Magnate: The First City Kickstarter Review

Magnate: The First City

It is said that a lady’s prerogative is to change her mind. Now, as I’m sure the rest of Polyhedron Collider will tell you, I aint no lady, but I am on the verge of changing my mind. Rory and I played the prototype of Magnate: The First City at UK Games Expo earlier this year and we both walked away thinking “that was bloody brilliant”. If you don’t believe us, it’s in actual audio format for all to hear.

Given the benefit of time, a copy of the advanced prototype for me to mess about with and a slightly lower level of caffeine in my bloodstream, I have taken the time to take a more considered approach to Magnate and the rose-tinted view has begun to fade. Thing is, I don’t know why – as far as I can tell, the game hasn’t changed much, if at all, which is both good and bad, but I’ll come back to this.

Magnate: The First City - Commercial Building

Magnate is all about making money from property; buy land in the city of Humbleburg and develop properties, attract tenants to live there then sell them off for a big fat profit. It’s a simple formula and on the whole, that model works very well. There’s a really strong link to the idea of supply and demand so more demand makes land prices increase, which means developed properties are worth more when you come to sell them. 

Players take turns to perform three actions; buy land, build properties (Residential, Commercial, Retail or Industrial), Consult (get money), Advertise (helps attract tenants) or sell property. That’s it. Nice and simple. There’s a bunch of land that comes available at the start of each round and players can bid for player order if they really fancy a plot or want to bag a load of the limited supply of tenants that round to fill their buildings. Turns go ahead, then the consequences of player actions is felt in the form of the market activity. For you see, there can be too much of a good thing and if players hit limits, bad things happen and the market starts to look a bit shaky.

Magnate: The First City - Crash Track

I have to admit, this is where Magnate shines. There’s a secondary track that sits on the land value tracker, which moves in the opposite direction; once that risk track hits the bottom, the arse falls out of the market and there’s a crash as the land value bombs. That means the huge, impressive strip mall you’ve just invested millions in is now worth less than my mother’s Status Quo collection and you’ve lost time, money and sanity by the end of it all.  So this all sounds pretty good so far, and I guess it is. Add to the fairly solid mechanics a big pile of very tasty-looking miniatures representing the buildings and you get one of the most photogenic games I’ve played for ages – although the board can get quite cluttered when there’s a lot going on which makes things difficult to tell apart.

So why do I have a niggling itch that just won’t go away no matter how hard I scratch? Why has the first playthrough been tainted? Well, I guess it comes down to two things: Magnate is too “nice” for my taste and it suffers from Space Base Syndrome: it takes too long to ramp up before it gets interesting and by that time, the game is almost over. 

Magnate: The First City - Industrial Building

In the various playthroughs I’ve had recently, every group has suffered the same problem: There’s too many tenants available for most of the game, which means that there’s little need to bid for turn order. It doesn’t matter if everyone fills their buildings before you because there’s still enough tenants left in the pile for you to fill yours. The bidding is actually a really interesting and tense affair and Magnate comes alive when it happens, but it’s not needed until much later in the game when tenants actually become scarcer because buildings have got bigger. Thing is, by that time, the doom track has got close to the bottom and it’s time to sell up before the game ends.

On top of that, it was found that actually attracting tenants was too easy as well; there are local bonuses available which help attract (or repel) tenants to your building plus you can spend advertising tokens to tip the balance in your favour. All nice ideas, but it results in a very “friendly” game, which for me became a bit stale. It’s perfectly functional, but isn’t very interesting as it’s (almost) a formality unless you really roll badly. 

Magnate: The First City - Cards and Dice

When there’s actual demand for tenants and land spaces, Magnate is really great, fun and enthralling. It’s tense and there’s a genuine sense of competition. When those elements aren’t there, it works, but feels like we’re going through the motions just to get to the good bit. And this is the part I said I’d get back to: I think Magnate really depends on who you play with. If you play it with the collective dicks here at Polyhedron Collider, you’ll find it quite engaging and there’ll be a constant battle for stuff. Play with less…aggressive…players and you’ll probably find the game a bit sluggish. Multiple playthroughs may change that, but after a few games of it, I’m still finding the same issues.

In here is a good solid economic city-building game, but like any decent property Magnate you all need to be aggressive to make it fully interesting. If you don't (and there's nothing forcing you to) then it's just a trundle to acquire cash and make pretty buildings.

Magnate: The First City is on Kickstarter now

This Kickstarter preview is based on a prototype version of the game provided by the publisher; the final product may look, play or smell different to that used in this preview.
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