The Archipelago of Omens by Richard Penwarden
Warning! Review may contain spoilers!
The Archipelago of Omens is a highly ambitious Windhammer 2014 entry. It’s a complex, system heavy gamebook with a well developed universe. You play one of three characters in one of three time periods, bouncing between misty dangerous islands abandoned by the gods.
I admit I approached Richard Penwarden’s entry with trepidation and dread. There are pages and pages of rules here, and they are heavy and weird. The fundamental system is unique and deserves special mention – all you need to play is a method of generating a 50/50 choice: cards, dice, coins, cat farts. This was quite nice. I used an online coin flipper that apparently uses the entropy of the universe to generate a random number. The author also offers a quick mode variant where you don’t generate numbers but use averages instead. I wouldn’t recommend this method because statistics don’t really work like this and the system is actually quite fun once you get into it.
And you really do have to get into it. The book demands a lot from you. There’s a whole load of flipping back and forth between the rules, the appendices, your character sheet, the text and your character starting paragraph. It’s massively overwhelming and if this were a bad or even an average gamebook it wouldn’t have been worth it.
Add +1 Spirit & +1 Available Time for your victory. You do not realise it but your actions have helped spark a revolution.
Luckily, it is actually pretty good. The universe is very well realised and organically develops with the reader. The action is nicely written and pacey – it reminds me of a good LoneWolf adventure – and there are some really good mechanics in play. The combat/skill check system actually becomes fun (which is good, for there are a lot of combat and skill checks to be made). The choice of character is great, especially as the characters are massively different from one another and it really makes a difference to the story. Character choice even affects the age of the world you find yourself in – absolutely brilliant. I liked the wealth system. The spirit stat does seem to somehow represent karma because you can use it to modify actual coin flips. There is a world packed with mythology, lizard and eel men. A crocodile and porcupine have somehow managed an illicit encounter to produce a Quilligator (sadly not a Porcodile). There are a dozen islands to explore and the whole thing feels massive, way beyond its 100 section limit. These are all good things.
If you can wade through the thick mass of rules there is enjoyment to be had! It was like no gamebook I have played before. It’s incredibly gamey but developed well enough to be seen through. There are some lovely touches but it’s not without flaws. It’s a bit easy – I managed to finish it first try by listening carefully to old crazy men (although I may have been playing incorrectly due to the magnitude of rules.) Armour is too confusing, and character skills (I had crafting) seem a bit pointless. It’s massively inaccessible, you cannot read it on the bus, but! If you have a bit of time then have a go with it. It’s fun.