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Review: Manhattan

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Manhattan: land of skyscrapers! But there’s a reason they call it the urban jungle, as conniving architects are constantly scheming to outdo one another, building the biggest and best (and most) skyscrapers in each of the six districts on the board and cutting down (or building over) whoever stands in their path. It might be safer for rival architects in an actual jungle. But you remain at your post because the rewards are great. Cream always rises to the top, and what a top in Manhattan!

How It Works

Manhattan is a spatial puzzle/hand management/area majority game for two to four players. Players are architechts trying to build the best skyscrapers. The player with the most points wins.

Manhattan set up for four players.

To begin, each player receives an architect board and all the playing pieces of the matching color. Each player receives four cards from the deck, and one player is given the starting player token. The game begins.

The game is played in a number of rounds depending on the number of players. At the start of the round, each player chooses a number of pieces to be played that round and sets their other pieces aside. Play begins with the start player.

On a turn, a player must play a card which shows one of the nine sectors in each of the six districts on the board. (The player’s perspective–where the player is seated around the table–matters here.) The player then places one–and only one–of their buildings on that sector and draws a new card. Whoever has the top piece on a skyscraper owns the entire skyscraper, and the rule for placement is that when you place one of your pieces, you have to have at least as many floors in the skyscraper as the current owner of the building. Players have twenty-four pieces to work with over the course of a game–11 one-story pieces, 6 two-story pieces, 4 three-story pieces, and 3 four-story pieces.

Each player receives an architect board and the pieces of that color. The pieces come in 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-story buildings.

After all players have played all their pieces for the round, there’s a scoring phase. The player who owns the tallest skyscraper earns 3 points. Next, each district is evaluated, and whoever owns the most skyscrapers in each district scores 2 points. (In both of these categories, there has to be an outright winner or no points are awarded.) Finally, players score 1 point for each skyscraper they own on the board. The first player marker passes, and a new round begins.

The game ends after the prescribed number of rounds (adjusted for player count). The player with the most points wins.

A New York State of Mind

Manhattan is one of those games that I’ve been eager to try for a while because of its designer pedigree (Andreas Seyfarth, designer of Puerto Rico and Thurn & Taxis) and its Spiel des Jahres win (an award that, as I’ve admitted before, I have almost blind devotion to). Unfortunately, it’s been out of print since I jumped into the hobby with both feet eight or so years ago. But if Vasel’s Law has taught us anything, it’s that a good game will always return to print. And so will some turkeys. So which is Manhattan?

Even twenty-four years after its Spiel des Jahres win, Manhattan is still a pretty good game.

Pretty good? I recognize that isn’t the most ringing endorsement and isn’t likely to adorn any sales copy, but that’s how I feel about it. While Manhattan is a design that I admire in many respects, it’s not one that I get overly excited to play or that is destined to become a favorite. That being said, I think there still is an audience for this one.

The state of the board at the end of round 1.

Even after two decades, there are some aspects of Manhattan that I just don’t see too often in games. One is the 3D building-up board that you would expect from a game about skyscrapers, but the main novelty here is that Manhattan is a game where a player’s perspective matters. There are the same number of cards in the deck for each of the nine sectors in a city, but the neat thing here is that where you’re seated around the table makes a difference. My top-right is your bottom-left. While each of the cards is equally represented in the deck, players have to be nimble in adjusting where they can place their buildings. This also makes the central square in each city coveted, as the central square is at the same orientation for all the players, meaning there are fewer opportunities to overtake it (as there’s only one perspective card that will work) but also that there are fewer alternate options when players have a center card to play.

The tallest building early in the game. Will its fame last?

This perspective idea makes the game a bit of a hand-management puzzle, as you need to have the cards on hand for big moves and to protect your gains. In Manhattan buildings are constantly changing ownership, so players want to keep the cards on hand that will allow them to make the big moves when they need to. On the other hand, players are tracking their holdings in six different areas on the board, so they have to ask themselves whether one sector is worth protecting or whether their presence is needed more elsewhere.

Not likely. Here’s the tallest building in the mid-game. The tallest building changes hands often. Players have to consider whether the promise of 3 points is worth the expenditure.

And really, divided attention is the name of the game, even down to the scoring conditions. Owning the tallest building on the board at scoring time is 3 points–nothing to sneeze at–but it often takes a good deal of effort to overtake and hold on to the tallest building. Gaining 2 points for owning the most buildings in a city is great, but as soon as you stake your claim, other players will be at your throat. Sprouting lots of small, grassroots buildings around all the different cities, spreading them evenly, might avoid the ire of your fellow players, but will it be enough to make up for losses in majority scoring? Players are being pulled in several directions by the scoring parameters, by the limited opportunities (represented by cards in their hands), and by their choices of buildings at the start of the round. (All players have the same twenty-four buildings at their disposal, so timing matters.)

