Archipelago is a game that tears you between mindsets faster than you're prepared for. It rips into new design territory while working in familiar niches. It deftly employs a theme, yet in a way that's oddly upsetting, yet in a way that's oddly responsible. It's a game about bare, raw economics and power. It's also a game about learning that every single one of your actions have consequences. It has secret roles and cards and worker placement and meeples and ships and exploring and war. It is one of the best games I've played in years. It has gaping flaws.
If you're sensing some contradictions here, you would be correct.
Mechanically, at least, Archipelago has the sort of robust charm you expect from games with liberal European design elements. It has ubiquitous mechanics with gobs and gobs of choice, and the first few times you play it you'll often simply have no idea what to do. Christophe Boelinger has made what might be one of the biggest about-faces in board gaming history, from designer of light-fun puzzler Dungeon Twister to a full turnabout into an ultra-complex worker placement, tile placing, economic exploration game designer. Its physical parts are near perfect: Well made cards, well made wooden pieces, pretty colors, beautiful art. No flaws, no complaints at all, for those.
The mechanic at the heart of Archipelago is action economy. You can only get so many things done, and you need to balance collecting resources and building things with expanding to find new, valuable resources. All of this allows you to fulfill not only the public objective to score points, but your own private objective. Your opponents all have their own private objectives you're trying to figure out at the same time, because you can also score points on their objectives. The person with the most scored objectives among everyone's cards at the end of the game wins.
Alongside these mechanics - which would be enough for a whole game on their own - is a semi-cooperative element balancing round to round challenges for the island, a process that plays out at the beginning of each round like a well-tuned set of dominoes rolling across the island as workers fall down in revolt. To make them happy again, you must spend resources collected. If nobody has the requisite resources among the players, unrest goes up. Let their unrest increase and overwhelm the island's population and the island will break away from their European masters to form a new nation. Everybody loses.
Oh, right, and there's always the chance that a player's secret objective is to foment a revolution.
Add to all of that the heady idea at the core of the game: Everything is for sale. If you think your trading sessions in The Settlers of Catan are mercenary, wait until you can sell every resource you have to other players. No, really, you can sell anything but your people, ships, and secret objective at nearly any time. The atmosphere that emerges, combined with the game's own built-in simulation boards for import and export markets, makes for lively rounds as players scramble to get monopolies on the best resources and then exploit them for gain. It's very fun. The only big complaint you can leverage against the mechanics is that they're so interlocked you don't quite understand the game for a few plays and it's significantly slower than advertised. Once players know what they're doing, the game speeds along at a good pace. It has a few different objective decks, for short, medium, and long games, that help to remedy this depending on your group. Be warned that long games are extremely difficult, though!
On the other hand, the game's theme is fantastically objectionable to some. Board games have long been making a fun theme of European exploitation of native peoples and environments for economic gain. Whether or not you and your group feel comfortable with that is up to you. Archipelago itself is rather toneless on the subject. Its only commentary on its own theme is to very smugly emphasize that all actions have consequences. If you treat the people of your islands too badly, everybody loses. If you employ the "slavery" development card to double worker productivity, you edge everyone towards oblivion and game loss. There are consequences for your actions, but probably not as many as there should be. You recruit islanders to work alongside your Europeans, but history tells us those people were consigned to disease, slavery, and death eventually. In the end, interesting conversations came out of the game's theme at nearly every table I played it at.
In the end, though, there are much less problematic ways to theme your game. The Settlers of Catan manages to deal with expansion and economics in a way that isn't blatantly offensive. Archipelago's theme is its greatest misstep. If you can forgive that, there's a good game beneath it.
Bottom Line: If you have the stomach for the theme, let alone the complex mechanics, then you'll be enjoying excellent game design and economic strategy with Archipelago.
Recommendation: This is a board gamer's board game. Leave out the less-dedicated or analysis paralysis prone players in your group when playing Archipelago.
Designed by Christophe Boelinger. Published by Ludically. Released in 2012.