Critical Review - Archipelago

I enjoy a good Euro game.  By that, of course, I mean one that involves worker placement with the goal of starting small, growing in complexity, and obtaining victory points.  Two things I have always struggled with in the genre though are the “block” placement, meaning at times, you just end up placing someone somewhere so that your opponent can’t make that move (you know, Magic players call it “hate drafting”) and then the inevitable “theme” challenges.  Some Euros hit on all cylinders and some stretch the imagination to make connections between actions and themes.


I have, over my time, enjoyed Lords of Waterdeep (which I know, isn’t technically a “Euro”… we can debate that later), Viticulture, Tzol’kin, Alien Frontiers, Trajan, Agricola, Puerto Rico and others of the type immensely.  Today, I’m happy to say I can add another to that list, and one that almost vaults its way to the top; Archipelago!


Archipelago is from Ludically games and designer Christope Boelinger. Who also brought us Dungeon Twister and Earth Reborn recently.  It is, very much so, a traditional Euro game with worker placement, victory points to obtain through decisive actions and thankfully, dripping in theme.  Based on the idea that we as players are explorers in the days of Christopher Columbus, Archipelago will find us venturing out to discover new lands, harvest resources, profit from them, and use a host of characters and actions to benefit us along the way.


Be careful though, life on an unexplored Archipelago is not without its dangers.  There will be multiple factors from indigenous people unhappy with your settling in their part of the world, to dictatorship actions that will all lead to a potential rebellious uprising that could, if not kept in check, end the game.  To top it off, there may be a stow away who secretly wishes to advance the rebellion, and this separatist alone can snatch victory from the unknowing hands of those in the lead.

In Archipelago, you’ll start the game with 2 explorers, a boat and the ability to use 3 Action discs per turn.  More Action Discs can be obtained, but only by exploring.  Exploring is one of the most rewarding facets of Archipelago.  You begin the game either at sea (with your boat) or on land (without one) and from there, explore out, discover more regions with the potential to reap their resources (Fish, Fruit, Cattle, Stone, Wood and Iron) but as you grow, your population grows, and with population growth, comes people management, ensuring your people are happy, content with life on the Archipelago, and aren’t in a rebellious mood.


There is a LOT to Archipelago.  On your turn, you have over a dozen actions you can choose to take, but before we get to actions, let’s talk about population and balance.  Each turn is made of up several phases.  Of these, we have to determine the order of play (which is normally a blind bid, but there are cards that can help you by providing more money to your bid) and then the population effects, given the current state of the Archipelago.  In the game, there is a domestic Market and Export Market that will both allow you to buy and sell goods on them, more if you build Markets and Ports, but pending the amount of good on each, could lead to increasing the population of indigenous workers as well as the rebellion!

You’ll track the population and rebellion on an additional board, and the indigenous workers on their own board as well.  If at any time the rebellion meeple is ahead of the population meeple, it’s game over… unless you are the separatist.  More on that in a second.


After you have looked at the board and added or subtracted from the population, rebellion and/or workers, it’s then time to balance the Archipelago through the use of Evolution Cards.  Evolution Cards are dual purpose.  The back side has a Domestic and Export Demand that may (pending the background color) need to be met at the beginning of each turn through using resources on the corresponding market or your own supply while the front has a combination of Characters, Progress events and great works (think Lighthouses, Pyramids, etc) that will all help you with resource gathering, management, money, and a host of other activities… including some devious ones through use of the Spy!


Resolving these “Crises” or demands aren’t as hard as you’d imagine, but their impacts are great.  When a demand must be met, you simply lay all meeples on the Archipelago on their backs, representing their demand (yes, they fall over on their backs kicking and screaming like children…) and then, starting with the turn player, you may use resources from the corresponding market, or from your own supply, to place back in the common stock and appease them.  Most will say “1 wood for 6 population” meaning for each 1 wood resources used, you can stand up 6 meeples, yours or others, and you must stand up the full 6, so you could end up standing up your opponents.  This is where turn order helps a lot!  While not a fan of blind bidding, this is a great implementation of it and making it important to go first.


Additionally, any meeples that cannot be stood up, become rebels!  They add to the rebellion counter and cannot be used, unless you have an evolution card that lets you stand them up (which is available and of course, will add to the revolution as it’s called “Dictatorship”).  This makes resource management challenging as while you can see the top evolution card and know what will be in demand, it never stays that way for long thanks to the final phase after actions.


