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Subject: Let Them Eat Yellow Cake - Another Mixed Review by Casualgod rss

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David Debien
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Disclaimer:

For complete transparency, I received a review copy of The Manhattan Project from Minion games. I am glad I did too, because otherwise I may never have played this great little game. As always, though, I will have my nits to pick - this review wouldn’t be mixed otherwise.

Rules

The rules are well written but refer a lot in the early parts of the rules to things that you will not understand until you read the latter part of the rules. This is a common issue with rule books and is, to a certain degree, unavoidable. Also, the rules seem to have an overview on how to place and remove workers and then go into great length on how to place the workers in the next section, while never going back to the removal of workers. In the end, that works fine as the removal of workers is quite simple, but I was expecting a further word on that topic after the breakdown on worker placement. All that said, after an initial read through which took about 20 minutes and one more skim through the book (maybe 5 more minutes) I was ready teach and play the game.

Components

I own one other Minion Game (Venture Forth) which I quite like, but was less than impressed in regards to its component quality. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised by the components in Manhattan Project. The worker pieces, especially, are mounted on extra thick cardboard. The main board is well laid out and the art throughout really helps to bring out the theme. My one small nit here is that the fighter and bomber tracks on each player board tend to slide around a lot. There is a similar tracker on the main board for everyone’s plutonium and uranium. The designers should have included a similar track on the main board for fighters and bombers. This would keep things consistent and eliminate the issues we have had with the sliders moving around during play.

Theme

Considering that this is a fairly typical Euro where you send workers to gather resources, and then send more workers to convert those resources into other resources, which you then send even more workers out to convert into victory points, The Manhattan Project’s theme shines through the entire time. This is not a game that you could easily re-theme, keeping the mechanics the same and have it all hang together and still make sense, like most other Euro games that I play and love. In The Manhattan Project, you really do feel like a nation embarked on a Nuclear Weapons program. You have to train your laborers into Scientists and Engineers, build the industry required to mine Plutonium Ore (Yellow Cake), then the reactors to refine it and finally build the result into Nuclear Weapons. All the while, you are also maintaining an Air Force to protect your skies and also terrorize your enemies and bomb their industry to slow down their own plans.
All this to say, The Manhattan Project is not a JASE (just another soulless Euro).

I have said it, The Manhattan Project, a game about building weapons of mass destruction, has soul.

Gameplay

Players start the game with a little money, a tiny air force and 4 laborers. During a player’s turn, she can either play her workers, or remove them from the various boards and bomb cards where they have been placed during previous turns, making them once again available for future play. The major twist is here is that the main board where everyone can play workers can only be played once per player round. So, in order for a player to get more bang for her buck during each player turn, she has to build buildings on her own board which are not limited in the same way as the main board. Beware, however, as there is an espionage action available on the main board, allowing other players to play their workers on your buildings, which will then not be available until either you or they return their workers! The nerve. In addition to this lovely mechanic, further boosting player interactivity, is the fact that players can make air strikes on your air forces and buildings on their turns.

On a player’s turn then, they need to balance furthering their designs to build a bomb along with worrying about other players using the espionage action in addition to defending their nation with a sturdy Air Force and/or using it to strike out at any players perceived to be in the lead.

Combine the above with the fact that building a nuclear weapon is not simple. First you need Yellow Cake - a lot of yellow cake. Then you need to convert it into either plutonium or uranium, depending on you bomb design. Typically, you need a lot of that as well. So, it all boils down to a typical Euro game style efficiency engine of who can most efficiently stockpile a mountain of yellow cake which then gets converted to either plutonium or uranium as efficiently as possible, all the while watching one’s back against air raids and the dreaded espionage action.

