Food Chain Magnate Initial Thoughts
Splotter. Splotter. It’s a funny name. I mean, I assume that it means something in Dutch. But …. just listen.
S p l o t t e r.
One who splots? Splotter.
Splotter is an odd (Space) duck of a company. It feels like Splotter lurks right in the old Tao wheelhouse. Heavy, strategy and luckless games that take maybe half the time of 18xx? I should love me some … whatever a splotter is. And yet, Roads and Boats felt dry. Antiquity was … well, I don’t remember. I re-read my review and apparently I liked it, but I honestly don’t remember much except that after a few years I sold my copy (for pretty much retail).
To Splotter — V. A game that (usually) depreciates slowly, if at all. [Exception that proves the rule? Space Ducks].
Indonesia delivered a real winner. Beautiful — albeit one with a wonky map, bursting with clever ideas and sporting a fast playing time. It held enough interest to get a too many words article, the highest praise the Tao Master gives. The rest of the Splotter catalog petered out at a game or two (Greed Inc., Cannes, The Great Zimbabwe, but Indonesia got a full dozen or so. And … then I sold it. It hadn’t hit the table often. And I splottered it: Splottered it hard.
Suh-puh-lotter. (I enjoy the sound of it).
But even with that track record, I didn’t hesitate long before ponying up the rather insane cost for Food Chain Magnate, paying for direct shipping from the Netherlands. I mean, even if I didn’t like the game, it should contain interesting elements.
And I could always Splotter it away, since the first two printings sold out so quickly.
At first blush Food Chain Magnate appears to be a masterpiece (although I have concerns).
Granted, I’ve only got in a few introductory games and one full game.
Food Chain Magnate’s cleverness feels like a sleight of hand. A misdirection. Like 18xx (or even, say, Acquire) the game board initially draws your focus as you set up the game. In reality it plays a small part, almost an afterthought — a tiny sub-component of the game that nevertheless gives the player’s companies a tangible value. Yes, your employees are your most valuable asset, and FCM requires managing your org chart, but the board ties everything together. Like the Dude’s rug.
Once fully set up, the board disappears. It takes up maybe 5% of the tables real-estate (the employee and milestone cards take a huge amount of space to lay out), but you’ll huddle around it to work things out. Subtle differences splay out, as you vie for tiebreaks because one player is one step closer to the houses with demand for pizza. The spatial element matters — beverage trucks only go so far, billboards affect adjacent houses, flyers affect blocks, people hate driving (a little) so go to closer restaurants. But you can alleviate all of these problems with better employees, but you only have so many HR types (to hire and train) and you may want to actually turn a profit by delivering some food now instead of later, so that you can use that money to expand.
FCM has bombs aplenty, with the milestone cards. Much like shadowfist, some of them feel like gamebreakers. Were you in the first group to train someone? Here, have $15 off salary each turn, forever. First pizza ad campaign? First to $100, here, get 50% profit. (The last is so powerful that Boardgamecore already has a variant eliminating that milestone/employee). Several employees only exist once, so first-come, first served.
Subtle game play. Explosive growth, no luck. One game where every decision I made looked good, but I mis-read the timing order and shot myself in the foot. The more I play the more subtleties I spot.
So my first impression? FCM rises to at least Indonesia’s level of excellence, and could be a masterpiece.
It may also suffer from the same problems that all Splotter games are born with, congenital defects based on the type of game. Splotter games suffer from overanalysis.
This surely sounds hypocritical. I am — first and foremost — an over-analyzer. But certainly everyone admits that some games do not benefit from a close inquiry. I remember once, after our first play of the basic game of Fugger, Welser & Medici I complained to Frank that the game wasn’t deep and he replied something along the lines of “No, not to people like you who study things” and shrugged and said that’s what the advanced game was for.
At the time I thought the answer flippant; but there’s wisdom there.
So I’ve set up and played a bit of Food Chain Magnate and you have 8 options on your first turn and 3 of them are obviously terrible and three of them are probably terrible, and glancing over the BGG strategy forum I worried that Food Chain Magnate will entrance me until close study opens it up like a dissected frog, and all is known. “Hah, you fool, you’ve departed from the one true strategy by deviating on turn three!”
Does Food Chain Magnate become less fun as players get good?
And I remember how I soured (slightly) on Indonesian when I realized that there were a fair number of “false” options. I do think that Food Chain Magnate has several paths to victory, and lots of branches, but now I’m worried about exploring them too quickly and discovering that many paths that look good at first fade quickly. I see threads with “Fastest possible path to X Milestone” and I don’t want to read them. Because this game feels incredible when people are not optimized, when this is a demolition derby of business, players crashing into each other with jury-rigged strategies instead of driving sleek, precision-tuned instruments of financial velocity.
So I’ve closed the strategy guides.
(I will say that some of my worries have disappeared with the first play of the full game. Yes, the first turn may only have two viable options. So what? the first turn is literally 30 seconds long. The opening is like an economic peloton but a break away will happen fast).
My other concern is that (like Indonesia, 18xx, Chess and many games), Food Chain Magnate will also suffer in a mixed environment of experienced and inexperienced. A player with 10 games under his belt is going to decimate a new player. At least in two player games. And, as the game owner, I’m likely to race up to 10 games before anyone else plays more than a few times.
One option is to play with 3+ players. Even gravity can’t be solved with three bodies, and the rules for that are dead simple.
Do I think that a player with 100 games will slaughter one with 10? I’m not sure. Is that a good thing? Perhaps. There’s a place on the spectrum for a zero sum game that rewards years and decades of study, but for games like that you need thousands (or millions) of potential opponents so that you can easily find well matched opposition. With the # of FCM opponents numbered in the dozens, what will I do in a year (or two) when I’ve played 10 times and they’ve all played once or twice? I could play online, of course (and may well do so). I could also write a too man words about it, so that I can clarify my thoughts and also provide interested parties with ammunition to keep things interesting.
If that doesn’t work, I’ll wind up Splottering, I suppose.
Rating — Enthusiastic, with caveats. I’m sure I’ll get in a play at each of the next few game nights.
PS — If you know what Splotter means, for heaven’s sake, keep it to yourself. You’ll ruin my fun.