[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, non-production Kickstarter prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product will feature some variation in game play, art, and components.]
It’s the Roaring Twenties. In a booming world economy of global trade and rapid modernization, the mighty ocean liner is king. You represent a new breed of merchant captains, operating a shipping line to meet the world’s demands. It’s a golden opportunity rife for profit and renown. But a dangerous one, too. You must risk rough seas, storms, pirates, and cutthroat competition. Can you ride the tumultuous waves and emerge the leader amongst a swelling tide of wealth?
How It Plays
Manifest is a game about shipping lines, delivering goods and people around the world. Players earn points by successfully completing contracts. The first transportation mogul to reach a target number of points based on the number of players and desired game length wins.
At its core, Manifest is a pick-up and deliver game. Players operate 2 cargo ships, and start with a couple of private contracts and access to 3 open contracts on public display. These orders specify a type of good or people, where you can pick them up, and where to deliver them. Completed orders score between 1 and 5 points based on the distance transported and whether you need to deliver 1 or 2 items.
The rules to Manifest include two versions – a standard mode and an expert deck-building mode – both of which are card-driven. In both rule sets, cards allow you to perform one of three things: move a ship, spend money, or activate its special ability. If you’d like to use the card to move a ship, you expend its number of movement points. If you’re using the card for its monetary value, then you can spend its indicated amount to buy goods, contracts, or unload cargo. If you would like to trigger its rules-breaking ability, then simply follow its printed text. When choosing a card to play, you must pick which action you’re using it for, because the other two possible uses are then disregarded.
In the standard game, you begin with a hand of four action cards. On your turn, you can use as many of them as you wish and in any order you sit fit. When finished, you draw back to your hand limit of four.
In the deck-building version, each player starts with their own common set of six basic cards. You shuffle your small deck and draw three. As in the standard mode, you may spend any or all of the three that you wish. You can also discard unused cards, if you like, and then you draw back to three, reshuffling your discard pile when needed. There are two types of cards you can add to your deck. First, each player has their own set of six “upgrade” cards corresponding to their basic ones. For $5, you can buy an upgrade card and add it to your deck. Also, there are regular action cards displayed three at a time and available for purchase for the cost of $3 per card. If for some reason you don’t like current selection, you may spend $1 to refresh any number of them.
Movement is straight-forward. There are two different types of nodes on the map: in port or at-sea. Connecting these various points are lines representing sea lanes. Each sea lane has a number indicating the cost in movement points needed to sail that distance. You can play a card for its movement points, or add two or more cards together, expending them all on one boat to travel a great distance. Beware of pirate-infested waters, though, in certain seas. Via the roll of a couple dice, there is a risk of losing cargo – or even you ship!
All cards also have a monetary value. You can spend one card at a time, or add several together for a larger purchase, even splitting money up between your two ships and multiple uses. Money is used to buy goods when in the ports that supply them, procure new private contracts, acquire action cards in the deck-building version, and offload unwanted cargo at any port.
Finally, there are the special abilities and this is where Manifest rises above standard pick-up and deliver titles, revealing its true nature as a highly interactive “take-that” game of mayhem. With these various powers you can give yourself a significant boost, mess with your opponents, or protect yourself from pirates or other players’ attacks. There’s a time for every season, as they say, but most of the time, it will be very tempting to employ some dirty shenanigans as allowed by card play. However, you must weigh your options carefully since employing a card’s specific power negates its use in movement or purchasing.
At any time you are docked in a port that demands a specific cargo aboard your vessel as determined by private or public contract, you may deliver it for free. Simply set that contract aside, taking it from the public display it it’s a public one. Public contracts are then replaced by a new one from the deck. You can also purchase new private orders from the deck by paying its cost. This is printed on the card back, so that you know its point value when fulfilling it. However, you don’t know the specific cargo, place of origin, nor its destination of demand until buying it.
The first player to reach a predetermined point threshold of complete contracts becomes millionaire shipping magnate of the world – until the Crash of ’29, at least. Then you’ll be lucky just to stow away with the rats in the hold of a garbage scow to Jersey. It’s a fickle economy.
Set Sail or Abandon Ship?
I’m sure the life of a merchant seaman has always been a proud and rewarding one. But it also must have been mostly slow and monotonous. Throughout history, piracy was a more exciting and adventurous shipboard trade, if not way more dangerous – at least that’s how the books and movies portray it. However, it was sort of frowned upon. That’s where letters of marque come in – legitimate piracy! Attacking other ships in the midst of long voyages would tend to spice up a sailor’s career, right?
When playing Manifest, there is so much player interaction that I feel like I have my own personal letter of marque! On one hand, you’re a normal merchantman plying the lawful trade waters. On the other, it never hurts to line your holds with a bit of stolen cargo from easy prey! Perhaps I should clarify, though, when I play. That’s because I like spite and wrecking my opponents’ plans. And can take it, as well as dish it out. So our games had a lot of interaction. On the flip side, that slowed us down since we were using a lot of our cards to mess with others, rather than move or buy goods. Plus many times, our attacks amounted to little more than warning shots across the bow, since resolving many actions are random.
