Players: 2 to 5
Game Length: 30 minutes to 3 hours
Best enjoyed: With 2-5 players who want an economic game where the main resource – the native inhabitants – could well turn against them!
Archipelago is a game of exploration and colonisation in the Age of Discovery. Each player will be seeking to establish colonies and gather resources in the new world, but they will need to be careful – if they push the natives too far, they risk causing a revolt, ending the game in a loss for all players. Compounding problems, one of the players may actually sympathise with the natives, and wish to force them to revolt so that they may throw off the yoke of imperialism!
Archipelago is a European-style game of resource management, and a unique game in the rarely-attempted ‘semi-co-operative’ genre. Each player will want to make use of the natives to grow their work forces, and sell goods at the best price – but if supplies of essential goods are unavailable when required, they will start to become unhappy. Likewise, if they are overtaxed or underemployed, they will also become upset, and risk starting a revolt.
Each player will have a secret victory card, and all players will score points based on these hidden card at the end of the game – rewarding points for most towns constructed, or most iron stockpiled, for example. One of these may also be the Sympathiser card, causing that player to be the sole winner in the event of a revolt.
The game itself has a good degree of customisation. On the outset, players may choose whether they wish to play a short, medium or long game, with goal cards that will cause the game to end at different times depending on the length chosen. This allows players to play a quick ‘tutorial’ game that will end fairly quickly, then opt for a longer game with more strategic depth on future plays. Players can choose to play with or without the sympathiser, and other variants grant players victory points for contributing to demands from their own stock.
I’ve been ignoring the elephant in the room here, however, and the fact is that Archipelago is a game about the thorny subject of colonialism and exploitation of native populations. It’s hard to do a topic like this justice – you can be too heavy handed in acknowledging the guilt of the colonisers, or you can make it too light-hearted and risk accusations of racism. Archipelago makes a few controversial choices in this regard, the most obvious of these being that the icon used to represent local unrest is a native in war paint sticking his tongue out. It has been argued up and down the Internet whether this is racist or just a depiction of actual practice from the day (just do a Google search for ‘Maori Warrior’). Either way, it may well make some around the table feel uncomfortable and unwilling to play the game, and is something to be aware of.
The game itself is beautiful and the mechanics are well-implemented and compelling, with players needing to evaluate how close to the cliff of rebellion they want to skirt while still giving themselves the best chance of victory. If the idea of a Euro-style resource management game with a semi-co-operative element intrigues you, then Archipelago is well worth a look.