Ben McJunkin: Review of Archipelago

Designer: Christopher Boelinger
Publisher: Ludically
Players: 1-5 | Ages: 12+ | Time: 30-180 mins

This is the story of Archipelago: you begin with little, in an unknown land and with an uncertain future. Slowly your path takes shape. You explore, expand, reproduce. You build . . . something (not an empire, really, but it’s yours). Quash a rebellion, solve a crisis. As others do the same, your paths intersect — sometimes coexist, sometimes collide. The ends of the earth are established. The direction of history’s march revealed. And then it’s over.

This is the story of Archipelago: Christopher Boelinger, the creative mind behind such thematic games as Earth Reborn and Dungeon Twister, tried his hand at a (mostly) traditional Eurogame. I was intrigued, but highly skeptical; content to ignore the project altogether, that I didn’t may have been the best things to happen to me this year. Boelinger’s Eurogame is lumpy, awkward, subversive, and extraordinary. It comes together in unexpected ways, then comes apart at the seams from time to time. For me, it has been a revelation.

This is the story of Archipelago.

I. Two Men In A Boat

In other corners of the internets, I have spoken in-depth on my appreciation for games that successfully employ theme as a metaphor for sound mechanical gameplay. By that I refer to games that draw upon our understanding of, and our intuitions about, the game’s subject matter in order to make rules more accessible to the players, and to distinguish good choices from bad. (As an example, a game that involves “feeding” one’s “family” may be mechanically indistinguishable from a game that involves “training” one’s “workforce,” yet the former theme connotes a necessity to the action, while the latter seems to imply a cost/benefit choice.)

Archipelago is perhaps the first game I have encountered that turns the theme-as-metaphor notion on its head. Ostensibly, Archipelago is an exploration game. Appropriately, it starts small. Players begin the game with two men, a boat, and a bit of land protruding into the vast and empty sea. Players also begin the game with a card detailing unique game-ending conditions and identifying one item that will be worth points at the end of the game.

Allow me to pause for a moment on that. In Archipelago, nothing is inherently valuable. From their meager beginnings, players can expand into new terrain, develop robust cities, produce numerous resources, and hoard troves of gold. Yet whether any of those items are worth victory points at the end of the game depends entirely on the cards dealt each game, of which any given player has certain knowledge of but one (though depending on how you play, one or two scoring cards may also be dealt face-up for all to see).

This is brilliant. The early stages of each game (and sometimes the late stages, depending on how your particular session plays out) are largely spent biding your time with potentially purposeless actions while attempting to infer the content of the scoring cards from other players’ (potentially purposeless) behavior. I suspect that, for some of you, this level of uncertainty makes you nauseous. I posit that your discomfort is precisely the point. As players, we open Archipelago with little information, and we proceed to stumble blindly through the game in hopes of discerning some bit of information that may give us hope for success – some guiding star that might lead us out of ignorance.

Archipelago is an exploration game. It is the first and only game where I truly feel like its mechanics function in the service of its theme – not merely by fitting the theme or reflecting the theme, but by generating player mindsets that situate those at the table firmly in the shoes of those star-shaped wooden protagonists over whom we purport to have dominion.

The question I’m most commonly asked when teaching this game is, “What do I do now?”

“Exactly,” I reply.

II. Great Expectations

Boelinger’s Eurogame opens each round with a blind bid for turn order followed by extensive, unfettered negotiations.

Quite literally, that is as far as I made it into the designer’s video demonstration broadcast from Essen (I believe it is around the 1:30 mark, for those counting). It’s enough to make any self-important gaming connoisseur turn up her nose.

But one of the things I enjoy most about Archipelago is the way in which its mechanics subvert traditional expectations. I can’t tell you how tired I am of watching players bring their preconceived expectations of how games “ought” to work to the table. This fact, perhaps more than any other, has shaped the selection of games I enjoy. In nearly every teaching game of Tzolk’in, one player mindlessly races after extra workers because “it’s a worker placement game.” Likewise, the Action upgrade in Hansa Teutonica is initially viewed as overpowered because “it’s an action point allowance game.” In both cases, the players come to learn that their instincts are not reliable, which is part of what makes these games so good. To reference my previous reviews here on The Opinionated Gamers: Il Vecchio succeeds because it thumbs its nose at the absent-minded engine-builders (points are cheap early and expensive late; infrastructure is the opposite). CO2 is great because it teases you with a simple building progression and then takes away the safety net of private ownership.

