Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Published by Walrus Ventures, Manipulate is a light Monopoly-level game with a high 'take that' element. Players (3–6) are spending cash to buy Ventures (think of them as start-up businesses) that earn them 'power' (victory points) and will pay them additional income in subsequent rounds. There's a set collection element, in that Ventures with matching symbols score bonus points, as do Ventures that happen to have a colour strip that matches yours. Players also get to play Favour cards that give them bonuses, attack other players (steal income from them) or give you immunity from attack. The more aggressive Favour cards force you to draw a Skeleton card: these are all negative, imposing point deductions and/or fines when they are revealed or at the end of the game.
The Manipulate board is really nothing more than an oversized score tracker. Manipulate is essentially a card game. You start with three randomly dealt Venture, three Favour and one Skeleton card. Each turn you choose which Venture and Favour cards to play from your hand, and you draw back up to three. That means the only reason not to play a Venture card is because you can't afford to pay its cost. There's more judgement involved in the push-your-luck decision over whether or not to play a Favour card to attack an opponent because you need to think twice before accumulating too many Skeleton cards; cumulatively they can have a big impact on end-game scoring.
With limited agency over your Ventures, game play is brisk. The practical difficulty players may have is in holding their hand of Venture and Favour cards: it's difficult to read the text on the cards while they are fanned in your hand. You'll get most out of the game by getting into role and making deals that go beyond the cards themselves. The rules actively encourage deal-making, bluff and bribery, and you'll find it more satisfying to take £100,000 from another player through threats and extortion than by actually slapping a negative Favour card on them. As the designers Henry Piechoczek and Josh Smith point out in the rules, the game is, after all, called Manipulate.
Our main issue with Manipulate is that it's highly random. The die that comes in the box is only used to determine initial turn order and to resolve the Favour cards offering a 50/50 gamble. It's the cards themselves that are overly random. You can pick up a Venture card that costs £400K to activate and yields £80K per turn in additional income, but an opponent could pick up a Venture card that costs nothing to activate and yields an income each turn of £100K. Admittedly, the higher cost/lower return card delivers more power points, but, particularly early on in the game, the cash advantage of a low cost/high yield card hugely outweighs the points advantage of more expensive cards that can only be played by committing your entire wealth. Anyway, there's never any downside to playing a low-cost Venture card because you always fully replenish your hand.
We liked Manipulate's high interaction but we were disappointed that victory or loss was so dependent on, quite literally, the luck of the draw. Our review team were all convinced there was a better game in there waiting to break out of the box. For example, you might want to experiment with house ruling a variant where players draft the Venture cards instead of just drawing them...