ve played, and since the company has such a reputation for quality games, I was curious to learn more. Amazingly, especially given their success, designers Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga don’t even design games full time; it’s their night and weekend hobby. Doumen is actually a mathematics PhD and Wiersinga designs computer games to improve elderly and rehabilitation care for SilverFit. By their powers combined, they create notoriously complicated and component-heavy games. After all, their company’s front-page says, “Splotter creates deep, complex board games for strategy enthusiasts.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that my pre-play research concluded that FCM was rather involved. While looking past all the components and (millions of) cards scattered across the table can be hard, I found it to be pleasantly simple to learn. Which is a good thing considering that we decided to learn it at midnight one day. (Note: It is not recommended to start any game at midnight when you have a baby.)
Time: 120-240 minutes
BGG Rating: 8.4*
Baby Brown Bear Status: Played a friend’s copy
Food Chain Magnate transports you to the artery-clogging diner era of the 1950s. In it, you are the CEO of a fast food company trying to out-maneuver and out-sell your competitors’ chains. To do it, you must hire the right mix of employees (from kitchen trainees to regional managers) to create an unbeatable production, sales, and marketing strategy. The game’s length depends on how long your fellow food chain magnates want to compete. The show is over when the bank runs out of money and the magnate with the most money wins.
Just as I mentioned in my Dominant Species review, this post is not intended to be a complete explanation of the game. It has far too many intricacies to do that justice. Instead, I’m just here to give you an idea of how it works so you can decide if you want to learn the rest on your own.
*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10. That means this is one of the best games according to BGG (as of this publication, it is listed at number 90).
There are quite a few components you need to sort out before you can start. They are as follows.
- Employee cards. As the CEO of a company, you must hire employees across a variety of departments. As seen below, the employees on the left may be recruited by a recruiting girl or your CEO. To advance them, you must train them. As they move up the ranks, they begin to require salaries.
Our friend saw this genius idea on BGG. Instead of laying each card on the table (and taking up an insane amount of space), he carefully folded a piece of poster board to create just enough slots for each employee card. He even set it up so the hierarchy matched that printed on the player menu (as seen above).
- Map tiles. The number of players determines the number of tiles needed. Each tile is then placed randomly to form your town. It initially consists of roads, drink stands, houses, and empty spaces.
This map is set up for three players.
- Milestone cards. Another part of the game that can greatly affect strategy is the milestone card. There are 18 different milestones a player can reach, such as first to place a billboard as seen below. These cards are earned any time a player fulfills a card’s requirements during a turn. If multiple players meet the same milestone during a turn, they each receive that milestone card. Most cards have benefits on them which take effect immediately.
- Food and drink pieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I love the little wooden figures that represent the food and drink: pizzas, burgers, lemonades, sodas, and beers. They signify different things depending on where they are placed. On marketing campaigns, they show both what is being advertised and for how long. On a house, they show that house’s demand. In a player’s hand, they show that restaurant’s available stock.
- Bank money. Ooh, paper money. So despised by this game’s owner. The bank begins with $50 times the number of players (so $150 in this three-player example). The rest of the money goes into the box at the beginning. Players do not begin with any money.
- Player markers and restaurants. Each player has three available restaurants. The restaurant tiles have little triangular symbols that mark their entrances. Pay attention to these as distances from the restaurant start from the entrance. To begin, players randomly choose player markers to determine turn order. Beginning with the last player in this turn order, each player chooses an empty square to place his starting restaurant. Restaurant entrances must touch a road and no two restaurants can be placed on the same tile.
- Bank reserve cards. Each player receives three bank reserve cards ($100, $200, and $300). After all restaurants are placed, each player chooses one of the three cards and puts it face down next to the bank. These cards are not unveiled until later. They indicate how much money will be added to the bank once the initial stockpile runs out. Since the game ends when the bank’s money does, this means players do not know at the beginning of the game how long it will end up being. This makes strategy difficult to determine. For example, in a short game you may want to focus on producing and selling food as quickly as possible, whereas in a longer game you may want to focus on building a larger corporate structure.
