Brandon Tibbetts' Blog

Right now, this is just the Designer Diary for the Manhattan Project
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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. It awakened something in me that had been dormant for 20 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? From what it looked like to me... all the good ones were already taken (and beaten to death) or simply weren't workable in a board game format.


I owe my "ah 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, it occurred to me that fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle that was The Manhattan Project, and doing it hurriedly, in nothing less than a race with other nations (who 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 2 pathways to bomb production (enriched uranium and plutonium). Espionage would be a featured action. There would be a possibility to attack another player's facilities in order to slow his or 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 5 kinds of buildings: mines, universities, factories, enrichment plants and reactors.


A very early digital version of The Manhattan Project

I developed The Manhattan Project in isolation for about 1-and-a-half years before I first introduced anyone to it. At the time I had practically 0 play-testing 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. I would endeavor to bring it to a high level of completion without every fabricating a single component. Instead, I used a virtual board gaming platform called Zun-Tzu ( While it was considerably more work up front to build my first prototype than a cardboard and paper model would have been, once it was made, it was incredibly easy for me to make major revisions and get right back to testing.

Zun-Tzu also came 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.


I determined very early on that worker placement would be the core mechanic 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 to staff the buildings with. I knew I had to do something a bit different with it, however. Primarily, it was 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, there is a phase were 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. (If you're interested in more details, please see the following discussion on the BGDF: 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 there must be some consequence to retrieving workers. To get one's workers back, one must sacrifice an entire turn and open up opportunities for his opponents. Devoting an entire turn to retrieving workers also had the effect of speeding the game along. There are no decisions with worker retrieval, so those turns are Analysis-Paralysis free by nature.

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 assembling 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 very 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.


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.


When James asked me to come up with an idea for a Kickstarter promotion, 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 would play out in a somewhat more thematic and asymmetric manner, as each nation would have 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.


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 that everyone in this list have achieved 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, please go have a look. I've tried to keep a detailed record of the game's development right here on BGG. If it intrigues you sufficiently for you to purchase it - then I sincerely hope that you will enjoy playing it as much as I've enjoyed working on it!

-Brandon Tibbetts


Ok, not an epilogue... more like super important marketing and distribution information:

The PnP version of the game is available for sale now (

A high-quality demo of the game will be available at Essen (Minion Games' booth).

Full world-wide distribution of the game is expected by December.

We could really use your help preventing short-ordering from distribution, so if you can, please tell your local store about your interest in getting the game!
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