Originally launched on Kickstarter and published by Minion Games, The Manhattan Project is a worker placement game for two to five players, aged thirteen and up. They each take control of a country’s atom bomb project and attempt to build the most effective program. Starting with a few workers and a small amount of money, they train engineers and scientists; construct buildings—universities, factories, mines, and reactors; build up their air forces—bombers and fighters; research bomb designs; and conduct espionage against each other, all in a race to see who can build the biggest bombs (and score the most Victory Points).
All of which is built around a simple mechanic—worker placement. Each turn a player must either place his workers on the board or retrieve them. When placing them, a player must place one worker on the main board, but can place as many workers as he likes on buildings of his own. When retrieving them, he must remove all of those he has placed.
The game revolves around the Main Board. This has spaces for the Building Cards—six initial cards followed by the regular buildings; spaces to place workers to gain money, engineers, scientists, workers, fighters and bombers, and yellow cake—which is turned into Uranium and Plutonium; conduct airstrikes and repair buildings; and fuel tracks to monitor how much Uranium and Plutonium each player has, as well as how many spies he can send to make use of other players’ empty buildings.
Each player has a Player Board. Here he tracks the number of fighters and bombers he has and places any buildings he has purchased. A player also has four labourers, but will gain up to four engineers and four scientists as play progresses. If these are not enough, he can hire contractors, but they will not stay under his control for long.
Initially, each player has limited options. He can only place a single worker—which has to be on the Main Board—and needs not only scientists and engineers, but also buildings of his own if he wants to place more workers on subsequent turns. As the game progresses and he gains more workers and buildings, he will have more options for placing his workers—and even more if he has invested in espionage and can send his workers to the other players’ buildings. A player does not have to place all of his workers on a turn, but he must place one on the Main Board at the very least.
When a player runs out of workers or because he wants to, he can retrieve all of his workers. He can start placing them again on later turns, but part of playing The Manhattan Project is knowing when to retrieve and when to place them. It is a matter of timing, more so when espionage is an option and other players’ buildings are available.
Each building gives its benefit as soon as its requirements are fulfilled. This might be as simple as one or two workers or specific worker types to get their output, which can be more workers (including contractors), money, fighters, bombers, or yellow cake. Alternatively, a reactor might require several engineers and scientists and several pieces of yellow cake in order to produce the Uranium or Plutonium. These have to be placed in one turn rather than added bit by bit.
Eventually a player will want to build a bomb. This works the same as any other building, but requires Uranium or Plutonium as well as engineers and scientists. Once built, a bomb adds to a player’s Victory Point total, but he could also load it onto one of his bombers for more Victory Points. Alternatively, if it was a Plutonium device, a player could implode it. This would destroy the bomb, but any subsequent Plutonium device the player builds will be worth more Victory Points.
Apart from espionage, another way of a player interacting with his rivals is to attack them using his air force. To attack another player, he sends his fighters to attack his target’s fighters and then his bombers to target and damage his rival’s buildings. This stops his rival from using them until they are repaired.
Physically, The Manhattan Project is nicely and engagingly presented in a style that apes the look of government style art of the 1940s. The rulebook is also well written and easy to read and understand.
Unfortunately, The Manhattan Project is not perfect. Arguably, the use of espionage is too powerful—though it is a great way to win—and cannot be blocked or stopped, except by the targeted player placing and keeping his own workers on this buildings for as long as possible. The Air Raid mechanic is either too powerful or not powerful enough, as any attempt to destroy another player’s fighters leaves both sides vulnerable to bombing raids. Lastly, the appearance of the building cards is too random; beyond the first six, any card can appear in any order and this can all too often affect the flow of the game. Less effective buildings will sit on the board because no one wants to buy them, whilst a slew of good buildings will force a flurry of activity to buy as quickly as possible. Perhaps a more structured draw could have been included, so that the buildings get progressively better and better as the game progresses?
Put these issues aside, for this is an excellent game. The game play is very tight, with almost no luck involved. Above all, The Manhattan Project is a pleasing meld of theme with mechanics that reward efficiency.