This hobby is supposed to fun. It’s supposed to be about friends getting together, around a table interacting as humans, and enjoying each other’s company. All of which is perfectly fine, however, for players to say that designers should always prioritise our fun over an artistic vision is not only selfish, it constrains the artistry that is inherent board game design.
A notion that relegates game design into a lesser form of art. Excuse me for getting a little ivory tower, and to run directly counter to the ‘Gygaxian’ philosophy that games can never be art… but games are art. They should be allowed to approach difficult subject matter. They should be allowed to raise ethical issues. It could be argued that games, with the high level of interactivity involved, are often in a far better position to discuss said issues than most other forms of art.
Games, more so than movies or books, allow us to step into the viewpoint more fully, as not only are we able to see the world through different eyes, they allow us to make decisions through those eyes.
With that, let me introduce to you, Archipelago, Christophe Bœlinger (of Dungeon Twister fame) and Ludically’s sprawling, semi-co-op, Four X, worker placement game, set during the moral darkness of Caribbean colonisation, in which you play one of the invading colonists.
For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with the term ‘Four X’, let me explain. Four X games involve the following principle aspects: Exploration, Expansion, Exploitation and Extermination. Straight out the box, Archipelago does not fit directly into that mould as it lacks the ‘extermination’ factor, however, with the ‘War and Peace’ expansion, Archipelago situates itself firmly within that genre as one of its very best examples. So, with that PSA out of the way, let’s get into the base game.
The object of Archipelago is to score as many points as possible. You do this by developing the infrastructure of the land you’ve explored by building towns, churches, ports and markets, all the while trying to cooperate with the other players in keeping the unrest of the native population from rising into a bloody rebellion.
After taking all your colour-coded meeples, ships, player screen, coinage and action disks, you and your friends will start the game by placing the blank sea tile and a ship of each colour on it. Then you will deal evolution cards, cards with bonuses and powers, to the evolution track. Next you determine the condition for endgame scoring by dealing a single trend card face up.
Determining the length of the game by selecting between the short, medium or long game objective cards and dealing one secret objective to each player. Meaning that there is both a public objective and a private objective. These objective cards also give each player an end game condition and it is each player’s responsibility to watch for the fulfilment of that condition.
As the game is semi-cooperative, one of the private objectives dealt may very well be The Separatist card, meaning that their job is to tank the game in as quick a fashion as they can muster. The Separatist is also the only goodie in this game. More on that later. In the beginning, you will explore and create the Archipelago by choosing one of the hexagonal tiles, placing it adjacent to sea tile, then placing two of your workers on that tile. Once everyone has begun to settle their slice of land, the real game begins.
The flow of the game is split into the following six phases:
- Disengagement: An upkeep phase, wherein you refresh evolution cards, reset your workers and rebels.
- Order of play: Players bid for first player. The player who bid the most decides the order of play for everyone, and is susceptible to bribery.
- Population effects: This is an administrative phase wherein you will apply the effects described on both the domestic and export markets, as well as the colony stability board and the surplus workers board.
- Balance of the Archipelago: this is where the consumption needs of the domestic and foreign markets are set. Players will have to deal with consumption crises related to the available resources on either market. It’s not all bad, sometimes positive events will aid the players in quelling rebellion.
- Action Phase: The heart of the game; In rounds, players will place one action disk at a time on the action board until all players have placed all their disks.
- Evolution Card Purchase: In this phase, players attempt to buy cards that function as power-ups for the remainder of the game.
The game can end in one of two ways:
- Rebellion: When the rebellion marker moves past the population marker on the population board, the game ends immediately. If there is a Separatist card in play, the Separatist wins the game alone. If no-one has the Separatist card, all players lose.
- End game condition: If one of the end game conditions on the player objective cards is met, the game at the end of the active player’s round.
This is a huge game. It’s massive. Not just in size, but in scope and subject matter. Yes, there are multiple paths to victory. Yes, there are complex and engaging mechanics you’ll want to master. Indeed, you will want to play this game repeatedly as your group becomes more familiar with the rules and heuristics are developed. Sure, the player interaction is among the finest of any available game. Players will debate, bribe, promise, lie, wheel and deal, manipulate and ultimately betray one another.
Of course, all of this is awesome. It’s everything you want from a game, not just a Four X game, but games in general. Yet, to focus purely on the mechanical functionality of the game would be to belie exactly why it’s an important game.
See, the strength of Archipelago is not the mechanical design, which is of the highest quality, (and to bring this full circle) it’s the message. It won’t be long before you begin to question what you’re thematically doing to this cluster of paradise. You and your friends show up to these islands and begin claiming them as your own.
You exploit their resources, take control of them and funnel them back home to make a quick buck. You couldn’t care less that these resources aren’t rightfully yours and you will employ the local population as far as it benefits you, caring little that your arrival has altered their existence beyond repair.
The artwork reinforces this uncomfortable viewpoint. It accurately depicts the way that colonists would view the locals. Either they are savages, brutally depicted as furious, dark-skinned warriors in a stereo-typically, even offensive, tribal design or they are lighter skinned, clean-shaven workers, converted to your side.
It’s a difficult thing to digest. It’s not a point of view you will relish. At first glance the artwork looks very racist. However, once you realise that the art depicts the indigenous population as your character would have seen them, in that dehumanising, reductionist, and doubtlessly foul, manner so endemic of the time wherein this game is set, suddenly the message of the theme is laid bare. And it’s extraordinarily uncomfortable.
We play the roles of some truly awful people in this game. We play characters who would rather exploit than engage. Men, who could only view the indigenous people as little more than a resource to barter with and consume. Who look upon an entire race as sub-humans with no concept of the value inherent in their own resources, instead of looking at them as flesh and blood people, instead of viewing them as human beings.
Through the narrative of the game, masterfully told through its mechanics, you should arrive at a horrific realisation. When you see the resources of an entire people completely depleted, sent to far off foreign lands, and even stripping that people of their culture by indoctrination into Christianity, you should understand that you’re the cause of this misery, and as you aren’t willing to stop this behaviour due to your own aims, continuing this cycle of exploitation and subjugation, you should come to realise that you are the villain.
Absolutely, some could see this very same artwork as profoundly problematic and perhaps they would be right. Maybe it could have been handled in a much more sensitive way. However, I think to dismiss it as such without understanding the view held by the characters we play in this game, would be to rob the game of the muscle in its message. It’s hard to come away from this game as a winner and not feel like you’ve only won in materialistic terms.
It’s hard to be proud of winning this game, unless you’re the Separatist, and that is exactly why it’s so powerful. Sure, you won, but can you truly be proud of your actions in getting there? That’s what makes this game so fascinating.
Even the critique of religion is well executed and evokes Marx’s well known idiom, “Religion is an opiate of the masses”. The more churches you build, the easier it becomes to subdue the populace in times of civil unrest and you’ll want to build churches, not because of your own piety, but to encourage piety in your people. It’s an uncompromisingly cynical, but doubtlessly accurate, view of the function of religion and its journey to the new world.
It’s one of the few games I’ve ever played that has such a concise and well-delivered message. The narrative arc is one of the finest examples of such I’ve ever seen and as the game is largely language independent, it’s an even more impressive design.
If you choose to buy this game (and believe me, you should) be aware that you are not only buying one of the best mechanical designs out there, but you are buying an essay in social responsibility.
If you would prefer that politics stay out of your gaming experiences, that’s your prerogative but I would encourage you, however, to consider that sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone is a far more enriching experience than playing a game with much less substance than Archipelago.