Richard Penwarden's Archipelago of Omens is stupid ambitious. It crams pages and pages of rules before you get any sort of setting, character, or purpose. The character sheet is a jigsaw puzzle of stats and attributes. Specialized terms, each marked with unique punctuation, abound and confound the eye. It would be too much for a full-length book. It really shouldn't work.
But it does. It's damn fun too.
Archipelago is the type of adventure I tend to think of as a "simulation." These type of games craft their rules to simulate real-world experiences.Weight tables, damage charts, etc. They tend to focus on the implementation of these rules than exploring a narrative. In Archipelago you play as one of three characters who are traveling through a grouping of mysterious, mist shrouded islands. You've got to manage health and armor levels, item and time limits, three different essential stats and weapon usage related to them. But while it's a lot to take in at first, each piece is simple on its own and easy to grasp (with maybe the exception of armor, which is a tad over-worked and unclear). All the small pieces come together to create a rich and fun tapestry. What's more, the three different characters not only have their own specialized rules and limitations, but they are from three wildly different historical eras, giving each one their own unique experience. That Penwarden was able to fit all this into Windhammer's limitations is an achievement, that he was able to make it all work so well might be a winning move.
The core mechanic revolves around three attributes: Arms, Eyes, and Lungs. You test against each one for appropriate actions: Arms when climbing a cliff, Lungs when attacking with a blowgun, and so on. The rank you have in an attribute determines how many coin flips (or other 50/50 equivalent random generator: dice, cards, whatever) you get to make during a test. If you get the required number of successes you pass. You also have a "Spirit" stat than you can spend to turn a flip from a failure to a success. Or you can save up Spirit to spend on permanently increasing you rank in an Attribute. It's a simple and elegant system that utilizes both chance and choice in an engaging way.
I especially liked the system because it gave me an excuse to use Random.org's oft-ignored coin flipping function. I chose the East Caribbean dollar for thematic consistency.
There's a lot more going on here, so I'm going to summarize what else I liked and disliked in a quick list.
* Item and weapon use was very well designed. I always felt that I was ahead of the game when it came to weapon and item choice (find the Well of Worlds early helped). Likewise, choosing what to give up when limits were reached was always an interesting dilemma.
*Combat, despite the complexity of weapon ranges, was always fun. Mostly because it still used the core flipping mechanic.
*The three character's special rules were all fun, but I got the most enjoyment out of the Perl Diver's ability to scavenge and craft. It really brought the setting alive for me, and I loved that you could find different items on the different types of island.
*Really, the three character thing works really well. Especially considering the constraints. The core story remains the same across the three characters, but there's enough difference to make three different experiences. Lots of replay in these hundred sections.
*I usually dislike time limits in gamebooks, but here it's a variable. You can both lose and gain time, which makes for a satisfying reward when succeeding.
*The endgame resolves around a high requirement test which can be made easier by collecting "Omens" throughout the game. This is a hard test and would turn what is an otherwise open-ended game into a Truth Path challenge, if not for the Spirit mechanic. In each of my playthroughs I was always able to use Spirit to get enough successes to pass, but only just barely. This made for a dynamic and dramatic climax. If Spirit wasn't as plentiful it wouldn't have worked, but I feel Penwarden got it right.
-The game's a bit of a mess. With so much rule-oriented detail things can get bogged down in specifics. I'm not sure that can be helped. However, I'm not sure using punctuation to differentiate aspects of rules did anything but make things messier.
-The organization and explanation of the rules could certainly be cleaned up.With so many they need to be as clear and concise as possible. Using Appendixes was a good idea, but I feel they could have been implemented better.
-While the encounters on islands generally consisted of meaningful choices, traveling between them was always an arbitrary decision. In all three of my playthroughs I never felt like I was doing anything than randomly picking my way through the islands. There's enough of them, with the content spaced out between them, that your path through them isn't extremely important. Still, navigating takes up a large chunk of the play and it really shouldn't have been so arbitrary.
-Encounters are written well, but the story bits at the beginning and the end were full of clunky sentences and could have used more polish. This isn't a game about story though, so this element doesn't weigh as heavily as it would in a more narrative focused game.
As a whole, Archipelago is big success. While rule-heavy, it will appeal to the type of table-top player I imagine gravitates towards gamebooks (and will be voting in this contest). I'll be shocked if it doesn't place in the top three.