All you need to attract my attention is an utterance of three little words: Boelinger. Archipelago. Sequel. Everything else — the distant setting, the stock market, the expansions you can swap out to generate countless planets to explore — are really just icing.
Want to learn how to stop my attention dead in its tracks? Christophe Boelinger’s Living Planet knows the answer.
Repeat this mantra with me: “All suffering arises from expectations. Expectations are the little death that bring disappointment and endless bad cinema about how suburb-dwellers like me are secretly suffering. Although it’s tempting to spend the entire piece comparing Living Planet to Archipelago, I will reserve my comparisons as asides, not main talking points. In this way, expectations may wither and die. In this way, I will be free of hype.”
Say it ten more times and I might start believing it.
Archipelago was one of the first games that taught me what could be accomplished with cardboard. Not that it was a gateway game. Oh no. By the time it rolled around, I was firmly entrenched in the hobby. But it was one of the first that persuaded me that games could be more than playthings. This isn’t to say that Archipelago wasn’t playful. But it wasn’t merely playful. It was also about colonial atrocities and secret ambitions, about supplying people’s needs only because you didn’t want to have your throat cut by a machete in the middle of the night, about how exploration is so thrilling and so innate that it occasionally strikes certain pioneer spirits as a worthwhile endeavor, despite all hardships and all wrongdoings. I wrote about it six years ago, and not very eloquently. How time flies.
On the surface, Living Planet is very much the same game — except when I say “on the surface,” I mean on the surface. Everything under the hood is missing, and the wheels have been traded out for crowdsourced cinderblocks, and, you know what, even the surface-level ornamentation has been dinged and scratched in a fashion that appears deliberate. The result is an undoubtedly appealing game, in a flat space-rocks sort of way, with lovely production values and a pile of expansions. It could even be counted as a fairly good game, if meandering pacing and constant re-assessing of quantities are your jam. Nothing wrong with admitting it. Lots of people in this hobby love to tally resources and points and pips.
The problem, then, is that Living Planet misses almost entirely what made Archipelago special. All pretty on the outside. Within the confines of its box, no soul at all.
Here’s the gist. You’re a corporation mining a planet until it’s so ravaged that it fights back and is eventually depleted. According to the text, anyway. We’ll come around to that. In the meantime, picture little pioneer astronauts trudging across the landscape, adding new tiles and building bases, and occasionally getting melted by rogue geysers, all so their company can sell resources on the stock market, ideally before a crash nosedives the price. Bleak!
Right away, Living Planet is both smartly designed and a bit of a snooze. Take the initiative track. Every round opens with each corporation playing a card, numbered one through six, in order to determine the facing of their personal die. These dice are placed by the leader in any order of his choosing. This is an enviable task. It determines the play order, for one thing. It also doles out new resources based on which of your factories have matching numbers. But the third reason is more significant: because it shows which terrible events will soon occur on the planet’s surface. It’s a power akin to granting a god’s authority to the bratty son of a failed meteorologist.
These unfortunate oversights of interplanetary worker’s rights are major enough that we’ll return to them momentarily. For now, there are two takeaways. The first is that this system is a great match for Living Planet. It’s got promise and danger rolled into one, with some strong-arming for good measure. Want your buddy to get rumbled by two tornadoes and an earthquake before it’s his go? That’s your prerogative as leader. Consider accepting a bribe to let him go earlier.
The counterpoint, though, is that this process is pokey. The pacing is repeatedly flatlined while everybody decides which of their remaining cards to play, frets over which abilities to hold onto until it’s their turn as leader again, and cranes their necks to evaluate where all that round’s disasters will happen. Speed up at your own peril. Sometimes literally, since, once the map has expanded to an appreciable girth, it’s easy to overlook an icon or two. Even if you don’t, expect to spend a lot of time scanning the map and fretting over turn order.
This simultaneous cleverness and frustration soon spreads to the rest of Living Planet. Exploration is another example. In nearly an exact mirror of the process in Archipelago, you draw tiles and determine whether one of them matches any nearby terrain and the walking distance of your explorers. In a nice twist, the number of your selected die informs the efficacy of your actions; in this case, how many tiles you draw and how far an expensive rover can travel to discover it.
But for exploration to matter, there needs to be some sense of, well, exploration. The starting tileset in Living Planet is pretty much divided between two terrain types, colloquially called “rock” and “hard place.” No, not really. This game doesn’t have that sense of humor. Instead, it’s both trivially easy to find a terrain match and deflatingly dull at the same time. Tiles have building zones and disaster icons and… that’s it. No hope of discovering some game-altering wrinkle. No sentient life. Nothing besides more geysers and more slippery fault lines and more tornado warnings.
