Alone Time: Solopelago
Greetings, fellow lonely boardgamers! Now now, before you wind your typewriters for the composition of strongly-worded letters (in my imagination, your typewriters are electric but powered by treadle), I realize this issue of Alone Time is over a month late. Worse yet, the content isn’t even original — I talked about the rather-fantastic Archipelago a mere couple weeks ago, and here I am caught on repeat.
Still, this is an experience any self-respecting solo boardgamer ought to know about, because it turns out that one of the freshest recent multiplayer boardgames is also one of the freshest recent solo games to hit the market. Once you pick up the Solo Expansion, anyway.
I know what a couple of you are thinking: “Why should I have to buy an expansion to turn this into a solo game?”
Normally, I’d be right there with you, torch and pitchfork firmly in hand. Except in this case, I’m actually fairly pleased with Archipelago’s Solo Expansion. Frankly, it’s kind of like we just stormed a haunted castle and now its monstrous lord is being lifted up by a godly shaft of light and turning into a handsome prince who’s only just learned the meaning of true love, and it’s dawning on us that we’re the bigoted townsfolk from Beauty and the Beast and boy do we look jerky right about now.
Unlike those horrid villagers, we’ve got an excuse. A long string of them, in fact. Any solo gamer can rant at length about boardgames that boast “solo play,” only it turns out they’re regular cooperative games that work with one guy marginally less than they do with two to four, or tacked-on “solo rules” paragraphs hidden at the end of rulebooks. We’re used to dropping money on boxes that promise “1-4” players but fail to deliver a compelling experience for a gentleman (or gentlelady) hoping to enjoy a few hours of well-deserved alone time. We’ve suffered, and we expect to suffer again. It’s no fault of our own if we’ve become a touch cynical.
What I’m here to tell you is that this expansion is neither a thinned-out cooperative game or a half-assed new ruleset — if either were the case, I’d be rightly pissed off about spending fifteen bucks for a deck of 33 cards, six of which are the rules in three languages. Instead, it’s a tiny Pandora’s Box that transforms a fantastic game about driving bad bargains with your friends into a compelling puzzle game about beating one of 27 vastly different scenarios.
For today’s demonstration, I enlisted the help of our friendly Space-Biff! cameraman Steve, who has never before played a solo boardgame but readily agreed because he’s a fan of vanilla Archipelago.
We selected scenario #19, Chef Tête á Terre, the anarchist. This handsome devil’s lifelong aspiration seems a bit contradictory, but he looks to be missing a couple strata from his seven layer dip, so we won’t hold it against him. See, his goal is to guide a couple European colonists from their humble stranded position in the desert with just a few florins to their name, to the foundation and growth of a bustling colony — against which Chef Tête will incite feelings of righteous anarchist unrest. Not too soon, however, because although he wants the grumpiest population possible, he doesn’t want an actual uprising. Probably because the natives would lop off his head in the process.
Steve’s two colonists begin in the desert, an unfortunate tile with no resources but plenty of unemployed labor, and with only three florins to his name.
In the interests of not repeating myself, I’m not going to explain all the mechanics of Archipelago — though of course, feel free to read my review of the vanilla game. Suffice it to say, much of the gameplay in both Archipelago and the Solo Expansion is about striking a delicate balance between competing elements. For instance, there are two market boards, domestic and explort, and selling the resources you’ve exploited from the natives is one of the best ways of earning money. However, sell too much and a surplus will result in unemployment and anger. Similarly, taxing your population will bring in a quick revenue stream that doesn’t require any harvesting, but it sure makes your people upset. The same goes for high unemployment, which is best offset by hiring workers at cost rather than just permitting your colonists to reproduce and create new laborers for free. Even seemingly harmless actions like exploring new territories introduces more native communities to your culture, along with the long-term threat of rebellion they bring with them. Basically, every decision in Archipelago is quasi-Newtonian: for every action there is an opposite reaction, but I’ll be damned if it’s equal.
Since Steve needs desperately to get out of the desert, he spends much of his first two rounds exploring and happily accepting the peace offerings bestowed by the natives he encounters. His colonists take some alone time of their own to rear families, then sell their pineapple on the export market to make a decent amount of florins, then hire some of the natives they’ve encountered who in turn work harvesting more pineapple. By the end of the second round, he’s formed a decent colony with a good number of workers and a reliable source of income.
Unfortunately, on the third round this little paradise begins to unravel. An exploratory expedition fails to discover a stretch of coastline with fish — fish that are needed to help establish a port, which will bring greater profits and opportunities for growth. Another expedition succeeds, but only in uncovering a vast and useless forest. On the following round, two more expeditions succeed, but again, not in finding fish. Increasingly desperate for cash, Steve levies taxes against his people, and the resulting unrest is close on the heels of his tiny population.
If you’re familiar with Archipelago, you might be wondering why Steve is having money problems at all. Since there are no players to bargain about turn order with, no victory points to worry about, and since growth relies more on resources than money, shouldn’t he be fine?
The answer is two of the Solo Expansion’s cleverer mechanics. When putting together the solo rules, Christophe Boelinger knew that every possible scenario could be easily accomplished with a little patience, so he installed a scoring system that requires players to accomplish their goal as fast as possible to earn the gold or silver trophy. Secondly, to add a constant sense of pressure, a player must purchase an evolution card every turn or lose the game. Suddenly, you need to worry about resources, unemployment, unrest, and a steady flow of gold to ensure you have enough left over at the end of the turn to buy a card.
In Steve’s case, he’s hired a Minister of Commerce who he’s put to work transferring pineapple from the export to the domestic market, which means he can keep on selling pineapple at a premium each turn instead of suffering the gradual price decrease. His Financial Advisor returns interest on what gold Steve’s stored up, he’s built a Farm that will help him if he can ever find cattle to raise, and he’s instituted a policy of Local Commerce that lets him take a free transaction on the local market without spending one of his precious limited action discs each round. And on round five, as unemployment continues to soar and he races to hire (and breed) more workers and to keep the natives from rising up, he has a good stroke of luck in hiring a Missionary, who can instantly convert some of the natives in newly-explored lands.
Unfortunately, the next round is marked by two crises. Not only has the domestic market been so saturated with pineapple that even more local jobs are lost — which in turn boosts unrest to critical levels — but the people have a demand. And it’s a bad demand. A really shitty demand.
Since Steve has completely failed at finding any fish, and since he’s already spent all the goodwill earned by making contact with native tribes on the crises of previous rounds, every single citizen in the colony rebels. Now the murmurs of uprising swell into a roar, and the colony collapses. We imagine the end is accompanied by lots and lots of bloodshed.
The first thing out of Steve’s mouth is an announcement that he’s going to try again, that he can do better. Because that’s what Archipelago and the Solo Expansion do to you. It’s a bracing, gripping exercise, one that will leave you wondering how you could have optimized your colony’s performance just that little bit better, how you could have saved your colonists from getting their throats cut in the night.
If I had one complaint, it’s that earning gold or silver trophies on some of the medium and short scenarios doesn’t seem possible in the slightest.
But considering how otherwise tight an experience this is, that’s a mild complaint. I recommend this. I recommend this a lot.