Food Chain Magnate Review


Year Published: 2015

Players: 2-5

Playing Time: 120-240 Minutes 

This is the perspective of someone who’s played several times, but doesn’t own the game and the period between plays is occasionally enough that I need reminders of various granular rules. I enjoy deep games, but would count myself a casual player of Food Chain Magnate (FCM).

I don’t normally include disclaimers like this in my reviews, because I aim to identify a game’s audience and merits (or lack thereof) even outside of my personal thoughts. But given the nature of many of FCM’s players, which trend toward those who play more regularly, I thought it prudent. The game, I hope, can benefit from a review from my perspective.

Food Chain Magnate: The Premise

You own a fledgling restaurant business and are competing for neighborhood dollars with your fellow entrepreneurs.

FCM plays out as a tech tree, hand management game, which then shifts to your neighborhood grid of houses, restaurants and routes. You’ll start with a single CEO card, hire an entry-level worker, then hire (and promote) more workers to build a food-engine, so to speak. Entry-level workers, and select others, don’t need a salary, but most promoted workers do, so you can’t go nuts with promotions or you’ll end up needing more money than you have to pay them (at which point you’re forced to fire/discard them).

Once you’re making one of a handful of food items (burgers, pizza, various drink types), workers will market the various products and you’ll be competing to fulfill orders, which is what generates your income.

When you’re the first to do, well, a lot of different things, you’ll get a milestone card, which is tied to a particular bonus.

The branching, multifaceted worker tree means that there are numerous strategies that can be employed.

Game length is somewhat variable, owing to the hidden cards each player plays at the game’s start, which determine how much money the game’s second half will be played with.

This is a long game regardless, it is easy enough to learn but gets very complicated in a hurry, and it can be a very brutal game.

The Components

Probably a love/hate for many, the neighborhood grid has a very, very minimal aesthetic that at first looks cheap. It grows on you, but I’m not sure it ever ascends to anything great. The point here is the workmanlike functionality of the game, not its beauty.

Card art hones in on a Pleasantville-style, 1950’s Middle America aesthetic. It’s all somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it will again be hit or miss with some.

The “menus” are a delightful reimagining of a player aid, in a game that desperately needs them.

Crunch, Crunch, Crunch

FCM is a big, crunchy game. There are a lot of options, and a lot of fiddly little rules within it to remember, but each can be used to improve your chances. It’s a game that, especially with bigger amounts of second-half money, is probably going to take you at least three hours to play, not including the somewhat-considerable setup and teardown. Longer games will go to four. It’s an “event” game, the kind where you sit down knowing it’s all you’re playing that evening.

This is also a perfect information game, or at least nearly so. Each player sets their worker slots face down before revealing their chosen employees, and the game’s second half length is perhaps the biggest unknown. But it’s not “random” in the sense by which we describe games with random elements. You’re very much in control of your destiny, and can see others’ strategies develop.

Strategies and Adaptation

The cards offer myriad ways to combine them into interesting strategies, and the presence of milestones – and the implied race to the ones you most covet – put a silent timer on many of your actions as you try to angle for milestone bonuses that will compliment the strategy you’re going for.

That implies a somewhat linear strategic arc, but FCM is not just about your engine but those of your fellow players. Learning to work within what’s happening around you, both working on your own plans and reacting to others’, is crucial. It’s also one of the elements that makes this game so appealing.

Milestones are very important and, similar to the above, they can guide your strategy toward a particular goal, but don’t lock you in to something hyper-specific. It’s a great mix of direction that will naturally branch players out into varying strategies, while also giving them room for creativity within their niche.

While paying attention to what’s going on around you is important, the game does seem to have periods where each player is simply absorbed in their own hand and its management. Multiplayer solitaire this is not, not by any stretch, but a lot of the play does happen inside your head. For a game with this much to think about, though, this is both expected and can be rewarding as you unfurl a plan.

A Note on Second Half Cash

It seems a somewhat bizarre decision to me that the money to be used for the game’s latter half isn’t revealed until it’s time for it. It’s an element of randomness, which is neither good nor bad, but more than that, it could be the difference between a two-hour game and four-hour game. Even given that this is an “event” game, as I described it earlier, that vast variance makes this game a tougher sell for me.

