For a long time now, since way before we set up shop here at Rollin’ Dice Show, I’ve said that worker placement type games were far and away my favourite. Unfortunately, and rather shamefully, despite these declarations I hadn’t actually played that many worker placements games at all. Of the few that I had played Lords of Waterdeep resonated the most with me, and remains my most played game to date, and I wasn’t sure that would ever change, until now. A few weeks ago a friend introduced me to The Manhattan Project, and I’ve been struggling to get it out of my head since.
The Manhattan Project sees you as the leader of a great nation’s atomic weapons program in a deadly race to build bigger and better bombs. You must assign workers to multiple projects: building your bomb-making infrastructure, expanding your military to defend it, or sending your spies to infiltrate your rivals facilities. The game features worker placement with a twist; There are no rounds and no end-of-round administration. Players retrieve their workers when they choose to or are forced to (by running out). The Manhattan Project board game is a low-luck; mostly open information efficiency game with a whole load of strategy added to the mix.
The game was the result of an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2012, so once again we’re well and truly behind that all important hype-cycle, but I’ve been playing this so much lately that I just had to put some of my thoughts down and I figure that, given it slipped through my radar, I might be introducing it to many of you reading this right now.
At the start of the game everyone receives a player board, and four basic workers. Each player sets their fighters and bombers at two. You then deal out the starting buildings (distinguished by their red backs) along the top of the board, and reveal The number of players plus one in bomb cards, placing them somewhere near the board so all players can see them. The aim of the game is to build bombs, which will gain you points. When a player reaches a given number of points, according to the number of players, the round is completed, and the player with the most number of points wins.
On your turn you can place a worker onto the board, or you can remove all of your workers from the board. The board is broken up int a variety of sections, each of which focuses on giving you different resources or allowing you to carry out different actions. Some spots allow you to place any type of worker, but others will specify whether they require Engineers or Scientists, and may also require payment of coins or yellowcake. In the mines you can gain yellow cake, at university you can gain more workers, engineers and scientists. At the factories you can add to your aircraft or gain money. Some spots at the factory will gain you money, but will also add a coin to the bribe pot, once someone purchases one of the three most expensive buildings this bribe pot is emptied, with all coins going to the person that bought the building. At the reactor and enrichment plant you can add to your plutonium and uranium tracker. You can add to your player board by placing a worker on the construction section and paying the required cost of the buildings along the top of the board. You can use other players buildings by going to the Espionage section, the number of people you can send each time increases the more that you use espionage. Every time you place a worker on the board you may place as many as you like on your own player board, so effectively you can use all of your workers in one single turn.
Should you wish to prevent another player from using one of their buildings you can send a worker to the Air Strike section of the board. At this point you compare your fighters with the person you wish to attack, if you have more fighters than them you may attack, depleting your fighters according to how many fighters they had and wiping out their force. You then move in with your bombers, doing damage to the players buildings according to how many bombers you have. If one of your buildings has been damaged you can repair them by sending a worker to the repair spot.
Finally, there is the ‘Design Bomb’ spot on the board, when you send a scientist and an engineer here you pick up all the bombs that have been dealt face up and take one, placing it face down in your area. You then pass the remaining cards clockwise, and each player gets to take a card. Once each player has taken a bomb there should be one remaining, which you place face down in your area. You can complete a bomb, by paying the cost displayed at the top of the card, at any point during your turn. Once it’s completed Uranium bombs are worth the number of points at the bottom of the card, but Plutonium bombs are a little different. Plutonium bombs have two scores displayed because they need to be tested before they unlock their potential. When you test a Plutonium bomb you flip it face up, and take the highest remaining Implosion Test card, the tested bomb will then only give you the score on the Implosion Test, but all other Plutonium bombs you have will be worth the score in red, which is usually much higher than the basic score. Finally, you can then load a bomb for an additional five points, by reducing your Bombers by one and paying the cost written on the bomb.
