Full disclosure: A review copy of Manhattan was provided by Foxmind Games.
People say I never review old games. Well, very few people say that, as I’m not entirely convinced people care that much about the games I choose to review. I mean y’all read the reviews and I appreciate it, but I suppose people aren’t all that invested in it, now that I think about it. I still get it sometimes, though, and for those people, this one kind of goes out to you.
Manhattan is the 1994 Spiel des Jahres winner, making the game … roughly as old as I am (I’ve got two years on it). In it, you play as rugged industrialists vying to control towering skyscrapers across six major districts / cities. It’s been brought back and spiced up via Foxmind and the always-impeccable Jacqui Davis on the art (The Neverland Rescue and Purrrlock Holmes are some more of Jacqui’s impressive projects). Will your influence tower above the rest? Or are you going to have trouble getting your lofty ambitions off the ground?
Setup is … fairly straightforward, which I always appreciate. Set out the board:
Give everyone a player card and the corresponding pieces in that color:
I’m writing this without doing the photography, so I hope those turn out as well as the pictures in my brain look. Guess we’ll see. Take one L1 (the smallest) piece from each player and put that on the “0” on the Scoring Track. If you’re playing with only two players, have them take two player cards and all pieces of both colors.
Now, shuffle up the cards:
Deal each player 4. You should be all ready to start! Give one player the starting player token:
One last important thing: Every player must be sitting on a different edge of the board. No sharing.
In Manhattan, your objective is to construct buildings and control as many as possible so that you can earn points and prove your worth as an industrialist. However, your opponents will be “helping” you, as well, so be careful!
A game of Manhattan is usually played over 4 rounds. In a three-player game you’ll play 6 rounds, instead. A round has three parts: Select Blocks, Play Cards, and Scoring. I’ll outline each in turn.
To start a round, each player selects six blocks and places them on their player card in turn order. This means Player 2 can see all the blocks that the Start Player selected, and so on.
In a three-player game, you place four blocks.
In a two-player game, you place four blocks on each card. They’re distinct entities, so you may only use blocks of that card’s color.
Either way, you may look at your cards before you place, but once you’ve finished, you’re locked in; you cannot change your blocks for a round after this phase.
This next phase plays the same no matter what your player count. Each player in turn order will play a card and add a block of their choice to that spot in a district of their choice. Each district is a 3×3 grid, as you can see on the card. However, in a move near and dear to the hearts of Seikatsu fans, the spot on the card isn’t the only thing that matters; the perspective is important, as well. The 3×3 grid is symmetrical from every side of the board, so if you play a card that adds a block to the right-middle space, the player to your left would see that as the top-middle, due to the perspective shift. That means that different cards hold different value for different players, which is neat.
The tricky part of playing a card comes when you place your block. You may place your block in any grid, on any color building you want, provided you can place there by the rules of your card. There’s one key rule about this, though:
- When you add a block to a building, you may only do so if you now control at least as many floors as the player who previously had the highest block in the building. It works like this: if yellow, blue, and orange each had 2 floors in the building (legal), you would need to place a 2 on top to claim it. You don’t need to place a 6 (which you couldn’t do anyways); you only need to match or exceed the player with the most floors. This means that if a player ever has 5+ floors in a building where you have 0, you cannot add to that building, as the most floors you can add in one move is 4.
Once you’ve done that, draw a card and continue on to the next player’s turn.
The round ends when every player has played all of their building blocks. You then score as follows:
- 3 points for the player with the tallest building in the game. If there’s a tie, nobody scores anything. This is only given once.
- 2 points for controlling a district (having the most buildings). You only get this if you alone have the most buildings in a district; if you’re tied, all tied players get nothing. This is given out once per district.
- 1 point per building each player controls. You control a building if the highest floor piece of that building is your color. Each building only scores for one player.
In a two-player game, score each of the four colors distinctly. This means that if you control yellow and purple and they tie for control of a district, neither gain points. Keep an eye on that so that you don’t get messed up. Advance each color on the scoring track as they gain points.
The game ends at the end of 4 (or 6) rounds. The player with the most points wins! In a two-player game, add the scores of your two colors and the player with the highest sum wins!
Player Count Differences
The major differences are the shifts in rounds at 3 players (6 instead of 4) and that you only use 4 blocks for a 2- or 3-player game.
That said, a two-player game is very different than three or four players, as you can unwittingly sabotage yourself, if you’re not careful. You need to make sure you don’t proactively block yourself from scoring points or ruin your own control, whereas at other player counts you need to kind of balance your aggression against other players to make sure that you don’t tilt the balance unwittingly.
As you might imagine from this kind of game, given the aggressive nature of it, I prefer it at 2. At 3, it’s too difficult to maintain the balance in an interesting way, in my opinion. Your mileage may vary on this.
- At two players, don’t trip on yourself. I’ve seen too many players block themselves on a majority because they played too many of their own pieces in a district, which is kind of silly. Sometimes you can capitalize on it — if you cover one of their pieces and force the district to be split between their colors, that’s a quick move that keeps them down, which is great for you. In general I kind of recommend not placing both of your colors in a district unless you absolutely have to do so, to try and avoid that outcome. Again, your mileage may vary on that advice, but that’s what I do.
