Turns out 2013 is one hell of a year to be playing board games. Back in March, I wrote about a game called Kemet that I assumed would be one of the best titles of the year — and it turns out it still is, though now it has a competitor in the form of Archipelago, the latest from designer Christopher Boelinger. Now, maybe at this very instant you’re muttering that Archipelago technically released in 2012, but I have two counters for that: one, I had no idea this gem even existed, and we’ve always run things on our own time here at Space-Biff!, and two, if you knew that off the top of your head, why are you even reading this review? Surely you know it’s amazing by now? Why don’t you go play it instead of hassling unpaid board game reviewers?
Anyway, Kemet and Archipelago would be about as different as two games could be if it weren’t for precisely two similarities. For one thing, both force their players to ration a limited pool of actions like precious canteens of water in the desert; and for another, they’re both determined to make you despise your friends for the evening. This time around though, it’ll be because your best friend just swindled you out of a bumper pineapple crop. That little turd.
Turn Zero. After starting together on the open sea with just one cramped galleon per player, everybody sets sail to uncharted new lands, uncovering swaths of coastline dripping with resources and full to the brim with friendly natives offering gifts to their new neighbors. There are plenty of spots to choose from, packed with fields of exotic fruits, endless rich pastures, and bottomless quarries of stone and ore. It’s untapped land, limitless potential a mere finger’s thickness beneath the soil, and it gladly adopts your first pair of citizens.
And if you had any idea what you were competing over, you might even be able to make an educated guess about which region to settle. Unfortunately, you aren’t sure what this game of Archipelago is all about — and I don’t mean you. What I mean is that nobody knows what an individual game of Archipelago will be about, because each game is wildly unique.
Only after the initial islands have been placed and everyone is settled in are the game’s objectives made clear. First there’s a Trend card, one per game, representing your government’s standing orders for this colony. Sometimes the monarchs back home have an appetite for ore, as in the picture above; other times it’s a hunger for other resources, or the spread of your religion, or plundered coin, or a strong population. Certain bizarro kingdoms just want you to be good to one another and pitch in when crises arise. Probably the Dutch.
Next, everyone gets an Objective card to hold in secret. These announce two things: not only the other ways to pick up victory points at the end of the game, but also when the game will end. For instance, the above picture shows an Objective that tells us the game ends when a certain number of towns have been founded, and gives points to those who have picked up (and held onto) the most exploration tokens.
Because of these Objectives, one of the profoundest elements in any game of Archipelago is uncertainty. When your wife suddenly gobbles up half the available stockpile of beef, is it because she’s making a move to fulfill her hidden objective? Or is she bluffing because she’s noticed how much attention you’re paying to her actions? Even when you’re reasonably sure you’ve got your opponents figured out, you also need to assess whether you have the time to go after that supposed objective, because you’re already running a handful of long-term schemes and the game could end at any minute. While other games are humane enough to tell you when the fight is over, Archipelago’s goal is to transform you into a quivering, confused, paranoid mess.
The Circle of Life, Unemployment, Unrest, and Pineapple
I would have said that everything in Archipelago affects every other thing, but that’s not really the case — it’s more a matter of every single thing reaching out and slapping everything else silly, all the time.
The beauty of Archipelago is that all its many bits and boards work together so logically that it never feels overwhelming. Two market boards might seem excessive at first, but the interrelation between domestic goods and exports allows for all sorts of market bullying, get-rich-quick schemes, and potential disaster. A board for tracking unemployment sounds like the dullest thing to ever make it into a board game, but it’s tied to the unrest of the natives which in turn is tracked alongside the population on the colony stability board, all of which feed dangerous data into each other.
In one recent game, our markets had become crippled through oversaturation — we’d sold so many resources both domestically and to our empire back home that the price of goods was floored and unemployment was skyrocketing. Because of our wanton moneygrubbing, we couldn’t squeeze any more profit from our endless farms and mines and mills, and the unemployment board was filled with dissatisfied natives, who in turn were venting their anger onto the colony stability board and threatening to slit our throats in our sleep. It was, as the Spanish say, quite the pickle.
We unified just long enough to avert disaster. We bought up piles of cheap resources we didn’t need. We hired local labor instead of giving our colonists permission to get jiggy and pop out new workers for free. We hired professionals, like the Minister of Commerce who helped us juggle resources between the domestic and export markets, or the Archbishop who used our churches as headquarters for persuading the natives that murdering their white benefactors was decidedly un-Christian, and the Minister of Labor who came up with creative ways to put people to work. We instituted policies of education, put on shows in amphitheaters, and laid off our usual shadowy actions like thieving and piracy to set a good example.
In the end, it worked — just long enough for one player to announce the end of the game and sweep the victory points because it turned out all those churches and professionals had been part of his plan all along. The git.
One of the greatest things about Archipelago is that when my group of friends talk about it, they use a vocabulary full of restless natives, depressed markets, and how they invented Thanksgiving to make peace with the former despite the latter. They don’t discuss colored cubes or meeples or hexes or cards. They don’t talk about it in terms of components and mechanics, because Archipelago is a monstrous theme-mechanics treadmill that’s always feeding back into itself, each rule making so much thematic sense that to discuss the narrative is to discuss the mechanics.
