WBG Score: 7/10
Player Count 2-5
Published by: SchilMil Games, Ltd.
What is it about ships that get me excited! I love all things nautical, but sadly get very easily get sea sick! So, a board game version is right up my street! Or canal, should I say?
Manifest pits rival players against each other, in a Ticket to Ride style race to complete contract cards. Traversing the worlds oceans, picking up cargo and passengers and taking them to their required destinations. Like Ticket to Ride, it is a very simple game. But highly addictive!
Manifest has a gorgeous board. It shows a map of the world and the available shipping lanes and ports that you can sail to and from. Lay this out, stare at it for 5-10 minutes, then discuss places you have been too, want to go to, and generally enjoy yourselves for a bit. This isn't in the official rules for some reason, clearly an oversight. But does comes highly recommenced from WBG. Once that is done, give each player their chosen player board depicting their two ships and you can begin the game, but feel free to continue any residue conversations inspired by the stunning map of our beautiful world.
Each player gets their starting cards for the deck building mode, or some randomly dealt actions cards if not. More on that later. Three contracts cards are then dealt to each player. One contract with a value of one, one at two, and a final one with a value of three. Players can chose to keep two of these and will then place their two Ships onto the board at any port of their choice based on which contracts they are going to start with. The discarded contracts are placed face up on the board, next to the face down contract pile. These are open contracts that any one can fulfill on a first come first served basis.
On your turn, players can play as many cards as they like from their hand and then draw back up to four in the normal game, or three when using the deck building cards. Each card can be used for one of three different actions. Firstly as money, to buy goods when at port, or buying new contract cards to try and complete. Secondly, as movement points, to change your ships location on the board, (ship movement noises optional, but encouraged). Or finally as the special action shown as text on the card. Special actions range from attacking other ships on the board, defending yourself against attacks on your ship, increasing movement, and many more.
You can combine cards together to increase your movement or money available, and play as many cards as you like. Turns will be quick, and you will find that you can move around the board quicker than you might have thought. I found two player games to take just 30 minutes, and three to five player games generally over between 45-60 minutes. But this does depend on how long you want to play more than anything else.
At the start of the game, depending on your player count and desired game length, you can set an end game points total to aim for. Once this total is hit by one player, all players then have one more turn and the game ends. As such, you can make this game last as long as you wish. Everything is infinitely salable. You could play for ever in theory.
This game does not have any huge pay offs. But it does give all players regular, and constant moments of satisfaction. Completing contracts feels good. You can mark them off as done, hand over the desired cargo and or goods by returning them to general supply and move your newly completed contract to another part of the table. This feels good. If you are the sort of person that likes to create lists, mainly so you can tick things off later as it makes you feel good about yourself, this game may be for you!
One very simple way to amend this game is to give out one of the above cards to each player at the start of the game. They give out some minor asymmetric powers that are all very self explanatory, easy to use, but quite beneficial within the game. Some of the action cards allow for these player powers to be swapped during the game. If you do get one that you are not happy about, or cannot use as much, there are opportunities to change that. I introduced them from game one, and wouldn't ever see a reason to play without these.
The deck building cards I brought in from game two, and again, wouldn't now play without them. They fully replace the action cards. With the deck building cards, each player will begin the game with the same cards in their own colour. Each player will shuffle and deal three to themselves. There is a deck of other cards that players can buy for three dollars on their turn, and for an extra dollar, discard a current card when they do this. The game completely changes into a deck-building experience which I love.
Acquiring a new card that allows you to move six spaces, and then being able to use that a turn or two later to get you through a tricky situation feels great. Your power increases. Your ability to carry out more complex contracts at greater speeds improves. All this feels highly rewarding as all good deck-builders should.
Moving around the board generally is a calm affair. There is the odd take-that power, but I found we generally favored the money or movement action on the cards over the text powers, take-that or not. As such the game did become a little solitaire. It was more a race to the end game points target. A satisfactory race, but lacking a little in interaction. It does irk me a little when interaction in games often leads to take -that. I do wonder why it cannot be more mutually beneficial. It's not just that I, as some others would agree, don't want to negatively affect other players around the table, especially when playing with my children, but I don't want to waste a valuable turn hurting someone else, when I could be helping myself instead.
But you won't always have it your own way. The red routes on the board, which offer significant short cuts if you take them, represent an area of Ocean or Sea patrolled by Pirates. When you chose this way, you must roll the two dice to see what fate awaits you.
If either dice face shows a number then the corresponding hold on your ship is emptied of any goods stowed there, but you can then sail on. If you roll the life preserver you are safe. If you roll two Jolly Roger symbols then your entire boat is sunk, all goods are lost, and you must remove the boat from the board. Don't worry, you can add it back safe and sound anywhere on the board on your next turn, but it is annoying! Dice used in this way represents a huge element of luck that can change the course of the game, but there is something you can do to prep for this, using the pirate defense card.
There is some jeopardy here if you don;t have this card, but you can always carry two items when you only need one, to prep for any pirate attack losses. I found the Pirate routes ended up being actually useful as a way to try and get rid of unwanted items you may have picked up to try and complete an open contract, but missed out on. The only way you can offload items if not completing a contact is to stop at a port and pay a dollar to offload. This is annoying and feels inefficient to me. I prefer running the pirate gauntlet and hoping they would steal from me the things I didn't want! It felt naughty, like I was cheating the game! But it is mentioned in the rules as a recommended tactic.
Overall, I really enjoy playing Manifest. I like the feeling of "being at sea," and the romance and adventure this brings. The game certainly feels like that. In truth, I admit I don't have to dress up in my sailor costume every game, but it does help!
I like the option to play with or without the deck-building element. As I say, I don't think I will ever play again without it, even when teaching new players the game, it is simple enough with it and does make it a better experience. But I like the option. It feels less luck based and more rewarding when you're planning and manipulating your deck. When it is your deck that has got you to where you want to be, it just feels better. Like your earned it more.
If you are looking for a family level gateway game like Ticket to Ride, and like the nautical theme, then I don't think you can ask for much more than Manifest. It has the right balance of game length, rules, strategy, and theme to be a perfect family experience.