Updated: Dec 2, 2019
When it was originally designed by Lizzie Magie in 1903, The Landlord’s Game was intended as an educational tool aimed as a warning against the evils of concentrating land ownership. By the time the game had evolved into what we now know as Monopoly, it had transformed in the public consciousness into a paean to untrammelled Capitalism. I don’t know the politics of UK designer James Naylor; and as this review is appearing in the heat of a UK General Election, I probably shouldn’t jump to any conclusions, but the design of his game Magnate: The First City does rather suggest his sympathies may tend towards those of Lizzie Magie.
Like Monopoly, Magnate is a game where players take on the role of property developers. There are dice (used, with various modifiers, to determine how successful you are in attracting tenants into your various properties) but this is no roll & move game: you’ll be relieved to learn that the similarities with Monopoly pretty much begin and end with the theme.
Magnate is a strategy game where 2–5 players (or a solo player against the included automata) compete to make their fortunes by buying up parcels of land and constructing buildings of various types (residential, retail, office and industrial). You’ll need to attract tenants, so the optimal choice of building won’t just be determined by what you can afford but also by the position of the building in relation to its own and the three other adjacent neighbourhoods: retail outlets want to be near homes, for example, so that they attract customers. Land prices ratchet up fast over the course of the game and the value of each of your buildings is determined by multiplying the current land price by various elements including the number of population icons on each of the tenants you’ve attracted. This is likely to mean that you can soon expect to get far more by selling a property than you could realistically expect to rake in in rent over the course of the game. The trick in this game therefore is to buy well situated plots, develop them, recruit the tenants needed to ramp up the building's value and sell; then do the same again as many times as you can while the going is good.
There’s a maxim attributed to Mark Twain that you should ‘Buy land – they’re not making it anymore’. But you shouldn't take investment advice from Samuel Clemens; he went bankrupt! Magnate is predicated on a rampant property bubble that you know from the outset will eventually burst. Events in the game move a marker ever closer to the point where it will trigger a market crash. This doesn’t just signal the end of the game; it also introduces a tense push-your-luck element. Do you invest in building more properties in the expectation of being able to sell them at a profit or do you cash out early against the fear of being heavily invested when the market crashes? When the market does inevitably crash, properties must be sold at the post-crash price, which you can expect to be a fraction of their pre-crash value.
Magnate incorporates auctions for turn order (it can pay to pay to go first so that you nab that especially well-sited plot of land) and advanced rules that introduce different ‘sub-types’ of tenants. It’s a mid-weight strategy game in that it’s not difficult to learn but it demands a certain mental agility to weigh up the effects of all the multipliers and optimise your decisions. Happily we never found that this led to too much AP (analysis paralysis); even with five players you can expect to finish a game in around 90 minutes.
We’ve greatly enjoyed our plays of Magnate: The First City and we were impressed with the quality of the prototype shown here on Board’s Eye View, including the plastic buildings that each have a slot to show players’ ownership. Art credits go to James Naylor, Cze Lee, Liam Kirkman and Aleksandra Shiga. The game comes with several different neighbourhood tiles, of which a random six plus the centre tile are used in each game, so Magnate benefits from a modular playing board that’s likely to differ on each play. Among the other thoughtful touches are the inclusion of ‘wallets’ in which players can conceal their wads of notes so you’re never sure quite how much cash each of your rivals has in hand. This turned out to be so much more convenient than player screens so it helps to justify the use of paper money. The AI rules and cards are designed not just for solitaire play but can be added in as an extra opponent with any player count. That's a very commendable touch.
Magnate: The First City is due to hit Kickstarter on 21 November. It’s certainly one to check out. Click here to visit the Kickstarter page, find out more and back the game.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)