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SPIEL '17 Preview: Manhattan Rises Again, Far More Colorfully Than Before

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Manhattan
Board Game: Manhattan
The hobby game industry has grown a lot since I got into it heavily in 2003, and each year new people come into the hobby only to discover that hundreds of fantastic games were released in years past and they're now no longer generally available.

And yet for the most part those games keep coming back. Ravensburger announced reprints of Notre Dame and In the Year of the Dragon in late 2016, for example, and people cheered since they would now be able to easily discover these "old" games for themselves (without paying more than MSRP for used copies). A fourth edition of Twilight Imperium debuted at Gen Con 50, and new versions of Endeavor and Fireball Island were announced at that show. Almost everything returns to print, and when these games return, they're new for a large percentage of the audience that has heard about them but not easily had access to them.

Andreas Seyfarth's Manhattan is one of those new-old titles for me. Manhattan won Spiel des Jahres, Germany's game of year award, in 1994, the year before Settlers of Catan set the gaming world on fire, and despite me knowing about the game I had never played it. Korean publisher Mandoo Games will release a new version of Manhattan in late 2017 with art by Jacqui Davis; the setting now seems to be a tropical island of some sort given the sand dunes and lush forests on the game board, but the gameplay remains the same as the original edition as far as I can tell.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I've now played three times on a press copy sent to me by Mandoo Games, once each with two, three and four players. Gameplay is simplicity itself. Each player has 24 buildings, with the buildings being 1-4 stories tall. At the start of a round, players choose four or six of these buildings (depending on the player count) and place them on their personal board.

On a turn, you play one of the four cards in your hand, then place a building from your personal board onto one of the six blocks in the position indicated on the card, then you draw a new card. Each block is a 3x3 grid, and all of the blocks are identical at the start of play. As the game develops, you start feeling possessive over this block or that, with you fighting against one person here and another person there; one block turns into skyscraper central, while another is more like the suburbs, with every space occupied with squat little buildings. For convenience's sake, though, let's refer to every constructed space as holding a skyscraper.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The only restriction on placement is that after placing a building, you must have at least as many stories as each other person who has built in that skyscraper. This is important since the player whose building is on top owns the skyscraper (just as in real life, right?), so this rule prevents you from sniping someone who's invested a lot in a skyscraper by capping it with a one-story building.

Once everyone has placed all their buildings for the round, the player who owns the single tallest skyscraper scores 3 points. In each block, whoever owns more skyscrapers than each other player in that block scores 2 points. Finally, each player scores 1 point for each skyscraper they own. You then take four or six more buildings from your reserve, rotate the start player marker clockwise, then continue. (In a two-player game, you control two colors of buildings, build either color on your turn, and sum points for both colors at game's end.)

After four or six rounds of play, whoever has scored the most points wins.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

In most ways, Manhattan is a basic area majority game, something ideal for introducing those new to hobby games to what exists in the larger world of games. You can learn the game in a couple of minutes, then dive in and start fighting for space. You quickly start elbowing others out of your way since covering someone else can both cost them a point and earn a point for you — assuming everything stays that way at the end of the round, of course, which is rarely the case. You can't dominate every block, so you choose your battles, feign innocence when you start to compete in blocks held by others, and keep turn order in mind since the players going later in each round have final say over who will score for what.

The scoring system pulls you in multiple directions, challenging you to make the most of each placement. Can you both take a majority and deny someone else a point? Can you compete for the tallest building and make that space work toward a majority? The deck contains five copies of each card, and each player plays cards relative to their own position, so playing a card that would place a building in the upper-right corner from my perspective would allow my left-hand opponent to place in the lower-right corner from my perspective. I suppose you could attempt to track card plays by everyone to have a better sense of who could play in which spaces, but I find that a gut feel gets you 90% of the way towards what you could reason out, so I go with my gut and leave it at that. Yes, I made up that statistic, but I've found it holds up well for me over hundreds of different games played.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

You want to encourage others to snipe amongst themselves and leave you alone, but that's not going to happen. Pick your battles, and ideally you'll have cards in hand that allow you to retaliate in blocks where others mess up your plans. Luck of the card draw will obviously have an impact on what you can do, but not allowing you to do everything you might want to is what pushes this game to be appropriate for newcomers as well as more experienced gamers. You can't do anything; you must decide from among these choices, then see what you can do next.

One possible difficulty with this new edition of Manhattan is that the yellow and orange pieces are distinct when they're on the table or stacked on other colors, yet somewhat hard to distinguish when they're stacked one on another. Aside from that, the only complications with building in Manhattan come from those others who want to trump your buildings with their own. Don't let that happen!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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