Monday, 11 January 2016

Food Chain Magnate

Plays: 3Px2.

The Game

You are an aspiring fast food entrepreneur, starting a fast food business with just yourself, one restaurant, and no money. You recruit staff, produce food (and drinks), advertise them, serve customers who visit your restaurant (and restaurants later), and build up your business. You compete with your fellow players to earn the most money when the bank runs out of cash, which is when the game ends.

The first thing you do every round is corporate restructuring. No, that's doesn't exactly sound like fun, but it actually is quite interesting. What it means is you rearrange your corporate structure to determine what actions you can execute that round. You start the game with only one employee - yourself, the CEO. The CEO is always at the top of the organisation chart. You may recruit one new employee every round, and you may supervise three other employees. Supervising means activating an employee. All employees except the CEO need to be activated in order to work. Since the CEO himself can only activate three other employees, to sustain a larger organisation you need middle management, i.e. the managers. They don't do work themselves, but they supervise others. The lowest ranked manager, the management trainee, is only able to supervise two other employees, while the highest ranked manager, the executive vice president, is like Ip Man - he can handle ten. To train up your managers, you need, of course, trainers. That's another type of employee. You have marketers. They advertise your products, or your future products, or even products you don't plan to sell but you want to advertise anyway just to deny your opponents business. You have recruiters to help you recruit more efficiently, so that you don't rely on just the CEO recruiting one new employee per round. You have cooks, who cook burgers and pizza. You have the procurement department, which buys drinks. You have pricing managers, who reduce or increase prices, to compete with other fast food chains and to earn more money respectively. You have branch managers who open new branches. You have business developers who create new homes, and thus new market demand.

The variety in your employees means the variety of actions you can take. You need to manage how you train your employees. Employees in training cannot work for one round. Some employees can no longer do their old work after being trained for a new position. You need to recruit new blood to take up those old positions. You also need to manage costs. You don't need to pay any salary to employees at the entry level, but once an employee is trained, you need to pay him a $5 salary. If you run out of cash and can't pay, you will be forced to fire your people. Sometimes if you don't want to pay an employee, you can fire him just before pay day. It's legal.

This reference chart shows all employees in the game, and also the training paths, or upgrade paths. The management trainee (first box in second row) is most versatile and can be trained to take up many different roles.

This game can take up a lot of space because of the cards. If you want to lay them all out neatly, be prepared to need an extra table. Cards with a white bottom half are employees. Cards with a solid colour are milestones.

This is an org chart. The boss (CEO) is at the top, and you can have up to three layers. If you have managers (black cards) in the second layer, they can supervise other employees in the third layer. The cards at the bottom are the milestones I have claimed.

This was my org chart after my company had grown bigger. I had three managers in the middle layer which allowed me to have a whole bunch of workers working in the third layer. I had quite a few other employees who were not working this round. Three of them were going to be trained by the three trainers who were working.

So how do you make money? Let's start with advertising and generating demand. Your marketers place different forms of ads on the game board to influence the homes. E.g. a burger ad which successfully influences a home will place a burger token on the home, representing that family now craving for a burger. As long as this demand is not satisfied, e.g. no restaurants selling burgers, or they had sold out, the burger token stays on the home. If the ad is still in effect next round, a second burger token will be placed on the home. More tokens will be added as long as the limit is not reached. The limit is 3 tokens for a middle-income household, and 5 tokens for a high-income household. When a family finally visits a restaurant which serves the foods (and drinks) they want, these tokens representing demand are removed. Next round, tokens may be placed anew if there are ads influencing the home.

Ads take effect at the end of a round, while dinner time happens in the middle of a round. That means if you want to advertise a specific food type and sell that food type, you need to do the advertising in the round before you produce the food.

Customers only visit restaurants which fully satisfy their needs. E.g. a family desiring two burgers and a pizza will not visit a restaurant which can serve it only one burger and one pizza. They would rather eat sandwiches at home. Now if two (or more) restaurants can fulfill their demand, they will first consider two factors: driving distance and price. Naturally they prefer nearer restaurants, and lower prices. If two restaurants are still tied after considering these, the next deciding factor is the number of waitresses working that round. If there's still a tie, then it is broken by player turn order. Once a family dines at a restaurant, the tokens at their home representing demand are discarded. The tokens of the restaurant chain representing stock are also discarded, because the food has been consumed. Any leftover food at the end of the round will spoil, and will be discarded.