Exploration is risky, for instance. It’s one of the few actions that can end in utter failure, wasting one of your severely limited actions in the process. When it succeeds, however, you’ve not only claimed new lands and gained some enviable prestige; you’ve also tricked the natives into gifting you their valuables, and their entire perception of the world is changed as they join the pool of surplus workers ready to be taken advantage of by calculating European powers.
Taxes are another example. It’s far easier to tax the populace than it is to actually build markets and ports and try to shuffle resources around for a profit — except that taxation will really tick off your population and increase unrest, and annoy your fellow players with your costly profit at the same time.
You’re never just taking a “recruitment action” — you’re hiring laborers from a tangible source and dealing with the consequences, for better or for worse. You’re exploring unknown lands, brutally taxing your subjects, establishing seats of power, resolving resource crises to prevent rebellion, instituting policies and hiring talent. Or, possibly most abusive of all, forcing the natives to build you a massive golden pyramid just so you can sit atop it looking very superior.
Fear the Natives
While everybody is bustling to pick up the most victory points, watching each other like hawks and obfuscating their own plans to the best of their ability, someone might be playing a different game entirely. Instead of holding a regular Objective card, they might be sitting on one of two other options that are tucked into the deck like asps in a barrel of asp-like apples.
The nicer one is the Pacifist. He gets a bunch of extra victory points if your colony’s unrest is significantly lower than the population level — and since these points aren’t available to anyone else, it’s actually in everyone else’s best interests to stir up a bit of trouble each round instead of just keeping unrest suppressed altogether. Anyone being too nice to the natives is immediately suspect.
Worse, there’s also a Separatist. This bastard’s goal is to make your colony collapse to rebellion, doing everything in his power to foment dissent, increase unemployment, tax the locals until they grumble, and be the nastiest, most self-absorbed jerk possible. And, ideally, persuade everyone else at the table that he’s just that selfish. Or that stupid.
Neither of these special cards will show up in any given game, but they hang over each match like an oppressive cloud, adding a healthy dose of suspicion even in their absence.
Emphasize the “Semi” in “Semi-Cooperative”
Even when things are running smoothly and there isn’t a dirty pacifist or traitorous separatist in sight (not that you’d know), Archipelago is a natural when it comes to encouraging its players to screw each other over. True, there isn’t any “direct” conflict involving cannons or salting one another’s banana fields, but bribery, lies, traded favors, and reneged deals are the spice that makes life in the Caribbean so delicious. Except when it’s scalding, that is.
Each game seems to bring an accompanying shortage of some resource, and in one recent game the sparsity of exotic fruit meant that even a solitary pineapple farm could bring a tidy profit if locked down. In a strange twist of fortunes, both my wife Somerset and my friend Geoff came to occupy the sole region to boast two such farms, and their decades-long mutualism began to unravel as they clashed over who got first access to the fruit. Neither managed to win the turn order bid, so both offered increasingly exorbitant bribes to the winner to appoint them second. The bribes not only grew more valuable, but more elaborate, full of promises that each would turn over their “first-born pineapple,” future favors, and promises of marriage (“Humph,” I grumbled when my wife offered to leave me for the opportunity to pick up two green eurocubes). Turns out Geoff had more to offer, and while he enjoyed a turn of glorious pineapple trading to a starved market, Somerset was busy scheming. Over her next couple actions, she harvested seemingly useless stone and wood, neither of which were worth very much on either the domestic or export markets, and then used those to set up a town — which as long as she garrisoned, established her as the sole owner of that region. From then on, anyone hoping for so much as a whiff of a pineapple required her say-so, and of course she wasn’t in a generous mood when Geoff came around asking for access on the next round.
That’s just one example of how very un-cooperative this semi-cooperative game can become — in the interests of not being boring, I’m not even going to go into the finagling behind solving crises, setting up trading schemes, or using other players’ characters and policies to your own advantage. Suffice it to say, your factions might be on the same side, but with friends like these, who needs bloodthirsty natives?
I’ve left out one thing that bears mentioning, though I’m sure you’ve picked up on it: Archipelago contains all sorts of controversial subject matter, and it only gets worse once one of your friends proudly announces that he’s figured out a way to institute both slavery and education reforms in order to get his people to work harder while also not rebelling. There’s no denying that some of the topics here will be uncomfortable for some people. Hell, it could have been entitled European Exploitation: The Game. If you feel like you’d be offended by the fact that you’re often working to take ruthless advantage of helpless people for the profit of your empire back home, avoid Archipelago. Might I recommend Kemet instead?
For everyone else, this is a brilliant game. Its mechanics follow a pitch-perfect internal logic that make it simple to learn even though you’re always keeping track of a dozen things, the mounting nervousness as the game reaches an uncertain conclusion is thick and thrilling, and it’s absolutely gorgeous to boot. I picked it up on a whim because of its questionable subject matter, and I’m glad I did, because Archipelago is one of the best games I’ve played this year.