The 40s were a wild time for science here in America. Never before had a nation put forth so much effort, with such high cost, on such a large scale as the Manhattan Project. You may think history is really boring, or you may be fascinated, either way who knew that building bombs could be so fun?
In Manhattan Project, by Minion Games, players are competing to develop their own fledgling Manhattan Project. The ultimate goal is to produce nuclear bombs to secure their nation’s defense. Manhattan Project is a worker placement game that takes an aging mechanic and breathes in some new life to make for a interesting and enjoyable game.
Now before I go any farther, I want to make it very clear that Manhattan Project is about building bombs, not using them. Some people may be turned off by the grizzly nature of nuclear war, and there are plenty of games that emulate that scenario; however, Manhattan Project is about the development and manufacturing of nuclear weapons.
The objective of the game is to build up your countries nuclear arsenal to a given level. This is achieved by building, testing, and loading either enriched uranium bombs or plutonium bombs. To build the bombs you need to have an educated workforce and a stock pile of fuel. You will need to train Scientists and Engineers at Universities, and you will need to build up infrastructure to mine and then process raw yellowcake uranium in to either enriched uranium or plutonium.
Somewhere up there I said worker placement, right? Manhattan Project takes this tried and true mechanism and adds a few twists. First is turn structure. On a given turn, you can either play workers or recall workers. When you play workers, you play one to the main board and then you can play as many workers as you would like (or have space) to your own nation’s building spaces. When a worker is placed, you take the associated action right away, but your worker is stuck in that space. Your next turn, you can continue to place workers, but eventually you will want your workers back. This leads to the other turn option: recalling workers. Instead of playing workers, you can instead clear the main board of all of your workers, and clear your own nations board of all workers, leaving a clean slate to play on.
Another twist on worker placement is the use of 3 different worker types. You will start the game with 4 unskilled workers, but through the use of Universities you will add scientists and engineers to your workforce. Not only do the added workers give you more people to play, but they open up advanced actions. Scientists are essential to processing yellowcake in to the two fuel types, and Engineers are great at building new buildings and mining yellowcake.
To stray even farther from classic tradition is the temporary contract worker. These workers are available to all players, but are in limited supply. When a player has trained as many scientists and engineers as they possibly can, they can add these nation-less contract workers to their workforce, but when used, they go back to being available to all players. These workers can make a huge difference in the end game when you are going to need all the help you can get to complete a bomb.
The main board is made up of a plethora of different action spaces. Most of them have associated buildings that players can buy, but there are a few very powerful actions spaces that allow for some direct player interaction through the use of Air Strikes and Espionage. Through the use of fighters and bombers players can directly attack and damage their opponent’s buildings, rendering them useless until repaired. In true Cold War fashion, the Espionage ability allows for a player to utilize other nations buildings as their own, both getting the benefit of the building and blocking the other player from utilizing the space.
The other buildings and main board spaces cover everything form gaining money, to buying buildings, to building fighters and bombers, mining yellowcake, and most importantly producing plutonium and enriched uranium.
The game ends when one player has built a large enough nuclear arsenal to ensure their countries security.
Things and Bits:
The theme and artwork of Manhattan Project are certainly compelling. The artwork is all very cohesive and fitting. You can tell that Minion Games was intentional about making this game look nice. The icons match the art work very well, making the game easy to play. The theme is better than most worker placement games I have played and is far from being ‘pasted on.’ Many of the mechanics fit the theme perfectly, giving a sense that you are building something big.
The rules of the game are straightforward and logical. There is a bit of a learning curve hump, as you have to explain what each kind of space does, but no more complex then any other worker placement game. Tried and true gamers will pick up on this quickly, but casual gamers who don’t have any experience might be overwhelmed. This is one of those games that is much easier to ‘show’ than to explain the rules. Just playing through a few turns gets everyone up to speed. I would stay away from playing with young kids because both the theme and the complexity might be too much. The rule book is laid out efficiently. It was very easy to read through and get a good sense of the game.
In general, games take about 1.5-2 hours. Each turn is relatively short. Even at the end of the game when you are playing lots of workers, they flow on to the board very nicely. Recall turns are even shorter. I have played this with 2-4 players, and all of the games were great. The two player game has just as much confrontation as the four player game, so it scales remarkably well. With 5 players I could see how the game might start to drag, 2-4 is best.
The arc of the game is very satisfying and logical. In your first few turns you are accumulating as many workers as you can, getting some bomb designs, and starting to plan out your ‘machine.’ The middle of the game is about setting up this ‘machine.’ I say machine in the sense that there will be a turn where you place one worker on the main board, then play all of your workers down on your buildings and end your turn with 5 Plutonium. When you get to that point, you start feeling like you accomplished something (and you did!). Manhattan Project strikes a nice balance by not making it so much about efficiency, and more about flexibility. There are some games, where at the midpoint you can mathematically solve who the winner will be. Manhattan Project is not so clear because there are so many options, and an opponent air strike or spy can really throw off your plans. Interestingly, the end game always happened really quickly in the games I played. One person would get a really nice system running and play 3 bombs in a row. When that happens to you, it is really fun, but when you watch it happen, it can be a little frustrating.
Some people write off the worker placement genre for not having enough player interaction. While the normal tactic of blocking another player’s action is not really a big deal in Manhattan Project, there are far more direct ways of getting in a player’s face: Espionage and Air Strikes. I really enjoy espionage as it works both thematically and mechanically. Remember that a player cannot do anything on their recall turn, and they free up all of their spaces on their main board. This means that a well planned espionage will give an opponent free range to use as many buildings as they can. The confrontation brought by air strikes really does depend on the group. In general, taking the air strike action means that you are not taking another action that will most likely be a better for you. Generally more traditional Eurogamers are going to avoid these direct conflict mechanisms, but it adds a nice balance to the run away leader possibility.
I really enjoyed how well the three distinct worker types played out. This added a freshness that sets Manhattan Project apart from other worker placements, including others with multiple worker types. The two different types of turns also adds a nice layer that is not too complex, but still offers tough choices. You are often faced with the dilemma of recalling (functionally passing your turn) and replenishing your workforce, or playing the rest of your workers on to an already full board. Inevitably during every game, everyone has that moment where the game ‘clicks’ and their strategy is realized.
The game may lack replayablilty for some players. The general flow of the game is workers -> mines -> refine -> bombs. Rinse, repeat. The variability comes from the buildings and the bombs. The buildings are all slightly different, but not so much as to throw off balance of the game. The big difference is the order they come out. If too many reactors come out in the first few turns, the game kind of lags. The same is true with bombs. They offer some variety, giving the player two ‘tracks’ to victory through making plutonium bombs, uranium bombs, or both.
I mentioned this before, but it seems like Manhattan Project has the potential for a run away leader problem. If someone starts doing really well, they are going to keep doing really well. The last bomb you build is just as hard to build as your first one. This means that it is easy to stay in the lead, unless your opponents aggressively thwart you with air strikes and espionage.
Manhattan Project took what people love about worker placement, then added some new things, refined some old things, then developed an interesting theme, and the outcome is a very well produced, entertaining and enjoyable game. The game will appeal to many different groups of gamers, not too intense for casual gamers, but still engaging for heavy Eurogamers. If you are at all interested in the process of building bombs, or are looking for a fresh new worker placement game, I would learn to stop worrying and love the bomb, go get Manhattan Project.