The Manhattan Project: A four-sided game review

manhattan project boxThe Manhattan Project takes players back to the 1940s, as the world’s superpowers struggled to perfect the ultimate edge over their enemies; the atomic bomb.

While in many ways a standard worker placement game (2-5 players, two hours), Brandon Tibbetts’ game adds enough interesting twists to peak the interest of anyone with an interest in this style of game. Since its relatively low key 2012 Kickstarter release it has steadily garnered an enviable reputation.

Players place workers into buildings on both their own and a central action selection board. These allow you to mine ‘yellow cake’, enrich plutonium/uranium and design bombs – as well as upgrading workers to engineers or scientists to better fulfil these tasks.

You can buy your own buildings to do these same actions more efficiently; but there’s the options for building squadrons and air-striking your enemies (and to repair buildings). Or perhaps you’d prefer espionage, infiltrating other players’ buildings to use as your own?

Once your bombs are designed and your fuel ready, it’s time for testing; but can you do it quicker than your opponents? The key is efficiency, as whoever tests the right victory point total’s worth of bombs first immediately claims gold in the nuclear arms race.

Teaching

manhattan project rulesThe first thing to mention is the rulebook; it’s one of the best I’ve read. Anything carrying the ‘Kickstarter’ tag makes me nervous, but The Manhattan Project’s is master of both style and substance, nailing the theme (with newspaper style layout) and the rules with real clarity.

Anyone that has played a worker placement game will have little trouble picking things up, while it isn’t a bad game to teach players stepping up from gateway games. There is very little hidden information and turns build in complexity as the game goes on, so it’s pretty easy to give advice as you go too.

The biggest twist is how workers are managed. Each turn a player decides whether to place workers or bring them all back home. This can get pretty strategic, as you may want to leave a worker in a blocking position – but for how long? When you bring workers back, they all come back. Tied in with the espionage mentioned earlier, played well this can be devastating. It is also easy to learn and understand, as turns are pretty quick.

The key point to ram home as you teach is this: Manhattan Project doesn’t end after a set number of rounds, with everyone tallying victory points. It ends when one player reaches the target number of points (determined by player number), which can come as a bit of a surprise as the bombs are the only bit of hidden information in the game.

manhattan project bomb cardsThere’s an amount of bomb cards on display equal to the number of players plus one. When you choose ‘design bomb’ you pick them all up, keep one, then pass them on.

Each player takes one, with the person who chose the action getting the spare bomb as a bonus. This means everyone knows what bombs are out there (values/complexity vary), but is guessing who has what – and you don’t have to complete them all.

You can make a pretty good guess, but you never know quite how close each player is from laying those bombs and hitting the point target – and you can guarantee at least one player would’ve finished in their next turn. This creates a delicious tension around the table which has just the right feeling to fit the theme.

The four sides

manhattan project main boardThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It’s hard to think of a game that better marries theme with mechanisms while still being 100 per cent ‘middle weight euro’. There’s very little luck and hidden information, but what is there becomes the real focus of the game without taking over – a really clever piece of slight-of-hand by the designer.
  • The thinker: While I admire both the mechanisms and the engine, I find not knowing when the game will end a little frustrating – but that is not a knock on the game. You need to alter your strategy to make sure you have the leanest production line to make exactly what you need, not particularly most productive, as all you need to do is get over the line. This twist makes the game endlessly fascinating.
  • The trasher: I have a love-hate relationship with The Manhattan Project. On one side I love the tension and the ability to screw your neighbour; but getting into a private battle tends to hand the game to another player who will sit back, not help, and profit from the fallout – there is rarely reward for aggression, except perhaps with two players. My advice is keep your eye on the quiet one – because they’re probably the person who’s winning!
  • The dabbler: First of all – how can those weird little workers with no faces have so much personality?! Seriously though, this game has a great story arc; nothing beats it for tension when you’re near the end of the game, trying to work out who is closest to the finish line. For one the climax, for the rest the anti-climax – but we all have a story to tell afterwards. Isn’t that the real point behind a gaming session?

Key observations

manhattan project workersThere are some accusations of underdevelopment – usually shrouded in a dig at it being a Kickstarter game. I can see this point of view a little bit, especially as the comments often come from ‘one and done’ players who have been put off after one poor experience – a very real problem in such a busy board game market.

It centres around one main point: there is no reward for aggression. This means that if the random cards favour one player who gets ahead, there is little reward for a player going after them – it simply opens the way for whoever is second to come through. Of course there’s nothing to stop players making deals – you send your fighters, I’ll send my bombers, you hit him with espionage etc. But it is a shame the game doesn’t deal with this better – and even more so that it doesn’t look as if the game’s expansion, The Second Stage, tried to tackle the problem either.

While garnering at least two-thirds positive reviews, the same old lazy comments also resurface: accusations of it being a generic worker placement euro that adds nothing new – largely from players who obviously don’t like worker placement games or who missed the fact it clearly has several interest new mechanisms. Why do they bother? Thankfully they’re in the minority.

Conclusion

manhattan project player boardThe Manhattan Project sits high in my top 20, with Tzolk’in the only worker placement game ahead of it, and is one of the few games I rate a 9.

My plays are into double figures and while I don’t feel I’ve explored many of its strategies, it still feels like a fresh experience each time. And even if it does start to get old, there’s a well regarded expansion available too.

The components, rulebook and art style really do stand out. I’m not one to turn my back on a game for its looks, but I appreciate quality: this is one of the most stylish games I own. From the cool workers to the ashtray and coffee stain on the board, it’s just gorgeous.

manhattan projectWhile the ‘take that’ nature of some of the actions may put some off, it’s surprising how many games are devoid of anyone using them at all; in a tight game they can seem like a waste, but someone looking like a runaway leader may well get a sound shoeing – but it’ll be their fault for showing their hand too early.

The Manhattan Project is a game I’d highly recommend to everyone who likes worker placement games, as well as to practically everyone else – it’s well worth the £30 price tag. Just keep your bomb plans close to your chest, and keep an eye out for those crafty espionage moves…

Check out these alternative takes on ‘The Apocalypse’ theme from esteemed members of the League of Extraordinary Bloggers:

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