Now back to Archipelago: As noted, each round of the game begins with an seemingly unforgivable dose of chaos: a blind bid for turn order where everybody pays but only one player wins. The bid then incites a period of negotiation where players bargain for their position in the turn order.

This initially sounded like one bad mechanic piled on top of another. However, in practice the two ideas have combined seamlessly. How so? The key is that the winning player gets to set turn order for ALL players for the round. Thus players do not bid for turn order. They bid for bargaining position. And, consequently, players who want to go first should probably not bid at all; the safest way to ensure priority is to pay the winning bidder rather than risk your money in the bid itself.

Because blind bidding is inherently risky, bids should be relatively low compared to the actual value of turn order. In the abstract, a winning bidder should then be able negotiate with other players to recoup more value than he or she paid to win the bid. The best way to recoup value, of course, is to give away the best turn order spots. As a consequence, the highest bidder in the turn order auction is often the player with the least interest in turn order jockeying (or the player with the fewest resources), as that player looks to make a profit on a relatively modest bid.

With the caveat that I have almost exclusively played teaching games, the beauty of this system in practice is a spectacle to behold for a jaded gamer like myself. It is full of squishy ambiguities in these situations that are so much more interesting than the designs we’ve come to expect. In some ways, this sequence is a microcosm of the game itself: the mechanics are not the tight, seamless, machinery of german-inspired design. But, more often than not, they work. And when they work, they work in surprising ways. They reacquaint your mind with the notion that games can be about discovery and play, even in the finest workings of something as simple as setting the round’s turn order.

And this brings me back to expectations. Archipelago is a love-it-or-hate-it game. Actually, it’s worse than that. To many, it’s seen as a broken game. Yet it would not surprise me that most people who complain about the game are falling victim to their own expectations about how the system should behave. (For example, do you play at a table where the winner of the blind bid immediately places themselves first in turn order?) This is why I find Archipelago so subversive and so engrossing: it made me rethink what I thought I knew about how certain mechanics function. The decision points around wealth redistribution in this game are simply fascinating.

Note: For those worried about spoilers, I should emphasize that I don’t tend to deconstruct games in a forward-looking manner. Some people are excellent at thinking through mechanics, determining the correct mathematical relationships, and reasoning out how players ought to behave before even tearing the shrink. My analyses tend to be backwards-looking and based on pattern recognition. I play the games, things happen, I say, “I wonder why those things happened,” and I extrapolate general principles from specific instances. All this is a wordy way of saying that, particularly with respect to such a groupthink-susceptible game, I’m not attempting to assert unassailable truths.

III. Things Fall Apart

One of the elements of Archipelago that is the subject of greatest debate among gamers is Archipelego’s use of semi-cooperative play in a competitive environment. As is to be expected, attempting to colonize an island archipelago tends to make the local population pretty upset. The game models this by having a rebellion track which compares the level of discontent on the islands against the population of players’ citizens. If the former surpasses the latter…

That’s a legitimate elipse up there, by the way. That’s not just dramatic effect. You see, most of the time if the rebellion is triggered, all players lose. However, every now and then a player’s starting objective card (we talked about those, remember?) won’t be the points-scoring variety. Rather, it will allow that player, and that player only, to win by inciting rebellion as a separatist.

Randomly throughout the game, players will face crises that require the players’ contribution of personal resources in order to stem the tide of the rebellion. As a consequence of this mechanic, a considerable debate has sprung up around the question of whether and when players should sacrifice for the greater good. There are some who believe self-sacrifice is inconsistent with competitive play, and that any game involving rational gamers is doomed to end in rebellion. At the risk of rekindling that debate, I disagree.

