Where Manhattan shines is in delivering play that lights up every single session. Here we have a game that taps into the vein of why most of us start playing board games in the first place, this is fun in the purest most undiluted sense.
Every once in a while a board game comes along that instantly sparks a little magic from the moment it lands upon the table. It’s like a little wave of knowing washes over you when, having devoured a beautifully short and succinct rule book, the first steps of play glide by and a smile flickers upon your lips. After a few days in the company of Manhattan, I’m beaming like the Cheshire cat that got the cream.
Manhattan is a game that offers players the chance to step into the well-polished shoes of the city planner. But, rather than focusing on the little nooks and crannies of the typical cityscape, these planners are thinking big, skyscraper big! Manhattan is all about having the most impressive erection…wait, the most impressive, cloud kissing building. Up to four players send their strategic minds into a battle for the skylines of the world, and it is absolutely wonderful from start to finish.
The game actually first released to high acclaim all the way back in 1994, but thanks to a facelift last year, Manhattan has once again drawn the spotlight. And now, having spent some time completely in awe at its brilliantly addictive play, I thank all the gods that this one has finally come to my attention. The game feels like a perfect companion to another favourite at our table, Ticket to Ride. This is somewhat interesting as Manhattan precedes the train track laying epic by a cool ten years, and also because Ticket to Ride was another game that I really didn’t think would appeal to me, much like my initial approach to Manhattan. You see, at first the idea of some competitive skyscraper construction sounded a little, well, boring. I do love being wrong.
The reality is that this wonderfully bright, thoughtful, and simple game has become an instant, and thoroughly deserved, favourite for myself and my family.
Before I go in to just what has elevated Manhattan to heights far beyond those of its own bright and cheerful skyscrapers, let me first talk about the bricks and mortar of the gameplay. Competition is played across four tense and enjoyable rounds with a complete game, carrying a full quota of players, running at around thirty to forty minutes. It feels considerably less thanks to the minimal downtime for each player between turns, no sooner have you placed a tower and planned your next brilliantly, fiendishly, earth shatteringly wonderful strategic masterstroke than you’re back in the fray.
How does it all work then?
Each player has a hand of four cards and a selection of tower blocks in their own vibrant colour. At the beginning of each round the players select six blocks from their own collection to play that round. The blocks come in sizes ranging from one storey to four storeys high, this is crucial but more on that in a moment. Play proceeds with the starting player choosing a card to play from their hand. The cards are marked with a grid and one highlighted square. The square depicts where a tower can be placed. The card itself is played on the side of the board the player is facing and cannot be turned on its side, this means every card offers each player a different position for building placement. I’ve overcomplicated that, but believe me, it’s very simple in action.
Let’s go back to those storey sizes. When placing a block, players have choices. A player could simply place a block on an unoccupied square and move on, however, they may equally pop a block on top of another player’s already placed tower and take control of that skyscraper. The player whose colour block sits atop the tower, scores the points come rounds end, but this does have some rules attached. If a player wants to play on top of another player’s block, they must have at least as many storeys in the tower after placement as the current highest in said tower. This adds a delicious element of strategic decision making for the players, as they determine where the biggest points haul lies. Now, let us talk about those all-important points.
After every player has played six blocks the round ends and scores are totted up before the next round commences (play runs across four rounds in total). Points are dished out for the player with the highest tower first, before scoring moves to points for having the majority of buildings within an area, and finally a point for every tower owned (towers are owned if your colour block sits highest in the building).
And that is basically it…
Players draw a card after playing, scores are tracked via a score board that runs around the edge of the playing area, and, it’s absolutely brilliant!
Where the magic lies.
As you can see, despite my knack for over-complicating explanations of the inherently simple, Manhattan is a very straight forward sort of game. It doesn’t require a master’s degree to understand the details, in fact, after a brief flick through you probably won’t need to open the rulebook ever again. It isn’t blessed with a wealth of options and neither does it require players to dissect decisions that led to the life and death of an army of miniatures. It is almost like an abstract game adorned in a nicely themed coat, but, it carries it so well. Where Manhattan shines is in delivering play that lights up every single session. Here we have a game that taps into the vein of why most of us start playing board games in the first place, this is fun in the purest most undiluted sense.
At no point does this game become burdened by excess. It never tries to do too much, never tries to be too clever, everything is minimal, and everything works like an absolute board gamer’s dream. Well, this board gamer’s dream at least.
Play is wonderfully streamlined and this in turn means the pace of the action is always on the quicker side. Yet despite its simplicity and flow, there is still plenty of room for strategy within Manhattan’s blueprints for success. In fact, victory demands a little workout for the old grey matter. Block placement is critical of course, but do you try and scupper an opponent’s march to glory, or do you go for area domination? And then what if the cards fall poorly, always need to have a back-up plan, that’s for sure. The landscape is ever shifting, as points and power constantly change hands over the course of a game, and in our experience a runaway leader is a rare sight. But all of these little moments are what makes Manhattan great!
Honestly, my only real downside with the game is the four-player limit. I just wish there was room for another player or two in the mix. In part this is a little due to me wanting to enjoy a game with all my family at the table, but also the additional scope for those beautifully sneaky and underhand tactics we love so much would be fantastic with another face at the table. Plus the magnificence of the board after a five or six player game would be a sight to behold!
Elsewhere, there may be a question as to whether the lack of variety in the main body of the game might make it a little stale over time, but as yet this hasn’t been even close to becoming an issue so it would be pure speculation at present, and to be honest games such as Ticket to Ride still get regular plays despite a fairly similar overall experience each time.
The components in this new edition of the game are top quality. The board and pieces really come to life on the table thanks to bold colours and nice artwork. As the tower’s levels gradually reach new dizzying heights, the board just gains entire new levels of wonderful looks, until by the end it just cries out for a moment in the camera lens.
The cards are the smaller variety, but they do the job sufficiently and it’s always clear where a tower must be placed. Each player also gets a character card to store towers during play, and these work well as a little seasoning with which to flavour the action.
One for the Kids?
Manhattan is absolutely a game that could, and should, be enjoyed by all members of the family. My youngest son, aged seven, got on fine with the rules of play and the simple strategic decision making required.
The rules are so simple and the game so much fun that this is the sort of game I would not only say can be played by the younger family members, but it really is a must have!
Quite simply, Manhattan, is awesome! I have fallen in love with this game. And this is quite against my initial expectations. The way every player is fully tuned in and engaged during every play is testament to just how gripping a game about building skyscrapers can be. The brilliant addictive nature of Manhattan gets its hooks in early and you know it has no intention of letting you go, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
What we have in Manhattan is a true classic. It is a game that has already stood the test of time, and even now, over two decades after its original release and in a world swamped by big and brave ideas of ever increasing size and scale, it still casts a beautiful shadow over the majority out there. Now, I’m off to the clouds again, see you there.