15th Aug2018

‘The Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


When I think about nuclear war (or at least the threat of it) in board games, the first examples that spring to mind are usually related to The Cold War, including Twilight Struggle and the like. Coming in to Minion Games’ The Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight and having never played the original, I didn’t quite know what to expect about how the theme would be implemented – would it be gratuitously heavy, or, looking at the artwork, perhaps it takes the opposite tack and makes light of what could be quite a serious subject.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried, because somehow The Manhattan Project 2 manages to deliver an experience that is both fun and thematic, with a clear focus on the “cold” aspect of preparing for nuclear war that only heats up on the scoring track. Each of two to five players takes control of an unknown country that has recently gained access to nuclear fission. Players must race to build buildings, nuclear warheads, airplane squadrons and submarines, with their abstracted military might scored at several intervals.

Whilst The Manhattan Project 2 takes a fair while to setup (pro tip – keep each set of player pieces individually bagged) thanks to several boards and many, many pieces, however once that is done, the game itself is very, very straightforward to pick up and learn. Whilst I haven’t played the first The Manhattan Project, my own due diligence ahead of reviewing this sequel did lead me to read about it and by all accounts, it is considered an excellent gateway game.

I’m not sure that I can say the same about The Manhattan Project 2 because of the huge range of options, scoring complexity and a few other factors, but I will say this; a novice player could learn the basis systems and turn structure of The Manhattan Project 2 in about ten or fifteen minutes. It really is one of the simplest games of this weight that I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach and one of the reasons why I enjoy it so much is the fact that it reveals its considerable depth and complexity in a very controlled, accessible way.

There are essentially only two options available on each turn, although they do lead to more and more complex choices as the game rolls on. The first action is worker placement, which also enables the active player to buy and construct a building from a shared marketplace. Every worker placement turn allows a player to make one or two placement actions, both of which can include placing workers on spaces that demand two or even three workers each, as long as that player has the workers available.

The second action is worker retrieval, which is undoubtedly the more time consuming and complex action. This is simply because in The Manhattan Project 2, the benefit of the locations where workers are placed is only taken when the workers are retrieved. During a worker retrieval action, the active player must retrieve all of their workers, in any order, resolving the benefits of them as they do so. In an interesting twist, retrieving workers is what drives the in game timer (marked on a track) forwards one space towards the next scoring round, so each player might have an interest in advancing or delaying the timer to suit their own interests.

Without getting into very low level detail, there are a very large number of options when it comes to placing workers, some of which are restricted to specific worker types, like politicians or generals. Briefly, workers can be placed onto a shared central board with actions including upgrading basic workers, recruiting new ones, taking military or political actions and so on. As workers are placed on this board, the placement spaces are locked out, meaning that the next player to make the same placement will usually pay a different amount or receive a different benefit – which is not always outright worse as it usually is in similar games.

Players may also place their workers on building that have been constructed and placed on their personal board. For example, a labourer could be placed on a research lab to generate either money or knowledge, which is used to advance one of the tracks on a tech tree board that allows access to more powerful airplanes, submarines, reactors and so on. One of the most fun and interesting mechanics in The Manhattan Project 2 is the ability to place spies on enemy facilities which can then be used at the tech level of the other player. Workers can also be used to do things like generate or move nukes, convert them to ICBM’s, or detonate them at test sites, among other things.

I mentioned earlier that game length is variable based on worker retrievals, which is certainly an interesting nuance. Another unusual feature is the way in which The Manhattan Project 2 is scored, which happens at four specific intervals and then again at the end of the game. Each of the four scoring markers (which represent different in game features like submarines, or third world control) are placed at different points on the turn track (randomly) depending on how long a game you want to play. During final scoring, all four scoring elements are repeated with a few other elements, such as nukes detonated at test sites for example. The winner is the player with the most points, once the final scoring is complete.

Component quality in The Manhattan Project 2 is extremely high, although there are far too many components to list individually. In terms of the boards (including player boards, building market, score and tech tracker plus other card stock) then the standard is very high. The artwork is understated, appropriately detailed and light enough to soften the theme, whilst the font used on all pieces in the game is bold and clear. The bulk of the other pieces are made from either very thick, attractive cardboard (for the workers) or colourful, nicely cut wood (for various trackers and similar.) All of these really look the part and feel very good to handle when placing and retrieving them.

I’ve certainly taken you on a very whistle stop tour of the rules for The Manhattan Project 2 and there are undoubtedly elements that I’ve left aside, but broadly speaking this is a simple game to play, it’s just not a simple one to play well. For me, that’s actually the nirvana state really, because I absolutely love playing this kind of heavy eurogame, but I have seen many players struggle to make the leap from the likes of Ticket to Ride over to heavier (but brilliant) worker placement games like Viticulture, for example.

The Manhattan Project 2 really excels in that space between gateway game and mid or even heavyweight euro. Despite how accessible it is, The Manhattan Project 2 has real, strategic depth, lots of player interaction and the potential for high variability and replayability as a result of the way that scoring and game length can vary. There will never be one single successful strategy because of the way that players are relatively free to use spies or missile defense systems to block or blank other players.

On the downside, new players will almost certainly be beaten by experienced ones, but I also feel that a good teacher will remind newer players of factors like how soon scoring is going to occur, what will happen if the game continues on its current course, how to potentially change the outcome and so on. I really enjoyed the fact that The Manhattan Project 2 took just one learning game to get each and every new player almost completely up to speed with the rules and to leave them with enough desire to want to jump in again.

I highly recommend The Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight. It might come bundled with what seems like an oppressive theme, but it certainly doesn’t play like that. Instead, it uses that theme to create a really interesting and enjoyable series of interwoven actions that play out quickly and offer lots of choice and chunky decisions to make. It somehow does this whilst being hugely viable for new or inexperienced euro game players, which I think makes it highly unique in a space where heavier games struggle (or don’t even try) to do so. As a result of all these factors, The Manhattan Project 2 would make a great addition to any collection.

A review copy of The Manhattan Project 2 was provided by Minion Games.

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