Like Licensed to ill, Are You Experienced, and Kill ‘Em All, Magnate: The First City is a debut cut built to last. Designer James Naylor presents a very singular take on property development, propped up by an exorbitant production and clever satire. Moreover, he delivers all of it in less than two hours.
Let’s talk about the physicality first. The box for this game is enormous. It’s kind of comical. In the bowels of the cardboard tomb lies plastic. Lots of plastic. Many buildings, paper money, dice, cards, tokens, and trays to hold everything. All of this setup on the table is shiny and over-the-top. It’s spectacular but it’s also excessive.
This quality reflects the subject matter of the game. The criticism of unregulated real estate speculation and the associated economic bubble is explicit in Magnate’s systems. Just as the board becomes bloated with superfluous componentry that obscures as much information as it conveys, the market’s belt begins to run out of holes. There’s such a wonderful tension that rises over time and it’s skillfully mimicked visually.
The menagerie of colorful buildings and cheerful graphic design is pulling a double. In addition to functioning as a thematic buttress, it acts as a lovely facade to mask the vicious undertone. It does this by calling to the primordial cardboard artifact, Monopoly, as well as presenting a real Pleasantville atmosphere. It’s as if the game is offering a sardonic curling of the lips and you can’t help but reflect the pose.
So, how about the nastiness.
Magnate is a medium weight game. It’s not terribly complex and it scoots along without hesitation. The bulk of your time is spent in snatching up plots of land and then building properties upon them. These developed landscapes attract tenants and start generating rental income.
That’s not how you make real money in Magnate. You become Uncle Pennybags by selling your property at a heavily inflated price once the market has accelerated. Then you take these profits and pour them back into new developments in a seemingly endless cycle of wealth generation.
Then the bubble bursts like the world’s largest zit covering you in pus. It’s nasty as can be and it’s the reason to play Magnate.
You can feel the game building towards the finale. As the property track ratchets up the parallel crash marker trundles downward. Its pace is controlled by a deck of cards which provide variance and obscure the precise moment it all starts tumbling.
I adore this system. It’s fantastic and it feels perfectly tuned to provide varying strata of outcome. The assortment of numbers means that some plays will feature what appears to be an impending crash, only to have the market hold stable for another couple of rounds. Others will sling you from a safety net into the oblivion without abandon. This mechanism, however, is also to blame for possible uneven first impressions, as it’s common enough to have back-to-back experiences where the crash is either too predictable or too volatile. In the former case the criticism is that the design lacks drama, in the latter it’s that nothing can be planned for, and the entire game comes down to who was fortunate to sell all of their property at the perfect moment.
And that really is a significant portion of the game’s strategic layer. The player who times the crash expertly and sells off the entirety of their property at its peak value will most likely win. The accrual and development of property along the way certainly has a bearing upon the payout as properties do not offer equal bounties. There are a nice mix of bonuses and synergies with erecting specific structures adjacent to others.
But the outcome of all of this is so heavily influenced by the crash. It feels as though you’re strapped to an electric chair and that switch is inching ever so closer to ‘on’. It’s an incredible sense of warmth to predict the climax perfectly, sweeping up an armful of banknotes, awash in self-adorned cleverness. The whiplash from that fateful moment is both delightful and traumatic.
That moment though is exceptionally important within the framework of the design. Besides providing a glorious finale to the inscrutable heedless commerce, it’s the unifying thematic element.
Here’s the thing about Magnate, all of the value escalation and the associated terminal catastrophe is player driven. The market price rises as a result of player action. With a clever incentive structure, the design fosters forward momentum, but the participants themselves are the ones with their hands on the throttle. And you’re going to break that motherfucker off.
It’s what we do and what the market demands, even if it leads to ruin.
You could argue that none of it matters. The people you’re selling these concrete obelisks to are unseen. That’s one of the interesting aspects of Magnate. You never sell to other players. Instead, the hidden actors in the background happily stuff your pockets with generous payouts to acquire the fruits of your labor. But you’re the one laughing. A reckoning is coming and the 14-million-dollar shopping mall you just handed off to a donkey will be worth a couple mill at best.
The significance of the crash stretches beyond. The accomplishment is in reversing the momentum and turning the blow against the players. It’s cyclical in that you’re riding the wave and then it slams you into a wall. While some of the players will have timed their sale perfectly, others will have their legs cut out from under them. This pain is necessary because it provides texture in connecting you to the consequence. And it’s all brilliantly self-inflicted, a group of fat-cats stomping across the skyline and poised to tumble.
All of the painful repercussions are kept outside of the players’ vision until that precise moment of decline. Magnate coddles you for 90 minutes before balling its knucks into a fist and breaking your ribs.
There’s another circular quality to the game that lingers in thought. With the conclusion of each play and the tumbling of the market, there’s this inescapable feeling of predicted recurrence. As the property pricing settles at its new low, the jig is almost reset, ready for the climb all over again. It’s easy to imagine a fresh group of developers swooping in, bulldozing it all down, and beginning anew.
Thus, each subsequent play forms a litany of predestined tragedy. You climb back behind the wheel and drive straight off the cliff all over again. And endless circle of impropriety cloaked in shiny plastic and illustrated cardboard.
While getting Magnate to the table is easy enough due to its straightforward ruleset and charitable time requirement, it does sit in the unenviable spot of desiring a full group. With less than four, the game can struggle to hit the high notes and I’m left somewhat wanting. Fortunately, it’s easy pulling in a contingent of newcomers as the included card-based tutorial is wonderful.
Magnate: The First City is a remarkable game. This is a genre I’m not often taken with, but the brutal revelation in the final moment has left my spine twisted and my mind bewitched.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
If you enjoy what I’m doing and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi or supporting my Patreon.
Nice review. One thing I’ve wondered about this game is, if the winner is mostly determined by who times the crash the best, does that mean most of the rest of the game ends up being sort of pointless? And given the crash timing is somewhat random, is the winner somewhat a random person as well?
LikeLiked by 1 person
There’s more nuance, the crash timing is the determining factor among players who played otherwise similarly well.
If we were talking victory points, it would be worth somewhere around half of what you score.
I wouldn’t say it feels overly random, although some may criticize it as such. I feel there’s an element of I tuition and risk analysis which is saddled on the players.