In Archipelago, players are Renaissance European powers competing in the exploration of a Pacific or Caribbean archipelago. They will explore territories, harvest resources, use those resources in markets both internal (for their use and that of the natives) and foreign (to sell it in Europe), build markets, harbors, cities and temples, and negotiate among themselves (and maybe betray each other) – all this to complete their secret objectives. They will also need to guess the secret objective of the other players to be able to benefit from them.
But players also need to be careful of the natives; if they make them too unhappy or if too many of them are unoccupied, they could revolt and declare independence. Then everyone will lose!
According to the author, what he's tried to create is a "German" economic worker-placement game, but without the two things he dislikes in them: the superficial theme and the lack of interaction. Indeed this game includes a very present theme and a lot of negotiation and potential backstabbing.
The game includes three sets of objectives, enabling players to choose between a short, medium and a long game. Solo play is also possible with an expansion.
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.
- 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.