Cost: ~$40 From: Hans im Gluck Players: 3-4 Playing Time: 60 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Complexity: 3 Skill level: 5 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 3.1, Winter 1994
It's hard to imagine there's anything more to be said about this game which hasn't already been said elsewhere. Not all TGR readers also subscribe to Sumo or read rec.games.board, however, and keeping those readers in the dark about this game would be almost criminal.
Manhattan won the Spiel des Jahres at Essen this year (for more on Essen, see My First Essen by Ken Tidwell). Spiel des Jahres is the German Game of the Year award, bestowed by a panel of that country's industry journalists and professionals. Because of its cachet and sales impact, it is a highly coveted honor. Some recent Spiel des Jahres decisions have been dubious at best (many felt Modern Art was robbed), I've not heard a single dissenting voice on this one.
Manhattan is about building skyscrapers in six cities (including, of course, New York) represented on the game board by six 3x3 grids. Each space in a grid can hold one skyscraper, for a maximum of nine towers per city (but cities are rarely filled to capcity in practice). Play consists of four rounds. Everyone begins the game with an assortment of building pieces ranging in size from one to four stories tall. Each player's set is identical except for its color. At the start of each round, players choose six of these pieces. Eventually players will use up all of their pieces, but these six are the only ones they can use for that round.
In addition to the plastic building segments, the game includes a deck of cards. Each card displays a 3x3 grid with one square highlighted in red. The grid represents any city, and the red square the space in which a player may build. So a card with a red center square would allow a player to build in the center space of any of the six cities.
Players receive four of these cards at the start of the game. Play consists of playing a card, building in the corresponding space in any city, and drawing a new card. If a player builds in an empty square, he's just erected a new building there. If the square is already occupied, he must take over the building from the previous owner. Whoever built the uppermost story of a building is that building's owner. To take over a building, a player must add enough stories so that the total number of his stories in that building equals or exceeds that of the previous owner. Since the largest pieces are four stories tall, getting five stories behind in a building locks you out of that building forever.
Ownership of a building doesn't really matter until the end of the round, which occurs when all players have used all six of their pieces. Then points are tallied. If one building is taller than all other buildings in the game, that building earns three points for its owner. Each city awards two points to whoever owns the most buildings there. Finally, everyone gets a point for each tower they own.
The next round begins with players choosing another set of six pieces, and the process continues. Whoever has the most points after four rounds is the winner.
Despite its almost universal acclaim, Manhattan isn't perfect. It suffers from two major problems. The first is that the last player in a round has a tremendous advantage. This is mitigated by rotating the player order each round. The second flaw is the classic problem of putting one player in the position of kingmaker. It's a simple matter to compute the score at any given point in the game and to calculate the effects of a move. It's not uncommon for a losing player to find himself in the position of choosing which other player will win.
It is a mark of the game's strength that it won the Spiel des Jahres despite these problems, and that even hard-core gamers (notoriously hard to please and quick to pick nits) praise the game. The quality of the components undoubtedly help. The board and cards have an art deco feel, and the plastic building pieces are fun to stack. The dynamically growing terrain of the board is fascinating to watch as the game unfolds.
Luck plays a significant role in Manhattan. Your play choices are limited by the cards you hold, so even though you might desperately want to play a piece in Sydney's upper-left corner, you can only watch in frustration if you don't have a card with a red square in the right spot.
Manhattan involves a little bit of psychology as well. At the beginning of the game there seems little reason not to opt to build on top of another player's building instead of erecting a new one— you still gain a tower, but you also deprive an opponent of one. This can backfire, because it's easy to throw strategy to the wind and let passion take over. The player you topped will undoubtedly take great pleasure in reclaiming the building from you at her earliest convenience, making you wonder if perhaps you would have been better off adopting a kinder, gentler expansion policy in an unoccupied city.
Emotions can get particularly strong regarding the tallest tower. Three points is nothing to sneeze at, but I find the price is usually not worth it. When I see four of my pieces buried in a building, I often wish I'd spent them building new buildings instead of fighting for control of a single tower. Four buildings are worth as much as having the tallest building— even more if they give me a majority in a city— and I don't have to worry about having all of those points stolen in one move.
A shrewd developer will note which grid positions contain hotly contested buildings, and then build in the same positions in different cities. If other players are using their upper-left cards to fight over a tower in Hong Kong, your buildings in the same position in Frankfurt and Manhattan are less likely to get stolen from you.
Brian Bankler and friends at Carnegie Mellon University have developed an amusing variant sure to appeal to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans: Godzilla Takes Manhattan. Use any available counter to represent Godzilla (Brian recommends the wooden dragon from White Wind's Elfen games) and start him off in a random location on the board. For the rest of the game, whenever someone plays a card, Godzilla moves one square in the direction indicated by the card's highlighted square. Consider the cities to be in a 2x3 grid for this purpose, with the edges wrapping around. When Godzilla enters a square, naturally any building in that square is destroyed. Appropriate poorly-dubbed dialogue and screams of terror are encouraged.
With the moderate luck factor and kingmaker problem, Manhattan isn't exactly a gamer's game. But that doesn't seem to be stopping anyone from enjoying it. I look forward to Seyfarth's next effort.