Minion Games’ Manhattan Project, designed by Brandon Tibbets, is a great-looking $40 title blessed with much better-than-usual visual style that works to sell its general theme of nuclear bomb-building. The mechanics are rather staid but inoffensive Eurogame fare, focusing on passive-aggressive worker placement and resource conversion processes. However, the game has the balls to let players go aggressive-aggressive and send in bombers to cripple the economic engines of others or deploy spies to hijack personal property. Make no mistake- although Manhattan Project is a very good and sometimes exceptional example of the post-Princes of Florence Eurogame style it’s also a game that doesn’t write player interaction out of the equation.
It’s a little vague, but each player represents the atom bomb program of an unspecified country in what appears to be a roughly 1950s/1960s setting based on the visual kitsch. Players will use three different types of workers (general employees, scientists, and engineers) to man a variety of stations on a mainboard that generate resources, recruit staff, or perform other functions. Some features require a certain type or combination of the three workers, and there are also temporary contractors that may be hired for the turn when the workforce runs low.
Each player also has a tableau upon which they can build up a personal infrastructure of facilities that tend to be more advanced or efficient versions of those available to the public. Most significantly, buildings can be constructed that convert mined uranium ore (“yellowcake”) into plutonium or enriched uranium that can in turn be used to manufacture bombs. But to get to where you can build a bomb, you’ve got to have plans. Placing a scientist and an engineer on the design spot distributes a face-up display of bomb plans among players, each requiring a different set of workers and fuel to build. Once built, they’re worth points and there’s a bonus if you can pay to load them on an available bomber. Plutonium bombs can also be tested, sacrificing their full point value in exchange for a higher VP yield from future completed plutonium bombs.
There’s some really neat stuff going on in the design, particularly in the more interactive portions. There are some typical Puerto Rico-style “everybody benefits” actions, where you’ve got to weigh the overall effect of an action but that’s kind of boring. More compelling are the points where the game lets you very directly screw with and interfere with others- I can hear the Caylus crowd’s collective beard curling up. Players can commit workers to Espionage, enabling them to use- and block- other players’ buildings. Even better, bombers can be built and sent out to drop damage tokens on personal facilities until a single-space repair action can be taken. Fighters are the counter, and can be built to destroy other players’ bombers. Actions are fairly tight in the game, and it takes a full action to retrieve all of your workers from their stations so it becomes a major decision to instigate hostilities that may detract from your ability to compete economically. But that aggressive edge may give you as much of an advantage as this game has over similar games in its class.
The general flow of deploying workers, amassing resources, and converting resources to meet goal cards is exceptionally well done and I think Mr. Tibbets has a very firm grasp on what works and what doesn’t in this genre- and I especially appreciate that he seems to understand that this kind of game needs some friction to avoid devolving into little more than a mathematical contest. It’s a touch more complicated than Lords of Waterdeep so it feels less accessible, but I like that the bomb plans give players a framework to manage the disparate elements in the game. It seems at first that there’s a binary approach- go for either plutonium or uranium bombs- but over the course of the game situational opportunities arise, bombs are dropped, and plans change. So there is a need for some agility and flexibility in working out how to build the high-dollar bombs.
I have a couple of substantial, design-level grievances with the game, which I would definitely recommend to players that like worker placement and resource conversion games regardless of any misgivings. I’m not comfortable with the level of repetition in Manhattan Project in particular. The general process flow of acquiring resources and workers and changing them to other resources or workers can begin to feel quite tedious, and in a game where you may only build two or three bombs it can feel somewhat grating to have to rebuild your plutonium or uranium stocks. And if you’re in a nasty shooting war with another player, it begins to feel less fun when you’re constantly tit-for-tatting and scrambling for the repair spot ad infinitum. More pervasively, there is a lot of repetition in the cards. There are a lot of buildings that are just slightly different from one other, and all but the refining structures duplicate functions on the public board. You can see this in the bomb cards as well- lots of slight differences in resources and point values. There’s a sense that these decks could have been edited to make a more focused- and less redundant array of choices.
I’m also not fond of the endgame, which tends to be sudden and decidedly non-dramatic- especially if you’ve not kept pace with other players. Since the bombs have widely varying point values, you may see a player build two and out of nowhere win the game. Sure, it’s possible to interdict their efforts with bombers or espionage actions, but the ending of the game too often feels inevitable and foreshortened.
Fortunately, some of these problems are likely to be allayed in an upcoming expansion and there is already a “Nations” one available that takes care of another issue I have, the oddly missing “who am I” part of the game that casts everyone as faceless, nameless countries. I don’t think any of the issues are necessarily deal-breakers and there is definitely a very good game in every Manhattan Project box. Beyond the fun gameplay and slightly more agro elements you’ll find a title that touches on some ideas that by rights should innovate and evolve the worker placement genre away from its multiplayer solitaire roots.