Allow me to begin here: I play Archipelago competitively. I play exclusively to win, and more often than not I do just that. (Seriously, I’m damn good at Archipelago.) So long as I have a meaningful chance to win, I will not intentionally lose. And I love the rebellion mechanic.

Here’s what I think people are missing: Archipelago is not cooperative. It doesn’t ask for irrational self-sacrifice.  It asks only for self-interested play.  And the rebellion is a catch-up mechanism, nothing more. It is beautifully executed, extremely granular, and fun to exploit. But it is a catch-up mechanism.

The game’s demand for a sacrifice effectively imposes a tax on players to continue playing. Players who believe themselves to be winning have a strong incentive to continue playing, and thus a strong incentive to pay the tax. Players who believe themselves to be losing have little incentive to continue to playing (depending on how bleak one’s prospects seem, perhaps a strong incentive to stop playing). And thus it is up to the self-perceived leaders to subsidize the weaker players. They pay a share of the tax proportional to their odds of victory and the game continues. The trailing players are now better off than they were (relative to the stronger players). Winning Archipelago requires carrying all the other players on your back.

The most common complaint about the mechanic involves players engaging in what is often known as the Kill Dr. Lucky syndrome: Players going earlier in turn order don’t pay their fair share, forcing the last guy in line to make a decisions about whether to waste resources to prevent the game from ending. I don’t see why this poses a problem. If you are losing, and the winning players leave it to you to combat a crisis, you should allow the rebels to win. The game does not ask you throw yourself on the sword in aid of the other players. The threat of a rebel victory needs to be legitimate in order for it to work. However, if you are losing, and the winning players leave the fate of the game in your hands, they are playing against their own self-interest to begin with. Because your proper move is to defect, they are playing irrationally, and irrational players should not be at your table.

Fortunately, in Archipelago it’s not actually a game-ending threat each time this is a decision. Most rounds, it is simply a question of whether to expend resources to decrease the likelihood that everyone eventually loses. Early in the game, when few players have a strong sense of where they stand, everyone should happily defect in response to other players’ selfishness (we’ll assume they refuse to negotiate). Everyone suffers equally and now you all know that you are willing to drag each other into the muck on future turns. On later turns, as the player goals (and thus player standing) begin to take shape, any player who has a significant interest in the game continuing should no longer attempt to blatantly exploit the trailing players.

What complicates matters is the separatist. In a 4-player game (the best number for this title, in my opinion) there is a significant chance that in trying to force a shared loss I am actually allowing an opponent to win. Likewise, even if I think I’m losing, that data isn’t perfectly accurate; ~40% of the possible points are hidden from me. Thus, resolving crises generally produces situationally dependent decisions — those squishy ambiguities I mentioned above. If I’m not too far behind, and if the kick-in isn’t too punishing, and if I’m fairly confident another player is the separatist, then I probably pay the kick-in. If those factors change, my decision might as well. Navigating those ambiguities is the fun of the game. Heck, it is the game (acquiring points simpliciter is neither difficult nor particularly engaging).

IV. How to Lose Friends and Alienate Eurogamers

I can see it in your face every time I mention negotiation. It’s there. That little tick. You try to stifle it, but you know how you feel deep down inside. So let me lay it out for you.

Yes, Archipelago is a negotiation-heavy game. No, that doesn’t mean it is full of alliances and backstabbing and that bash-the-leader nonsense that makes other negotiation games feel so unfulfilling. In fact, negotiation my games is relatively rare, very discrete, and usually meaningful when it happens. (Keep in mind that my group generally eschews table talk. Trash talk, by contrast, is always welcome.)

So just what does negotiation in Archipelago look like?  Well, this happens about once a round:

  • Perhaps Tom wins the auction for $5. Kurt offers him $2 and a stone to go first. Ben offers $2 to go ahead of Bryan. Tom is a happy man.
  • A domestic market crisis occurs. Kurt is first to contribute and offers to sacrifice a cow to help others . . . for a price, of course. Bryan offers a pineapple and $2 to have Kurt save several of his citizens. Tom offers Bryan $1 to have Kurt save one of his citizens instead of one of Bryan’s.
  • Ben offers Kurt a cow and a wood if Kurt allows Ben to harvest stone on a tile where Kurt has a city. Kurt thinks Ben’s a sucker.