This reminds me a lot of games like Caylus or Agricola, where you are basically doing the same thing - that is to say gathering resources to eventually convert into victory points. However, in Caylus, you don’t really have that much engine building going on. There is some in that you get resources and money from the buildings you make, but not a lot of that is going on. Mostly, you are building an engine via the Favor tech track. In Agricola, you are making an engine via your Occupations and Improvements and Manhattan Project is a lot more like Agricola in this aspect. However, the player interactivity and take that aspect of the Espionage Action and the Air Raid threat reminds me a lot of the take that play of Caylus. So, for me, Manhattan Project has both the high player interactivity of Caylus AND the engine building of Agricola, combining what I like most about both games into one game.

Does that mean I like Manhattan Project more than Agricola or Caylus?

No, not really and here is why:

The buildings themselves are very uneven and there is no control over the order they become available. In Power Grid, there is a strong mechanic keeping the progression of better power plants at an even pace. In Manhattan Project, the best buildings in the game could very well be available for purchase on the first player’s turn. And there are some very powerful combo’s which I have seen win the game every time a single player manages to get them going.

You would think the air raid threat would be a great catch up mechanic, but in the end it is a lot of hot air. In the games I have played, the players getting bombed eventually beat the players doing the bombing. Yes, getting bombed sucks, a lot. However, the ability to repair the damage is relatively straight forward and not terribly time consuming, especially when compared to the effort it takes to build a sizable enough air force to beat down someone’s defenses and do enough damage to make it worthwhile.

Essentially, the amount of effort you put into bombing a player is less than the effort that player needs to spend in response to repair the subsequent damage. In the end, the air raids are a negative sum, or at best, a zero sum equation. In multi-player games this can be slightly mitigated by having two players gang up on the individual leader to split the bombing cost, but again, in the end, digging out from the rubble just isn’t that difficult. At best, the players that do the bombing may stop the player in the lead from winning so that the player who didn’t bomb can win.

In a two player game, a heavy bombing strategy makes almost no sense, unless you can get an early bomb and fighter making engine going. All this will do, though, is make the game outstay its welcome as this strategy will mainly hamper the other player’s ability to make nukes while the bombing player is doing much the same.

In the final analysis, I think the designers need to go back and find a way to make air raids more profitable, without making them so good that all the players do is bomb each other while no one is getting on with the actual task of winning the damn game. Perhaps awarding victory points for bombing other player’s infrastructure is the answer to this issue.

In the end, the relative uselessness of the air raids, a big part of the game, is the ultimate let down here. Without the air raids, the game loses a lot of its charm.

Luck

There is not a lot of luck in The Manhattan Project and that is a very good thing in my book and another reason why I still rather like it despite my major gripes above. The only aspects of luck in the game are the building flips and the bomb designs. Aside from that, all of the chaos will be provided by the other players in the order in which they send and remove their workers.

Good at all Player Counts?

I have played the Manhattan project at all player counts and am happy to say it holds up whether you are playing with 5 or 2. I always like to discuss whether or not a game is 2 player friendly and I am happy to give The Manhattan Project a definite endorsement for 2 player play. With 2 players down time is greatly reduced and almost becomes a non-factor. The only issue with 2 players is that the gripe about air raids is even more pronounced as there is no way to have multiple players gang up on a leader. The zero sum problem of leading an air raid strategy definitely raises an ugly head here. Perhaps a rule by which a player behind on points can pay a 3rd neutral player to help in air raids is the solution here.

With 4 and 5 players, down time can be an issue, especially with AP players at the table and the game can over stay its welcome by a bit. Fortunately, once players start making bombs, it tends to finish rather quickly.

Player Interaction

As mentioned above, the player interactivity of The Manhattan Project is one of the main aspects of what sets it apart from so many other engine building, action efficiency, and resource gathering games on the market today. This is not multi-player solitaire. Almost every action taken by every player on the table will affect each other player in some way; whether it is to take a spot they wanted on the main board, returning their workers thus freeing up a lot of highly sought after spaces, an espionage action claiming a building they wanted on their own board, or an air raid or preparation for such, no player playing the game to win will focus only on their game.

Is It Fun?

