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Designer Diary: The Manhattan Project

Brandon Tibbetts
United States
Oak Lawn
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How did I get here?

I had my first exposure to the world of hobby board games in 2005. The discovery of this "underground" medium (beyond Monopoly, beyond Scrabble, beyond Risk) completely changed my life and awakened something in me that had been dormant for twenty years: a love of gaming.

From the start, I also had an insatiable interest in game design. How are new designs conceived? How are they developed? What do people like or dislike about certain games? How can existing designs and mechanisms be improved? These were the kinds of questions that infected my thoughts every day, from that moment of discovery until today.

Like most design hobbyists, my early efforts explored many naive and misguided avenues. I made games with way too many parts. I wrote formal rules before testing. I spent more time crafting fancy components and pretty boards than actually designing. My work, naturally, improved with failure and time. Eventually I even had some games that "worked" and were even "done" in a sense. It was only then that I learned that even my greatest successes were missing something critical that would keep them from being marketable: a good theme.

But what makes a good theme? To me, all the good ones already seemed taken (and beaten to death) or simply weren't workable in a board game format.


I owe my "a-ha" moment that provided The Manhattan Project's theme to a documentary film on the subject. Unfortunately, I cannot recall exactly which one it was. I've watched several others since then and read about the subject enough that they have all become a blur.

As I watched the film, fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle that was The Manhattan Project – and doing it hurriedly – in a race against other nations (which surely were reaching for the same goal) struck me as very game-like. After some help from Google and BGG to assure myself that no one had made a Manhattan Project board game yet, I knew I had a winner and that I would focus all of my design-time on this single game for as long as it would take to get it published.

Right away, I identified certain essential concepts: There would be two pathways to bomb production (enriched uranium and plutonium). Espionage would be a featured action. Players could attack an opponent's facilities in order to slow her progress; with that possibility for attack would come the need to develop defenses at the expense of faster bomb development. Finally, I knew immediately that there would be five kinds of buildings: mines, universities, factories, enrichment plants and reactors.

Virtual Prototyping

An early digital version of The Manhattan Project
I developed The Manhattan Project in isolation for about 18 months before I first introduced anyone to it. At the time I had practically zero playtesting resources. I realized this was not at all an efficient way to work, so I experimented with other ways to increase efficiency. In my earlier years as a designer, I had learned how much time I lost to fabrication of physical components, so I thought I would try an experiment with The Manhattan Project to bring it to a high level of completion without every fabricating a single component.

Instead, I used a virtual board gaming platform called ZunTzu. While it was considerably more work up front to build my first prototype than a cardboard-and-paper model would have been, once in place it was incredibly easy for me to make major revisions and get right back to testing.

ZunTzu also comes with a feature that I would not have had in a real-life game: multiple levels of undo. I did not predict how useful it would be to have this ability during testing. There were many times that I backed up through half of a game in order to see how player positions would have developed had different decisions been made.

Re-Working Worker Placement

I determined early on that worker placement would be the core mechanism of The Manhattan Project. As construction and operation of buildings would naturally become the stepping stones of a player's progress in the game, it seemed equally natural that a player would have to manage a team of workers with which to staff the buildings.

I knew I had to do something a bit different with the mechanism, however, primarily because this was to be a race game and I did not want interruptions in the flow of the game to detract from the sensation of racing. With nearly all other worker placement implementations, the game includes a phase in which workers are retrieved and other administrative actions take place. I wanted to get rid of phases altogether and go back to a simple, old-fashioned, continuous round-robin turn structure. This would mean that players would not necessarily be retrieving their workers at the same time.

Several solutions were born from this. Some of these solutions involved workers being popped out of a queue when others were placed in it; some involved players simply getting workers back as a result of placing all of them. I finally settled on a solution that gives the player a choice of when to retrieve workers – but with consequence for doing so. To get one's workers back, one must sacrifice an entire turn and open up opportunities for opponents. Devoting an entire turn to retrieving workers also has the effect of speeding the game along as those turns are free of analysis-paralysis by nature. (For more details, please see this discussion on the Board Game Designers Forum.)

Protospiel 2010

The Manhattan Project
at Protospiel 2011
By the time I made it to Protospiel 2010, the game was long overdue for real testing with actual humans. I was there to rectify that, but also to make industry contacts. I walked in with the untested game, not knowing anyone at the event, yet I knew the game would get attention. I vividly recall when one gentleman, who was arguably more vocally gifted than I am, quickly assembled a test group to the table by yelling out, "Who wants to build an atomic bomb?"

I met BGGer Eric Jome at the event. Eric took an immediate liking to The Manhattan Project and has been an inspiration behind many of its developments and improvements ever since. I credit him with the prompt removal of the "trucking track" – something I was personally not prepared to do so quickly but which had to be done as time at the event was precious.

I also met James Mathe, head of Minion Games at Protospiel, who ultimately became the game's publisher. I chose Minion Games for several reasons. The most significant is that I felt confident that after the contract was signed my vision of the game would remain highly valuable. I am pleased to say, as the game approaches its release date, that my intuition had been accurate. I've been able to stay involved in every creative decision since the signing.

Testing Takes Off

After Protospiel 2010, testing of the game really accelerated. I continued my own late-night self-tests, but I also brought it to various Meetup groups around Chicago, and to Minion Games' prototype events in Milwaukee. James conducted many testing sessions in my absence, and the feedback between us regarding the results was constant. The game saw development at Origins 2011, Protospiel 2011, and finally Gen Con 2011.

Nations Expansion

When James asked me to come up with a promotional idea for the Kickstarter project (which ended successfully in August 2011), I had one already prepared: the Nations Expansion. This would introduce real-life national roles to the game. Without the expansion, each player is a generic nation, with each in a relatively equal starting position. With the expansion, the game plays out in a somewhat more thematic and asymmetric manner, as each nation has its own unique ability. It was a lot of fun to come up with the abilities that each nation should have, and I expect that people will have a lot of fun playing with them.

End of the Road

Seeing my idea finally come to fruition is more exciting than I can possibly describe. James assembled an amazing team consisting of Sergi Marcet (artist), Clay Gardner (layout), Topher McCulloch (rules layout), and William Niebling (editor). The results achieved by everyone on this list have exceeded even my highest expectations. Their accolades are already starting to pour in here on the Geek.

If this is the first time you're hearing about The Manhattan Project – due to reach retailers in December 2011 – please go have a look. I've tried to keep a detailed record of the game's development here on BGG. If that background intrigues you sufficiently for you to purchase the game, then I sincerely hope that you will enjoy playing it as much as I've enjoyed working on it!

Brandon Tibbetts

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Sat Nov 5, 2011 6:30 am
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