Often, I’m playing with people who know what they’re getting into. But what about when I’m trying to play with a more general audience? This isn’t a game I’ll bring to club meetups as a result; it’s for planned evenings with friends who are prepared to play the game. That’s fine, but does limit the game’s use.

Strategically, it may also mean you build an engine built for a short game, for example, but end up playing a fairly long game. It’s still possible to pivot at that point, but you’ve likely lost if that happens, and you may have two or more hours left to contemplate your mistakes.

Intentional Brutality

FCM is notoriously unapologetic toward sub-par play. You can finish with no money, perhaps more easily than you suspect. While that has never happened to me personally, I’ve rarely had a game where I didn’t go backward in cash in at least one round of play. And the complexity of it all means that new players will be on the receiving end of this more often than experienced gamers.

This is not a bug of FCM, but a feature. Where it becomes trickier to critique is when factoring in game length. Should we brush it aside if a poor 3-4 opening rounds leaves a player hopelessly behind for the next two to four hours? Fans would say that’s the price of entry, and that it will diminish with experience, just as one’s appreciation of the game will increase with experience. Others might be less forgiving. I don’t disagree with either take.

For the record, I don’t mind brutal games, and actually love a handful of them. But I think we can safely say that FCM is one where you should probably try to avoid pronounced experience discrepancies whenever possible, and include the caveat that it’s likely not going to be as friendly to casual gamers.

Length, AP and Power Gaming

Given the density of FCM, it’s no wonder that this game attracts its share of power gamers, those who are willing to crunch numbers and come up with counters to strategies and counters to those counters. The strategy forums on Board Game Geek bear this observation out. For the highly invested and analytical, it is grand fun.

An issue arises, though, where to truly play the power gamer in this, you’re having to think through so much information that it risks inducing epic amounts of analysis paralysis (AP).

This is the only game I’ve ever played where I suggested, only half-jokingly, playing a light 2P game on the side with another player for those periods where someone else was taking their turn. We didn’t, because that would be bad table etiquette, but it absolutely would have been possible without us slowing down the game.

This has caused me to almost exclusively play the $100 hidden cash card (the lowest value). Longer games end up boring me, not because the game isn’t potentially interesting (it certainly is), but because the sheer weight of information and strategizing that often needs to take place can slow the game to a crawl.

So it’s not the length so much as the pace. For me, it’s not worth the risk, and that’s a shame.

Back to Brutal

I mentioned loving certain brutal games. And I like aspects of FCM, but it falls short of those others for a particular reason.

In other unforgiving games I’ve played, I never felt truly out of it, or perhaps not until the last few turns. There was always some possible avenue back to relevance. In FCM, this is often not the case. Granted, I don’t count myself an expert (though I do understand various strategies and have perused much of BGG’s forums in addition to my plays of the game), but for example in a recent game, upon a reveal of a massive price reduction strategy by two players, the other two of us realized a round too late that there weren’t enough price reduction cards left for us to compete on almost anything. We could all produce or store every good type, or nearly so, at this point. So those two sold their $0-3 goods (occasionally with milestone bonuses, so they weren’t just giving stuff away when the price was $0) and slowly inched toward the game’s end, while I and my friend fought for 3rd after discussing openly whether or not there was anything we could do to conceivably compete.

At that point, we’re talking about something very different than being on the receiving end of a few particularly bad beats. We’re talking about potentially having hours of literally pointless play.

Maybe there’s a counter to that. But I and another smart hardcore gamer couldn’t find it, and we watched, helpless, for almost two hours (it was a slow game due to the reduced prices). A perusal of strategy threads suggests that that’s not the only “gotcha” strategy in the game either.

So again, given the depth here, it’s possible for an experienced player to effectively anticipate and counter ideas an obviously-trailing player might throw at them. Or, hell, forget the experience/newbie dichotomy for a second; this is possible at any level if you identify and cling to a particular edge.

