Thursday, April 27, 2017

GJJG Game Reviews - The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction - by Minion Games

The Manhattan Project:
Chain Reaction

Designer: James Mathe
Publisher: Minion Games
1-5p | 20-30m | 8+
GJJG Game Reviews - The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction - by Minion Games

Game Overview:
The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction is a standalone card game based on the very popular Manhattan Project by Minion Games.  The Manhattan Project is one of the top rated games on Board Game Geek (7.5 and ranked #169) and last year's Manhattan Project: Energy Empire made a number of best games of 2016 lists.  This year will also see the release of the highly anticipated Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight.  Chain Reaction was released last year to much less fanfare, but it had huge shoes to fill, and as a quick card came was really in a totally different category.  But is Chain Reaction worthy of the Manhattan Project title, or was it a did in this line of explosive games?  Let's find out!

The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction is a fast card game for one to five players age 12 and up that takes about 20 to 40 minutes to play.  Players take on the roles of different nations vying to be the first to build ten megatons worth of atomic warheads.  

Components & Packaging:
Component wise, Chain Reaction is a simple game.  There are only 108 cards in the entire game.  The card quality is decent, but no linen finish.  The rules are on a single fold out sheet, and the box is just a tuck box.  So there's nothing to wow about with the component quality.  The tuck box can't fit sleeved cards, so you'll either need to upgrade to a larger box and lose the artwork, or keep the cards in the tuck box but run the risk of damage.
The tuck box in the standard edition looks great, but isn't super sturdy.

There is a deluxe version of the game for an additional $10 that adds a more durable two-piece, telescoping box as well as some wooden mushroom cloud and radioactive symbol tokens.  To my knowledge, these don't change the game at all (in fact, I'm not sure what they'd be used for since they don't quite match any gameplay elements), but they do look pretty cool.

About the only aspect of the components that stands out is the art and design.  The artwork is by the same artists as the original Manhattan Project, in fact much of it is lifted straight from the original game.  The games also share some iconography and other artwork elements, giving Chain Reaction a very familiar look if you are used to Manhattan Project.
The artwork and graphic design throughout the game is excellent, and fits right in with the other Manhattan Project games.
Score: 6/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
Chain Reaction is a very straightforward game.  The rules are pretty clear, setup just takes a couple of minutes, and resetting for a second game is super quick.

There are several types of cards, each of which should be separated into their own groups.  First, take the four landmark cards and place them face-up in a row.  Then take the bomb cards and place a number equal to the players, plus one, in a row below the locations, with the rest in a draw pile.  There are also bomb loaded cards, and three values of yellowcake cards (with uranium on the backs) that should all be placed in separate draw piles.  One card is a first player marker, and the rest should be shuffled to become the main draw pile.  Each player gets five of the main cards and the game is ready to begin.
Setup and ready to play!
On your turn you'll play the five cards in your hand then draw a new hand of five cards, simple as that.  Where things get more complex though, and where the strategy comes in, is in how the cards interact.

There are two main types of cards that you'll have in your hand, actions and locations.  Actions let you do various things at no cost (always a choice between something that will mostly help you, and something that will harm an opponent).  Locations let you generate something (workers, yellowcake, uranium, or more cards) for a cost (workers or yellowcake).  Using the cards you have you are trying to mine yellowcake to turn into refined uranium and then use the uranium to build bombs.  Yellowcake and uranium are the only resources you'll keep from turn to turn, until you spend the uranium to build bombs.  Bombs are worth varying amounts of points, and the first player to ten points triggers the end game (or play to more points for a longer game).  The winner is the player with the most points at the end of that round.
Yellowcake earned in one turn is saved for future turns, when it can be enriched into uranium, and then used to build bombs.
All the main play cards have two possible uses, either for workers, or for their location or ability.  To use a card for the workers it provides, play it horizontally.  Cards will provide one or two each of three types of workers: general laborers, scientists, and engineers.  Using the appropriate number and type of workers (and occasionally including some yellowcake) allows you to activate another card.  
Every turn is an interesting puzzle of how to use the locations or labor on each card to
maximize your production of yellowcake and uranium.
Activating a Factory let's you either draw two or three new cards or cause another player to discard that many cards.  Universities take a few workers and generate more or different types of workers.  Mines use workers to generate yellowcake.  Enrichment plants use some workers to turn the yellowcake into uranium.
A wide variety of cards ensures that each hand is a unique puzzle.
There are also four Landmarks, or permanent locations that are always available for everyone to use.  These are expensive, but can be used to produce one scientist, engineer, yellowcake, or uranium.  The cost is higher than using a standard card, but sometimes the cards you are dealt leave you needing just that little bit extra.
Landmarks like MIT, or Oak Ridge are expensive to use, but can give you that last boost you need.
A few cards just have actions that you can take immediately when the card is played.  Design Bomb let's you draw the top three Bomb cards (more about them in a bit), choose one, and discard the others to the bottom of the Bomb card pile.  The one you chose you keep face down until you are able to build it.  Double Agent is a pretty powerful card.  It lets you either use a Landmark without paying its cost or take one yellowcake from an opponent.  Espionage is the most take-that card of the game, allowing you to either look at an opponent's hand and steal a card, or steal a yellowcake from an opponent.
A few cards have some take-that actions available.
Ultimately you'll want to use the uranium you've refined and workers you can generate to build a bomb.  There are several bombs available to all players, ranging in points from three to seven.  Each bomb needs a combination of scientists, engineers, and uranium to construct.  Once built, you'll collect the bomb for its points.
Bomb cards earn you points and bring the game to an end.
There are also Load Bomb cards, which take two engineers and two scientists.  You can only load a bomb you've already built and can only load a bomb once, but loading a bomb increases the points it is worth by two.
Load Bomb cards give each loaded bomb a two point boost.
The game ends at the end of the round in which a player earns ten or more points in built and/or loaded bombs.  Then scores are tallied (unused uranium is worth 1/2 a point) and the winner is the player with the most points.  Ties are broken by the player with the most yellowcake remaining.

