Some things in life are counter-intuitive. Why do movie goers love the jump scare? Why do sports fans love the walk off homer or three pointer?
I’m not talking about the after effects of the big event. We know that the relief or joy or even agony is memorable. What about the anxiety-inducing anticipation leading up to that sudden, glorious and giddy exhilaration?
Why do gamers adore tension in games?
That’s why the premise behind Magnate: The First City intrigued me. The first impression I had of Magnate was that it was a “better version of Monopoly” with “more tension in the end game.” Like a lot of you, dear readers, I played a metric ton of Monopoly growing up, resulting in long, exasperating games that had so many house rules grafted onto its overburdened shoulders that it resembled more of Frankenstein’s monster than the game originally designed by Lizzie Magie.
Can Magnate really improve on that experience? The concept of an impending bursting bubble sounds intriguing, so let’s dig into the game.
Magnate: The First City is billed by its designer, James Naylor, as an “exciting property/city building strategy game.” Now that, my friends, is some classic English understatement if I have ever seen it. Saying Magnate is “exciting” is like saying Clyde Lawrence is good at rhyming.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let’s talk about what the game looks like.
Naylor Games is the publisher of Magnate: The First City, and it’s their first release, but it sure does not look like it. The art from Donal Hegarty, Cze Lee, and the designer is gorgeous on the front cover, if only serviceable inside. But where Magnate loses a little in gorgeous scenery it gains in aesthetics as you can see by the shot below. Every bit of the city looks functional, almost as if it could pop alive at any second, and the iconography is pitch perfect. So far, so good.
But what really makes this production standout from others? In one word: plastic.
There’s plastic everywhere. Open up the humongous pirogue sized box, and you’ll first see a cadre of well designed plastic compartments to hold the pieces. Hiding in plain sight inside those compartments are tons of brightly colored plastic buildings denoting each type you can build.
But, wait, there’s more, and it’s not just plastic. The game also comes with stacks of thick cardboard pieces denoting the tenants you will (hopefully) attract to your buildings, and green, so very green tiles just waiting to be a canvas for those cardboard-and-plastic dreams to take flight.
On the downside, even though the money used in the game vaguely resembles Monopoly moolah, albeit in a much more high quality fashion — think different sized bills and quality paper — we were not big fans of either the money or the holder for the money. Even though the paper is really high quality, and the graphic art is fun, I do not like the way paper money sticks together or clogs up the holder. I think I’d rather just use our own set of poker chips or some of those cool metal coins I have lying around. We’ll need to add some kind of screening system so players cannot see what money you have at hand for reasons we will discuss below.
But those are picayune complaints; this is a top notch production and looks amazing on the table.
Players play as property developers out to build an empire in the midst of a citywide property boom in Humbleburg. That’s the brief description on BGG, but I like the tagline better: Build A City, Make A Fortune. At the end of the game, the person with the most money wins. It’s that simple. That “make a fortune” mantra encompasses everything you need to know about the gameplay, but I will still give a quick overview.
During their turns, players will buy up property on six wide open green spaces surrounding a cute little city center. Players will build offices, homes, apartments, retail centers and industrial plants on those formerly tree studded spaces, and then attract tenants to pay handsome rent each round. Oh, and they will also sell those stacked treasures as soon as the price goes up…and believe me…the price WILL geaux up.
At the end and beginning of each round, there’s just a bit of clean up, mainly consisting of adding more lots to buy (you can always pay double to purchase an open slot next to one of your existing lots if the Property Gods are not in your favor) and attracting tenants (and you can always spend those advertising tokens to improve your odds there). But there’s also a market phase that looks at how risky this property boom has gotten. To put it simply, a frenzy is created every round that gets frenzier and frenzier until its the frenziest round it could be.
Yes, that’s a lot of liberal uses of the word frenzy, but there’s no other way to describe it. In the first rounds, the buying seems nonchalant, almost pastoral in nature, and then as you near the end game, things seem to spiral out of control. That loss of control is the timer in the game. Eventually, the prices will get so outrageous that a bust is triggered, and the value of land will drop like the keep-an-egg-safe experiments in any middle school science class.
Unfortunately, like some of those experiments, at least one player is likely going to get caught with yolk all over their hands, because when that crash happens, we will reveal all of the risk cards that have been taken during the game, and move the market price marker down the number of spaces that the risk cards tell us to do. Then the unlucky player(s) will sell any remaining properties at this bargain bin price, and count the money to declare a winner.
BUT IS IT ANY FUN?
There’s a lot to like about Magnate: The First City. We’ve played it at all but the max play count, and enjoyed every play. (We were supposed to stream a max count play live this week but had to postpone. Stay tuned!)
What has stood out so far? First, I love the simple combination of strategy and mitigatable luck.
For instance, each building that you erect can and should be brimming with tenants, eager each round to dump shovels full of cash in your PayPal account for the privilege of renting your spaces. But attracting those tenants means you have to chuck some dice and get the right numbers that you need for the tenants available in the market.
