Board games are a form of entertainment that is quite spread, but their presence in the digital world is thin compared to other ways of entertainment that made a stronger impact in the video games industry over the years. And since none of the big budget developers are willing to create a digital board game, leave it to Kickstarter and fans of the genre to make it possible. In May 2014 with over 6,000 backers and $300,000 another digital board game began its development journey towards our screens as the debut project from League of Geeks entitled: Armello.
Armello is set in a sort of grim fairy tale world filled with anthropomorphized animals that could and should be friendly but the circumstances and their interests pit them against each other in a struggle for power.
The premise for the game is this: the king is being corrupted by Rot driving him insane and putting the kingdom of Armello in danger; heroes arise from all the clans to face the threat of Rot and the insanity of the King in their desire to take the crown for themselves in a battle of wits, magic, trickery and force.
The prologue covers this entire story split in four different missions, each from the perspective of a different animal clan hero. We witness the characters’ interaction and their charming dialogues that create a magical atmosphere while presenting each hero’s motivations and setting up for the grimmer action of the game.
The world and story of Armello feel like a combination of Narnia, Redwall and A Song of Ice and Fire and this mix can’t lead to anything bad. The story is intriguing and has some amazing characters with great potential behind them, but it doesn’t expand much further than the prologue and it left me with a desire for an expanded story mode. Instead, after the prologue the lore is halted and everything it’s about playing and winning matches.
|I wish there was more...|
Armello is a digital board game which has four players facing each other in a battle for the kingdom’s crown in a strategic match involving the classic dice throwing, tile movement and randomized fun.
Before a match starts each player has to pick an animal hero from the eight available ones, each of them being designed to be fitting for different strategies and be better at a certain play style. The hero stats are a little customizable by picking two bonuses from the few ones available with more unlocked by playing the game. The stats are simplistic yet they synergize really well with the resources available in the game and dictate the hero’s performance in certain situations, e.g. Fight affects the number of dices used in combat. With the hero picked and customized the game can start.
|Always with the|
All the matches take place on the same sized but randomized map representing the kingdom of Armello. The map has a number of key points that never change location. The King’s castle is always in the middle of the map and the four heroes start one in each corner in their clan’s ancestral ground which serves as a safe haven. Aside of the fixed locations there are a number of objectives, perils, dangerous areas and AI controlled enemies on the map that keep things interesting and should be taken into account as possible match changers, but they are small in number and easy to understand how they work.
In a rather odd design choice the developers didn’t allow any changes or configurations to the existing map and this can lead to monotony after a while. But as it stands, the current board does serve as an effective battlefield working well with the game’s other mechanics.
As expected from a board game, Armello has a turn based system which has each players waiting for their time to move during a turn. A day is split into two turns, one starting at dawn and the other at dusk with the time of the day affecting some of the map mechanics. The time of day also affects the heroes, restoring resources and giving them advantages based on their traits.
At the start of each new day the King gives proclamation which greatly influences how the match is played from that point forward. This proclamation is dictated by the player with the higher Prestige stat which serves as the King’s advisor. With each new day the players also gain their share of gold increased by the number of cities they control. The turn system affects many of the resources in the game as well as the capabilities of the heroes, but the most important thing is when the player’s hand doesn't match their Wits stat as they will receive cards.
|It's time to hunt!|
The cards are this game’s most cool and important game mechanic. At dawn each player draws cards from three distinct categories: items, magic or trickery, with the maximum number of cards that one can retain in hand being dictated by the Wits stat. These cards open up a variety of strategies and consolidate on certain gaming styles (if luck is on your side) while making resources management an important thing.
The item cards can boost your hero’s combat capabilities by providing powerful equipable items which bring the die on your side while in combat. The magic cards usually have short range spells with beneficial or damaging effects. And last but not least, the trickery cards are the most interesting providing all kind of traps that can help with the map control by making it harder for your adversaries from reaching their objectives.
Because the card drawing doesn’t always bring what you need and the die is not always friendly, you can also sacrifice cards in combat or during perils to lower the randomness of dice throwing or even to burn the useless cards to make room for the next draw.
The cards are a neat little system that adds complexity and thrill to the game without complicating the rules too much. They are as intriguing as they are easy to use and a lot of the game’s tactical choices and strategies rely on them. Aside of their in game use, the cards contain flavor text and their art style is so beautiful and gorgeously animated that I could stare at them for hours.