Overall, the rules are clear and quick to both learn and teach.  The game is simple and straightforward enough that even on just the single, oversize sheet, we found every question was answered.  Setup just takes a few minutes (and you can use the time spent laying out the different cards to teach what they are).  Cleanup is pretty quick as well.  For the most part each card type remains with just other cards of the same type, so there's not much sorting required for cleanup.
I won here with 11 points, 8 points for my bombs, one loaded bomb, and one point for two remaining uranium cards.
Second place was 10.5 points, so it was close!
Score: 9/10 x2

The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction is a surprisingly deep game.  The way cards work as both resource and production creates some very interesting decisions.  Do you use that mine for the two laborers it generates?  Or do you use it to produce three yellowcake?  Do you want to be mean and cause an opponent to discard some cards, or do you want to see if you can get some useful cards for yourself?

Despite some occasionally tough decisions, the random cards you get from the deck each turn means the game can feel a bit luck based, but in my experience that luck tends to even out.  All games I played were fairly close and no one ever ended up way behind, even if they felt like they were getting unlucky cards more often than others.  Usually you can do something with the cards you draw, and only rarely does more than one card go unused from your hand.
Sometimes the chains of cards can go on for quite a while, despite each turn starting with only five cards in your hand.
A bigger issue, potentially, is the take-that aspect of the game.  It's not too overwhelming, but depending on who you are playing with and what cards get drawn, this can be a game where people gang up on one other player.  Granted, if those are the people you're playing with, maybe it's better to find others to play with, but the game does present the possibility to severely handicap one player.  It is possible to play without using the nasty effects since all of those cards, except for Espionage, have an option that doesn't hinder any other players, and, truthfully it's often better to take the benefit yourself than it is to hurt another player.  I didn't find the take-that nature of the game to be too vicious, but be aware that there is the potential for it.
Over the course of a game I had Espionage three times, so I stole a card
from each of the other players!  It's great to share!

Chain Reaction also has some very interesting mechanics in how the cards can be chained together for some pretty cool effects.  Given the right hand, it's possible to play the right combination to go from nothing to building a bomb, all in one turn.  It's tough, but possible.  But even without a perfect hand, it's often possible to make some pretty big strides toward building a bomb in one turn.  Each hand you draw presents you with an intriguing puzzle that you work to solve to maximize your output of yellowcake and uranium. The way the cards chain together and have dual purposes gives you quite a bit to ponder, even with only five cards in your hand.  It kind of gives the feel of a deckbuilder, late in the game when you draw cool card combinations, but without the overhead of having to build your deck.  It's quite interesting and works very well.
Can you figure out how to use these cards to generate two uranium?
First, I can use four scientists to run my mine, producing three yellowcake (one scientist is wasted, unfortunately).

Then I'll use those three yellowcake and another scientist (wasting an engineer) to get two uranium.

Flipping over the yellowcake gives me the uranium I'll need to build a bomb later.
One thing to note is that Chain Reaction has rules for solo play, too.  Solo rules are pretty much the exact same as standard play, except the few take-that cards have some alternate actions.  You play through the entire deck once, without shuffling, and see how many points you can earn.  You'll try to beat your best score each time.  Gameplay is still interesting, since you have a new puzzle to solve each turn, but there are no options for increasing difficulty.  It's a fun way to spend 15-20 minutes though, and the game size means you can take it with you just about anywhere.

Score: 7/10 x3

The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction isn't a game that you'll make your sole focus of game night, but it is a pretty good filler game.  Especially if you are a fan of the original The Manhattan Project, or Energy Empire (or the upcoming Minutes to Midnight).  These are all bigger games that will pretty much fill up a game night, and will be games that you'll want to return to whenever you have the time to spend.  But at the beginning of the night, before you delve into one of the meatier games, Chain Reaction is a great appetizer.  It plays quickly, offers some interesting decisions and puzzles, and carries through the Manhattan Project theme pretty well.

