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Review: Manifest

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Shipping tycoons must get grey hair pretty early.  They have so much to worry about.  Fulfilling contracts.  Getting passengers (and probably their luggage) to the right destinations.  Rough waters, pirates, and not to mention cutthroat competitors.  Enter the fast-paced and brutal world of global commerce in the 1920’s.  Just about anything goes.  And you better have insurance.

How it Plays

At its core, Manifest is a pick-up and deliver design, with some fair amount of direct player interaction.  The expert variant is also a deck-builder.  Players control two ships and deliver goods and people in an effort to meet various contracts to earn points.  For a bit more detailed look at the rules, check out our Kickstarter preview.

As a quick refresher, Manifest is a card-driven game.  Cards allow you to move, purchase goods and contracts, or perform a special ability.  When playing a card, you may only use it to resolve one of those three actions.  You may expend its designated movement points to sail between various ports and sea nodes on the map.  You may spend its dollar value to load/unload goods or acquire new contracts.  Or you may use the card for its unique rules-breaking ability.

Three tycoons ready to ship it out…

The goal in Manifest is to fulfill various contracts, as represented by contract cards.  You will accumulate a number of private contracts, as well as have access to completing public ones throughout the game.  These stipulate what kind of good or passenger type – or two – that you must transport to a certain city around the globe, earning its specified number points for a successful delivery.

However, to be sure, this is no mundane logistics routine of stacking cargo containers and offloading them at the next port.  There are a few hot spots where the shipping lanes are rife with piracy.  Worse is the piratical behavior which your competitors may exhibit!  Several action cards allow you to attack your opponents, steal their goods, or otherwise create some mischief and mayhem.

Personal ship boards - each vessel has four cargo holds to carry one load each.
Personal ship boards – each vessel has four cargo holds to carry one load each.

The first shipping magnate to circumnavigate the perils of both sea and business challengers and earn a target number of points (based on number of players and desired game length) wins, thrusting forth from the tip of the bow with arms triumphantly spread and loudly proclaiming to be…

King of the World?

Surprisingly, we don’t often get the chance to formally review the finished project of a Kickstarter design which we previously previewed.  That’s not always necessarily just because the project never funded.  Obviously, Manifest did.  While many people are wary of the production quality of Kickstarter games – both components-wise and in game play – is Manifest “ship shape?”  The short answer is, the final product indeed fulfills the promising start exhibited by the fantastic prototype – and builds on it further with the inclusion of several successful stretch goals.

One thing that’s not different is that Manifest is still 2-games-in-1.  The basic variant is a great “gateway” game.  It is very accessible as an introduction to the hobby with straight-forward and easy rules.  There is a good deal of randomness because of the large, communal action card deck.  However, you get a hand of 4 cards, which helps increase the chance of drawing useful cards.  It tends to be less interactive and scales a bit better between the listed 2-5 player compliments.

The deck-building game is not terribly more complex, but is designed for players with some gaming experience.  Since you’ll see the same cards more often as you cycle through your deck multiple times, and you can build it on your own terms, it reduces luck and gives you an opportunity to devise some strategy.  You can tailor your deck towards attacking, or providing lots of defense, or giving plenty of money, or granting big moves…or some other ability thereof.  In any event, it really favors a 4-player session to allow for the most lucrative interaction, while not overstaying its welcome.

Row of deck-building cards available for purchase at $3 per card.

One new element included in the final production was the variable company advantages stretch goal from the Kickstarter campaign.  This is a small inclusion that makes a big impact by giving each player a unique ability.  There’s one that allows its company to load goods for free.  Another provides its owner some defense against pirates.  And so on.  They add personality to the game.  Plus it gives you a little boost towards a specific strategy, should you decide to pursue it.

The game generates some surprising tension.  You may only use each card for one action and you have a hand limit of 3 or 4, which means there will be many turns that you can’t do everything you would like.  The goods and passenger tokens are finite.  There aren’t a lot in each category and when a particular type is exhausted, you can’t pick up anymore until someone delivers one or more back into the available pool.  That is unless you’re able to steal one in an attack.  Therefore, trying to corner the market in one type of resource might be a viable strategy in rare cases.  Namely because there are only three public contracts on display and those are awarded on a first-come, first serve basis.  The race to grab those can be an anxious side quest within the game’s larger structure.

Example action cards. Do you use it for the movement points (upper left), money (upper right) or its special ability? Choose wisely, cause it can only be one.

Another area where Manifest really shines is in player interaction.  Pick-up and deliver games can get monotonous, only compounded by their solitary nature.  Oftentimes, there are few mechanics to really impede your opponents’ progress.  The basic variant here can still feel somewhat repetitive towards the end of the game.  However, direct interference really changes up the action in that you can notably hamper another player’s plans.  Most of these opportunities are in the form of attack cards, and sometimes even his loss is your gain!  But before you let such interaction be the reason you let this ship sail, it’s not as brutal as it may sound – for a few reasons.