Alright! The map is out, the restaurants are placed, and players are ready to start swaying the feeble minds of the town’s citizens.
Okay, here’s where the going gets tough. Here’s a very simplified overview (if you can believe it).
This is when you secretly decide which employees you want to use during the turn. You are only able to use as many employees as you have open slots (the CEO, for example, has three open slots). This number may grow depending on who you hire and put to work. Everyone who is not working during a turn is on PTO (“at the beach”). During the first round, all players will only be able to use their CEOs.
Mid-play corporate structure. I really took advantage of the extra spots that came with the junior VPs and management trainees. Those waitresses really came in handy, too, not only because they earn you money but they also help you win business.
Phase 1: Turn order
The player with the most open slots in his corporate structure chooses his position in the turn order track, followed by the player with the second most open slots, etc. If there is a tie, the player who went ahead in turn order last time chooses first.
Phase 2: Business
This is where you take care of your operations.
I’d use this meme a million times if I could.
- Recruit new employees based on the number of recruit actions you have (the CEO always has one).
- Train (or upgrade) employees based on the number of train actions you have (the trainer trains one, for example). The person being trained must be “on the beach.” Think of it as “away at a conference.”
- Initiate marketing campaign based on which marketing employee is working. As a professional marketer, the overly simplistic view of marketing is somewhat insulting, but it’s supposed to be the 1950s, I guess. This marketer will be away for as long as the campaign lasts, so pay special attention to the type of campaign, placement, duration, and good you choose.
- Get food and drinks based on which buyers and kitchen staff you have working.
- Place a new house or garden if you have a new business developer working.
- Place or move restaurants if you have a local manager or regional manager working.
Phase 3: Dinnertime
Here’s where a lot of the juicy stuff happens because it’s when you find out if your carefully crafted plans have been thwarted by that no-good businessman across the street.
During dinnertime, the town’s citizens finally consume the food and drink they’ve been craving (because of advertising; these people have no minds of their own). Starting with the lowest numbered house, players determine which restaurants have produced the food and drink in demand by that house. For example if there are two beers and one pizza on the house, the restaurant needs to be able to provide exactly two beers and one pizza in order to sell anything to that house. Unless otherwise noted (like with a milestone card), each good sold is $10.
If multiple restaurants can provide exactly what is in demand, the restaurant closest to the house wins the business (connected by a road, of course). If that is still a tie, the restaurant that has the best price (if there’s a discount manager working, it will be a little lower) or the best service (with a waitress) will win the business. If that is still a tie, the restaurant who went first in turn order will get the business. Houses with gardens pay double the unit price for each item (rich snobs!). I haven’t even covered everything here and yet you can already see how complicated it can become!
The first time the bank runs out of money, the reserve cards that were put aside in the beginning of the game are shuffled and revealed. The tallied number shown on the cards is how much money is added to the bank. The second time the bank runs out of money is when the game ends (but not before finishing up the payday phase and making sure all employees are paid for the work they do). Believe it or not, a tie goes to the person who went first in the most recent turn order.
Mid-play shot. Here you can see the goods I produced this round (three sodas), my corporate structure (I loved those management trainees!), and my milestone cards.
Phase 4: Payday
First, players must decide if they want to fire anyone (except for marketers who are out in the field). Second, they must then pay all employees who require a salary, including marketers in the field. Each salaried employee earns $5 during this phase.
Phase 5: Marketing campaigns
This is where those advertisements persuade people to want whatever it is you advertised to them. Starting with the lowest numbered campaign (as opposed to house), players place the little food demand tokens on the houses that are within each campaign’s reach. Houses can only have three demand tokens on them and houses with gardens can have five. Therefore some houses may be full by the time a higher numbered campaign takes effect, rendering it (and your strategy) useless.
Here are some examples of houses and the goods they desire. On the left, house five wants exactly two sodas. Billboard marketing campaign 13 is active and eternally promotes one soda at the end of each round. On the right, houses 15 and 16 want exactly one burger and one lemonade. There’s an active burger mailbox marketing campaign that will last two more rounds.