Much less common is something like the following (and usually requires perceptive play):

  • Tom offers Ben $3 if Ben sells Tom’s fish when Ben uses his port. (Tom doesn’t have a port).
  • Bryan, who shares some hexes with Kurt, offers Kurt $3 if Kurt explores using the exposed hex (because, otherwise, Ben will take it and place it across the board before Bryan has his turn).
  • Bryan tells Tom, “Kill the Pirate. I don’t want Ben to get it.” And Tom’s like, “Oh yeah, Ben…$&@# that guy.” Tom kills the pirate.

I’m honestly not sure if I’ve really seen much more than that. So fear not! Archipelago is not a game to get bogged down in bartering or bickering or that one guy who just won’t accept that no one has wood for his sheep. People make discrete offers. They are taken or refused relatively quickly. The game marches on. You can deal.

V. Zen and the Art of the Pineapple Market

So I’m like five chapters into my review and I haven’t told you anything substantive about how the game plays.

And I won’t. Archipelago is not a game about doing things. I hate games that are about doing things. (“But you just referenced killing a pirate for crying out loud! Tell us more about the pirate!”)

This is Chuck Klosterman on TV plot:

“[O]nce a show becomes mortally dependent on narrative, its verisimilitude and depth start to erode. Getting from point A to point B becomes the totality of the . . . experience.”

Archipelago is depth and verisimilitude.  Some games there isn’t a point B.

As a player, the vastness with which Archipelago extends before you is remarkable. Each game can be so dramatically different that entire mechanics may go unused. Progress cards (like that pirate) that are hotly contested in some games may seem entirely pointless in others. One of the great challenges in teaching Archipelago is trying to get new players to understand that superfluous elements in any given session are simply not superfluous to the game as a whole.

And this is why it makes little sense to talk dryly about mechanics here. Most games of Archipelago last only five or six rounds (and two to three hours). Little is accomplished, but subtle shifts in the tiles, the objectives, and the available cards send large ripples through the fabric of the session. The games take on a life of their own and are catalogued in the memory as if episodes of Friends. There was the one with all the boats. There was that one where Tom was a spy. There was Emily’s racist game (also she hoarded metal). The only board games in which I had previously experienced such disparate narrative arcs from session to session are those containing discrete scenarios (for example, Robinson Crusoe or Mansions of Madness). That Boelinger could replicate those experiences while leaving each game wholly within the hands of the players is a testament to his design.

I don’t think I would enjoy Archipelago as much if it were about stuff — if it were all streamlined and elegant. No, it’s bulbous and weird unwieldy and it unfolds (like a story) more often than it gets played (like a fiddle). It is almost leisurely because it is so scatterbrained. It is awesome.

So should you play it? How should I know?

(Don’t be sheeple.)

I think, at some level, that the games that most define my gamer identity are those that I can claim as mine and mine alone. I’m the guy who writes “What You’re Missing” reviews on BGG. Some important part of my self-perception comes in my recognizing beauty in an underappreciated title. In fact, it depends on it. (By definition, a “What You’re Missing” review only functions so long as the collective “you” are still not appreciating those aspects of the game that I love. I’m the guy who “gets” Archipelago. That’s the whole point. If you starting getting Archipelago, too, then I’m just another guy.)

I love Archipelago. I have no idea what that means for you.

Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers:
I Love it! Ben McJunkin
I like it.
Not for me…

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8 Responses to Ben McJunkin: Review of Archipelago

  1. bilben says:

    I found this to be one of the most interesting reviews I’ve read in recent memory.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Well, Ben, with each succeeding line that I read, I grew more and more horrified by this game. In a way, that seems to be the point of the review, so I assume this pleases you immensely. I’m sure I’ll wind up playing this with you at some point, because you’re so enthusiastic about the game and it strikes me as something I should probably play at least (or at most) once, but man, it’s like a laundry list of things I try to avoid in games.