For one, it’s quite random.  First off, you must have an appropriate card to attempt an attack.  Even at that, a successful hit requires a dice roll in which your result(s) must correspond with your opponent’s occupied cargo holds, or he doesn’t lose anything.  So it’s not like attacks are flying from port and starboard every turn.  Although the flip side to that is that it can be frustrating if you really want to go after another player but can’t, because you aren’t able to draw the right card – or fail your roll.  The deck-building variant allows for slightly more aggressiveness in that you can stack your deck with such attack cards.

Also, the interaction isn’t necessarily crippling, unless you just don’t prepare.  Most often, you’ll grab multiple loads of the same good, even though you only need one to fulfill a contract.  The extras are basically insurance in case you do lose some cargo to pirates.  Aside from that, there are plenty of defense cards, as well.  These can be used to prevent attacks or force re-rolls.  Unless you’re risking the least possible in a risk for the most gain – or are simply and unfortunately a constant target – you’ll be able to suffer moderate losses and still be in the game, especially since your experience won’t be unique.  That said, beware rolling double pirate icons, which sinks your vessel with a loss of all cargo.  You start back on your next turn at a port of your choice, but then the loss in goods is keenly felt.

You don't want to roll this in a pirate attack - glub, glub, glub...
You don’t want to roll this in a pirate attack – glub, glub, glub…

Finally, the interaction is appropriate for Manifest’s weight and length because it’s not terribly spiteful, at least by design.  Typically you’ll choose a target because a ship is about to fulfill a lucrative contract, has something that you want, or its owner is in the lead.  Most attacks are pretty calculated affairs because they come at least a basic cost – the action card itself.  Utilizing one for its offensive ability is done so at the expense of its movement point or cash values, both of which are important to conducting your own personal business.

With all that said, at the same time players can’t always rely on attack cards to bring down the leader.  It is an inherent catch-up mechanism, but not if employed too late.  If that individual is far enough ahead, then there is always a risk of him still running away with the game.  There is the randomness, so success is never guaranteed.  Your opponent may have defense cards.  And while you’re using up cards to try and ding the leader, your own boats are anchored fast, making little progress of their own.

One aspect some players might find frustrating or counter-productive is in balancing your two ship’s manifests.  It’s hard to do.  On the surface, it looks easy enough to operate both vessels so as to work towards fulfilling a couple of contracts simultaneously.  In practice, however, the limited hand size really restricts your ability to move them effectively at the same time.  Instead, you will find yourself focusing on one boat to complete a delivery while the second one just sits there.  The real benefit to two ships is mainly being in position to take advantage of new contracts that pop up by hopefully having a boat in an opportune location to meet the new demand.  It’s not a broken mechanic, by any means, but seems to defeat the theme’s purpose of owning two big ocean liners in a shipping company.

Don’t miss this for all the tea in China!

The final production value is well-done.  The goods, passengers, and ships tokens are nice and chunky and easy to handle.  The board is double-sided with both the traditional global map and an Antipodean-focused one on the reverse – the publisher is in New Zealand, wink, wink.  The player boards and cards are of nice quality and durable.  The custom dice, with skull-and-crossbones and life preserver icons, are an unnecessary, but welcome, thematic touch.  And overall, the art deco motif is very good and really exudes the Roaring Twenties theme.

The only aspect I’m a bit lukewarm on is the backer pics.  As a reward, Kickstarter backers got their image in the lower left corner of one card.  Apparently these backers individually chose which image to include as some are normal portraits, some are obviously set-up, and others are just plain bizarre.  I get what the graphic design’s overall goal is – making the cards look like a period newspaper.  However, it’s more distracting than cute.

Each card that you star with (left) in the deck-building variant has an upgraded companion (right) which you can purchase for $5.

Manifest is a very solid pick-up and deliver design.  Card play is restricted to one option and you only have a hand of 3-4.  Resources are limited, as are the number of contracts available at any time.  This all creates plenty of tense choices which require careful planning and tactical management.  Player interaction can be very direct, but it manages a fine balance between being useful enough to implement as an aggressor, yet not completely crippling you when you’re the target.  Best of all, Manifest is 2-games-in-1.  The standard variant is a nice introduction to the hobby, in general, and to pick-up and deliver games specifically.  The deck-building variant adds more strategy and helps minimize randomness.  Simply put, this gem is submerged a bit beneath the surface.  If it were published and/or distributed by one of the bigger players in the industry, I’ve no doubt it would be making bigger waves in the hobby’s waters.

 

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank SchilMil Games for providing a review copy of Manifest.

Summary

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros

  • Basic variant is great gateway game
  • Expert variant allows greater planning
  • Tense decision-making
  • Limited economy creates tighter play
  • Appropriate and meaningful interaction
  • Nice, chunky components

Cons:

  • Basic variant can be repetitive
  • Despite interaction, can still suffer from runaway leader
  • Kickstarter backer pics on cards distracting
8.0 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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