- If you’ve got a building that you think will be contentious, always keep a card that will let you add to it. You need to be able to take it back if someone is encroaching on your territory.
- If you can’t do that, at least make people think you have a card that will let you take the building back. Every game is a bluffing game if you believe in yourself. Sometimes you have to make implications if you want people to stay away from your building. Sometimes those implications are backed up by facts, but sometimes they’re not. You need to be convincing in either case, unless you’d rather lose the tallest building.
- You want that tallest building, but you don’t want to make it yourself. If you do, you’ll spend the whole game making it. If you let your opponents make it for you (and make sure you stay in contention for it), you can usually slide it out from under them after a certain point. Just make sure you don’t get locked out; especially at three players, you’re not going to see either opponent excited about trying to build another tallest building.
- Temper your desire for revenge. You’re inevitably going to get mad because someone stole a building that you were really enthusiastic about. Take a second to calm your mind, because attacking them back is just going to feed into a destructive cycle that aggressively benefits the third player in a three-player game. If you’re at three, try to make it a cycle of aggression so that everyone’s getting pummeled, rather than just … you or another player. In a two-player game, just kinda go for it; no reason not to. You can attack your opponent as much as you want with my blessing.
- Look at what other people are deciding to play before you choose what you want to add. If nobody else is going high this round, it might be a really good idea to place your tall buildings so that you can preemptively claim a bunch of them. Or it might be a good idea to wait and fight their capping buildings with a bunch of tall blocks of your own. I think that depends on how aggressively your co-players play.
- If all else fails, let other people fight while you place a lot of small buildings. You still get a point for every building you control, so if you control lots of tiny ones, that’s still a lot of points. It may not be enough to win, but it might also let you slide under the radar of your opponents while you build up a bunch of tiny buildings.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art is exceptional. It’s diverse, upbeat, and almost celebratory? Jacqui Davis outdid herself, as always, with this. I love the colors, I love the box art, the board art is super cool, and each of the characters is super cool, as well. It’s a very beautiful game.
- Very easy to set up. You kinda just dump the pieces out, shuffle the cards, and you’re ready to go.
- Seems relatively simple, conceptually, as well. The major difficult point is how you take control of a building, and even that you could use a few examples on. There’s no hidden information (beyond which card you have), so taking back a move isn’t that bad.
- High amounts of interaction. It’s mean (as I note below), but you definitely can’t spend this game checked out. You need to be strategizing and adjusting and attacking and defending and getting fussy at players. That’s all part of the game experience.
- The directional effects of the cards you play relative to your position around the board is super interesting. I think this is the killer bit about the game; I haven’t played a lot of games where this matters, but I’m super into it. It makes the location you sit at relative to your opponents super important beyond just the luck of what cards you draw. I’d love to see variants or expansions that dig into this idea a bit more.
- The pieces are nice. Not only do they have a nice texture to them, but they collectively make for a really striking presence on a table. I think that might be the case with all games with any sort of stacking mechanics, though; Catch the Moon looks wonderful, Expancity does, as well, and I mean, table presence is half the game for Rhino Hero: Super Battle.
- It can be a bit difficult to tell what color controls a building and how many pieces you need to play to take control. I think higher-contrast (maybe even opaque) pieces would go a long way towards alleviating this issue, personally. I also worry about accessibility since the pieces aren’t double-coded (they’re singly-coded on color). Maybe it’s not as much of an issue in this game, but still worth being mindful about.
- Very mean game. Definitely not going to be for everyone; I was pretty surprised. It makes it an interesting tug-of-war at two players, but I tried it at three and it was mostly just two players battling while a third player attempted to be a spoiler for the other two because they felt like they couldn’t win. That’s not my favorite game situation to create.
- In some ways, it’s a nice gateway game, but I wonder if it’s got the same problem as Half-Life 2. I mean that as Half-Life 2 was hailed as exceptional and game-changing when it came out, but newer games have profoundly expanded on what it originally offered and, if it were to be released this year, it likely wouldn’t have the same enthusiastic fanbase as it did when it came out. Similarly, Manhattan is clearly well-loved (1994 SdJ), but I feel like there are other city building games that add on to the original vision of stacking blocks to make high rises (Gil Hova’s High Rise comes to mind, as well as Expancity, TOKYO JUTAKU, and a few others). They’re not all the same, but they invite comparison to a market that is much more saturated than it was when Manhattan first came out, and it now finds itself in the unenviable position of needing to distinguish itself from newer games. I feel like an expansion or some cards with effects could go a long way towards that, if that’s the goal, though.
Overall: 7 / 10
Overall, Manhattan is fun! I’m not a big fan of mean games, personally, so it may not be the game to end all games in my collection, but it’s definitely one I enjoyed playing and will likely keep around for a bit. I think I’m most likely to go after it for a two-player game, especially if you’re looking for a game to bet on or to have stakes on because it’s interactive with some luck, sure, but not enough that I think players lack control. If I were to categorize it, I’d probably still put it in the gateway category, since it’s a nice introduction to area control and has some neat card mechanics, so I’d probably recommend this for players getting into games, especially given how nice the art and table presence are. So yeah, if you’re looking for a neat new game to get started with and you’re not afraid to get a little mean, Manhattan is a fun choice that’s worth checking out!