To add more depth and more things to do on the map, each hero has his own individual quests with the first one starting as the beginning of the match and with the option for the player to select the reward. The following quest triggers when the first one is completed.
The quests are pretty simple in task and don’t require more than going to a certain tile on the map and choosing between an easy to get reward or a dangerous one that can bring new recruits to your cause and involves rolling a dice to avoid taking damage.
The basic concept behind completing a quest is easy, but don’t get tricked, reaching certain tiles can be really hard. The map has enough dangers of its own, but things change with each turn, new perils might spawn, Rot creatures might attack, the King’s guards are on the hunt and other player’s might stop you either through combat or well-placed traps.
The questing is simple in design yet might be harder in achieving and adds more substance to a match without encumbering the player with more complicated rules to remember. They are optional, but they are extremely rewarding and completing them brings you a few steps closer to the victory condition you aim for.
Either because you play a wolf wearing a sword or choose to play a gigantic and menacing bear or maybe because it gives you a tactical advantage or you are just set on being the aggressor and want to win through force, either way, there is combat in Armello which can change the fate of a match and grant the victor Prestige he deserves.
The combat mechanics are extremely easy to understand and the decision to go to combat is based on rather simple principles. Attacking or being attacked sets those involved into the combat screen where they face each other and roll the dices to see how much attack and defense each gain. The dice can be ruthless as in any other game that is based on this core mechanic and it’s the player’s job to ensure that they win the dice on their side. Through enhancing the combat stats, equipped items, cards ready to sacrifice and by taking advantage of the hero’s traits, the players can start with a considerable amount of attack and defense even before the dice has been cast. Luck can always be a factor, but Armello developers made sure that through your decisions you can bring the luck to your side.
The combat can be solved pretty quickly and based on the HP of the hero’s involved and the attack and defense each has gained, a battle can end with a victor, a draw and even with two losers.
I know it sounds like the combat system is deprived of complexity, but there is more to combat than just going straight to battle. Opponents can be ambushed, forced into traps and even terrorized with spells and they can die even before combat or enter the battle in a moribund state. Directly facing the opponent is an option, but not always the best one and even with the weaker heroes you can win a fight through tactics and cunning.
With all being said about Armello’s mechanics it is time to talk about the victory conditions. A match can unfold in different ways, but the ultimate goal is always the same: to take over King's Landing, errr… I mean to save the kingdom from its mad King and there are four ways, set in stone, on how to do this. The types of achievable victory tie directly to the way the heroes are designed to play and how the map objectives work.
Starting with the expected victory through combat which requires killing the King and surviving the battle, each of the Armello’s victory conditions are somewhat different despite having the exact same goal.
As the king descends further into darkness his health starts decreasing and his rules worsen by the day. The prestige dominant player has the King’s ear taking decisions on his own benefits, keeping everyone at bay while the King dies from the Rot corruption giving the crown to the one with the highest prestige. This victory can also be obtained if the King dies in battle together with its killer.
Rot plays an important factor in the game, not only it corrupted the King leading to his insanity and downfall, but it also corrupts everything in its path. But corruption can be managed and might be appealing for some. If the players choose to embrace it, they can kill the King by reaching a higher level of corruption and challenge him into a battle where they siphon the King’s Rot to their advantage. In such a scenario, similar to the combat victory, if the player survives and the King dies, victory is achieved.
The last alternative is a good option for the heroes with a smaller inclination for combat as it involves a great deal of hunting for map objectives. Spirit stones spawn every once in a while on the map, a hero that is pure from Rot corruption can gather them and upon reaching four they can use the stones to cure/banish the King and thus gaining the spirit stones victory.
The number of victory conditions is decent, but the balance between them hasn’t reached a stabilized point yet and taking the Prestige path seems to be the easier way to win and by the time I’ve written this review I haven’t seen another type of victory in my matches (and I’ve played a few). But as any PvP game, finding the perfect balance takes time and Armello surely isn’t quite there yet.
Armello can be played both in singleplayer and in multiplayer and while the AI does a good enough job to keep things interesting, the game truly shines in multiplayer where the competitive nature of board games and the cunning of other players make for tensioned matches. But considering the multiplayer should have been the focus point for this game, it is rather strange that most of Armello’s annoying problems come from it.
Through its game mechanics and map design, Armello feels to aim for faster matches something that the more complex physical board games out there usually don’t have. Playing against AI sure makes the gameplay feel speedy enough not to spend hours in a single match, but the switch to multiplayer is shocking.