This kind of ties in to the above in regards to player interactivity. The Manhattan Project is not a dry Euro game where everyone stares quietly at their own player board, sullenly planning out their next action between rounds. The Manhattan Project is fun and tense with focus on the active player at all times as what they will do will impact each player in turn on their turn. Will my action that I want be available on my turn? Is John going to bomb me because I am the only one to have tested a Plutonium bomb? Matt has a lot of Uranium stocked up I hope he realizes that. If I can get that reactor, combined with my 4 yellow cake mine, I can get a pretty nice engine going. On the other hand, if Brandon returns his workers this turn, which will free up the Espionage spot and I can use John’s factories to make some fighters to protect my infrastructure.

There is a lot going on in the Manhattan project and the many ways you can go about building your engine means there is a lot of strategy and a ton of replay value lurking under the box cover.

Conclusion

The Manhattan project is a game that plays 2-5 plays very well. It is a Euro game for players who like their Euros to be a little less Multi Player Solitaire. A unique worker placement mechanic throws a new twist into the genre of Worker Placement games making The Manhattan project a worthy addition to a library already full of other Worker Placement/Resource Gathering type games. The theme is fairly unique and well executed. A few issues revolving around the air raid mechanic and the order in which the buildings are introduced to the game are not bad enough to keep t away from the table. Multiple paths to victory, tough player decisions and the high degree of player interactivity make The Manhattan Project a winner in my book.

Final rating: 8 out of 10 for both the 2 player and higher player counts.

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Adam Kazimierczak
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Nice review. I agree with pretty much all of your points. I played this game at a statewide boardgame meetup and thought I'd love it since I'm an Agricola fan but ended up thinking it's only so-so.

The building track aggravated me to no end. Great buildings would just slip away on someone else's turn or there would be a clog of crap that even a thermonuclear plunger couldn't clear out.

The direct attack element of fighters and bombers seems tacked on and usually completely worthless. In the game I played with all eurogamers we never once attacked each other.

The espionage mechanic is neat, but really only worth it once you've increased its level. Again, turn order dictates how good this is; as usually the player after the one who just took a worker off from the spot gets it.

Finally during my game I discovered a very strange strategy with the independent contractors (gray guys) and espionage. I place them on someone else's buildings during an espionage action (instead of my colored guys) and then they sit there blocking the action until the target player calls back workers!

BTW, did you get to play with the Nations mini-expansion? I looked at it and the abilities didn't seem that balanced (especially since one of them involved fighters).

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David Debien
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kaziam wrote:
The direct attack element of fighters and bombers seems tacked on and usually completely worthless. In the game I played with all eurogamers we never once attacked each other.


In every game I have played there has been bombing. However, none of the bombers have gone on to win a game. Usually, the people not involved on either end of the air raids have have won. In my 2 player game with my wife, she got a strong air force engine early in the game, making a ton of fighters and bombers and she smacked me pretty hard twice in the game. In the end though, it took me fewer actions to recover than it took her to hit me and I went on to win, because while her engine was dedicated to making a strong air force, mine got on with the business of making bombs, which is how the game is won.

kaziam wrote:
The espionage mechanic is neat, but really only worth it once you've increased its level. Again, turn order dictates how good this is; as usually the player after the one who just took a worker off from the spot gets it.


Yes and no. The next person in line has to have enough workers to make it worthwhile and the money to pay for the espionage action. This keeps every player keenly watching the player to their right, to make sure they are in a position to take advantage when the time comes that they can use the espionage action. This adds quite a bit of flavor for me, especially in a two player game.

kaziam wrote:
Finally during my game I discovered a very strange strategy with the independent contractors (gray guys) and espionage. I place them on someone else's buildings during an espionage action (instead of my colored guys) and then they sit there blocking the action until the target player calls back workers!


That is interesting, but it keeps other players from getting in there as well and bringing your workers home is not really all that bad. Ultimately, you want to be able to bring them home every other turn while you work a bunch of your buildings on the rounds where you DO work them. Playing where you continue to take 1 or 2 actions per round to avoid bringing your workers home is not a very strong strategy.

kaziam wrote:
BTW, did you get to play with the Nations mini-expansion? I looked at it and the abilities didn't seem that balanced (especially since one of them involved fighters).