The Manhattan board before the last round.

All of this makes Manhattan a more tactical than strategic game, but that’s okay with me. Players have to be opportunistic in what they build and where they build it, and each round involves weighing how to get the most bang for your buck from a single play. It’s satisfying to see the board both sprout new buildings and have previous buildings grow taller, and it’s satisfying, too, to parcel out the board between players, but trying to grab the largest slice for yourself. It’s helpful for me to think of Manhattan almost as a “stocks” game, where players are trying to be the majority shareholder in each sector, and sometimes being majority shareholder means strongarming other players out of their shares to swing the payout in your favor.

The deck is composed of these cards. Each card shows a sector, which will refer to a different space on the board depending on where you’re seated.

This might sound antagonistic, and it’s at this point that I should say, be warned: Manhattan can easily become a hard-feelings factory. Your gains have the potential to be constantly usurped, and while it’s not always a matter of personal vendetta or specific efforts to hamstring, that is small consolation when your buildings provide the foundation for another player’s points. There’s not really a way to play Manhattan “nicely.” So if the players in your group are sensitive to every grievance or just prefer to tend their own gardens, look elsewhere for your entertainment.

The final sprawl for Manhattan.

The parceling of the board in Manhattan also requires constant vigilance and policing for it to work properly. All area majority games are, in some ways, “bash the leader” games, but Manhattan is especially so because you don’t just outnumber your opponent; you can cover your opponent’s work, swinging a district by two in a single move. Because of this, players have to be careful who they’re covering up and who they’re competing with. In one game, I looked at the board and realized, “This is where I battle Matt, and this is where I battle Timothy, and this is where I battle David.” I was competing against each other player in at least one of the cities on the board. Obviously, players are in some respects at the mercy of the cards they draw, but if players take the short view of their own individualistic projects, they can miss the runaway leader in their midst, and it’s easy for unobservant players to become unwitting kingmakers. Manhattan works well with players of similar skill, but it can be frustrating if players aren’t paying attention. The game also seems best balanced with exactly four players: for one thing, all of the perspectives are represented, making each card (aside from the center one) equally valid in play. You can also avoid some of the inherent kingmaking of a three-player game.

The insert has a place for everything and everything in its place.

I’ve not seen the original Manhattan in person, but the components of this new edition are nice. The first thing you notice is the vibrant colors–on the board, on the cards, on the translucent pieces. Honestly, when I opened the box, it was a little overwhelming. (This, mind you, is coming from someone who wears mostly dark colors from a limited palette that my wife would describe as “boring.”) The game looks almost tropical, despite bearing the misleading title of “Manhattan.” But it’s easy to get over this. Once the game is set up and you’re playing, the game looks nice, the colors are not as garish as they first appear, and it’s easy to tell one player’s pieces from the next. Each building piece has windows on it corresponding to the number of floors, and the pieces are well made. Again, Manhattan is a very satisfying game to look at because you’re building up as you play, and the pieces achieve this effect marvelously (although if you get too high up, the pieces can become imbalanced–but you have to be playing suboptimally, as I found, for this to be a danger). The illustrations are nice. Overall this is a well-made production of a game that clearly is a labor of love.

A handy scoring table right on the board.

So the question is, does Manhattan still stack up well in 2018 versus 1994? I think so, as long as you know what you’re getting: a very low-barrier tactical game of tit for tat that looks great on the table and is satisfying if you have a thick skin. That’s a mouthful, and it might not fit the niche people are looking for these days–many if not most family games are not nearly as mean as Manhattan in 2018, and players who are interested in a mean, tactical game might want a little more meat on the bone. But despite its datedness in this respect, Manhattan, as I’ve said, does still have a fresh core that I’ve not seen many other games build on or exploit. The 3D upward building is still arresting to look at, and the hand-management perspective puzzle remains novel. For me, Manhattan is a game that is interesting if not exactly compelling. It’s more combative than I prefer, requires all players to be of similar skill and vigilance, and almost requires four players to shine. But if that’s the niche you’re looking to fill, Manhattan is still a great choice.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank FoxMind for providing us with a copy of Manhattan for review.

  • Rating: 7.0
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Summary

Pros:

Still many novel ideas even nearly 25 years after release
The rules to the game are dead simple and easily grasped
It's satisfying to watch the board grow upward as the game goes on
Colorful artwork and buildings attract the eye

Cons:

Manhattan is very tactical, offering little in the way of long-term planning
No way to play Manhattan nicely
Manhattan seems perfectly balanced for four players of equal skill; other configurations might be problematic

7.0 Lonely at the Top

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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