Review: Manhattan

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Release Date

Designer: Andreas Seyfarth
Artist: Jacqui Davis
Publisher: FoxMind
Category: Area Control, Hand Management
Players: 2-4
Price: $39.95 Amazon.com

Manhattan is a classic city-building game from Andreas Seyfarth. The 1994 Spiel des Jahres winner is an excellent choice for gamers and non-gamers.

Review

If you have spent time in tabletop game community, there’s a good chance you have heard of a game called Puerto Rico. Released in 2002, Puerto Rico was an enormously popular euro game from Andreas Seyfarth, which, for many years, held the number-one-ranked spot on BoardGameGeek. To this day, it remains a classic—widely considered one of the greatest games ever designed.

While most every gamer knows Puerto Rico, far fewer know that eight years before it rocked the gaming world, Andreas Seyfarth designed Manhattan, a neat game that went on to win the 1994 Spiel des Jahres award. After years of being out of print, Manhattan is back, and better than ever.

Manhattan is a two- to four-player game, in which players compete to build and control towering skyscrapers. These structures are built on three-by-three grids, constructed through a simple, yet clever card play system.

The crux of the game has to do with players’ perspectives, the way each individual person sees the game board from where he is sitting. Every card highlights a specific space on a three-by-three grid, and players spend these cards to place their tower blocks on a matching space. The catch is that most cards correspond to a different space for each player, depending upon where the player is seated. As an example:

In this image, the orange and blue players (seated next to each other) have each played the same card, which allows them to place a block in the top-left corner of one of the grids. (For demonstration purposes, I used an extra block to indicate which player is which.) Since they view the board from different angles, the top-left corner means something different to each of them, correlating to their individual views of the board.

A standard game of Manhattan lasts four rounds. At the start of each, players take turns selecting six tower blocks to use that round. Tower blocks come in four sizes, thematically signifying one to four stories, and any combination may be selected. Once everyone has made a decision, the first player begins by playing a card from his hand of four, and placing a block in a matching space. The played card is then discarded, and a replacement is drawn. The player to his left may then take a turn, and so on until all players have placed their last block.

Blocks may be placed on any of the six grids, in the space corresponding to the played card. If the space is unoccupied, the first block simply begins the building. However, the real strategy stems from building on top of opponents’ blocks. Any tower block may be placed on top of any other, as long as doing so gives the current player equal to or more total stories in the building than anyone else. To illustrate:

The above image bears two examples of how this could work. The building on the left began as a one-level, purple structure. On a later turn, the yellow player built on top of this purple block, with a one-level block of his own. This was allowed, because doing so gave him as many or more levels as the other player involved (1 ≥ 1). The building on the right began as a one-level yellow structure. The purple player, annoyed that yellow built on top of his tower, dropped a two-level block on top of his (2 ≥ 1). Yellow, in turn, decided to take the tower back by adding another one-level block (2 ≥ 2). Note that it doesn’t matter that yellow’s blocks aren’t touching; all that matters is that together, they meet or exceed the total number of levels belonging to the opponent.

Once everyone has played his last block, the round ends and a scoring phase occurs. The player who owns the tallest tower on the board receives three points. Then, in each of the six grids, the player who controls the most buildings receives two points. Finally, players receive one point per building they own anywhere on the board.

And that’s basically it. Four rounds, four scoring phases. At the end of the final scoring phase, the player with the most points is the winner.

Manhattan is an exceptional family game, absolutely deserving of the Spiel des Jahres award. I actually like it more than many of the other winners. This game can be explained in two minutes and played in thirty, but it offers meaningful choices throughout.

For example, there is a subtle strategy in selecting which blocks to use each round. Because players choose their six in turn order, the later players have the advantage of seeing what their opponents picked, and they can plan accordingly. Moreover, when selecting blocks, is it better to diversify and take multiple sizes each round? Or should players try to get rid of their weak, one-level blocks as soon as possible and save the big ones for the later rounds?

Players also need to keep an eye on how many buildings their opponents control in each area. If someone gets too many majorities, it can mean huge points for him, but on the flipside, if players spread themselves too thin chasing majorities, their buildings may become easy targets for takeovers.

Sometimes, players may even want to bolster their own structures to make takeovers impossible. If someone plays a two- and a three-level block on top of one another before any other blocks are played, they have essentially locked the tower down, such that no one else can possibly build on it (because there are no five-level blocks).

These are the kinds of tactical decisions players must constantly wrestle with. At face value, Manhattan doesn’t seem like it would have much strategic depth, but it really does. It’s impressive how a game with such a limited ruleset offers so much to think about. Whenever I play old an Spiel des Jahres winner, I ask myself if the game would still win the award if it came out today. In the case of some early winners like Rummikub or Domination, I can confidently say they would not win today. They’re not bad games, they’re just showing their age. Manhattan, on the other hand, still feels fresh two and a half decades later. I could totally see this winning the Spiel des Jahres today. The perspective mechanism is fascinating, the strategic nuances run deep, and the overall design is intuitive, yet clever.

If I have one issue with the game, it’s the tower blocks themselves. I love the visual they create, but as the buildings grow, it can become difficult to quickly tell how tall they are and how many levels each player is contributing. By the final round, players will have to pause their turns to count these things up, which can slow down the game. It’s not a huge issue, but it would have been nice if each block had its number of levels printed on it. As much as I dig their translucent look, opaque blocks might also have been more functional/readable.

All in all, though, Manhattan is an excellent gaming experience. It has that “pure” feel, with no extra fluff or unnecessary rules. It’s just clean and streamlined. These days, games come and go so quickly as hobbyists clamor for the newest hotness. But when an older title can hold its own in the modern board game renaissance, it’s a testament to just how solid it is. Manhattan is a timeless classic, one of the best family games around.

A review copy was provided by FoxMind.

The Bottom Line

 

Author: Stephen Hall

A bard pretending to be a cleric. Possibly a Cylon, too. I was there when they dug up the "E.T." cartridges.