All food (and drink) types have a base price of $10. Pricing managers can modify this, both upwards and downwards. There's a milestone card which permanently and irrevocably lowers a player's price by $1. Other than the price, there are also bonuses to consider. Some milestones give a $5 bonus to every unit of a specific food type sold. Rich families give a 100% bonus when they dine. So if you have a pricing manager than changes your burger price to $20, and a rich family eats at your burger joint, you are earning $40 per burger instead of $10.

This is what you do in a round. This player aid looks like a restaurant menu, which is nice.

The purple squares are homes, i.e. families, i.e. customers. Homes with gardens (green) attached are rich homes. A game starts with only middle-income households. Once you have a business development manager he can help create new rich homes or upgrade existing homes to rich homes. The food (and drink) tokens on the homes represent what they want to eat, i.e. the effect of ads. The white 2x2 tiles with logos are the restaurants. Location is important, because distance is one of the factors when a customer decides where to dine. The greyish blue tiles are the ads, and the food tokens on them indicate what type of food they are advertising. Those single red, yellow and dark green squares are supply points for drinks. When your buyers go past them they get to collect the corresponding drinks - soda, lemonade or beer.

The numbers on the homes and the ads have meaning. Homes and ads are resolved in ascending order. The effects of a lower numbered ad are determined before that of a higher numbered ad. Low is normally better. An ad that goes first gets to place a token on a house first. If the house reaches its limit for demand tokens, any subsequent ads will have no effect on it. As for the numbering for houses, low is not necessarily better. Lower numbered households go out to eat earlier. If you are in competition with another restaurant chain selling the same food type, and they sell cheap while you go high-end, you would want the middle-income families to have low numbers, but the high-income families to have high numbers. You would be hoping that the cheapskates buy up your competitor's food, leaving the rich families to buy your expensive stuff and pay you a big tip.

With 3 players, you only play a 3x4 map. At the top right corner, just off the board, you can see a large rectangular ad. That's an airplane banner ad. The plane flies in a straight line, and every house it flies over will be influenced. There are three pizza tokens on the airplane ad, which means the ad campaign will run for three more rounds.

One of the most important aspects of the game is the milestones. These are strong special abilities which you need to fight for. To claim a milestone card you need to achieve a specific condition, e.g. if you are first to advertise burgers, for the rest of the game every burger you sell gives you a $5 bonus. If two or more players achieve the same condition within the same round, they all get to claim a milestone card. Let's look at another example. If you are first to place an ad, for the rest of the game your ads are permanent, and you never need to pay your marketers. Normally ads last a specific number of rounds, and if you want to place a new ad, you need to assign a marketer to do it. Also, normally you need to pay a $5 salary to marketers except for the entry level marketers. Milestones are good, but sometimes they are a constraint or a hindrance. Using the same example, although perpetual ads save you some effort, it also costs you some effort. Your marketers are forever tied to the same ad campaigns, and you will need to recruit more marketers, and train them, to start any new ad campaign. There's one milestone which saves you up to $15 per round in salaries, however it hinders you from achieving another milestone which requires you to be first to pay $20 in salaries. You need to choose your milestones wisely. Milestones also drive your strategy. If you get the $5 per burger bonus, you will naturally want to sell more burgers.

The game starts with $50 per player in the bank. Before the game starts, every player secretly decides how much more to add to the bank. They get to choose between $100, $200 and $300. This information is not revealed until the money in the bank is exhausted for the first time. Once this happens, the additional amounts are revealed and added to the bank, and the game continues until the bank breaks for the second time. The money pool size has an impact on how you want to play. It affects the length of the game and the tempo of the game.