After actions, starting with the turn player, you must either buy and rotate or rotate 2 different evolution cards.  Evolution cards have 3 values and 1 skull in each of their four corners.  When placed along the evolution track, an orange arrow points to the corner that represents the value of the card currently.  As they rotate (90 degrees clockwise), they will increase or decrease, and if the arrow ever points to the skull icon, then the card is discarded from play, a new one takes its place, and yes, you guessed it, reveals the back of a new evolution card that will now be used when resolving the balance phase next turn!

Now, a word on actions.  You start with 3 action discs that you will place on an action wheel, going in turn order, one by one.  Some actions can be done multiple times and by multiple players while some are limited.  Some, like taxation even add to the counter for the rebellion!  The good thing to know about this, is that while the Action Wheel where you place your discs, and the multitude of choices, seem to be confusing at first, they are all very logical and even in our first few games, we never felt paralyzed with too many decisions to make.  It was always clear what the good options were, but the risks of taking something that could prove to be useless late, or the risk of failing exploring always left room for pitfalls and non-linear gameplay.


You may be asking yourself, this sounds very good and all, but, “how do I win and get these victory points you mentioned Tox”?  Excellent question!  This is one of the best parts to Archipelago.  At the beginning of the game, you can choose from 3 stacks of cards, determining how long of a game you want, short, medium, or long, and each player gets one card from the shuffled, chosen stack.  That card shows an end game signal on the top and an item that will be worth victory points to all who have ownership of said item.  In some cases for example, depleting the bank or common stock of 2 types of resources may be the trigger that the game is over, while underneath it, anyone owning an occupying a chapel could get victory points.  The VPs are ranked, meaning in this case, if you had 2 chapels and I had 1, you’d get the first place reward and I’d get the second, and if the third player didn’t have a chapel, well, they get zip.


This makes gameplay tense, exciting, and each decision impacting in ways even you don’t know sometimes!  It’s hard at times when you see someone build a building you know is going to be worth points at the end of the game, but they don’t, and you have to start planning in a new way!  Having this info secret makes for excitement, daring, and sometimes, if using the Spy, devilish (as the spy lets you peek at these other cards you don’t know about yet!)

Component wise, Archipelago is a beauty of a game.  The tiles that build out the board are gorgeous to look at, have high details and are a joy to play with when exploring, giving you the puzzle feel.  The cards are top notch quality and the art on them is superb as well.  The theme jumps out at you and doesn’t let you go, teasing you to discover more. Additionally there is a tremendous box insert that doubles as storage and as organized areas for gameplay.  Very good choice with so many components here and Ludically should be commended for using it as such.


Gameplay wise, it’s superb, however I must add a caveat.  If you play with overly competitive people, you know, “THAT guy”, you may run into something bad.  See, if you are losing, it only takes one misfit to push the rebellion up so no one wins.  In our groups, we don’t play like that, but I could see in a highly competitive environment, that rearing its head.  Overall though, they gameplay works very well.  There’s a lot of options and choices to make, but once you start down pathways, you see what’s clear.  The lack of knowledge on what will end the game and what will score points makes it adventurous at its heart too and that shines.


Experience wise, it’s just a joy of a game.  We have over 20 plays of it in so far and have never felt like it’s the same game twice.  Each game, even adopting the same strategies, is ever changing.  From the tiles to explore, the evolution cards to buy and use, and the crises that come up to manage, it’s always a challenge, and a fun one at that!  Do I want to use my stone now to build a chapel or will I need it to solve a crises later?  Should I buy a progress card that helps me get more fruit or will that trigger the end game if someone has that card?  Should I go exploring and breed more workers or will that risk us pushing the population up and causing a rebellion?  Tons of choices, always changing, always enjoyable and more importantly, always important whether they are yours or other players, so you are in tune to every move, purchase and action!


Is it perfect?  No, not by a long shot.  Is it fun?  Yes, without a doubt.  I’d sail over oceans for the chance to explore this game more and I’d highly suggest you to give it a try if you haven’t already.  Whether you hunker down on the beach and build, delve into the jungle and explore, or work with the other inhabitants to build peace and prosperity, the options, the fun, and the countless hours of enjoyment will be waiting for you on the sands, jungle and seas of the Archipelago.


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Crits Happen was supplied a copy of Archipelago to produce this review by our Friendly Local Game Store, Dragon's Lair! Check them out at

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Comments: 1
  • #1

    Robin (Monday, 21 March 2016 16:33)

    You should talk about player scaling. There is no mention if this works as a two player game.

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