Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Somebody Set Up Us the Bomb (a review of The Manhattan Project)

Nations on the brink of war. Who will be the first to develop the weapon that will put their nation on top of the heap? Who will be the first to leave the other nations in their dust? Who will be the first to score enough points for the victory? Oh yes, by building bombs.

The Manhattan Project will help you answer that question. Is it any good? Find out below!

How It Works
The Manhattan Project is a worker placement game for two to five players. The goal of the game is to be the first nation to develop a nuclear weapons program, represented by being the first player to reach a predetermined number of points.
The personal playing board along with the wooden player markers and a pile
of workers. You start the game with four laborers, but you can see all of
the workers available above.
Players begin the game with an individual player board, four laborers, and a small bonus dependent on turn order. Players shuffle the bomb cards and lay one card face up for each player, plus one. Players shuffle the start building cards and lay them out on the building buy track, with the last building coming from the stack. Players place their tokens at the start of the fighters, bombers, plutonium, uranium, and espionage tracks.

Players have two options on their turns: they may either place or retrieve workers.

If players place workers, they may place one worker on the central board and as many workers as they want on their personal boards. (Players must place at least one worker to take this action.) Players have three kinds of workers available--laborers, engineers, and scientists. Most tasks can be performed by any worker, but for some tasks engineers or scientists are necessary. Actions on the central board include getting more workers (permanent workers or temporary workers); buying buildings (the only space that allows for multiple workers); earning money; getting yellowcake, uranium, or plutonium; getting planes or launching air strikes; repairing damaged buildings; designing bombs; or launching espionage programs, which allows players to use other players' personal buildings as their own.

The central game board.
Buildings on a player's board usually allow actions similar to those on the central board. The benefit of having personal buildings is that no other players (save through the espionage action) have access to these buildings and players use any number their personal buildings when they place workers, as opposed to the one-placement rule on the central board.

In addition to placing workers, players who choose to place workers may perform any number of "bomb actions" on their turn. Bomb actions include building bombs (costing workers and cash), testing a plutonium bomb (once per game to make all plutonium bombs more valuable), and loading a bomb (these are the only things that provide points in the game).
The temporary workers are a key point of strategy.

If players choose to retrieve workers on their turn, they do three things: 1) they remove all of their workers and all temporary workers from the central board; 2) they remove all of their workers from other players' boards; 3) they remove all workers from their own boards. Permanent workers are returned to their owners' personal supplies; temporary workers return to the general supply.

Once one player has reached the predetermined number of points (dependent on number of players), the game ends immediately.

@FarmerLenny's take:
The Manhattan Project is, simply put, one of the best worker placement games I've played. It combines the best of European- and American-style games into a fantastic and engaging thematic package that is sure to please most players of strategy games. Now let me tell you why it's so good.

The first thing you'll notice when you look at The Manhattan Project is the beautiful packaging and components. Seriously, major props here. The artwork is fantastic, and the components immediately show you that something is different about this game.

First, the workers. Each kind of worker has different tasks that either only they or especially they may perform. These workers are represented by super thick cardboard tokens that fit the worker slots on the central board perfectly. The three kinds of workers are easy to tell apart and visually appealing.
The Manhattan Project's excellent rulebook, styled
as a newspaper. Seriously, this is one of the best I've read.
One of the best things about the components is the rulebook itself. Rulebooks should be functional and answer players' questions (which this one does). Beyond that, the Manhattan Project rulebook is beautiful in its own right. Made to look like a newspaper, it carries this design principle flawlessly throughout the whole thing, making it fun to look at as well as functional.

The other components are good--even better than average--but not as exciting as the workers and rulebooks. The "yellowcake" (raw material used to make uranium) is represented by tiny yellow cubes. These are serviceable but probably the low point of the components in the game. Money is represented on cardboard chits, much better than paper money. The bomb and building cards are the small Euro-sized cards. I don't usually care for tiny cards, but they work well in this game. All of the cardboard bits are sturdy and should hold up to repeated plays. The uranium, plutonium, and espionage actions are marked on tracks, which are a bit cumbersome to manage at times, but they remind players that these resources are intentionally limited per player, so there's nothing wrong with them. The central board is a bit small, but I'm glad: this game can fit on my table because of it.
As you can see from the picture, the workers in The Manhattan Project are
just about as thick as two Carcassonne tiles. That's sturdy cardboard!
Okay, so the components are very nice: that's something you notice right away. What you don't notice right away is gameplay, and The Manhattan Project excels here. How? Aren't worker placement games all pretty similar? Well, yes, in some respects. What separates The Manhattan Project is its focus on timing. Remember: the theme here is nations ramping up nuclear development programs. The game needs to ramp up tension as well as the jockeying for limited resources. The Manhattan Project can feel at times like a game of chicken. Each player must make one of two basic choices on a turn: place or retrieve workers. Unlike most worker placement games where everyone has a certain number of workers to place and they all return automatically, in The Manhattan Project, each placement and retrieval is a manual decision. Ideally, players would all love to place and place and place workers, doing more and more and more stuff. But with limited personnel as well as an increasingly cluttered board with spaces blocked, players have to call their workers home eventually. The key here is timing. Retrieving workers opens options for your fellow players, options that you may want to exploit on your own turn. However, if other players have few workers in their personal stocks, this won't matter, as they'll have to retrieve workers as well. Similarly, if you place temporary workers on the central board, they are removed whenever anyone retrieves workers, which can be a great way to take an action twice if you know another player will be retrieving workers. Players must gauge not only which actions they want to take on their current turn but which actions they will want to take several turns down the line in order to maximize their workforce--not only in what they can do themselves but in what they can restrict other players from doing. This system is genius, and also very thematic.

