Martin Gonzalvez
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This is a sick worker placement game. Not just in the sense that it is about a sickening, yet undeniably glamorous and enthralling subject — the race to build the first atomic bomb. Not just in the slang sense that this game is sick — amazing, cool or awesome, which I certainly think it is. Primarily, I think the designers have a sick sense of humor, as shown in how they subvert the Euro trope of players serenely building their most efficient economic engine toward a victory goal. You can absolutely do that in this worker placement game, but a some point, you and your group are going to have to confront the reality that you can also totally bomb the living crap out of each other. It’s like a huge boatload of in-your-face player interaction just decided to belly-flop into the middle of a tranquil pool of idyllic Euro nirvana.

Some years ago, I read a novel called Los Alamos, by Joseph Kanon. In that novel, an intelligence officer is sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico, site of the ultra-secret Manhattan Project, to investigate whether a murder committed near the base is a crime of passion, or somehow connected to the US military’s clandestine efforts to build the atom bomb. I loved the feel and the flavor of that novel. Which is probably why I’m so drawn to the theme of The Manhattan Project.

The Game

Each player takes the role of an unspecified nation-state, in a desperate arms race against other unnamed nation-states (The Nations expansion allows you to play as actual countries) to be the first to design and build The Bomb, and become the world’s first global nuclear superpower.


The Bomb Cards, with their darkly humorous bomb names

At the start of the game, shuffle the Bomb Deck and reveal X + 1 Bomb Cards, where X = the number of players in the game. Building bombs is the only way to score victory points, so your goal is to build enough high-value nukes before your rivals do. These are the first available atomic bomb designs, and also your first strategic choice: do you focus on building small bombs, or big bombs? Small bombs are easier to design and build, but score fewer victory points, so you’ll need to make more of them, which will require more time. Big bombs require far more resources to design and build, but just a couple of those could win the game. This opens up potential for last minute, come-from-behind, snatching-victory-from-the-edge-of-defeat scenarios.


The well-designed Main Board

The Setup

The main board is attractively designed to evoke a cork board from a WWII-era munitions factory. The board is divided into different sections where each player can place workers to generate various resources. Each section is marked with thematic, easy-to-read icons that clearly outline what input is required, and what output will be generated.

- Construction — place a worker here to construct a building (factory, mine, university, reactor or enrichment plant) on your player board.

- Mines — place workers here to construct yellowcake, a raw material for uranium and plutonium.

- Universities — place workers here to generate more highly skilled workers like engineers and scientists.

- Design Bomb — place a scientist and engineer together here to acquire a bomb design.

- Factories — place workers here to construct fighters/bombers, or earn money.

- Reactor and Enrichment Plant — combine scientists and yellowcake to output Plutonium, or scientists, yellowcake and money to output Uranium. Both of these are required to construct different types of bombs.

In addition, there’s the Building Row across the top of the main board. Buildings are available here for purchase and installation to your player board, where you can start building up even more resources. Costs for the buildings are printed at the top of each space, increasing in cost from left to right. As a building is purchased, the entire row slides left, and a new building is drawn from the building deck to take its place in the most rightmost (most expensive) space. It’s a nifty mechanic that reminds me of the Civil Action Card Row in Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization, which slides left each turn, causing Civil Actions Cards to become cheaper to purchase, denoting how technological advancements become cheaper and more easily available as time passes.

The main board also has the Plutonium and Uranium Tracks to keep track of each player’s stockpile of those resources. There’s also the ominous Spy Track — more on that later.


The Player Board

All Work And All Play

At its core, a turn in The Manhattan Project consists of either placing workers, or retrieving workers. If you choose to place workers, you get to place exactly one worker on the Main Board (part 1), then place as many workers as you can on buildings that you have constructed on your Player Board (part 2). If you have no more workers to place (because they’re all, you know, working), then you must retrieve them all back from the Main Board and the Player Board. On a turn where you choose to retrieve workers, that’s the only action you can take for that turn.