    One thing I found was strange is that you place such importance on a strong theme because it makes it easier for the players to understand how to play the game well. Then you turn around and say that you revel in games where the players’ expectations aren’t achieved and that deliberately go against established ways of thinking. Which is it, man: do you want it to be easy for players to grok the game or do you want them to sweat bullets to do so?

    • Ben (chally) says:

      You make a terrific point, Larry. I had not previously considered that those two desires were at odds, though perhaps they are in some cases. In general, what I want is for theme to make the rules and goals of the game understandable, but for the mechanics to be interesting enough not to let players play on autopilot.

      Related to the latter point, I think many of the JASE complaints coming from gamers stem from the fact that some nontrivial number of games each year don’t bother to reconsider established mechanics. Something as simple as a worker placement mechanic can be implemented in a large number of configurations (e.g., Caylus, Agricola, Vasco da Gama, Vanuatu, Tzolk’in), each of which requires a different thought process and produces different player dynamics. That can’t be said of simply slapping a train theme on Agricola and changing up the end-game point scoring. So when I credit Archipelago for subverting my expectations about certain mechanics, I am crediting the game for opening my mind to new ways of thinking about how games can be put together in order to create novel experiences. That’s not quite the same as always wanting players “to sweat bullets” in groking a game.

      • huzonfirst says:

        I actually agree with that. For example, a game like Snowdonia is largely a standard worker placement game with a train theme slapped on. It does a good job implementing that theme (including weather, for example), but at the end of the day, I didn’t think the game was sufficiently different from many other WP games to justify playing it much, even though it’s competently designed. The game does have a lot of fans, though, and I think many of them are attracted to the game because of that theme, so that’s a basic difference between those gamers and myself.

        However, I think it’s still important to be mechanically sound while you challenge players’ expectations. So I think it’s fine to make the negotiations following a turn order auction to be more significant than the auction itself, but I still object to that auction being blind bidding. I have similar issues with hidden player objectives, which often have numerous gameplay and balance problems. The proof, as always, is in the pudding, so I’ll try to keep an open mind about how these things work in the game. But I have to admit, they do seem more than a little offputting.

  3. patrickkorner says:

    Fantastic review. I hadn’t been aware that so much in the game was negotiable – the way we’ve played was that negotiation was limited to the turn order auction and that’s it – but opening it up in the way you describe makes me much more interested in pursuing the game some more. In our games it felt as though the game balance was too delicate, which meant that the game was too easily derailed by the rebels (which in turn meant that trying to use it as a tool to blunt the leaders’ advance with was fraught with danger lest you inadvertently send the whole thing off course instead of just slowed down a little).

    My take on Archipelago (which I’d meant to add to the review but didn’t find the time, sadly) is that it’s a flawed masterpiece. I can find room on my shelves for Container, which I also consider to be such, so I can probably find room for Archipelago. It earns that space by being a masterpiece – but don’t forget the flawed bit. Not the least of which is the fact that by turning all those conventions on their ear, you end up with a game that is pretty damn unapproachable without having the ‘right’ teacher to help you play the ‘right’ way.

    Having a game that runs at right angles to much of ‘conventional’ Euro game design is a good thing, but it also makes it tough to play.


    • Ben (chally) says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Patrick.

      Just so that there is no confusion, the rules place certain limitations on negotiations – during player actions, during the resolution of crises, and when determining the order of play. The designer has stated that those rules “are just a minimum authorized for those who want to speed up the game,” but that he always plays with unrestricted negotiations. I therefore do as well. I think it helps some of the game’s fragility.

      I wholeheartedly agree with your characterization of Archipelago as a flawed masterpiece. I try to focus on the masterpiece bit, myself, as these days I find more enjoyment at the extremes of design than I do at the reliable, polished center. To that end, I’ve also upgraded a few components that I found irritating in their published form. But nearly every game I love has its warts. Few have Archipelago’s potential. I also agree that to tap into that potential, it certainly does require good teaching (I didn’t make it through 10 learning games of Archipelago without turning a few players off the game for life). For that reason, my more recent games have been my best sessions.

  4. katrinf4kker says:

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