And proceeding from this, I love how the game ramps up. At the beginning of the game, "placing workers" might take you thirty seconds: you have no personal buildings, and you can choose only one action from the central board. Easy. But options open as the game progresses, and turns become more considered balancing acts. Again, timing is everything, and money is scarce. Players must carefully budget their resources to get the most out of their meager holdings. I like scarcity because (as Agricola teaches us, perhaps a little harshly) it builds tension. I also like pruned decision trees at the start of a game because fewer decisions early means a game can be easier to get into. Yes, players must know generally what to do (get resources to get uranium/plutonium to build bombs), but they don't need to know the entire process right out of the gate. They can learn as they go, a little bit at a time, and they're free to make "bad" decisions early without it costing too much: losing out on one action early is better than losing out on five later.

The game also ramps up in terms of what's at stake. The game can feel like the first several turns are all spent in developing infrastructure, and that's true. But once the infrastructure is there (particularly gaining workers and giving them jobs to do), the game progresses quickly. It's easy to do the work of five or six turns in one. It's easy to jump from zero points to thirty or more in a turn just by having the infrastructure in place and striking at the opportune moment. This appeals to my Euro gaming sensibilities: I like the slow build up and acquisition game.
A lot of work goes into making a bomb.

Of course, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the game doesn't involve just Euro gaming mechanics. The game keeps my American-style gaming friends happy as well. First, this is a Euro game with an interesting theme. No trading in the Mediterranean, no castle building, no farming. And while there are no nuclear strikes (thankfully, the game ends with building bombs), there are plenty of opportunities to affect other players. The game has a huge punk factor even beyond the traditional worker placement "I took this spot, so you can't" screwage. The Manhattan Project involves a healthy dose of direct player conflict--or, if not conflict, at least the threat of conflict. Players may bomb other players' buildings using the air strike space on the central game board. Bombing prevents players from using bombed buildings until they are repaired, and repairing buildings is a cumbersome (and expensive) process that diverts precious resources away from more important tasks. The only way to prevent being bombed is by having a stable of fighter planes. A nation with any fighters may not be bombed, so another player must first destroy your fighters before bombing you. Fighters destroy other fighters (one for one), and attacking fighters and bombing can be done in the same action, so escalation and stalemates are a definite possibility. This is not only thematic but tense. Diverting resources to aircraft is a bummer, but not as big of a bummer as having to repair damaged buildings. (The threat of an air strike is always real, so players take a real risk if they do not participate in the escalation game.)

Another aspect of the punk factor is the espionage action. By taking the espionage action, a player moves one space further on the espionage track, which allows a player to use that many of other players' buildings as if they were the player's own. It's awesome to use another player's building; it's frustrating when someone else uses yours. The only way to rid another player from your personal board is by retrieving workers, which costs a turn. Espionage provides another path for players who get bored of building infrastructure (namely, my Ameritrash buddies). In the first game I played, the player who won had a very sparse player board, but a very advanced espionage track. He let the other players do the building while he benefited from their gains. This isn't a guaranteed winning strategy, but it's an option (a costly one: taking espionage costs three money).
Bombs. That's what The Manhattan Project is all about.

I mention the punk factor because I know it will bother some players. Conflict can be very targeted, which is not usually the case in Euro-style games. I think it works in The Manhattan Project without becoming a take-that game. While it's beneficial at times to hurt another player, it's not beneficial enough to do it every turn (nor is the option to do so always open), and overly bellicose players aren't likely to win.

The only thing I can say against The Manhattan Project is that the game feels very slow with more players. I've played with three and with five, and the three-player experience is markedly better than the five-player. With five players, the game feels long and slow. The game involves a necessary bit of analysis paralysis, particularly later in the game (did I mention that resources are scarce and every action counts in the late game?), which isn't a big deal if there are only three people sitting around the table. For each additional player, the wait time obviously increases. I found the three-player experience exciting, tense, and very satisfying. While I recognize that the game is still good with five players, it tried my patience a little. For players used to all-day wargames, this may not be an issue; it was for me. I think the two-player game would be a little too cerebral, and five is a little too slow. I think the sweet spot for The Manhattan Project is 3-4. It gives enough options for things to do while also restricting placement options enough to keep the game interesting.
Cash money. There never seems to be enough in your pocket in the game...
The Manhattan Project is an excellent game, definitely one of the best games I've played in recent memory. It's tense, exciting, and it satisfies a broad range of gamer types. The component quality is excellent, and I love how the game feels like what it is: it is an arms race, and players must jockey and take risks in order to prove the superiority of their nuclear programs. While I prefer the game with three players, I wouldn't turn down a game even with five. The Manhattan Project may miss the mark with conflict-averse Euro players, but I think it strikes a great balance between Euro- and American-style gaming sensibilities. The mechanics are fresh, as is the theme and artwork, making The Manhattan Project a must-play game.

Fantastic thematic unity and components
Engaging gameplay
Novel worker placement mechanic
Cool gameplay for both Euro-loving and American-style gamers

There is direct player conflict, which may be a turn-off for some players
The game can be slow to start as players must build infrastructure
The game can slow down with more players

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Minion Games for providing us with a review copy of The Manhattan Project.


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  1. I loved doing that espionage thing... it made everyone so happy. And by everyone I just mean me.

  2. I can think of at least one player who didn't like it. Oh, yeah. It was the infrastructure player, i.e., me.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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