Designer: Christophe Boelinger
Publisher: Asmodee, Ludically
“He’s crossed all the oceans all around the world.” ―William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Archipelago is an obtuse, conflicted, and wildly engaging Euro game full of chaos and caustic judgment. On the surface it feels like a stream of consciousness design with mechanical quip and obfuscated layers making the journey more difficult than necessary. The truth is, Archipelago is spiritually the board game equivalent of a William Faulkner novel, with its unrelenting prose proving a forest upon your path. Like much of Faulkner’s work, beyond the outright chaos and seeming hodge-podge is a deep and enrapturing experience that is exceptionally enjoyable and surprisingly focused.
This is a Euro game as only Christophe Boelinger could fashion. The philosophy behind the design unsurprisingly mirrors the ideology present in its Ameritrash brother Earth Reborn. Layered mechanics give way to depth and are integrated in a streamlined fashion which beckons you to return again and again. One could posit that Boelinger is cut from the same cloth as Phil Eklund, although the former’s games tend to have a greater degree of coherency and direction that elevate them to a level of grandeur rather than toil in a realm of overwhelming difficulty.
Archipelago can be dissected into 3 vital organs and spheres of interaction that form the guts of the title. The Action Wheel provides for the turn to turn momentum and pace of player manipulation as each participant places action disks worker placement style. The hex board is built as players branch out and explore, discovering new vistas and resources to exploit. The final and most powerful element is the market system which dictates the vitality and health of the raging economic undercurrent that players interact with on a constant basis. All of these are nuanced and developed, comprising fleshed out interfaces to manipulate and be manipulated by.
The Action Wheel is made up of a plethora of spaces for players to utilize. Each player takes a turn placing one of their action disks (workers) and then executing the corresponding action. Actions are tight and you will often want to accomplish much more than you are afforded. Options include harvesting resources, constructing buildings, taxing the locals, birthing or hiring additional workers, and exploring. Most actions are pretty straightforward and indicative of the typical fare. Exploration is the most fascinating and reminiscent of Boelinger’s search mechanic from the earlier mentioned Earth Reborn. When you explore you may either take the top tile from the stack or the tile beneath it. Tiles are double sided and you are able to attempt to place either side, but you can only see the top-most face which is readily visible. The difficulty arises in that tile placement is restricted based on respecting land features – so a mountain must connect to a mountain, sea to sea, and so on. So, when presented with the desire to explore but the only visible tile face is not currently place-able, do you take that risk and go with the tile below it? If you fail, then your entire action is wasted. This is a chief example of that aforementioned chaotic current interwoven throughout the game that forcefully shoves the design in the opposite direction of its genre associates. The risk/tension is fascinating and in no way feels tacked onto the game or shoddy.
One of the most interesting elements of the Action Wheel is the fact that some spaces allow only limited placement while others permit freedom of being able to be repeatedly selected. There is no limit to the number of people that can harvest Exotic Fruit, but if you want to explore you are only able to place your disk on the space marked with your color. Once you have done this, you may explore with a subsequent action by placing your action disk on one of the multi-color spaces, as long as they haven’t already been occupied. This hybrid of limited and free action selection adds to the tightrope struggle of balance embedded in the design’s nature. While this intrinsic elegance is belied by the cluttered and busy graphic design of the Action Wheel, the simplicity and strategic engagement rises to the surface quickly upon engaging.
The map is built of these hexes that players explore and place, branching out and taking shape like watching a map being charted by a cartographer in accelerated real-time. The tiles themselves are beautiful and a joy to gaze upon, erecting a flourishing portrait as players place Citizens, Buildings, and Boats on the map, giving life to a newfound culture sprouting from its energetic roots. The map is perhaps the most forgiving element of the design as you can readjust, move, and shift focus all at the cost of an action or two. Placement of your Citizens and the tiles themselves due limit you in scope, but the game offers enough breadth of strategy that you can often make do no matter the draw.
Gorgeous artwork sets the backdrop for the Archipelago.
If there is one key force touching nearly all elements of this game it is the market system. The system is comprised of the Domestic and Export markets, each containing stockpiles of the main resources in the game: Fish, Wood, Stone, Iron, Exotic Fruit, and Cattle. Players guide this capitalist system by purchasing from and selling to each. The markets are also shifted in quantity when Crises arise on a turn by turn basis where both the locals and foreign homelands demand goods be provided. Players must take turns either meeting this demand from the corresponding market, or by providing their own resources to quench the thirst. Failure to do so results in the rise of Unrest.
Unrest is the main fixture in placing this game firmly in the camp of Semi-Cooperative. A population chart keeps track of the total number of player Citizens (meeples) on the board, as well as the rising Unrest which equates to the local populace’s broiling anger and approaching civil disobedience. If Unrest ever passes the population marker then the colony falls into open revolt and the game immediately ends with all players losing. It’s brutal and un-remitting causing all members at the table to continually monitor the rising tide of revolution.
The markets themselves also mettles with Unrest via taking stock of certain supply levels. Once each turn you will check both the Domestic and Foreign markets, and if enough stock exists (meaning the island is oversupplied) the island-wide unemployment will rise giving way to eventual Unrest. It’s an ebb and flow that requires give and take as you don’t want the markets to become oversaturated with goods, but you also don’t want them emptied so that you can’t satisfy the continually occurring Crises. This is inexplicably fascinating and the most enjoyable and alluring aspect of the design. Throughout play I find myself thinking about the impact of our actions on the market which are typically subtle and sometimes difficult to puzzle out. All of this in combination gives it a sort of living and dynamic feel that is prevalent and immediate.
While it is exceedingly easy to get lost in all of these textured modules the end game is ultimately to score the most victory points by satisfying objectives. Objectives deal with having the most of a resource, having the most of a certain building, possessing the most money, etc. These objectives are randomly included in the game in one of two ways. The first being the Trend card, which is a public objective everyone can see. It sort of determines a general need and inclination that most players will want to gun for. Secondly, each player is dealt a Hidden Objective card of a similar nature. Each player’s hidden objective is functionally identical to a Trend card and ALL players can score off it at end game. The catch is of course that you don’t know what objectives your opponent’s possess so you will have to deduce from their actions and tendencies what they are trying to accumulate. I first experienced this idea in Troyes and it appeals to the deduction fan inside of me. It’s a nice clever way to add a bit of depth and color to the game.
This also brings us to the most controversial aspect of the game, which is the Semi-Cooperative element. One of the hidden objective cards is a traitor card, which allows the player to win if the game is lost due to rebellion. This births an insipid atmosphere of questioning other players if they don’t contribute to the crisis, or if they sell a bit too much Cattle overwhelming the market. It aligns perfectly with the fact that players don’t exactly know how well they are doing in terms of end game scoring due to the hidden objectives of the other players. This natural paranoia is a balancing factor in combination with the hidden scoring facet to incentivize all players to stick out the game and feel like they possess a real shot at victory. If a player does get battered down and believes he is in a horrible position, it is up to the other players at the table to bribe him into contributing positively towards the colony’s health, utilizing the game’s penchant for negotiation. There’s this lively yet biting undercurrent of tension and give and take in direct parallel to the market system that flows naturally from the hidden objectives and unwieldy Unrest. Sometimes it feels like it’s hanging together by rubber bands and duct tape but it ultimately works and the game is better for it.
Archipelago is a game to be studied, ruminated, and played. Its depth is in proper accordance to its density and the reward of breaking through to the other side is commensurate of the impact of Miss Quentin stealing Jason’s money and running away alongside the man with the red tie. “The Sound and the Fury” isn’t for everybody, and neither is Archipelago. Both have a solid and eternal place in my heart.