Archipelago is a story/role-playing game where each player controls a major character. Player take turns directing and playing out a part of their character’s story, leading them towards their selected point of destiny, while other players interact with and influence that story.
This puts it in the same game space as two games I like quite a lot, Microscope and Kingdom. These games are the ultimate in two-edged roleplaying tools, in that they provide a guiding structure for player interactions who are then completely free to run amok. I struggled a lot in this specific game and it took a couple of hours of wandering the city afterwards to get to grips with why. This post is one of those "memento" posts, so that hopefully I can properly contribute the next time I'm at a table like this.
Some basic parameters - there were 5 players, 4 of whom are regulars and knew each other well, plus me. The game took almost 4 hours, and about 90 minutes of that was creating the setting and the "elements". We played three complete rounds of scenes (i.e. 15 scenes) plus the brief epilogues. I didn't get too much intel on the other players' backgrounds, but at least a couple were native to the Indie world, without much experience of traditional gaming. I'd say the average age was late 20s, and we were all men. One little aside on that demographic was that 3 out of the 5 opted to play female characters.
The first step in these collaborative games is to pitch a setting, and the first suggestion out the gate was "Space Opera", which received muted reactions except for one person opposed to it. The second suggestion was "Dune", which somehow seemed to become the accepted premise even though it's an SF concept, and two players at the table expressed no familiarity with it whatsoever. I have read Dune, but nearly 25 years ago. I asked what kind of story we were supposed to have in "Dune-Archipelago" and I got 30-seconds of blank looks back, before someone tried to explain to me what narrative was. Their idea was that the kind of high-level "what is this story about" would emerge during play - a comment I've had a couple of times now in these indie environments - which makes no intuitive sense to me. We completed the initial premise by having it set on a water world whose economy was based around plundering ancient technology from a sunken ancient alien city. I asked if anyone had read Summertide, which has basically exactly this setup and premise, but nobody had. Dune struck and still strikes me as having gotten somewhat lost, if it was even present.
The next step in the game is to pick an "Element" each, which can be anything in the setting. The guidance in the rulebook is characteristically vague-Indie:
Decide what elements of the setting are central, and need someone to take ownership of them – someone who can say what fits and what doesn’t. This is to make sure that the setting has integrity, that there’s a uniting vision for these elements. Decide who owns what. Ownership is a responsibility, so make sure the right people own the right things.
How do you pick an element? What does "uniting vision" mean? What's "integrity" and does it really matter for stories?
We picked one element each. Perhaps symptomatically of the optimistic spirit of the game, two elements felt like they had a major impact on the game, while the other three provided mere moments of colour. In a short-run game there naturally won't and can't be time for everything. Even in our relatively simple and short game there were a few things which seemed to need constant protection on those key elements. For example, the "World is Inimical to Life", which we took to mean only human life, was constantly being transgressed - to the point where a population of native hunter-gatherers was introduced into the story.
Next came the characters, and the game design calls for these to be disparate.
Each character should have an indirect relationship to at least one other character. An indirect relationship means both characters are emotionally tied to a third character, event, place or other element. These ties must be meaningful and strong to your character. You can figure this out for each character in turn, or after some or all the characters are done, but you must have the relationships in place before the game begins. [emphasis added]
This insulates the characters from direct conflict, but it also means that in essence you have a separate story for each character- five parallel stories whose consequences are intended to ebb and flow indirectly. The world becomes a kind of matrix. I found this especially difficult, because I had such a tenuous understanding of the world, the meaning of the elements, the other characters, that it was hard to know what kinds of things would be interesting for the world or the other players. I had little sense of where the narrative might productively go, so made my best guess, which I don't think turned out to be all that good of a guess.
The final step of the process pre-game is for each character to be offered two possible destinies, written by the other members of the group. These are all, again, produced in isolation, inspired by the elements and locations. They proved the much-needed catalyst that allowed the game to assume some kind of narrative shape at the outset of actually playing scenes. For me, this was far too late, and I felt already stranded somewhat, because I couldn't see quite how to make good narrative decisions to lead me to my character's destiny. A failure of imagination, but I felt like the end-point for the character was essentially an amplification of the end point. A character described as a "prophet of doom" who ends up "destroying the city" - the route is so straight between those points it was hard to navigate. Ultimately, with only three scenes with which to work that wasn't a logistical problem.
I'm always reminded in that situation of (I think) Eisenhower's comment which is that plans are futile but planning is indispensable. They're the sort of games that are deceptive in appearing simple, and I've generally found them to be satisfying when I know all the other people at the table well, and where there's some really clearly stated guiding story thesis. The most satisfying experience I've had was with Nick and Steve a couple of election cycles ago where we used Kingdom to simulate the Republican primary cycle. The general run of these games seems to be predicated on the idea that "playing to find out" is something that just works, and awesome things emerge organically. I think the sophistication of genre understanding means this is the case for some games - we've all seen enough Coen brothers films that Fiasco broadly works as intended most of the time. For a game where the canvas is deliberately and extravagantly blank, I think I may always struggle. Nothing more terrifying than a blank page. This game really reminded me that a literary source everyone's read and understands is not a negotiable thing. This game, for me anyway, was always going to be a struggle, because I didn't understand what "Dune" meant to the half of the table to whom it meant anything.
Archapelago is an interesting game, but I think it suffers from not providing a strong set of tools for guiding collaborative play. A group already in sync can pick it up and I'm sure do amazing fun things, but for a new group the components of play are just so much arbitrary opportunity.
Full game available here.