Let’s take a minute to talk about this game’s theme. I love that The Manhattan Project puts you in the position of doing something that is so far removed from the majority of games like this. You aren’t trading in the Medeterranian or building a city and you aren’t doing something over a hundred years ago. No, instead you’re in recent history, during the start of the Cold War. You aren’t ever really in direct conflict with any other player, sure you might quibble over a space or bomb their factories to slow them down, but there’s a sense that the real conflict comes once the bombs have been made and the game is over. The fact that you can quickly gain a huge number of points means that every bomb counts, and means that for the duration of play you feel like anyone could win, and so often the game will end suddenly at the point you only needed one more turn to win. It really feels as though you’re in an arms race, desperately trying to stay ahead of your opponents.
The theme carries over wonderfully to all of the games components. The rulebook is fanastically put together as a newspaper, with beautiful Cold War style art throughout. Despite being so heavily stylised the rulebook remains very simple, and it’s incredibly easy to understand and find information when you need to mid-game. This beautiful artwork is continued to the game board which is laid out as a notice board, complete with coffee stains on some of the pinned up sections. You’re going to be spending most of the game handling the workers so their quality is arguably he most important, I’m glad to be able to say they’re pretty damn good too. They’re printed double sided on 4mm thick card, so are nice and easy to pick up. I can see why a lot of people would prefer wooden components a la Waterdeep, but I really like the printed, faceless characters that fit so perfectly with the rest of the game. The only complaint I do have with how the game looks it that the player boards are comparatively very dry, but once you’ve constructed a few buildings and covered the board with their lovely art this isn’t really a problem.
At first glance it might appear that, given the fact the only way you can win is to make bombs, The Manhattan Project would have a very narrow route to victory. Fortunately, due to the fact that Uranium and Plutonium bombs require differnt materials for you to specialise in, and there are so many different ways to gain those materials once you start building on your player board, this isn’t the case at all. At the beginning of the game you only have a few options available to you, then at the mid point you’re doing a wide selection, and at the end you’re focusing on just completing bombs. In this way the breadth of the gameplay kind of widens and then tightens as the game goes on.
A lot of worker placement games lead to you having to make poor decisions occasionally due to the board being full. In this game you always have a good choice. Even if the whole board was filled, and you’re being blocked everywhere, there’s still something you can do. And if you build buildings on your board you’ll usually have chance to use those. There’s a twist to this, that you’re going to be placing your worker on the board, and as long as you don’t retrieve them, they’re going to be blocking spaces from other players. The same is true of using other player’s buildings via the Espionage action.
Every game of The Manhattan Project I’ve played has felt as though it moved very quickly, and with very little downtime, save perhaps the occasional bout of analysis paralysis. In our games though, we tended to stock up on fighters to form a strong like of defence, only very rarely bombing another player for revenge on them spying or to get a tactical edge. If everyone is bombing each other’s buildings then it will slow the game down dramatically, throwing a wrench into the cogs of everyone’s production. However, having it there as an option, in order to slow down someone’s production for a few turns before they make a big move and allow you to catch up or pull ahead, is incredibly important.
I’m yet to try the game’s two expansions, Nations and Second Stage, but they are said to add even more depth to the game. Nations introduced countries that the players represent, bringing with them special powers. Second stage is actually four small expansions in one, allowing you to bring in just the modules that you’d like. It’s made up of Nations 2, the follow on to the first expansion bringing more countries, Rocket Technology, which allows you to build a rocket factory when taking the ‘Design Bomb’ acion. Rockets work like bombers, but Fighter planes can’t be used to defend against them. H-Bomb Technology upgrades the ‘Design Bomb’ action, allowin a player to return an available bomb to the bottom of the deck to aquire an H-Bomb card. These H-Bombs require a new material, Lithium Deutride, which comes from new cards that work in a similar way to the Mines. Finally there is Personalities, which add seven roles to the game based on real people who contributed to the Manhattan Project, each time you retrieve your workers you will select a different role which will grant you persistent benefits until the next time you retrieve. Suffice to say, I’m looking to get a hold of both the expansions as soon as possible, I can’t wait to see how they change up the game.
As I am sure you are aware by now, I think The Manhattan Project is a fantastic little game. It’s simple enough for relative newcomers to get involved in, but deep enough that seasoned gamers can well and truly get their teeth into the game’s mechanics. The game does take one run through to get your head around, and I’m not sure that I would introduce this to anyone as their first game, or even their first worker placement, but for those looking for a step on from Lords of Waterdeep or Stone Age and this is a great choice and deserves its spot in your gaming library.