Nyaar! (1960’s American radio voice narrates:) Hey you there! The future of energy is here. Around the world, governments and industry are erecting energy infrastructure so that you at home can switch on your lights to read the paper, listen to important news bulletins on the wireless, and bake your Sunday roast with clean, quiet electricity! Innovations across the globe are bringing us close to harnessing the ultimate power source, the atom itself! The destructive technology developed by the Manhattan Project that brought an end to World War II is now being harnessed for peaceful energy generation, to power our homes, streets, cities and countries. It’s an epic race – who will produce the greatest Energy Empire!
2-5 Players | 2 hours | Designed by Tom Jolly and Luke Laurie
Manhattan Project: Energy Empire is developed and published by Minion Games, a small publisher based out of Wisconsin. Among their publications, the Manhattan Project series is one of the more well known. Energy Empire is a spin-off of sorts of the original Manhattan Project game, set in the same universe. There are a few other games in the series long with future plans for an Energy Empire expansion, and dice game!
How does it work?
Manhattan Project: Energy Empire is a worker placement game, with elements of resource management and engine building. Players take control of a nation’s government (e.g. China, USA, Japan etc) and direct their energy and industrial decisions over the course of several decades. After 6 eras, whomever best developed their nation (factoring all manner of things including pollution levels and UN involvement) is deemed the greatest nation on Earth.
There are several worker placement actions on the game board, which allow players to develop their nations. Market actions allow players to buy cards representing industry and services to add to their tableau. Other actions allow players to gain and convert resources, acquire new workers, and add new energy generation dice to their pool.
On a player’s turn, they either decide to work, or generate. If they work, they select a location on the board and place a worker there. If someone is already at that location, you must stack energy tokens under your worker such that they are taller than whomever is already there! Actions on the board are divided into three zones (Government, Industry, and Commerce) and when you take an action, you are allowed to activate any cards you have acquired that match the location type. These cards might generate resources, points, or allow you to take special actions.
If you choose to generate you pick up all your workers and roll your dice, gaining energy which will allow you to perform more actions over your next round. Lots of actions (including generating) deplete the game timer (an event will occur at the end of each of the 6 eras), and when this runs out, the game will finish. At this point players tally points accumulated during the game, score their environment (unpolluted environments score the most!) and their cards. Whoever has the highest score wins!
What do I think?
I first played Manhattan Project: Energy Empire two years ago when it came out. I had my eye on it since then and recently picked it up. I’ve played it several times now, with varying player counts.
The Good Stuff
- Manhattan Project: Energy Empire has a engaging and novel theme. Developing a nation’s energy infrastructure after the cold war is historically interesting and it relates quite well to the gameplay. While the country you are doesn’t wholly dictate your strategy, it is fun to do a little roleplaying while playing.
- Gameplay is relatively straight forward to pick-up. The worker placement element is simple and the twist on it (tallest stack to place at a location) is cool. The way the complexity of a turn ramps up as you move through the game is great for getting new players into the game without an overwhelming amount of things to initially remember to do each turn.
- You can’t really do anything in the game that doesn’t get you points. There are so many options and all of them are valid ways to accumulate points and be competitive for the win.
- I like the moral element of the game. I actually feel bad about polluting the environment and always make an effort to clean up after myself even though it possibly isn’t worth as many points as other options.
- The dice mechanism for generating energy is an interesting push your luck system. I like how (thematically) you can say, oh we’ll just fire up the fossil plant this one last time, and against all odds it results in an environmental disaster occurring.
- The game timer system is unique. Every time a player generates pollution they take a token from the game countdown track which triggers events and the end game. I think it’s a nice design.
- The production of the game is very nice. It has really good quality cardboard bits, and the pieces are all really great too – the heavy resin oil barrels are awesome and the steel girder pieces are among my favourite boardgame bits!
The Bad Stuff
- While the game is fun to play, you sort of feel like you aren’t really doing much, or you’re just going around in a circle and getting points along the way. You start with a big clean empty environment, then you fill it up with pollution and spend the rest of the game cleaning it up.
- Each turn feels kind of compartmentalised. The game is an engine/tableau building game, but my strategy rarely involves multi-turn planning. It’s more of a ‘ooh, I’ll buy that to add to my stack of green cards’.
- The engine/tableau building itself isn’t very engine-ey. There aren’t really combos or multipliers you can create, it’s more like you get a collection of cards that all do stuff and when you run it a few things come out the end (and rarely these will be points). Other games let you seek out interesting combinations of cards that have unexpected effects and I feel Energy Empire lacks that.
- The achievements system isn’t great. Picking up an achievement is more like setting yourself a goal you need to have done at the end of the game. A lot of the time I find myself grabbing these just to deny other players points.
- Oil should be a big part of the game but I feel like it’s sparsely used by players. It could just by my group’s play style, but the oil related actions were rarely taken in games I’ve played. If you could spend it to buy cards I think there would be more drive to get your hands on it. Maybe an expansion will add this?
I am really drawn to this game because of the theme and production. I like the gameplay itself but at the end of a game I sort of feel a bit unfulfilled – I’ve just pulled a nation though the late 20th century energy boom, but all I’ve got to show for it is few cards. I do like where Manhattan Project: Energy Empire sits in the boardgaming world. It’s a step up from entry level worker placement games on the way to heavier stuff. I like it enough to want to play it a bit more, but I don’t really know if it will have sticking power for me in the long term. I will say that if you like the idea of the theme and enjoy worker placement, it is an interesting experience in that respect. I appreciate the moral element and the fact that you get to plan your path through the era and decide if you want to destroy the environment to gain now and hurt later (and hope you get enough points for it to not matter), or be more careful and end up with a better end game scoring because you didn’t kill all of the turtles.