Sunday, 29 May 2016

Through the Desert #5 - Food Chain Magnate

Holy on-schedule blog post, Batman!

Confession time: I have an ulterior motive for posting this one. It's the UK Games Expo next week (eeee!) and I'm looking to get this bad boy played at least once. Behold Food Chain Magnate:

This hot title sees 2-5 budding fast food chain owners competing for cash in a very small town chock full of people who are very susceptible to marketing!... that'll make more sense later. It has a slight deckbuilding quality to it, as you add staff to your workforce and choose who to send to work each turn. Technically it's an economic game, but it's not as mathy as something like Power Grid or Steam - it's more about paying attention to the map layout and what the customers want, and positioning yourself relative to the other players to rake in the cash. Supply and demand, basically.

Once the bank runs out of cash, the player with the most left at the end of the round is the winner. Simples!

To me this seems like a decently thematic game with great mechanics, so why is this a candidate for Through the Desert? Exhibit A: the 'board'. 

One common criticism of the game is that the modular map tiles make the game look like a prototype, and while they are very functional and clear, I can't really dispute that they lose points for the game's appearance. 

Exhibit B is the playtime. I've pulled this one out for 3 different groups and have used the introductory game each time, which runs 2-3 hours including a rules explanation. The full game takes 2-4 hours depending on speed of play and how the game develops, which is quite the time investment and not everyone's cup of tea. 

However, this game really hits the 'rules light, strategy heavy' ideology out of the park. It's very easy to pick up considering how deep and tactical it can be. So let's have a quick overview. The start of each turn has each player setting up their company structure for the turn. The employees you include then give you the actions you can take.

Management let you use more employees per turn but don't do anything else themselves.

You start with just the CEO who can have 3 people reporting to him and can hire a basic employee as an action. As you get more people you'll want to set up another tier of management to give you more 'slots' for employees to report to. You can only have 3 tiers though. So a few turns later your structure might look something like: 

This guy really likes waitresses...

Basic employees cost you nothing. You can also train your staff into more powerful workers, but then they require a salary, which will eat into your profits. Perish the thought!

So how do you make cash? Well, the townspeople are a bit simple. They won't want anything unless you market it to them, at which point they will seek it out every day while the marketing campaign is running.

A massive billboard for pizza right outside this house's window gives them the munchies
Without marketing, no-one will sell anything. But you have to be careful! Anyone can fulfil the demand created by your marketing. So you have to ensure you'll be benefiting the most out of your campaigns and not just doing the other players' work for them. The buyers look at price and distance when deciding where to go eat, so you can either make sure you're the closest or cut your prices. Maybe a bit of both.

The flip side of this is that if you're the only competitor - whether it's because you're the only restaurant they can get to or the only one selling what they want - you can jack up your prices with a Luxuries Manager and sell 'gourmet' products (the same shit everyone else is selling!) Cornering a market like this is pretty viable, especially early on. 

Lots of things are viable in this game though. In fact, it's a game you can spend hours just puzzling over thinking of creative new ways to play next time. One of the key features adding to this is the Milestone cards, which give players extra 'powers' for doing certain things first: 

Just one example of the many milestones - it was surprisingly hard to find a good picture...
This not only gives you big benefits for going in certain directions, but makes you really pay attention to what other people are doing. If someone else claims a milestone, you still have the rest of the turn to claim it. So maybe you'll follow suit. Or maybe everyone else is going for the same thing, so you'll see if you can gain an edge by forging your own path and denying them some solid bonuses.

I can wax lyrical about how good the mechanics are and how fun the sandboxy nature of it is, but I guess the biggest selling point is how dynamic it is from game-to-game depending on the map layout and what the other players do. There is some long-term strategy here but you also have to think on your feet, be opportunistic and ready to switch up your plans. You have to play the players as well as the game. And the theme is great and comes through strongly - there's no victory points or other exposed cogs here.

Another thing to mention is that the thinkiest part of the game - setting up your company structure - is done simultaneously, so the downtime between turns is kept reasonable. I'm a big fan of games that include this feature and it works really well here as you still get to see what everyone else does, but without having to wait an age for your turn to do so.

I actually don't think the playtime should be an issue. Power Grid is pretty darn popular and easily runs 2-3 hours; I would choose this over Power Grid in the blink of an eye (it might even have contributed to Power Grid dropping out of my Top 50). It's pretty darn expensive and might not look like it warrants the asking price, but the game is superb and I'll be holding onto it for the foreseeable future.

Geek rating: 5.5/6

1 comment:

  1. Thisand dead of winter are all on my 'really want to try this soon!' list (also want to get another game of Kanban in). Sounds really good!