Bombtrack – The Manhattan Project review

If you take a wander through the annals of, you’ll find games about a million different subjects. Looking around my office where I write, I can see games about building cities, stacking wooden animals, ancient mythological creatures, boxing… there really is something for pretty much everyone. As a child of the eighties, I grew up as the Cold War was drawing to a close and developed a healthy fear of nuclear war – I still shudder when I remember watching Threads – but there’s also a fascination in there.

These incredible weapons have had a brief yet powerful history. Way back when they were first developed and tested, Robert Oppenheimer (one of the lead project developers) realised the immense influence they would have. The first successful explosion on July 16, 1945 saw him quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Within weeks, two bombs had been dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, undoubtedly a major turning point in World War II, and since then the planet has lived under the shadow of the bomb.

It’s not a light subject to cover, but there are plenty of games out there that take a stab at it. The latest of these is The Manhattan Project from Minion Games. Named after the group that Oppenheimer was a part of, it abstracts itself from the reality of what happened and sets players in what feels almost like a different timeline. Between two and five players are cast as leaders of development teams, each of whom are trying to create bombs from scratch. Each one you create is worth a certain amount of points, and whoever reaches a set target first (dependent on how many are playing) is declared victorious.

You get a lot in the box – and it’s all rather lovely.

It’s essentially a combination of worker placement and engine building, everyone beginning with pretty much nothing. You have a small amount of cash, some labourers at your disposal, and a bomber and fighter ready to defend you, plus a board of your own where you’ll place buildings that you purchase through the game. Most of the action takes place on a central board where you’ll have several options to choose from…

First of all, you’ll want to build up your team. Slots on the University section of the board allow you to get your hands on Scientists and Engineers. You’ll also need to get your hands on a selection of buildings that are represented by cards that run along the length of the top of the board. While you can do pretty much anything in the game just using the options available to you on the central board, getting a decent array of buildings will give you a much easier ride.

The three worker types: Labourer, Scientist and Engineer.

As well as your own colour workers, there’s also grey contractors who can be recruited and used by anyone – temporarily at least. When it comes round to your turn, if you’ve run out of workers to place, your only option is to remove them from the central board and any buildings you may be using. Contractors go back to being available to everyone but they’re a limited resource – no grey guys on the table, no chance to use them!

Using these workers and buildings, you’ll be able to go through the whole process of developing a bomb – virtually, of course. Collecting yellow cubes (which represents yellowcake, or natural uranium) and converting them into plutonium or uranium fuel is easy enough, but then you’ll have to actually design a bomb. When a player chooses this option, the set of face up cards showing what’s currently available are grabbed and passed around the table, with everyone taking one. As there’s always one more than there are players, the person who chose to take the bomb building action ends up with two to choose from, giving you a slight advantage over your opponents.

These buildings are available at the game’s beginning – their abilities improve as the game goes on.

Each bomb card denotes exactly what combination of workers and fuel you need to create this destructive masterpiece – spend the resources, lay it in front of you and hooray! You have points! But as always, it’s never as easy as that… because the other players will be doing their damnedest to screw you over. Everyone has Fighters and Bombers at their disposal; Fighters wipe out enemy planes, and by using Bombers you can damage enemy buildings that can’t be used until they’re repaired. You can also recruit spies which allow you to place your workers on opposition buildings – excellent if you’re looking to mess them up by filling up their spaces.

Bonus points are also available by ‘loading’ bombs onto a plane, but if you feel like going whole hog you can also choose to test one of your plutonium powered efforts. Do this and you’ll not only pick up an Implosion Test marker granting you a few extra points, it also means that all other plutonium bombs you create are worth the larger number on the card – definitely a quick way to victory, but quite a gamble…

So that’s how The Manhattan Project works. At its core it’s a solid worker placement game with some really interesting ideas – sure, you’re always aiming for a set amount of points by creating bombs, but how do you get there? Uranium bombs are easy enough to create but are worth less, but destroying a plutonium one then concentrating on making more could be a much more lucrative approach. You’ve always got options open, there’s no way you’re going to be trapped in a corner with nothing available to you – surely the sign of a good game.

A mention must be made of the graphics – this game is utterly gorgeous, probably one of the prettiest I own. Artist Sergi Marcet has to be applauded for giving The Manhattan Project a striking style that’s beautiful; I’d seriously consider having it stuck in a frame and put up on my wall. Minion Games have really pulled out the stops on this one, not only creating something that looks great but is wonderful to play.

Pretty board is pretty. I’d like one for my wall.

From their early days and hassles with production issues, they’re growing into an independent producer creating some quality titles. Sure, the subject matter in The Manhattan Project may not be to everyone’s taste – I have to admit I was initially a bit squicky about playing a game about a nuclear arms race, I always will be – but this is a properly solid Euro that I’m more than happy to have hit my table on a regular basis.

The Manhattan Project was designed by Brandon Tibbetts and was released through Minion Games at Essen 2011 in very limited quantities. It’ll be more freely available as of March this year and will cost you $50 – money well spent! Between two and five can play (though I find it’s best with three or four) and games should take about 90 to 120 minutes. Oh yeah, and if you want to watch Threads yourself, here you go! Just be ready for the nightmares.