The Play

I played my first game with Jeff and Vence. All three of us were new to the game and we blundered through the first few rounds, not exactly sure what we should be doing. Both Jeff and I made a mistake with our production cycle, producing food too early when our ads had not yet taken effect. We were unable to sell our food and had to throw it in the bin. However that turned out to be a good thing, because one of the milestones was to be first to waste food. The reward was a fridge - you can keep up to 10 food tokens at the end of every round. I think this milestone is particularly helpful for new players. Once you master the game and the production cycle, this milestone should be less critical.

I went for a McDonald's strategy. I built a huge corporation. I sold cheap burgers. I sold many of them. I think what helped me most was my large company. I recruited aggressively. Being able to have many employees working means being able to do more things in a round. I claimed the $1 discount milestone, which helped me tremendously in competing for customers. I earned less per burger, but I was able to sell many of them. Jeff and Vence did not actively tried to stop me. I had the momentum and eventually won the game. By the time Jeff thought up a plan to slow me down, it was too late, because the bank was almost out of money.

In this first game there were many employees I hadn't tried, so I felt there were many strategies and tactics I hadn't experimented with yet. My second game was against Allen and Han. They were both new to the game. I tried something different this time. I got myself a luxury manager and a business development manager. I wanted to go high-end. That didn't quite work out. Han had gone for a discount strategy, and for a few rounds made a killing, denying both Allen and I many customers. I did manage to bring my master plan to fruition, but only had time to run it for one round before the game ended. Han commanded a big lead and we were nowhere near him when the bank broke for the second time. In hindsight, since I had wanted to try the gourmet burger strategy, I probably should have opted for a longer game and selected the $300 additional bank money card.

Allen struggled a bit with his business, and for some rounds even had to worry about paying wages. All three of us started the game with similar recruitment decisions, but Allen's strategy diverged earlier from Han's and mine.

I think the game will be more interesting with more players. With only three, the competition is not intense enough. Perhaps I should say with only three players, you need to proactively compete and not allow a runaway leader. In both the games I played, we had a runaway leader because the other two players were not aggressive enough in trying to hold him back. With more players, I suspect the players will be forced by the game system to compete. There are only five types of foods and drinks, and the number of milestones also stay the same. The runaway leader problem may be partly because of the shorter game length. We mostly opted for the low or medium amounts to feed to the bank. A shorter game meant less time to catch up. My first game took about 4 hours, and the second game around 3.

This was my second game. I played at Allen's home.

Ethan, Allen and Han. The game board or map area takes up only a little space. It is the card supply, the org charts and the milestones which take up a lot of space.

The Thoughts

I feel that Food Chain Magnate and The Great Zimbabwe are a new generation of games from Splotter. Compared to older titles like Antiquity, Roads and Boats and Indonesia, they are much less fiddly. You have fewer components to manage. The games still have very good strategic depth. I think it's a big achievement that the tediousness can be reduced while maintaining the same strategic depth. The player interaction is high, compared to Roads and Boats and Antiquity which sometimes have low player interaction.

Food Chain Magnate is a very typical Splotter game. It has the unique style which many fans love. The game is unforgiving and unapologetic. You need to know it well to fully appreciate it and to play well. Decisions in the early game are important. If you make a mistake, it can be impossible to catch up. The milestones are very important. You need to go in with a plan. You can't just blunder about and hope something will work out eventually. This is the kind of game that makes you feel alive. You feel that your every decision matters. Every call is life and death.

One possible point of contention is the early game may feel scripted, as in there are only a handful of good opening moves. You can't do a lot in the early game because you have few employees, so the decision tree is small. The crucial decisions are who you employ to get your company going. Then there are the milestones. You know you must compete for them. Of the 17 milestones, some can't be achieved quickly, and among those which can be, some are better than others. So the early game is about going for these better ones. It is no surprise that the early game can feel scripted. At the moment I don't think it's a problem. I think of it as an extended game setup phase, where players jostle to gain different starting strengths. After the opening game, there is still plenty of strategy space to explore and to compete in.

When The Great Zimbabwe was released, I didn't order a copy. After I played it, I bought a copy. After I bought a copy, I never played it again. When Food Chain Magnate was released, I didn't order a copy. Now that I have played it, I have ordered a copy. I just hope it won't suffer the same fate as The Great Zimbabwe and never get played.

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