Phase 6: Clean up
During this phase, players must discard leftover food or drinks (unless they have a milestone that allows them to keep it), all employees go back into their hand, restaurants that are “coming soon” flip over to “welcome,” and milestones are earned and flipped over to signify that they are no longer available. Then the game repeats from phase one.
- Paper money. I don’t care about this as much as some people (cough, Nick), but I’ll admit paper money is a little annoying to handle. However, when trying to think of an alternative that would fit the theme, I keep coming up short. It’s a theme-appropriate kitschy detail.
- Unforgiving with mistakes. This, like many other strategy games, I suppose, is a game where it hard to visualize all that will occur each round. There are a lot of variables that may not play out like you expect, and it’s easy to miscalculate your and your opponents’ moves. Altogether, this makes it pretty unforgiving when you make a mistake. Even if your mistake occurs early in the game, it can be nearly impossible for you to ever bounce back.
- Loser disengagement. Because it can be so hard to bounce back, it’s easy for the loser(s) to become disengaged. The first time I played, another player and I were neck and neck until the end, making it very interesting for us. The third player was unable to catch up and proceeded to become fairly disinterested. The second time I played, I was that third player and started to tune out once I realized I had a snowball’s chance of bouncing back. Because so much of what you do is based on your corporate structure and isn’t too combative until dinnertime, it’s easier than I’d like to only pay attention to your own board unless you’re doing well enough to be a contender.
- Graphics. I absolutely love the retro, ’50s-themed artwork. It’s simple but provides a nice flavor for the game.
- Theme. It’s possible I love the graphics so much because I think the theme is so fresh. Who knew that it’d take a couple of Dutchmen to create such an interesting Americana game?
- Variable length. The fact that every player has a hand in determining the game’s length but that it’s not revealed until mid-game is very intriguing. During our first game, we decided to play a short one (especially because it was after midnight). During the second game, we didn’t talk about it at all, so I was excited when we had one of each card, meaning it would be a longer game. That excitement waned, however, when I started losing by such a wide margin.
- Employee cards. The card drafting mechanism can be a little trite, but its execution here is new and exciting. You’re recruiting employees and deciding who works and who gets to go on vacation every single round. You are in charge of their career paths, or lack thereof. Maybe it’s because I was a cog in the corporate wheel myself, but this power went to my head and I liked it.
- Strategy differences. Since I won the first time, I tried to see if that strategy would work the second go around and I can tell you it definitely didn’t. While I didn’t enjoy the feeling of not being able to catch back up, I do appreciate that the game forces you to alter your strategy each play. So much changes depending on the placement of the tiles and restaurants, the length, and the other players’ strategies that you must adapt.
- Competition. It’s quite a thrill when you can accurately visualize exactly what you need to do to win the most business in a round. It’s also thrilling when you can prevent other players from properly executing their strategies. No matter what, I looked forward to the dinnertime phase each round because it was so fun to see who would be able to pull through the most. It was also very apparent both times how meaningful the milestone cards are; the first to $100 card is especially critical to win in my opinion.
What game isn’t more fun when you walk away with loads of cash?
Since I won’t spend my time and energy reviewing a game I hate, it should come as no surprise that I would recommend playing this game.
Simply put, it’s very different from any other I’ve played and that alone makes me like it. Food Chain Magnate is simultaneously complex and simple and demands that each play is different from the last. Yes, it can be frustrating that the rich get richer, but that’s all the more motivation to be in the rich camp. It may sound boring when people listening in hear, “I’m going to train my management trainee to become a junior vice president,” but they don’t know what that junior VP is capable of doing!
I had been told that this is a game for “serious gamers,” but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There is a lot of planning and thinking ahead, but it’s not so complicated that you can’t figure it out while you’re playing. I think it’d be better labeled as a game for “people willing to invest time and energy into a new game.” It’s not going to take you ten minutes to explain, but it’s also not going to take you an hour. Like anything else, you just have to start. It may be hard to find, but I suggest you go check out Food Chain Magnate and give it a go.
As always, I’d love to know what you think!