12 September 2018
A very different kind of superpower
Worryingly prescient for a game released in 2018, The Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight fully delivers on the nail-biting tension and cut-with-a-knife atmosphere of the threat of nuclear war.
Whereas the original Manhattan Project focused on the building of nuclear bombs (excellent spin-off Energy Empire looked at the use of atomic power as fuel), here the actual construction of nukes is less important than how those weapons of mass destruction are deployed. You can earn victory points by exploding nukes at your own test sites – which permanently puts those spaces on your player board out of action, making it a risk-reward approach – or holding them at ICBM silos, but to truly establish yourself as a global superpower you’ll eventually need to play the perilous game of deploying your weapons in enemy territory via submarines and bombers.
This is where Minutes to Midnight stands apart as a rich and complex strategy game. A streamlined worker-placement core throbs at the heart of every action: you place workers down to block opponents from using those spaces, executing actions when they’re retrieved later on. It’s an impeccably-crafted loop driven by brilliantly clear graphic design, but it would be far from unique without the thematic gameplay twists that designer Brandon Tibbetts has layered on top.
There’s an element of bluffing and social deduction in sending your nuclear subs to patrol enemy waters: cards are kept facedown and can be padded out with decoys, making it harder for that player to sweep the pile and clear out the real threat. Fighting for control of third nations, meanwhile, is like a tug-of-war between the pull of workers promoted to politicians, with the most dominant player able to store some of their nukes overseas for bonus VP as long as they retain their influence over the region. Similarly, the most valuable bomber planes must be deployed in enemy airspace, but can be driven off by squadrons of fighters.
The constant need to interact with your rival superpowers in order to build up the biggest nuclear arsenal you can keeps the atmosphere as (playfully) hostile as a game about the Cold War nuclear arms race deserves. Speaking of which, the ability to send spies to use enemy buildings (or simply stop them using them unless they use their own spies for counterespionage) makes for an excellently atmospheric boiling-down of the era’s widespread infiltration, as well as a delightfully intimidating way for players to interact outside of their own board. For an even more thematic experience, the optional nations cards offer up unique abilities.
The breadth of strategic options can make the game feel a bit mind-boggling at first. Luckily, it’s given structure by the scoring system, which scores in four different categories – subs, ICBMs, third world nations and bombers – at fixed points in the game’s adjustable length, although the order of the milestones is randomised.
This helps turn what could have been a messy buffet of routes to victory into a still-filling but digestible five-course meal, as players rush to empty their seas ahead of a sub scoring round, deal with troublesome bombers before they earn rivals VP and generally bulk up their ABM defense to benefit from opponents’ deployed nukes. The blown-out scale of Minutes to Midnight can still make it feel a bit prone to overwhelming players and sagging with overanalysis at points, but you’re unlikely to regret any of the time you spend in its alternate history.
Minutes to Midnight is a shining example of how tight, conventional gameplay can be wedded with immersive, interactive elements to create an experience that you’ll want to sink into. Sure, it can seem like a lot to take in at points – but shouldn’t nuclear peril feel that way?
Minutes to Midnight does justice to the historical period it depicts by creating an atmosphere between players that’s tense as hell. It’s backed up by excellent gameplay and a depth that’s impressively immense without being completely overwhelming.
Designer: Brandon Tibbetts
Artist: James Colmer, Clay Gardner
Time: 2 hours
This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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