From Small Beginnings Come Great (and Terrible) Things

Each player starts with four humble laborers. In the early game, you have to focus on acquiring skilled workers (engineers and scientists), yellowcake, and the cash to fund your fledgling nuclear program. Once you have at least one engineer and once scientist, you can acquire your first bomb design. Typically, a bomb will require multiple scientists and engineers, plus some fissile material — either uranium or plutonium.

Once a player acquires a bomb design, a mini-game of hidden card drafting takes place. The player who acquired the bomb design takes all the face up bomb cards, secretly chooses a bomb to build, then passes the other bomb cards to the next player. Each player takes turns secretly choosing bombs to construct. The first player will end up with the last bomb card, thus gaining the advantage of two bombs to work on, instead of just one. Once each player has selected their bomb designs, the secret is over. The selected bomb cards are placed face up near each player’s board. Correction: each bomb card you receive during Design Bombs bombs remains a secret in your hand until you actually build it using the required workers and resources (Thanks, instinctive!)

Acquiring a bomb design tends to make your strategy come into sharp focus around your needs. If you’re building a uranium bomb, you will want to focus on uranium production. If a plutonium bomb is your goal, you will redirect your production efforts in that direction.


Using a contract worker to build me some more fighters

Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair

This game could have stopped at giving players the ability to build the most efficient economic and nuclear production engines, and it would have been a fine game. It’s the ability to attack your enemies, steal their resources, and destroy their means of production that pushes this game to another level. You may want to focus on building your nice little economic efficiency engine, but you'll be forced to stockpile bombers and fighters, because if you don't, other players will. It makes complete thematic sense -- what would a Cold War-era game be without paranoia, and the ever-present threat of Mutually Assured Destruction?

Attack your enemies: you can build fighters and bombers, either on the main board or by constructing the right factories. Fighters allow you to establish air superiority over your enemies by destroying their fighters. Once all enemy fighters have been downed, your bombers can swoop in and damage enemy buildings. Damage to buildings is devastating, because it disables that building until the damage is repaired. Building repairs are prohibitively expensive and time consuming. In practice, in all the games I have played, once a player’s buildings are damaged, odds are good that they won’t get repaired again.

Steal their resources: on the main board you can activate a Spy Track that allows you to place your workers on your opponents’ buildings, using their facilities to benefit your nuclear program.

There is more, like how you can sacrifice one of your plutonium bombs to a bomb test, which will cause a drop in your current point total, but will increase the value of future bombs you build. That’s if an opponent doesn’t race past you to victory first.

But let me end with this thought: this is a game where smooth, refined mechanics reinforce theme, and theme blends well with solid mechanics. If the admittedly non-PC subject matter doesn’t bother you, The Manhattan Project is a fun, hybrid worker placement game.

As long as you can deal with the paranoia and ever-present threat of another player threatening to bomb the ever-loving stuffing out of your factories.

PROS:

- Compelling and unique theme, if you're into it (I am)
- Attractive components
- Solid worker placement and engine-building mechanics
- Doesn't overstay its welcome (granted, I've only played at the two-player count)

CONS:

- Once someone crosses the line and bombs your factories, it's very tough to recover
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instinctive
United States
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Great review, I love this game!

DrHenryArmitage wrote:
It’s like a huge boatload of in-your-face player interaction just decided to belly-flop into the middle of a tranquil pool of idyllic Euro nirvana.

This perfectly captures what I love about The Manhattan Project.

Correction: Do note that each bomb card you receive during Design Bombs bombs remains a secret in your hand until you actually build it using the required workers and resources.

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Martin Gonzalvez
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instinctive wrote:
Great review, I love this game!

DrHenryArmitage wrote:
It’s like a huge boatload of in-your-face player interaction just decided to belly-flop into the middle of a tranquil pool of idyllic Euro nirvana.

This perfectly captures what I love about The Manhattan Project.

Correction: Do note that each bomb card you receive during Design Bombs bombs remains a secret in your hand until you actually build it using the required workers and resources.



Thanks, you are absolutely right! Glad you enjoyed my review, I’m now inspired to play The Manhattan Project again.
 
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