Game Review: The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction

review of the manhattan project, chain reaction card game nuclear bombMy experience with funding games through Kickstarter has been a mixed bag. Some are really good but many end up being overly complex, confusing or just plain no fun to play. And then there’s the occasional home run, like the terrific worker placement game The Manhattan Project from Minion Games.

The premise is perfectly in line with my interest in WWII and the Cold War: you’re all working in secret bases in New Mexico trying to produce yellow cake which can then be refined into uranium or plutonium. The goal: built a functional nuclear bomb and test it before your opponents do. Of course, they can send spies to sneak into your factories and steal trade secrets or even send a plane and bomb your research facility, causing you to have to stop forward progress and rebuild. Good fun, it’s also a 2+ hour commitment.

Enter the newly released The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction, a card game variant that’s faster, easier to explain and surprisingly just as much fun as the bigger board game. You can play it solo or with up to four players, and after a half-dozen plays, I’ve really grown to like this quick and entertaining resource collection game. And as a Kickstarter supporter of Chain Reaction, I was lucky enough to get the nifty wooden tokens too, not the base game’s yellow cake and uranium cards.

Here’s the basic setup of the game:

the manhattan project, chain reaction

In Chain Reaction you’re racing to produce the resources necessary to create bombs, and each bomb has a point value based on its complexity. That’s along the top, with the three bombs shown being worth 6, 4 and 7 points, left to right.

You can also gain a few extra points by loading the bomb into a test plane (2 points each time) and the race is to get 10 points first.

The second row of cards are the landmarks, buildings that any player can use as often as desired. They’re definitely not particularly efficient, but can be most useful in some situations. Then the bottom red tokens are uranium and yellow tokens are, surprise, yellow cake.

Let’s look a bit more clearly at the bombs because it will let me explain some of the basics of the game:

bombs to build, manhattan project chain reaction

On every card, the top of the card are the necessary “inputs”, and the bottom is the “output” of the card. For the 6 point bomb leftmost, for example, you need one scientist (circle with glasses), two engineers (hard hat guys) and four uranium. The 4 pointer requires the same personnel, but only three uranium, and the big 7 pointer requires two scientists, one engineer and five uranium.

To build bomb 6, then, you need to have created four uranium. But you can’t create those without some yellow cake, and that needs to be mined.

Each player also has five cards that they play and replace from the deck as the game progresses. Here are three in close up:

cards close up manhattan project chain reaction

Notice that both of these mines are far more efficient than the landmark Shinkolobwe mine, each requiring but one person to produce a single yellow cake as its output. The middle card is an enrichment plant and is much more interesting, allowing you to utilize two scientists and five yellow cake to produce three uranium. That’s a lot of uranium!

Just as importantly, notice that the side of each card has personnel listed too: two scientists on both mines, and one engineer on the middle enrichment plant. Rotate a card 90-degrees and instead of its primary purpose, you can use it instead as those personnel. That means that either mine could supply both scientists needed for the enrichment plant. If you have the required yellowcake, you can produce all that uranium.

This “chaining” of cards is the essence of the game and where it gets really fun. Here’s an example of a Manhattan Project chain:

chain of cards, the manhattan project chain reaction

Look closely: The first mine has been rotated sideways to deliver up a scientist who heads to university, the output of that being three scientists. Now one heads to the mine and produces a single yellow cake. The other two go to the enrichment plant and while it needs 5 yellow cake, we’re going to use the one produced by the mine so with four additional yellow cake tokens this chain lets us produce four uranium.

See how that works? Takes a bit of calculation to figure out how to get the optimal value out of each set of cards in your hand (plus the landmarks), but it’s surprising how combinations can turn a relatively uninteresting “input” into a substantial output. Build a bomb, get the points, and win the game!

There are also a few cards that add some additional variation to the game too, including my favorite:

double agent card, the manhattan project chain reaction

Sure you could use it as an engineer, but read the card more closely: You can use it with any landmark to avoid personnel costs (see the first pic for the landmarks) or steal a yellow cake from an opponent. Darn helpful at times!

If you don’t want the nifty wooden tokens, the basic copy of The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction is a steal at $14.95, and it’s only $10 more to get the deluxe version with the uranium and yellow cake tokens as shown. I recommend the deluxe version because I like little play tokens, but it’s your call, of course.  A highly recommended game that my 12yo daughter also really enjoys.

Disclaimer: None, actually. I funded the original The Manhattan Project on Kickstarter, then based on its fun factor, I also funded The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction through Kickstarter too.

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