Friends are good for many things. Friends bring you a McDonald’s Wrap of the Day when you’re feeling too lazy to cook. Friends remind you of that thing you did the last time you were drunk (yes, that one). But most importantly, friends know each other. As you can imagine, any game which actively encourages you to lie, cheat and steal from your friends soon descends into an excess of blagging, doubt and suspicion. Manipulate is one such a game, and it’s brilliant in every way.
The Art of Manipulation
In Manipulate, three to six players compete for Power by making deals, setting up Ventures, playing Favours and attempting to burn the Skeletons in their closet. Tracked on the ‘Road to Power’ in the centre of the game board, Power equates to victory points.
To increase your Power, players must invest in Ventures: business opportunities with a satirical edge, such as a propaganda newspaper company called ‘The Daily Whisper’. These Ventures cost a certain amount of money to set-up, but reward players with a one-time boost to their Power, as well as increasing their income earned each turn. Players can use Favours, to either buff themselves or mess with others, with these cards ranging from doubling your own income to revealing an opponent’s Skeletons. These Skeletons are memories of a player’s bad deeds, and can be accrued by playing underhanded favours with the Skeleton symbol. When revealed, Skeletons incur harsh penalties to Power or income.
At the beginning of the game, each player chooses from one of six different characters, ranging from a Media Mogul to the Head of Police. These characters each come with a choice of their own unique Super Favours: one-time use cards with incredibly powerful effects such as stealing half a player’s money.
Each character also has a set of specifically coloured Ventures to seek out and collect. The Media Mogul, for example, seeks grey, news-related ventures, with the amount of Power gained from these at the end of the game increasing exponentially with the amount of matching Ventures players collect. Furthermore, though it was not present in the prototype, more generic white cards will also have specific symbols tying them together into sets, encouraging players to seek out these as well.
Having chosen their character, each player is then given £300,000 to start the game, drawing three Ventures, three Favours and a Skeleton. Having decided player order on a dice roll, players start their turns by gaining income. With no Ventures to increase this amount to start with, players earn a base income of £100,000. Players can then play any amount of Ventures and Favours, or make deals for the rest of their turn. They can also discard a combination of up to two unwanted Ventures or Favours, redrawing at the end of the turn.
Play advances this way until a recommended eight rounds, however, playing until one player reaches 99 Power and declaring that the final round is an equally good method.
At the end of the game, players consult the Road to Power to see how much Power they have earned over the course of the game and then apply any bonuses they have earned. For each £100,000 players have at the end of the game they earn an additional one Power, as well as the Power earned through white Venture sets and their specific colour Ventures. Once all has been tallied, the player with the most Power wins.
Stealing and Dealing
It is through the art of deals where Manipulate truly shines, crucial to the game’s success is the amount of freedom players receive. Players are allowed to deal how they wish, and, thankfully, Manipulate allows player carte blanche. Any type of deal can be struck, with the exception of trading Super-Favours, Power or Skeletons. As such, deals can range from trading Ventures, selling a Venture for cash, or exchanging regular Favours.
However, deals can also take a darker turn: threatening a player to hand over a Venture in exchange for you not revealing their skeletons; establishing a truce with another player so you can team up against the current winner. If you can think it, you can deal it.
However, the true stroke of genius is that all deals are binding. What this means is that you can lie, lie and lie again. Propose a mutually beneficial deal of a Venture you need for a Venture another player needs? Excellent. But perhaps you never had the Venture they needed in the first place, trading them an unhelpful Favour in return. Or, perhaps your threat of stealing an opponent’s Venture is nothing but a bluff: it falls on your own powers of manipulation to succeed. I remember in one of my own games that my deals started honest so as to win over my friends’ trust. Once that was established, my truly manipulative side was unleashed.
To Manipulate, or not to Manipulate?
Manipulate truly is extraordinary. What Walrus Ventures Ltd. have done with their game is provide a framework for players to run amok within. But even better, the game itself is surprisingly simple. Set-up takes only five minutes, with the board taking up little space compared to other games of its potential length. By trusting the players to embrace manipulation, the game succeeds in encouraging free thinking and improvisation.
In truth, I cannot remember having a more fun board gaming experience from the very first play-through in a long time. Manipulate asks ‘are you playing or being played?’. Having tested it multiple times I can now definitively answer. I am playing, and will be for a long time to come.