One of the things I like most about the board game Archipelago is its hidden-identity mechanic; it feels distinct from other hidden-identity games in a way that only Dead of Winter comes close to. Each player has a unique game-end condition as well as a loyalty; one may or may not be a traitor, but each action must be weighed against the possibility that it will end the game. Each game-end condition is itself paired with a scoring condition – as the game is purely competitive, there is not purely a shared, known victory condition, but numerous ways to score of which only a few are known. Thus the uncertainty comes in knowing only a small proportion of the scoring conditions, and the remainder must be learned from reading how the other players act.
My main issue with Archipelago is its length and complexity; it is a dense game that requires constant concentration, and has a lot of serious resource- and economy-management aspects to it. The hidden victory mechanics are only a small part of a much greater game, a civilisation-building game that is a top pick in its own right but which is too much to play for a lighter games evening. As a result, I was pleased to see that Code of Nine offered just this aspect of Archipelago is a shorter, very different kind of game. It is pure worker-placement, with each player knowing a quarter of the scoring conditions.
The theme is interesting, if vague – yet fits the mechanics well. Each player plays a robot that can access only part of its programming, and must work out from its companions’ actions what must be done to succeed at the overall task – yet the competitive aspect comes from trying to be the character which is most successful at that task. The board itself is very plain, although the descriptions of actions, card names and suchlike are evocative and vague, giving the whole a fantastical air. After having reviewed two games which are quite athematic – a pure market manipulation game and a card game comprising only numbers and suits – there is something pleasant about a game where the effort is made to tell a story.
Mechanically, it is a straightforward resource-collection and worker-placement game. Each round, players assign their pieces to the board, gather tokens and try to gain information about their opponents’ orders. Each player has two such orders, one easily accessible and one accessible only from one action on the board. These orders correspond to gathering – or not gathering – the three resources available on the board, or completing various other tasks. Complexity is added by the fact that some orders are negative, reducing a player’s final score if they hold too many of one item, and this may itself be contradictory to other orders. Holding an incomplete picture of the winning condition can be fatal, and it is quite possible for the combination of rules to mean the winner is the player with the negative score closer to zero. In many ways this adds to the theme – it is set in a post-apocalyptic world of broken machines carrying out poorly understood commands, and so the “winner” being the player who does the least damage makes sense.
To add another degree of strategy to the game there is a very strict component limit, and the winning conditions are designed around this. As a result, gathering the currency of the game, required to pay for certain advanced actions, becomes crucial. Once the supply of a resource runs out, or a player can be manipulated into breaking the threshold between a positive and negative score for their resources, actions which allow players to divest resources either to the bank or opponents – or force trades between other players – become key. As the game proceeds the number of possible actions increases and the actions become more powerful, including one action which can reduce the game length by a whole round but only if two players both agree to do so (representing a self-destruct device being activated by two independent commands).
The random win conditions, selected from a large deck (made in two parts to allow for a basic and advanced game) give Code of Nine significant replay value and its short play time and simple rules are real virtues. Its unusual scoring – which can skew heavily in any individual game from high positive scores to negative ones – may deter some players, but it feels thematic.