Review: Armello’s Bright Eyes, Burning Like Fire
The Kingdom of Armello is indeed enchanting with its whimsical characters and darker underbelly, but does it promise enough to invest more than a passing glance?
- Worth The Time?Yes.
- Things LovedGorgeous art design, multiple paths to victory, thrill of the always unpredictable dice roll, varied card effects.
- Things HatedTime between turns, randomness can be frustrating.
- RecommendationFor fans of turn-based strategy and fantasy-themed boadgames.
- Name: Armello
- Genre: Digital role-playing strategy board game
- Players: 1 - 4
- Multiplayer: Yes
- Platforms: Windows, Linux, PS4, iOS, Android
- Developer: League of Geeks
- Publisher: League of Geeks
- Price: $19
- Reviewed On: PC
We homo sapiens REALLY enjoy our anthromorphic animals. We’re pretty content with just hearing them speak as a grizzled Machiavellian lion with the voice of Jeremy Irons, but dress ’em up and give ’em weapons and human vices, and we lose our collective…er…minds. Watership Down, Duncton Wood, The Chronicles of Narnia – our childhoods are seeped in fond memories of bespectacled rabbits, buccaneering mice and moles at war. I’m not here to plumb the depths of our psyche to understand why this is the case, only to mention that League of Geeks understand this human quirk, and with Armello they set out to dial the nostalgia to 11.
That was however just one of the reasons I was eager to dive in to the game. The other was to inspect the claims that this was a digital boardgame at heart. It’s an easy claim to make, given the many mechanical similarities between tabletop and digital – especially so when observing how quickly the digital boardgame conversion market is growing. Not only are there a slew of popular boardgame titles that now have an app equivalent, there is a strong impetus toward creating the kind of online tabletop experience that up until now has been largely the domain of open source development. So while it’s entirely reasonable to expect that developers would look to market toward the boardgamer demographic, the more important question however is – cynical marketing ploy, or genuine implementation?
I’m happy to report that the boardgame elements in Armello are more than just superficial similarities. In fact, the developers have managed to showcase the ways in which the digital world can enhance certain mechanics, and it makes me excited for the future possibilities. There’s a large part of the boardgame community who view this digital progress as an encroaching army of sorts, threatening to pillage everything they love about boardgames by polluting it with filthy lines of code. I, on the other hand, have a less cautious outlook. I’ve witnessed first hand the complimentary manner in which technology is beginning to infiltrate boardgaming, and I’m of the opinion that the innovations digital technology is able to offer can only present an inviting challenge for boardgame design.
But I digress, let’s talk about Armello!
The King has become afflicted with the Rot, a corrupting force which has left him stranded precariously upon the cliffs of insanity. And whilst outwardly it bestows upon him great power, it eats away at his life force in secret, and within a matter of days he will be dead. Enter the champions of Armello’s various factions, all of whom have identified an opportune moment to reach for power. Some may seek to cure the King, thereby taking his place and his gratitude, others are less conflicted about the shedding of royal blood, and prefer to leave nothing to chance.
Boardgamers will immediately recognise a similarity with the Runebound series. The virtual board is also hexagonal, the tiles representative of varying terrain that eases or obscures traversal, and each hero is able to equip cards as weapons or buffs. There are also mini-quests to be found on certain tiles, undertaking them grants additional coin or stat increases. These quests are completed by rolling successful dice checks, and combat is handled in the same manner, even making use of the exploding dice mechanic (if a particular symbol is rolled, you can reroll the die). Each game involves 3 other human or computer-controlled opponents, and the King also has guards who carry out his orders with a ruthless efficiency. Then there are Banes, servants of the Rot and just all-around nuisances. So prepare yourself for rather a lot of dice rolling.
Gameplay is pleasingly simple – use your pool of Action Points to move around the map and interact with whatever that particular hex holds in store for you. Mountain hexes require two AP to traverse, swamp hexes damage for one point of health, forest hexes provide stealth and tombs whisper the promise of tasty loot. Sometimes you’ll attack, sometimes you will be attacked, and at some point you’ll hopefully trigger one of a multiple victory conditions. You could defeat the King outright in combat, but he’s a rather powerful son-of-a-lioness and this is probably the hardest route to take. Or you could collect four Spirit Stones (which are quest rewards or which pop up on random hexes over the course of the game) – these simply require you to make it to the central Castle hex, thereby curing the King. Lastly, since the King’s death is inevitable, you could avoid him completely and just make sure that by the time he dies, you have the highest Prestige rating (this also counts if an opponent attacks and kills the king, but they don’t survive the battle).
