Anatomy of a Line: The Manhattan Project

Brands can be important. They tell consumers to expect the expected — that the gum they like has come back into style. But in the board game world, gaming lines have usually focused on expansions and slight variants. Carcassonne offers one of the best examples: there are lots of different games, but they’re all close enough to the original game that you still  pretty much know what you’re getting.

But a few publishers have gone further, using branding to tie together similar games that support the same themes and use some of the same ideas, but aren’t just copies of the same mechanics with slight tweaks. Richard Breese’s Key-series is one of the most long-lived brands of this sort. He’s written a very nice explanation of the points he requires in Key games, which makes it obvious that they can have great variety while still focusing on the same fundamentals.

In the last few years, this sort of branding seems to have become more popular. Eminent Domain now includes a deckbuilder, a two-player micro-deckbuilder, and a totally unrelated microgame. Similarly, The Manhattan Project has encompassed three different games in the last few years: a serious strategy game, a card game conversion, and a second serious strategy game. And that’s the brand I want to look at today, to talk about how the line has evolved.

The Manhattan Project (2012)

It all began with The Manhattan Project, which I suspect is Minion Games’ most successful release to date. And, for good reason. It was well-produced with beautiful graphic design and it had some innovative game elements as well.

The Manhattan Project is a worker-placement game, a genre that has pretty much taken over the eurogame community in the last decade. That means that the main gameplay is players placing workers to take limited action spaces. However, The Manhattan Project offers a few variations on the worker-placement norm:

  • There are multiple types of workers.
  • Some action spaces have requirements, like resource costs, or the need for certain types of workers.
  • After taking a shared main-board action (which is contested with other players), a player can then take as many personal actions as he wants, using the buildings he’s created (which are not contested, for the most part).
  • Players choose when to take their workers back, which creates an interesting rhythm, where the main board never totally clears; instead the workers clear piecemeal as each player takes his workers back at different times.
  • There is a heavy dose of take that, allowing players to damage their opponents’ buildings (with bombings) or steal their usage (with espionage).

The take-that play was probably the most unique aspect of The Manhattan Project, but also the aspect that I personally liked the least. In part, because I didn’t love fighting intruding into my pristine europlay, but in part because it was the least developed part of the game system. Your mileage will vary, based on this point.

The rest of The Manhattan Project is a pretty simple game of chained resource management: you produce yellow cake, then you transform that into either plutonium or uranium, then you turn that into bombs(!), which are your main victory points.

Personally, I found The Manhattan Project to be a mostly superior board game design (thanks to its clean design and its various innovations), but one that I didn’t really want to replay (thanks to its take-that play). I know other folks who feel the same, but also folks who enjoy playing it because the uniqueness of the euro-take-that play is exactly what they’re looking for.

The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction (2016)

The first extension of the Manhattan Project brand, Chain Reaction (2016), takes the original game and says, “What if we turned that into a card game?” This is a pretty standard conversion, and Chain Reaction took what I think is the better route: it converted some of the core themes of the game (like building bombs) and some of the core ideas (like chaining through a series of resources to produce a final product), but didn’t try to precisely duplicate the mechanics.

How far does Chain Reaction vary from Manhattan Project? How about the fact that Chain Reaction isn’t even a worker-placement game. Oh, it pretends to be. You have workers on cards, and they’re used to get your chains started, but they’re just another resource, coming in three flavors (laborer, engineer, and scientist). Mind you, they’re a temporary resource, expended when you play the cards, but that’s pretty much the same resource mechanic that My Goods! (2015) uses — which is itself an expansion of what was done in role civilization games, except you now have specific resource cards instead of generic resource cards.

Without workers, you lose the mechanical innovations of Manhattan Project, but Chain Reaction nonetheless adds some innovations of its own. It does so by focusing on the production chain of Manhattan Project, where workers produced yellow cake, and workers turned that yellow cake into uranium (or plutonium), and workers built that radioactive material into bombs. Chain Reaction takes that whole idea literally: cards all can be workers and are powered with workers. Meanwhile each card also has inputs and outputs. So instead of managing these chained transformations via worker-placement spaces, you instead create a real chain where one card supplies another; if you play well, you can knock out a lot of production in one clever set of card plays. I think the result had some development issues, but it was very interesting to see such a mundane element in one game (a growing chain of resources, like I’ve seen in many other resource management games) turned into a real innovation in the other. I’d like to see another Chain Reaction game that gave this mechanic more room to breathe, instead of keeping it so tightly constrained.

In sticking with the Manhattan Project theme, Chain Reaction also had some take-that play. Some of it seemed useful (taking yellow cake from another player), but some seemed purely punitive (forcing a player to discard). Worse, if a player blew his whole turn, or if he teamed up with fellows, he could cost someone their entire turn! (Not fun!) So, while the take-that in Manhattan Project was something I personally didn’t enjoy, the take-that in Chain Reaction trended more toward something that didn’t work — at least for that one card (the Factory) that causes discards.

As a whole I didn’t think Chain Reaction was as good of a game as the original Manhattan Project, but it was an interesting example of how to develop a new game for a brand that focused on the brand’s theming, not its mechanic.

The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire (2016)

The other Manhattan Project game out this year is another bookshelf board game, just like the original, and it takes the opposite tack: it creates a new game for a brand by focusing on the brand’s mechanic, not its theming. Though I said I think this isn’t a good idea for a conversion (such as the board-to-card conversion of Chain Reaction), I think it’s a fine methodology for creating an additional game in the same category: you have a solid, well-tested starting ground.

Energy Empire starts with the clever worker-placement rules from The Manhattan Project, including its unique rhythm of play and its bipartite play between shared and personal boards, but polishes each of these elements, creating mechanics that I find even more interesting than the original.

That polish begins with the fact that a player can now take a worker-placement space already taken by another player, but they have to stack “energy” under their worker, to make the tallest pile on the space. This makes the rhythm of playing and recovering workers even more interesting, because tall piles may stay on the board for quite some time, creating an increased cost for some of the most popular spaces.

The rules for playing on personal buildings have been tweaked much more slightly: now all the spaces on the main board come in one of three colors, and a player’s personal buildings come in those same colors. They can only play to personal buildings that match the color of their global play. This is a really wonderful expansion because it uses a simple rule to create new strategic and tactical play. Players now have to build their structures while thinking about how they’ll work together in the long term and they have to choose plays based on what personal plays they want to make.

Oh, and there’s one other big change for Energy Empire: the take-that play is totally gone. There’s still plenty of interaction due to the worker placement; it may even be increased since players now can build ever-growing stacks in competition with other players. But players won’t be stealing resources or bombing out buildings. As more of a euro-player than an American-player, that resulted in Energy Empire being much more appealing to me than the original — though I recognize them both as strong games, in their own categories.

Overall, The Manhattan Project is an interesting example of a brand being used to simultaneously contain two sorts of play. On the one hand, if you like the innovative use of take-that play in a eurogame, you can play The Manhattan ProjectChain Reaction, and presumably the upcoming The Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight (2017)On the other hand, if you like innovative expansions to worker placement, you can play The Manhattan ProjectEnergy Empire, and probably once more The Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight.

Mind you, I’m not convinced that the Manhattan Project line can simultaneously contain those two directions of development while still keeping its fans happy … but it’s a darned interesting example of how a game line can evolve.

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