Calvin Reviews Magnate: The First City

By Calvin Wong

Disclaimer: This is a review of an ongoing crowdfunding campaign that was produced using a preview copy of the game. The graphics, text, and components in that copy may not be identical to the final product. No money changed hands for the production of this review.

The best thing about Magnate is the first time you make a big sale.

You’ll already have made small sales. The 2 million you start with is just barely enough to build two tiny houses, with their student tenants generating measly amounts of rent each round. Your first sales were borne of necessity; you needed a quick cash injection to transition into more profitable shopping malls or offices - but your BIG sales are pure, cold profit. The first time you roll a skyscraper for 20 million, an amount so large the game has no possible way to spend it all in one round - you’ll feel like, well, a Magnate.

I lied, btw. The best thing about Magnate is the Crash.

Investing in Magnate’s sleepy little suburbs will cause realtors to take notice, raising land prices (but oddly, not the price of media ad buy) and making the city a more attractive place to live - further increasing prices. Getting in on the ground floor with prime land buys can be a recipe for huge success later at the cost of tying up your cash - but churning up buildings and selling them for profit will cause prices to spike - and bring the Crash.

When the Crash comes, anything you didn’t manage to sell before the Crash will be nearly worthless, with whoever’s left holding the biggest Scrooge McDuck bag declared winner. Do you hold out for better prices and another round of rent income? Or get out while the going's good?

Thus a game of brinksmanship begins - a single sale on the eve of the Crash can spiral into every single player panic-selling - causing the Crash to come faster. Who's gonna blink? It better not be you.

I lied to you again. The best thing about Magnate is how you feel after the thrill of purchase and sale wears off and you start to think about what you’ve done.

Those people you evicted? Who, exactly, have you sold their building to? Why do they go back into the tenant pool instead of continuing to live there? Has their condo simply become a monument to architecture? Why does the game reward you for building cheapo factories next to your opponent’s housing estates to tank their property prices, never mind the real life implications of redlining and blockbusting?

Magnate’s First City lets you feel the ‘glory’ of capitalistic reality but never requires you to consider the lives of its tiny tenants. Reducing a city to land prices and sales projections and catchment areas feels slimy because it IS slimy - that’s what capitalism does to people. Reducing lives to numbers, prioritizing the bottom line over human experience. There’s no incentive to make your city more livable for people, since there’s no guarantee of co-operation from your rivals - the dictionary definition of Tragedy of the Commons.

The game is explicitly about the perils of deregulation and chasing the bottom line but I wonder why the game doesn’t punish you for doing so. I suspect this is at least partly because that wouldn’t be very fun, but I’d love to see an expansion module where hefty bonuses are awarded for building livable cities rather than just profitable ones.

Magnate is a superbly elegant economic game that focuses on the purity of its mechanisms and hopes its players will have enough of a think to understand why capitalism behaves the way it does, but as one of my favorite stories goes:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

While Magnate might be too subtle for its own good, it is, nevertheless, super good.

You can back it here.

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Supporter25 months ago

This game actually looks and seems cooler than I thought it would. Color me surprised. 

25 months ago

At 2018 Essen a few friends of mine played it and were raving about it to me literally all year so I'm glad I could confirm the status of the hype.

Supporter25 months ago

You certainly did! However there’s always a difference in hype in the board game community and then the switch of “oh, I might also like this one too!”

Supporter25 months ago

This is a great, succinct review that makes me want to look into this game. Do you find that it's similar in any way to other city builders? Where would you put it on a scale of The Estates to Suburbia?

25 months ago

I haven't played the Estates but it's not very similar to Suburbia apart from the city building theme and having some minor adjacency bonuses.

In S, you build your own borough and what your opponents do doesn't really matter too much to your overall strategy (apart from having to adjust your purchases or keep an eye on achieving goals.)

In Magnate everyone is working in the same city (Humbleburg), you only build a few types of buildings, and watching your opponents is very important, because they are the ones who are going to trigger the crash.

Supporter25 months ago

I love that you have to keep an eye on everyone else’s game. Thanks for the response! Looks like my type of game, but i might have to wait for retail—I’ve already spent too much money on games this year :(

25 months ago


Owner25 months ago

Lol great writing Calvin. And boy, some of the ideas in the game hit too close to home.

Which Kickstarter game has been the most memorable for you during this year?

25 months ago

Thank you. Probably this one, because I don't do Kickstarter very much. I think I've done seven total.  

Excited about the Anachrony expansion tho! and my Omega Protocol 2nd edition material arrived last week.

Supporter25 months ago

Yes I just got Omega Protocol 2nd ed too and I'm looking forward to getting that one played!

25 months ago


Supporter25 months ago

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Magnate: The First City