Not yet! The review copy I was sent did not include it, but now that I am a fan of the game, I will be sure to grab it at the first opportunity.

Thanks for reading my review and for sharing your thoughts!
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Scott Douglass
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Nice review.

I played my first game of the Manhattan Project this week, and I really liked it. I enjoy the tempo aspect of the game, trying to take productive turns where I can use all of my buildings, and calling back my workers when my opponent can't punish me with espionage.

I need to play more to see how fighters and bombers work out with more experience, but they ended up being useful to me. I didn't perform a bombing strategy so much as I used an air raid when the opportunity arose to slow my opponent down with one. I don't think of air raids as a major strategy, but more as a tactical play to slow down my opponents.
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Benjamin Uminsky

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I enjoyed your review, but I disagree with your thoughts on air raid. Whether or not it is an efficient victory path remains to be seen for me, as I have only played this once. Nevertheless, air raiding definitely adds a nice interactivity to the game and even spurs on negotiation amongst players ("You don't want to bomb me, I don't even have a bomb out yet... bomb Joe over there with his tested bomb", etc.).

In my first game, I ended up bombing the lead player, or... what I thought was the lead player. As it turns out, dropping 4 damage on a reactor is incredibly crippling and stalled out his production engine. As this occurred in the later half of the game, it effectively halted his victory path.

What I should have been paying attention to was the other guy minding his own business, slowly stock piling uranium and solely focused on the "red" bombs.

I think the air raid tactic can be useful, and definitely adds a whole level of decision making to the game. At the very least, unless you are playing with a group of ALL passive players that don't want to do the least bit to disrupt their fellow opponents, the air raiding element compels each opponent to spend some resources at least in getting fighters so that they are protected.

Nice review!! I too really enjoyed this unique worker placement game.
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David Debien
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benuminsky wrote:
I enjoyed your review, but I disagree with your thoughts on air raid. Whether or not it is an efficient victory path remains to be seen for me, as I have only played this once. Nevertheless, air raiding definitely adds a nice interactivity to the game and even spurs on negotiation amongst players ("You don't want to bomb me, I don't even have a bomb out yet... bomb Joe over there with his tested bomb", etc.).

In my first game, I ended up bombing the lead player, or... what I thought was the lead player. As it turns out, dropping 4 damage on a reactor is incredibly crippling and stalled out his production engine. As this occurred in the later half of the game, it effectively halted his victory path.

What I should have been paying attention to was the other guy minding his own business, slowly stock piling uranium and solely focused on the "red" bombs.

I think the air raid tactic can be useful, and definitely adds a whole level of decision making to the game. At the very least, unless you are playing with a group of ALL passive players that don't want to do the least bit to disrupt their fellow opponents, the air raiding element compels each opponent to spend some resources at least in getting fighters so that they are protected.

Nice review!! I too really enjoyed this unique worker placement game.


I think maybe you misunderstood what I was saying about the air raids, or rather, I poorly translated my thoughts to words. Because you pretty much just said what I was trying to say. Yes, the air raids add tremendously to the interactivity of the game and contribute significantly to its charm. However, your experience mirrored mine in that the game's winner in your example reflected exactly what I said here:

casualgod wrote:
At best, the players that do the bombing may stop the player in the lead from winning so that the player who didn’t bomb can win.


So, to be clear, I agree with everything you have to say about air raids and apologize that my poor choice of words led you to believe I was saying something to the opposite.

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Benjamin Uminsky

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David you thoughts were well articulated, and I think it should be me that provides some additional clarification.

I have only played this game once, and when I bombed I ended up not winning... hehe... kind of proves your point.

I think my slight disagreement with your thoughts is that I think it can actually be a useful tool to assist with your own win... not just with tearing down the leader and letting the quiet guy win. I'm not so sure this part of the game needs much retooling. My error when I bombed was that I focused my efforts on just one player when I think I probably should have bombed both guys.