Death is never a problem, as you simply spawn in one of the map corners at your faction base, and chances are you will die at least once every game. Smarter players will also realise that dying allows you to travel around the map more quickly, since needing to travel from say the upper right corner to the lower left will require at least three rounds of normal movement. Dying will not only transport you instantaneously, but it also puts you back at full health. You’d potentially be giving up a point of Prestige, but the risk often worth it.
The meat of Armello is to be found in how you differentiate yourself from your opposition. Each of the 8 characters, whether you’re playing the wolf Thane, or Sana the bear, or even Mercurio the perpetually grinning rat, has different starting stats – Fight, Health, Wits and Spirit. Fight and Health are obviously both combat related, Wits is used in defeating Perils, and Spirit is the game’s form of Mana. Starting gold will also differ, and lastly each character has a unique Talent. Amber, the Rabbit, gets a bonus to exploring Tombs for example.
Once you’ve chosen a character (and you’ll be wanting to match a character to a specific path to victory if possible) the other area of the game that results in asymmetric play is the cards. The beautifully illustrated and animated cards. Man, those cards are pretty to look at. You’ll burn through a fair number of these in every game, but each round sees you drawing back up to a limited hand-size. What do the cards do? Some are great swords and axes which provide additional combat dice, others are Trickery cards that can be played on another player or a hex as a trap, others are Spells which buff your own character or aid in dealing with Rot.
Helping to offset the potential disadvantage of drawing cards that just aren’t particularly useful, cards can also be ‘burnt’ to add the value of the cards symbol to a dice roll. Cards with an attack symbol can be burnt to add an additional combat hit, cards with a Rot symbol might prove very valuable when attempting to meet a Quest requirement roll. A quick word on Prestige, which is earned through defeating other players or successfully completing quests – As Armello has a day/night cycle, each dawn the King will look to implement a decree, but not without the advice of the player with the highest Prestige value. You’ll be asked to choose between two proclamations, often times incredibly devious in their effects, which makes aiming to be in that position each morning an attractive proposition indeed.
I found it a surprisingly tough struggle to settle on an opinion of Armello. The game looks great, the music is pleasant enough, the decisions are interesting and your action points are never enough to achieve what you need to (always a good thing). The small map makes for a tighter game, and the different characters and their unique abilities do provide a level of variability. From a boardgame design perspective, I also appreciated the use of mechanics such as using stealth while on a Forest hex. It’s something a tabletop game isn’t able to achieve at this point, and it’s the kind of approach I hope to see in other digital games that walk a similar path to Armello’s.
And whilst I certainly wouldn’t say that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, it’s difficult to recommend a purchase. There’s definitely an imbalance in terms of certain combinations of character to victory condition (Amber the Rabbit and a Prestige victory are a match made in heaven), and the lack of an ability to fast-forward or skip through opponent turns is very frustrating. It bloats game length to the point where it’s unlikely you’ll be able to play two quick games in under an hour, which is where the majority of other digital boardgames find their sweet-spot. I’m also not convinced the game has the requisite depth – sure there are various types of jewelry to be unlocked which grant your characters additional buffs, but especially for single-player there’s just not enough to warrant repeated visits. Multiplayer unfortunately doesn’t fare much better. There’s not much strategy to be pondered over between turns, which exacerbates the downtime, and as is often the case with smaller titles, unless you have a group of friends keen to play with you, finding human opponents is a struggle.
I appreciate the position League of Geeks is in. They’re competing against a slew of digital boardgames available on tablets and smartphones for a quarter of the price, but at the same time the production value of Armello far exceeds those games. And at it’s heart, Armello IS a boardgame, so surely criticising it for not introducing enough new content the more you play seems a counterintuitive criticism? After all, Ticket to Ride doesn’t evolve over multiple plays and it has a very popular digital version – shouldn’t they be viewed through a similar lens? It’s almost as if the game is its own worst enemy – it looks good enough and plays good enough to be mistaken for a deeper game, and yet it also stays true to the feel of a traditional boardgame. It’s new territory, and so I’m conflicted. I want to urge you to support the game because it IS clever and fun and something I want to see and experience more of.
As an Android or iOS game, Armello is fantastic, and even though it’s only slated for release on those operating systems next year, you should absolutely consider a purchase. On PC, it depends very much on what type of gamer you are. Certainly, I don’t think the game has quite enough to entice the boardgame community – there’s just not a strong enough social component present. However, if you’re the type of gamer who derives great joy out of playing a round or two of Civilisation 5, you may well see greater value in Armello.
It’s true that the equivalent boardgame would probably retail around the $50 which makes Armello seem cheap by comparison, but had the game existed in that format, it would rely heavily on the social interaction around the table. as much as Armello’s heart may be in the world of boardgames, it remains a video game and subject to the criticisms of that same format. I enjoyed my time with the game, I just wish there was more to entice me back.