You can hedge your bets by spending advertising tokens (you get some advertising to start, but after that, you have to use an action to get more). You can also mitigate your luck by building your buildings next to other buildings and neighborhoods that increase your dice pool or give you the ability to bump up your pip values.
Building those buildings can be done haphazardly, but to get those bonuses and to ensure your buildings are full means you have to keep an eye out on what your competition is doing. Plus, you really need to consider each round what tenants are available and how soon you are going to be rolling to attract them. Opening up a red retail shop when there’s only one tenant in the marketplace but two other players also have empty retail shops on the board is probably not a good strategy.
And that brings me to my next big thrill. As you can see, this is a game all about timing and pace. All the usual slogans connect here. Buy low, sell high. Geaux for the steak, not the sizzle. Eat the steak, not the gristle. Wash your hands for twenty seconds after every meal and when shaking hands with strangers. (Okay, that last one is just a PSA for our current times and not really apropros to the game.)
Timing is definitely important. A savvy player will know:
–just the right time to buy empty lots;
–just the right time to convert those lots into the right buildings;
–just the right time to forgo competition with other players for tenants; and
–maybe most importantly, just the right time to outbid everyone else for first player this round.
Yes, as if the tension of an impending doom of a market crash was not enough, as if the tension of waiting for the empty lot and tentant randomization to hopefully deliver the places and people you need, as if the tension of rolling dice to try and maximize the tenants that agree to pay you sweet rentals, as if all of those things are not enough — there’s one more bit of stress to throw in.
Each round, players will bid on turn order. First place doesn’t seem all that important in the early rounds, and so the minimum bid will often win. But hoo boy, in those last rounds, the stakes get higher and higher. Two people each have a retail outlet just waiting for the latest Sneaker City to open, but there’s only two retail tenants available on the board? And having a fully tenanted Acadiana Mall will sell for two or three times more than a half full one will? Open up that wallet of cash, friend, and pay top dollar or else you are going last and adding a sad looking Dollar Tree to your beautiful glass-enclosed lifestyle marketplace.
All of this sounds pretty complicated, and calculating the tenant bonuses and sell prices can be a bit mathy. But there are some handy dandy player aids and a back-of-the-rulebook math chart that helps. Plus, every group will have that one player who groks it right away and enjoys calculating the numbers.
The rest of the game is deceptively simple. The market board is so well laid out that it is easy to understand the turn structure and the before-and-after the round clean ups.
For long time readers, this probably feels a bit like our experience in games like Ponzi Scheme, one of our favorites from prolific designer, Jesse Li. I can see that comparison, especially in terms of scouring the board (or scouring the available loans in Ponzi Scheme) and trying to find that niche where you can buy low, sell high. But Ponzi Scheme is more like avoiding the inevitable, and Magnate feels much more like building up toward something fun. We love Ponzi Scheme here in the Gumbo, and Magnate won’t replace that experience, especially because the run times are so different. But I will say, if you like the tension that Ponzi Scheme has in avoiding the bad effects of the crash, you’ll love Magnate.
Lest I forget, there’s also a very handy tutorial deck that takes players by the hand and walks them through the first couple of rounds. By the time it is finished, and I highly recommend that you use this deck for your first game, you will know everything there is to know about how to play the game and get a little bit of strategy boosts, also.
I do need to soften something a bit. Yes, the game carries a lot of fun tension, especially in the second and third reels. But, I don’t want to oversell the stress. As players get closer and closer to the bust, the ending appears, almost like a shimmering city appears on the horizon of a long stretch of highway. You’re not sure exactly when you will arrive, but you know it is coming.
I rather enjoyed that aspect. In our last play, the three of us speculated each round as to how much we had left, and whether we could sneak in one more buy-land-and-build round. This time, we guessed right, and yes, it made us feel clever, but in retrospect, it was pretty easy to see it coming.
The anxiety is not nearly as great as one would think, and based on comments from the designer in his interview with Dan Thurot recently, I think it is an intentioned move. But, push your luck games will push your luck, so the opportunity is definitely there to take one too many actions and be left holding the bag.
We had a blast playing Magnate: The First City, much more than I expected I would. Other than expanding on the allegory of run away speculation and the excesses of property development and the ails of tenantry, and of course, being a board game about spending money to build ever more valuable buildings, Magnate: The First City does not share much with Monopoly at all. Or maybe, I should say, it does not share much of the vices that Monopoly still carries.
Magnate: The First City has a quick pace of play on each turn, it’s got a lot of built in tension as players try to calculate how many moves they can get in before the bust happens, and it has many moments where players feel clever as they pull off a good combo to attract a full space of tenants right before selling out for millions.
Magnate: The First City has a good shot at being one of the top five or ten games we have played in 2021. (I really want to try it at the max player count before deciding.) The indirect (but definitely existing) interaction with other players may be a turn off for some people, but if you are like us, and like economic games where timing is the key, you should check out Magnate: The First City. Our thanks to the publisher for providing this review copy.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!