But the beauty of Manifest is that a group can tailor the amount of interaction to their personal tastes. It might require an informal “gentleman’s agreement,” but that’s not atypical for gaming groups. While our games were quite aggressive, you certainly don’t have to play that way. I think it’s more fun. But other players will appreciate the design more for its streamlined and accessible rules, tough decisions, variability, and rewarding play. For those players, the occasional opportunity to torpedo an opponent at just the right moment is just icing on the cake!
The rules are straight forward, especially in the standard version. You have a hand of action cards with a movement allowance, monetary value, and special action. Use the card for one of those purposes and apply it to one of your ships – or to a rival’s, if appropriate. Even with the deck-building version which adds an extra layer to acquiring more cards, we’re still talking “gateway game” accessibility. The goal of fulfilling contracts is intuitive. They are clear and readily identifiable. Plus, between your hand of private orders and those on display, there are usually plenty of options so that you’re never stuck with nothing to do. Private contracts offer some safe investments that you may be able to spend your time on, while public orders inject a spirited racing element and a little tension.
The multi-purpose action cards, however, generate the real tension. While simple to learn, they provide some depth and touch choices. In fact, the true heart and soul of Manifest is in deciding how to use them. Maybe you want to use that juicy ability to double stack cargo in the Independence’s holds? But, man, those 4 movement points would sure come in handy to get the America to Cape Town with its Irish immigrants. It’s enticing to play ‘Rough Seas’ against the Britannia of your rival, the White Star Lines. But is the chance of dumping a little of their tea overboard worth you staying anchored off the coast of Vancouver with nothing to show for it this turn? Even though you receive new action cards each round, there is still a good deal of long term planning, especially since you know that you’re able to move every turn – although it may not be as far as you’d like. So developing a strategy by playing the right cards at the right time is more strategic and angst-inducing than first appears.
Resolving attacks is purely random, either from pirates or players. Results will vary widely and some action cards provide protection from both. Your ships each have four cargo holds numbered 1-4. These normally accommodate one good or passenger token apiece. When attacked, you roll two six-sided dice. If you toss a 1-4, any cargo in the corresponding holds is lost. Roll double-sixes and your ship sinks with the loss of all goods and must start over on your next turn.
A further source of tension is in the game’s limited resources. As mentioned, ships can only carry four loads, unless you use the double-stack action card. Therefore, you’re not able to simply buy up scores of goods/passengers to just sail around until a fat contract lands in your lap. Second, the overall availability of cargo tokens is also limited to six of each type. Global shortages won’t be routine, but can cause some anxiety if a couple people try to corner the vanilla market while you’re sitting on a couple orders for the stuff!
Overall the game plays in a satisfying 60-90 minutes, depending on the number of players, desired target goal, and the amount of interaction. There can be some downtime as players agonize over the best use of their current hand of cards. At other times, one’s turn can go extremely quickly – say they decide to use all their cards for movement points on one giant move. In this way, turns are unusually sporadic in length. Manifest is not a strong 2-player game as it’s built for competition and interaction, but it would still scratch the pick-up and deliver itch. Five players would add a bit more length and chaos, but there’s always a time for that. The sweet spot here is 3-4 players.
I can’t guarantee what the final product will look like, but if the prototype is any indication, it should be top notch. The pre-production bits and artwork are fantastic and really evoke the theme, which game play itself doesn’t always do. The art-deco motif is prominent in illustrations and text, while many of the cards reference popular period phrases such as “the bee’s knees” and “get a wiggle on.”
Pick-up and deliver games are an under-appreciated mechanic largely because of their penchant for repetition. They reward players for using good strategy and streamlined efficiency, but can admittedly move slowly and tend to be solitary in nature. Manifest includes good old-fashioned piracy in fixed locations, but also incorporates healthy doses of direct interference so that players can channel their inner privateer. The result is a bit more chaotic and spiteful than most in the genre, but it also addresses many of the mechanic’s downsides.
Manifest will appeal to a wide audience. Its rules are straight-forward, yet the multi-purpose action cards make for lots of tough decisions. There’s enough variety, randomness, and player interaction to liven up the routine and monotonous work of picking up and delivering goods. However, those elements don’t completely hijack the game – unless, of course, the players want it to! And that’s the design’s beauty – it is highly customizable to meet different gaming situations; whether it be introductory gateway or middle-weight strategy, cutthroat or casual, or a short pleasure excursion versus a cruise around the world. Not many things are “one size fits all.” Yet Manifest comes close.
Manifest is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter. The project will run through April 3. If you want to pick-up a copy, sail on over to the campaign page and they’ll deliver you one after successfully reaching their goal. They’re already well on their way at nearly 15% of their goal in only two days. You can get the basic game with all of the stretch goal rewards for a $46US contribution (check site for shipping information). Even if the game doesn’t sound like it floats your boat, head on over to their Kickstarter page to watch the videos for some great music!
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