Granted, different decisions at an early enough stage would have corrected my predicament mentioned earlier. It’s not a trap I’ll be falling into again, and maybe that’s the point. Take your licks, learn from them, and avoid them the next time. But their presence at all just rubs me a little wrong. I’ve enjoyed this game greatly at times, but those two hours mentioned above were probably the greatest boredom I’ve experienced in the hobby.

Good With the Bad

So of the two portrayals above, is one dominant? I don’t think so. I bring out negative examples like the one above to say that these instances are very, very possible in FCM. But sessions of this game, even for the same person, will vary wildly across multiple plays. One might be breathless and exciting, another might be an interminable slog.

Hell, sometimes those things can exist in the same session! Both can exist in the same game, especially one of this weight and length.

The Ketchup Expansion

This isn’t an expansion so much as something like 12 separate modules that can be mixed and matched for varying experiences.

There’s good and bad here.


  • A lot of the new mechanisms speed up the game by making it possible to accumulate money. This reduces game time and encourages strategies that push the pace rather than slow it down.
  • A handful are eminently lightweight and may actually go unused in some games. So depending on which you choose, it can be a very similar experience.


  • There are a lot of new food options, and the rules surrounding them are obtuse and fiddly. Adding all of them is to turn the game into a mess. There’s even a chart for explaining who will buy what, and when, depending on which modules you have. House 4 will buy Kimchi and pizza if and only if {X}, but House 5 will buy Sushi, unless of course {Y}. If parameters {A}, {B}, and {C} aren’t met and you have Noodles and {Z}, House 6 will buy from you…etc. etc. etc. That description there is a little embellished, but not by much. It slows the game to a crawl, and not for good reasons like parsing out the intentions of your opponents, but just so you can reference the rules.
  • Unless you’re playing this a lot, the different permutations mean you’ll rarely, if ever, be able to form strategic insights that carry from game to game, because the parameters of the game will be significantly altered.

If I got to pick my preferred modules every time, I think I’d genuinely enjoy not just the Ketchup Expansion but FCM as a whole a lot more. But like the base game, there are some really great aspects mixed with some truly awful ones.

If you can settle on ones you enjoy as a group, you should be set. But if you don’t need “more” from the base game, you can probably steer clear, since that’s ultimately what this amounts to.

Food Chain Magnate – Conclusions

I think this is a mismatch of game group for me. Because I get it; I understand the love the game gets. I see why certain intense strategy gamers love this with a passion. This is a specific game for a specific audience, and if you told me FCM was your favorite game, I wouldn’t for a second question it.

I wish you all the fun in the world, but this review isn’t for you. It’s for gamers wondering about FCM, much like I was, to see if it’s going to be for them.

And to me, it just ends up feeling a bit like a slog a touch too often to receive a full endorsement, but I also don’t mind swimming in its deep, deep waters occasionally with the right group.

But on the issue with gaming group: I’m at the point where I’ve seen enough winning strategies that I can develop my own, but usually not enough to beat whoever owns the game and remembers the strategic intricacies better than me. But I’m also generally better than whoever we’re inevitably teaching the game to.

And therein lies the problem and solution. If you’re playing with the same group of people regularly, this is probably going to be much smoother. You’ll develop strategic tendencies, you’ll progress more or less at the same pace, etc. I don’t have that luxury in my gaming, so I’m usually with someone who adores the game and is most likely going to crush us, a casual gamer or two who knows what’s going on but may need a reminder on the more granular rules (I count myself in this group), and new players who I’m just hoping don’t end up having a miserable time.

And, to be clear, if I’m offering a silent prayer to the gaming gods before the game starts that the person learning the game doesn’t have a nightmarish 3-4 hours, I don’t consider that a positive.

It’s also the only game I can think of that I can be enthralled with and bored by in the same session, owing to the pacing issues mentioned above. The complexity with staff management and restaurant interaction at the game’s later stages is occasionally staggering in ways both good and bad.

So…unless I completely scared you off, go play this game. No, seriously, if the above didn’t turn you off FCM forever, I absolutely think you should try it out. It’s worth experiencing. I still don’t mind a play or two a year, maybe because I have a short memory for the bad stuff, but maybe because there’s still a good, deep-as-hell puzzle here. And if it’s a game for you, it might really be a game for you.

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