After a few more plays I think I will have a better sense as to how effective or not effective air raiding can be.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. I hope this game sees more play!!
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Andy Andersen
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Excellent review as always. We've played this once (and hope to get it played with my kids this weekend.

I lost while bombing also, but I've got more clarity after reading this review and the additional comments.

Thank you. Keep 'em coming.
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Great review. I also want to say how much the title is AWESOME.
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Stephen Pearson
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casualgod wrote:
the best buildings in the game could very well be available for purchase on the first player’s turn

There are 6 'starter buildings' which initially fill the first 6 spaces of the building market so if a particularly good building did come up only player 3 would be able to afford it if player 1 (player 1 and player 2) had built and then they would be left with 0 (2) coin. That said, while MHP's is arguably simpler, I agree it isn't quite as elegant as Power Grid's.
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David Debien
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Fabiroux wrote:
casualgod wrote:
the best buildings in the game could very well be available for purchase on the first player’s turn

There are 6 'starter buildings' which initially fill the first 6 spaces of the building market so if a particularly good building did come up only player 3 would be able to afford it if player 1 (player 1 and player 2) had built and then they would be left with 0 (2) coin. That said, while MHP's is arguably simpler, I agree it isn't quite as elegant as Power Grid's.


You are correct sir, forgot about the starter buildings.
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Sam Carroll
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About the "best buildings" issue - it doesn't seem to me that there's a huge difference in quality between the buildings. It's not like Power Grid, where the higher-numbered plants are much better than the cheap ones. One uranium reactor will be roughly comparable to another, in the ratio of input to output. If it produces twice as much enriched uranium, it will probably require twice as much yellowcake and more scientists.

Additionally, since there's no limit on the number of buildings, a large reactor producing 4 uranium is not better than two small ones each producing 2; in fact the small ones are better, since they're less likely to be hit with espionage.
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Jeff Dunford
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I generally agree regarding the usefulness of fighters/bombers. In the two games I've played, bombing resulted in kingmaking. That is, the player who was on the verge of winning got attacked (3 player game) and teamed up on (5 player game), and someone who was neither the bomber nor bombee was the eventual winner.

However, this also suggests that politics are important in this game (for >2 players). Getting off to an early, runaway-ish lead may result in your downfall when you draw the attention of your militaristic neighbours.
 
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Alan F.
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We just played a game where the leader bombed everyone else because he had all the factory buildings and went ahead to win the game because we were all crippled.
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David Debien
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bboyafu wrote:
We just played a game where the leader bombed everyone else because he had all the factory buildings and went ahead to win the game because we were all crippled.


Glad to hear this strat works. I should have come back to say that I have since seen the bombers win as well. It takes experience with the game to understand the subtle mix of air force vs infrastructure it takes to win.
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Sean Boyll
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Great review.
This game was my number one want to play. I finally got to play it last night where it fell flat for many of the reasons you state. The whole group felt this way.

The buildings remove the location blocking that makes so many worker placement games interesting. The way the buildings come can have a major affect on the outcome of the game as someone happens to get a good building on their turn or the queue fills up with junk. The value of what the buildings do also varies wildly.

I also like player interaction in my games so I was looking forward to the espionage and attack mechanics. But in the end the attacking is not worth the effort. Repairs are to easy to to do, especially when the space cannot be blocked, and fighters are not hard to come by. The espionage track is simply too expensive to use early on and later in the game you need to simply have you engine going. These two mechanisms become "king makers". And I don't usually see why the term is used to describe Alien Frontiers.

The lack of structure was also a turn off. While it was nice to be able to start your turn while the other player was working their engine, it felt more like a single player game than many I have played. It also caused you to not ever feel quite sure where other players were toward winning and made the game feel too short.

The end game felt sudden. I feel the game should at least continue the round to see if anyone else completes for a higher score. A negative points system for unfinished bombs would ad allot to the game also. Not sure how it would fit thematically.

In the end, it feels like an unfinished game that needs more play testing with some other rules to me. With that said, I want to play it again to make sure it just wasn't a bad session.
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