Even if you're not using Chain Reaction as a prelude to other Manhattan Project games, it's still a fun little game to pull out whenever you need a quick filler.  This is definitely a game that will be coming with me to game nights quite often.  It'll also likely be a game that I break out with the kids in the evening when they want a game, but we don't have the time to play a long one.  It's fast, fun, and accessible, and at up to five players it should hit the table pretty frequently.

Score: 7/10 x1

General Fun:
I found The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction to be quite enjoyable.  The play length is just about right for the weight and style of game that it is, but it's quite easy to lengthen the game if you like.  I recommend trying a game to 12 or 15 points.  Chain Reaction is a game that I'd be happy to play just about any time, and it's one I'll be bringing with to play with others when we need a quick playing game.  I really enjoyed the decisions and puzzles that arise from the cards you draw into your hand each turn.  The theme is great, although it's not overly immersive, and the artwork matches the theme wonderfully.  I had more fun playing Chain Reaction than I thought I would, and I'd gladly teach it to new players so they can have fun as well.  Everyone I played with also really enjoyed the game.
Solving each little puzzle each turn is quite fun, as is the opportunity to mess with your opponents (if you're into that).
Score: 8/10 x2

Overall Value:
At only $15, The Manhattan Project: Chain reaction is a great deal.  It plays smoothly, and brings quite a bit of fun to the table.  It's also in line, price wise, with similar games when comparing components and gameplay (Star Realms, Epic, etc.).  Chain Reaction is a game that you can easily take just about anywhere and play in about 20-30 minutes.  It's perfect for a game night filler, restaurant game, or any time you want something fast and fun.  It's a pretty good value for the money, and you can sometimes find it even cheaper.  Definitely look for it at your FLGS, or favorite online game retailer.  It'll be a worthwhile purchase.
Great artwork, fun gameplay, and small form factor all make this a great game for only $15.
Score: 8/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction definitely gets my approval.  No, it's not as weighty or deep a game as the others in the Manhattan Project family, but it keeps the theme alive in a lighter card game.  I really enjoyed how each turn presented a new puzzle to solve.  There's really only one path to victory, so each player will have the same general strategy, but to win you really need to figure out how to maximize each turn.  There is a fair amount of luck, but the game is light enough and fast enough that there shouldn't be any hard feelings if someone gets a few bad hands.  Also, the multiple uses of the cards provide lots of opportunities to mitigate the luck of the draw.
Lots of different cards make for some interesting combinations.
Chain Reaction isn't a perfect game though.  Even though other games come in similar style tuck boxes, it still feels cheap.  If you think you'll play a lot, the tuck box won't fit sleeved cards.  And if you don't sleeve the cards, the tuck box won't protect them for long.  The game plays quickly, sometimes even too quick.  That can be easily remedied by playing to higher points though.  Chain Reaction also has the potential to get a bit more vicious than some will like, but the multiple actions and quick play help prevent most games from being too mean.

While I really did like how cards had multiple uses, I still sometimes felt my choices were a not lacking due to some bad luck.  However, I never felt like there was nothing to do.  I think it might be interesting to have a few more cards that add a bit more variety to the deck, though.  Maybe a few cards that have three laborers on them instead of just two or one.  There is a lot of balance in the cards that makes sure that even if you use a card that let's you draw more cards, the amount of cards you play is never less than what you gain.  So if you play a factory to let you draw three cards, you'll have to spend at least three cards.  It might be interesting if there were occasional card combos that could actually let you increase the number of cards you can work with.  

There could also potentially be more cards that have interesting actions to spice up the gameplay a bit.  Sometimes turns seemed to be repetitive, trying to solve the same types of puzzles turn after turn.  I could see some event cards mixed in the deck.  Maybe cards that affect everyone when drawn or played, like everyone draws a card, or discards a card.  Or the active player draws cards equal to the number of players, chooses one and passes the rest on, then the next player does the same, until all players have a new card.  Or everyone passes a card to the left or right.  There are a lot of fun ideas that could add just a bit more interest to the game.  But that could be for a mini expansion someday.
In the example above, I could also have generated my three yellowcake with this combination.
I'd still have wasted a scientist though, and would have had the same result.
Overall, everyone I played The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction with had a great time.  The gameplay is fast, fun, and solid.  It's easy to teach, has an accessible theme, and looks great.  The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction would be a great addition to anyone's collection of lighter, filler style games.  If you are a fan of the Manhattan Project line, and are looking for a lighter game with the same theme, Chain Reaction is that game.

You can learn more about The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction from the Minion Games website, or ask for it at your favorite online or local game store.

Overall Score: 76/100

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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