Today, I would like to talk about Archipelago, a game about exploration, expansion and exploitation in the Caribbean (a 3X game) at the time of colonisation. You see, Marion (my wife) and I have just tested a few 4X games (add extermination to the previously mentioned ‘X’s) recently, like Scythe or Twilight Imperium and they haven’t clicked so well with us and one of the main reasons is that we don’t really enjoy destroying what the other has had fun building.
But it is also more complicated than that. Because we enjoy playing Nothing Personal or Food Chain Magnate, which are definitely in your face aggression. So what is it about Scythe or Twilight Imperium that we don’t like? After long discussions, we came to the realisation that we don’t really enjoy the theme of war. Especially Marion. She says that as a girl, she’s never really been playing with plastic soldiers, GI-joes, Call Of Duty and anything related to war... Whereas as a boy, I grew comfortable in that setting, to the point I don’t really see the drama anymore.
The real pity is that we enjoy the mechanics of 3X or 4X games, but not the theme they often come packaged in. That’s how we realised that Archipelago was hitting that special spot for us. It is a 3X game in a non-war setting. Some of you might correct me here saying that from their point of view, colonisation is one form of war or at least not better than war – and I won’t disagree. It is hard to explain, but in Archipelago, it feels easier to override this consideration as the game really makes that theme more of a distant background.
Also, Archipelago isn’t about extermination, which is often present in that type of game. In fact, for those playing with the base game only, it is not possible to have combat, but player interaction doesn’t suffer much out of it, as there are many passive aggressive ways to interact: on the market, stealing buildings from each other or racing for resources and cards.
It is hard to talk about Archipelago without talking about the quality of the land tiles. They are what makes it such a special game for us. In fact, they are almost too good looking and encourage exploration just for the thrill of drawing the contours of this archipelago of small islands. They burst with colours and depict a world we would all love to live in. Once, we even spent the evening playing with the tiles rather than playing the game, the same way we would have played Lego, which was definitely fulfilling. I am sure you have done it with the tiles in Carcassonne too!
Another aspect that is unique to Archipelago is the secret end-game and scoring combo mechanism. It encourages players to pay attention to each other and is an interesting spin on the classic secret objectives. I said ‘unique’ and not ‘works well’ because in my opinion it could have been implemented better. Let me explain. Many of these conditions are about having built a certain number of the same building (a city, a market, a harbour, a church). But you see, most of the time, one player’s game engine can get away with building just one of each of these buildings. So, it forces players to build many times the same building. Also, partially known end game conditions make it harder for players to deliberately move towards the end state of the game, meaning it can drag on (why would you end the game if you’re not sure you are winning?). In that sense, Terraforming Mars is doing a better job, as actions giving you points are also actions that make sense and also take you closer to the end-game. I understand that the unrest track is intended to pressure the players to complete their known end game condition, but because the of the reasons mentioned just below, it never really worked that way for us.
I am talking about the semi-cooperative mechanism where players work together to address crises and rebellions. Don’t get me wrong, we love semi-coop games. They teach so many real life lessons, having to find the right balance between altruism and selfishness. But based on our experience, I truly believe that semi-cooperative mechanisms work best as a twist to a collaborative design, like the traitor mechanism in Dead Of Winter, rather than as a twist to a competitive game design, like here or in Game of Thrones. The reason I think it doesn’t work as well is because players are not in any coop mind-set and more often than not, use this mechanism not to get closer to each other but as a way to tank the game or pressure the other players to solve the crisis on behalf of the group. I am finding that, in our case, it rarely led to interesting decisions. I was reading an interesting review by Chally on BoardGameGeek (from the ‘What you are missing’ blog) where he sees the semi-coop mechanism as an elaborate hidden catch up mechanism. I would agree if players had any sense of who’s ahead at any point in time, as they don’t know how well they are doing relative to the other players’ secret objectives. I would also agree if I was playing with players ready to get everyone lose if they feel they are unlikely to win. But it is just not the kind of people we enjoy spending our game nights with. The best alternatives I know to a semi-cooperative twist in a competitive game are the bumping mechanism in worker placement games like in The Gallerist or Charterstone or having to create a partnership with a subset of players to accomplish a certain action, like investing with another player in an artist and developing her together, in the Gallerist (again). I like the idea that in a competitive game, the winner is the one that manages to build the most alliances and secure the biggest amount of trade deals.
In other words, in Archipelago, I see a disconnect between what you would like to be doing in the game (what’s fun, what helps you build your game engine), what gets you points and how you progress towards the end of the game. In my opinion, it is a structure that ultimately robs players of feeling like they’ve accomplished something.
What is your favourite aspect of Archipelago? What is your favourite 3X game? As usual, let’s discuss in the comments section below.
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