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.