I am not a capitalist. Capitalism builds its success with disregard for—and often through—the suffering of the lower class. I tell you this to emphasize that James Naylor’s Magnate: The First City makes me feel like a slimy shrew of a human, while also acting as a great criticism of the system (whether James intended that or not).
Magnate is an economic game of high risk investments and market speculation. AKA: smart decisions and blind luck. You are building up property and flipping it for high gains, inflating the bubble and trying to escape with your riches before it bursts.
It plays 2 to 5 players in less than two hours. I like it best with three—enough interaction without the downtime. The audience is anyone that wants a better Monopoly. Magnate truly feels like a spiritual successor to the Landlord’s Game, critiquing the system through the lens of game mechanics.
Each round is divided into three actions, followed by the market’s reactions to your meddling. You will buy land, build buildings, advertise, and eventually sell off the entire plot (including the tenants you attract). As you make the city more attractive, the market raises or lowers the current and peak price of land. Should the current price exceed its peak, the bubble bursts.
The crash signifies the end of the game. You’ll calculate the value of all your properties—worth much less after the collapse—and add it to your available cash. This is your net worth, and the player worth the most is the winner.
But what about the market? Don’t normal people suffer from your actions? Well… probably. But you’re rich now; no need to worry about that.
To say the winner is the person that made the best decisions is about as true in-game as it is in the real world. Luck plays a role not only in the tenants you attract, but also how the market reacts to player choices. In fact, the market rises and falls in magnitudes that feel entirely random, as if the numbers are made up on the spot. 🤔
Tenants are humans, despite your best attempts at thinking of them as things. You’ll attract more of them the better you’re able to fit their needs. The number you acquire comes down to a dice roll, but the number of dice you roll is dependent on nearby buildings. For example, when building homes, you’ll roll dice depending on the number of nearby shops and offices. Landmarks like parks and schools make it easier to attract families to your homes by lowering your dice target number.
It is very important to watch your opponents and monitor their plans. Buildings owned by other players help when you’re attracting, but going first lets you secure tenants and land; both are finite resources. Their actions will affect the market as well, so maybe you won’t get all the blame when it crashes.
Right, you’ve built up your plot, attracted the vermin, and are now collecting rent. It’s time to sell it off. You’ll exchange your steady flow of income for a large up front payment, which you can use to buy more land and do it all over again.
What bubble? Capitalism, Ho!
Knowing when to sell a plot is a balancing act. The rent income is much lower than the sell price, but it costs an action to make the sale. You also need to be careful of the burst, because it will cause your plot value to plummet. Remember, the game ends once the bubble bursts, and any plots you have remaining are sold at an incredibly low crash value.
At the end of a round, the market is adjusted. The peak and current prices rise and fall in reaction to three factors: plots sold, demand, and advertising used. Should the price of land ever exceed the peak price, the bubble bursts.
I can’t stress enough the way Magnate tangles theme and mechanics.
When only a few plots are sold it signifies a healthy market, raising the peak and current price of land. If all four types of tenants are available, the demand is deemed healthy as well. But if too many plots are sold at once, or the demand drops, it scares the buyers. The market adjusts accordingly.
All that advertising you spent to attract tenants also affects the market. You created an impression of demand, increasing the price of land, but not the peak value. It’s an incredible risk for the bubble, but the extra revenue is worth the risk, right?
Tie all this together with the way you attract tenants and Magnate reaches a perfect flow. If I taught economics I’d easily consider using this as an introduction to bubble economies.
My favorite moments in the game were all the times we were forced to just shrug our shoulders and, in a high pitched voice, claim the answer to “Why does this work this way?” was “because Capitalism?”. Magnate lives through its theme, and its ability to reflect our economy through its mechanics is its greatest strength. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a sleazy person, putting profit over the well being of my tenants and the community. After my first play with James at Essen Spiel, I flat out told him “I feel slimy, well done”.
This will be the perfect title for you if you’re looking for a strong economic game, but don’t want to carry all the weight that most foist upon you. Magnate is easy to digest without sacrificing all the flavor. You’re not asked to juggle dozens of potential decisions, nor count your money down to the penny, but your tactical decisions are important if you want to survive the crash.
Magnate is a peanut butter cup, the perfect mix of theme and mechanics. This blend, combined with its low weight and recognizable setting, makes it easily accessible to a large audience. While the complexity is suitable as a family style game, it has the strategic depth to sit among other economic classics like Acquire and Powergrid.
Prototype copy provided by the publisher. Thank you Naylor Games.