When I first played in multiplayer I was caught off guard as I wasn’t expected such a slowdown in gameplay and I was lucky because I had enough time to finish the match that dragged for more than an hour. The problem stands in the design of multiplayer matches which doesn’t change at all from singleplayer. Matches against AI are fast paced as the computer takes decisions faster and the battles with other AIs are calculated in an instant, leading to turns ending quickly. But when players start to take decisions things don’t go as smoothly anymore and the game doesn’t do much to deal with this problem. The combat dice throwing and decisions taking can’t be fasten up, but the map movement can be dealt with in a better way. The timer for each player’s turn is huge for no apparent reason as the decision making isn’t as complicated in this game and doesn’t require minutes of thinking. This leads to the players which aren’t on their turn getting bored and losing focus in a waiting game that has to be repeated every other turn. I was caught tabbed multiple times as my patience ran out waiting for the other players which probably lost their patience as well and got caught tabbed as well (a vicious circle).
To make matters worse in the multiplayer waiting game, Armello has no chat system so the players involved can’t communicate in any way other than through some preselected options (greetings spam!). This brings the interaction between players to a bare minimum, which is rather ironic considering the fact that board games at their core are social games.
Playing against other players is a true challenge and the way this game should be played, but some of the mechanics behind the multiplayer are off-putting and are going to upset a lot of players to the detriment of this game. It is understandable that such a small developer doesn’t have the power to monitor an in-game chat, but a workaround should be found for this. The multiplayer matches’ speed is fixable and I’m hoping future patches will make things smoother as I really enjoy the challenge of playing against other players.
The overall gameplay of Armello might sound complicated on paper, but in reality is pretty straight forward. The mechanics have a smooth learning curve and they can be caught on the fly, but the finesse and effectiveness in strategy comes through exercise, being it against AI or the more competitive online play.
The faster pace concept and the way the cards work favor short term tactical decision above long term planning giving the game a touch of deathmatch style battles, but not fully ignoring strategic decisions. But a board game gameplay, physical or digital, is intended to be as competitive as it is fun and Armello manages to touch both objectives but not without problems.
When it comes to indie games that are on a tight budget the expectations from the technical part shouldn’t be too high. Armello clearly doesn’t have the greatest graphics and doesn’t come even close to that, but it makes up for it with its vivid colors palette which brings the fairy tale to life.
The art direction is impeccable, with a great antithesis in cute humanized animals with a cutthroat personality hidden underneath layers of puffy fur and mild faces.
To the benefit of the game, the interface is clean and its design is easy to understand and pleasing to the eyes and with it comes the graphical feature that I love the most about this game: the cards. The cards’ artistic design is as impressive as it is amusing and the animations add a great deal of life to them making them truly unique and immersive to a degree that is unexpected from something that plays a rather mechanical role in the game (seriously, their art style is mesmerizing!).
Armello’s graphics might not impress in a technical way but capture with great style the atmosphere they try to convey. This game is a fairy tale and there wasn’t a moment when I was playing it that I hadn’t felt this.
In my last review I talked about the quality of sound getting better and better in the past years and this rule also applies to indie games. Armello’s music holds onto the magical atmosphere of the game. It’s rather soft at times but intertwines with moments of agitations building up the suspense for the growing aggression of the game’s action. If I wanted something more than this game has to offer through its sound design is a voice acting fitting for its great animal characters.
As a digital board game Armello’s goal is clear. It tries to be casual enough to allow the players to get into the game with ease, but tries to be complex enough not to let its mechanics become boring after a short period of time. The game tries to reach for a wider audience and as a competitive game it deserves one, despite some of the more annoying problems that the multiplayer has to offer.
As a newly born world and lore, Armello only teases the players with its potential leaving them wanting more. The story options are limitless and I can’t stop myself what a positive influence a story mode could have on this game.
Armello has the enchanting atmosphere of a fairy tale with the brutal gameplay of a deathmatch and the tactical decision making of a strategy, but with its fate trapped in the cage that comes with small budget indie development.
(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)
+ Charming world
+ Awesome heroes
+ Awesome heroes
+ Lovely 2D animations, art style and UI design
+ Great music
+ Easy to learn
+ Good enough mechanics to stay interesting for a while
- A small map with no configurations available
- Victory conditions aren’t properly balanced
- Slow multiplayer
- No chat
- The game is crying for a story mode