Armello | Principal Platforms: PC (Version Tested), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, iOS, Android | Developer: League of Geeks | Publisher: League of Geeks | Genre: Adventure, Board Game | Year: 2015
The animal kingdom is in peril! Warring factions have risen to claim the throne of a corrupted king and so it goes that the fate of Armello will be decided over a leisurely board game. Well not really, but that’s exactly how its fun blend of fighting and politicking is presented; a lavish digital board game, glamorously inked and dripping with theme.
First and foremost, Armello is a gorgeous game. You couldn’t ask more of the sharp visual design that sees menu screens lined with gold and gilded cards whose artworks dazzle. The animation of the quirky cast is likewise stellar and although the land itself is merely a board composed of hexes, it won’t take long for you to appreciate Armello’s inviting solemnity.
As a game Armello is highly replayable and equally as addictive. The elements of randomness make each session unpredictable and the excitement of discovering a legendary treasure in a dungeon tile or a rare ally card from a quest reward can be palpable. Likewise, the deep bank of achievements and other unlockable bonuses mean that those who get into the spirit of things won’t want to leave anytime soon.
The playable heroes hail from one of the competing factions of rabbits, bears, wolves, or rats, and because each playable character comes with their own special ability, it’s possible to play Armello in a very different way each game. Sana the bear is an expert at using magic for example, but her combat skills pale in comparison to Thane, the wolf swordsman whose finesse in turn can’t match that of Barnaby, the rabbit tinkerer.
Why is this relevant? Similar to the Civilization series, Armello is another game that can be won in several different ways and deciding upon your best approach early is often the key to winning. A game of Armello ends the moment that the king (who lives in the palace at the centre of the board) dies of his self-inflicted magical corruption. The player with the most ‘Prestige’ at that point assumes the mantle of ruler and is declared the victor, but if another player can assassinate the king before that happens then it will be them who wins instead. Pacifist players may alternatively seek out Spirit Stones with which to destroy the king’s curse and a fourth option exists for those who would dedicate themselves to the dark arts and try and outdo the king at his own twisted game.
Unlike many board games of this kind, it is much harder to get away with an undisputed victory here. The final few turns of the game are always tense and exciting because all it takes is one plucky upstart to turn assassin and bring the game to an immediate end. Players can choose to infiltrate the palace and challenge the king in combat at any time which can make things very tense. The brutal traps and encounters surrounding the palace ensure that this approach is next to impossible in the early game of course, but once players have improved their statistics by running a few quests, all bets are off.
It is nice to see a board game where points don’t necessarily decide victory though and also positive is the potential players have for overcoming setbacks. The frequent swings in player fortunes means that someone is only ever one combat away from victory and it’s a facet that will weave its own storyline in every session. The global event deck plays up to this nicely by unleashing increasingly dramatic events that can have the king declaring minor hindrances such as tithes or bounties, to more volatile decrees like full blown martial law or an insidious ritual where the king’s guard are transformed into hideous rot monsters!
This intriguing design is heavily reliant on randomness though and for some this game will be an experience that’s far too chaotic to enjoy. Testing your dice pool in combat and quests is rarely a “sure thing” and because the in-game rulebook isn’t overly comprehensive, it will take a few sessions before all of the daunting symbols and concepts become clear.
It has to be said too that Armello couldn’t be more guilty of committing a pet peeve of mine; namely the inclusion of digital dice that clatter all over the screen when rolled. This is something that I mentioned in my gamebook article where I referenced Dave Morris’ exact same criticism of certain digital apps. It’s an effect that’s especially gratuitous during combat where dice can be seen flying across the screen in all directions! The effect is intended to be tense, but the flow of the game is always interrupted by these greedy animations which I personally find too sluggish. It’s problematic when I’m waiting valuable seconds to see a final die land only to not care about the result because whatever I’m trying to achieve no longer needs that last die. A quick combat option at the very least would have been appreciated, but then I guess the publisher has premium dice skins to sell…
With that said, it’s worth being aware that this game is supported by a rather heavy DLC sales model that offers up a lot in terms of extra characters, costumes, and board designs. The online multiplayer mode (which I personally find too slow to bother with) is host to a lot of these extra cosmetics and it rewards players with crates containing a random assortment of unlockables and other premium gubbins. Some will love it, some will hate it. It is what it is.
Elsewhere the tutorial is superb whilst also introducing the background story and the many software updates have so far helped fix some of the game’s more irritating aspects including the once lengthy downtime between turns during single player sessions.
The sublime card artwork (which comes fully animated) is just one great example of how Armello really leverages the advantages of its video game format. It’s certainly a hectic experience at heart though and in that sense it has a lot in common with “classic” board games such as Talisman. For fans of that genre, Armello’s supreme production quality make its world a worthwhile place to see. Just be sure to stock up on patience before you visit!