Review: The Manhattan Project

By Kelsey Rinella 20 Aug 2014 0
I think I can hack together a workable prototype using the coffee roaster building from Puerto Rico. I understand why plutonium and uranium are crucial fuels for a nuclear weapons program, but shouldn't there be a third column for coffee?

The Manhattan Project bought tickets to the prom before asking anyone, got rejected, then went stag. That is, development on the digital adaptation of the highly-regarded tabletop game was already quite advanced by the time the Kickstarter campaign to fund it launched. Said campaign came up quite short, which left developer Domowicz Creative Group with strong feedback that polishing the app to their satisfaction was unlikely to pay off. In the face of that disappointing reality, they've taken pity on those fans of the game who saw the functional prototype in the pitch videos and have tidied up their existing work enough to make it available to the public, albeit in a less ambitious state than they had hoped.

If you're familiar with Agricola or Lords of Waterdeep, you've seen the worker placement mechanic at the core of this game. It's been a hot mechanic in modern boardgame design for a few years, in part because forcing players to compete for jobs produces subtle but constant player interaction while allowing conflict-averse players to focus on building their own engines of points.

The Manhattan Project innovates on this model substantially. This isn't the bucolic live-and-let-live world of Agricola; as befits the theme of a high-stakes race to build nuclear weapons, you can deliver your opponents' nuclear programs a fiery setback with bomber airstrikes, or steal their secrets with spies. You also have a level of control over the allocation of your workers which would make Oppenheimer (or Sammereza Sulphontis) envious. What you don't have, sadly, is a polished app.

"That can be harmful." - Nick Fury "Nothing harmful--low levels of gamma radiation." - Erik Selvig

In The Manhattan Project, bombs play the role of Lords of Waterdeep's quests: they're how you score points. The first person to get to the point threshold for the number of players in the game wins. You start with mere laborers for workers, but can train engineers and scientists, which you'll need to design (that is, draft cards for) and build bombs, and to more rapidly mine yellowcake and make money, which themselves can be used to make the necessary fissile materials for your bombs and take some of the other actions in the game.

Beyond the explosive theme, none of that's all that new, really. Worker placement games often revolve around cascading sequences of resource development with different relationships and levels of risk and reward. Nor is it all that unusual that, in addition to the main board, you can build your own buildings which others can't use (unless that dude working in your yellowcake mine is actually a spy, secretly shipping off your precious ore to a rival nation).

What is new is that, while you can only use one location on the main board per turn, you can use as many of your own unoccupied buildings as you like. Your workers only return to your hand when you spend an entire turn doing nothing but retrieving them. So the game largely revolves around getting a set of buildings which let you make what you need to build the bombs you draft, and carefully timing when it's worth retrieving all your workers vs. getting an extra main board action before starting the cycle again. Also, if you seem to be doing that too effectively, your opponents may bomb your carefully-constructed assembly line back to the stone age. No, not Stone Age -- that's just the most focused and accessible of the worker-placement games available for iOS. Ahem.

Set phasers to … torture! My pile of workers and slightly misaligned buildings would like to know how your neurotic tendencies are doing today.

All of that is great. It's a tremendous game design, nicely evocative of its theme without excessive frippery. The adaption is, bluntly, awful. The AI is permanently set to "paste eater", the interface wastes a great deal of space yet requires zooming and panning, it's arbitrarily literal to no purpose, and there's no tutorial. There appears to be no way to negotiate, even in multiplayer matches, which is an explicit part of the boardgame with binding agreements. There is no matchmaking, nor even a game browser--you literally have to know the name of the game you wish to join before you're allowed to join a (synchronous-only) multiplayer online game. Feh.

Critically for those who don't arrive with knowledge of how to play board game, there is no interactive tutorial in The Manhattan Project. In 2014, this is the bare minimum that we've come to expect from digital board game adaptations, and its absence will be a further deterrent to building up an online multiplayer community for the game -- probably a fatal one.

Fans of the excellent boardgame now have a highly portable option for playing The Manhattan Project which basically works. Faint praise, admittedly, but this adaptation's many flaws can largely be laid at the feet of the conundrum facing post-gold rush Kickstarters. If you don't put much work into the pitch, potential backers may doubt your ability to follow through. Put in enough work to have a workable prototype, though, and you both accept a great risk and will severely disappoint those who covet that prototype should the campaign fail. Release the prototype, and you risk looking incompetent, but fail to, and draw the ire of those most zealous (and generally outspoken) fans. If that doesn't leave you disheartened enough, think about the fact that many developers still prefer Kickstarter to the conventional publisher model.

The Manhattan Project was played on an Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (iPad Air) for this review.

Review: The Manhattan Project

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