I’d say it settles into a rhythm, but the reality is closer to the nitty-gritty of exploration — less derring-do, more pulling a handcart out of a rut so you can get back to the ultra fun task of pulling a handcart across a dusty prairie. You explore outward, build structures, maintain those structures when a disaster breaks them, and repeat until you’ve collected enough resources to justify visiting the market. There are special buildings that protect other buildings for a cost, and others that let you trade more when you take the market action. For the most part, it’s as achingly flat as its landscape.
Except for the market itself, that is. Going to market is always a rush. You draw cards equal to your chosen die and pick one to nudge the market’s little resource cubes up or down in value. Then you buy or sell stuff. Sounds like a board game market, right? There’s a trick to it, though, because you want to boost your goods without raising their value too high. Go past ten and the track loops back down to one, like one of those ancient television knobs that only changed the channels in a circle. Worse, everybody is forced to sell all of their stockpiles of the crashed resource at its new price, counting pennies where once they could have earned heaps of cash. It’s entirely possible to screw somebody out of a win by busting the market at the right moment. That’s a definite perk.
Living Planet is filled to the brim with clever details like that. Sadly, nothing other than the market sticks the landing. Consider those expansion planets. As a pitch, the idea is stupendous: open a box, learn a short list of new rules, and now you’re exploring an entirely new place.
In practice, though, those new places look terribly similar to the first. Oh, there are differences. Even some improvements. One planet allows you to link buildings with pipelines, spurring cooperation and competition between blocs of players as they race to connect desirable structures. Another planet adds water and boats, which makes exploration tougher and getting around significantly more interesting — especially when your vessels sail by chasing a tornado instead of burning fuel. The last planet offers pockets of greenery, which of course are subject to wildfires, which of course of course can be blown into neighboring areas by tornadoes. Very nice.
But underneath all that makeup, Living Planet doesn’t actually come across as a new person. Nearly every revealed zone is as uniform as the last, offering foundations and threatening disasters, and that’s it. The core loop of exploration, building, harvesting, and maintaining hasn’t changed. It’s endured a subtle case of the hiccups. The same tricks still apply. The solutions haven’t changed. The best part is still when you crash the oil market when your buddy is holding five oil drums. And you’d be greedy to expect that more than once or twice per game.
It isn’t always easy to diagnose the reason behind a game’s mediocrity, especially when it’s designed with as much apparent cleverness as Living Planet. In this case, however, all symptoms point to Boring Ending Syndrome.
At the very least, unlike some of its cousins, there are mercifully few scoring categories. The lion’s share comes down to only two: money and bases. But as nice as it is to play a game where you don’t have to count up every single thing that has ever passed through your fingers, Living Planet is only as exciting as that raw estimation of your assets. Its predecessor added spice to what could have otherwise been a dry stick-picking exercise by providing hidden objectives. These not only offered goals — goals even your rivals could achieve, which necessitated some occasional misdirection — but also the triggers that would end the game. Archipelago’s colonial intruders therefore lived on the edge, always juggling long-term investments hand and immediate ploys. By contrast, Living Planet asks little. No need to watch your rivals like a hawk; glancing down at their factories will tell you almost everything you need to know. No need to worry about not getting another turn; the game will conclude in twelve rounds. Unless your group decides to switch to the truncated eight-round game halfway through. Ours did on one occasion.
No need, either, to expend much worry on Living Planet’s thematic implications. It’s clearly trying to offer a companion statement to Archipelago. Where that game placed its human needs front and center, with natives who demanded food and grumbled about rebellion, Living Planet is supposedly about strip-mining and waning resources. Colonialism, then, but on far-flung planets. To depict the effects of this abuse, each round finishes with the leader selecting one of the planet’s perishable resources to remove from the game. In theory, this removal is like digging a pound of flesh from a living host, killing the planet after too many cuts.
The problem with that theory — and by extension the entire thematic underpinning of the game — is that Living Planet doesn’t bother to reinforce its own message. Sure, certain resources grow more scarce; but that’s often advantageous, their value ticking upward on the track along with their rarity. Sure, there are disasters; but they didn’t start with your ransacking of the planet or grow more intense as prefabs crowded the landscape. Sure, your people are basically expendable; but they don’t protest their injuries and eventual deaths, or demand extra mushroom rations, or torch a factory in a socialist rage. Bad things happen regularly, but they’re happenstance, not consequence.
As I implied at the beginning, it’s impossible for me to evaluate Living Planet in a vacuum. Nor, I would contend, should it be. If it did something fresh and exciting, it might function as a tedious but clever game about gathering resources and paying to repair factory automation. Instead, it’s full of clever ideas but no idea of how to use them. Archipelago had problems of its own, yet still managed to be the more interactive, more evocative, and more opinionated of Boelinger’s games about exploitation. Without those advantages, I’m sad to say, this planet is anything but living.