Unique, Masterful Game Design In An Unlikely Place
Armello
Developer: League of Geeks
Publisher: League of Geeks
Platform: PC
MSRP: $19.99
Release Date: September 2015
Copy purchased by the reviewer

Armello is a board game.  I start with this very basic sentiment because of where you find Armello, because of how it presents itself: with small, artful cutscenes that hint at stories to come, with lovingly created animations that breathe life into two-dimensional characters. There is no set up time for this board game, no time taken to carefully read the rules or unbox the game, because Armello is, at the same time, a video game. It is not simply one or the other, it is both.

The merging of game board and virtual avatar feels natural and inspired.

Armello is a video game that presents to you a game that would feel perfect to play around your dining room table.  The easiest way to find out whether or not this is a game you will want to buy is to ask yourself this question: do you like board games?

The Basics: The King Is Dying, Long Live The King

Armello is a great example a simple premise executed well: the King of the animal clans – of course, represented by a lion – isn’t well.  In fact, he’s been infected by Rot, a purple, corrupting substance that has begun to warp him from the inside out.  His guards – represented by dogs – are starting to attack and terrorize the countryside, while Banes – massive, creepy Rot-filled vultures – are attacking everything in sight.  It’s time to take action, and work towards saving the kingdom… but how?  Another anxious point: when the dust clears, which clan will end up on top?

Warning: The king is dying, but the king will still destroy you.

The premise sets up what is occurring on the board; each player is a leader from one of the animal clans, either wolf, rat, rabbit, or bear.  Each clan has it's own style of play, and each character their own special abilities, and on top of that, you get to equip a different ring and medal each time you play, giving you more options to specialize.  While one of my favorite characters, Brun the Oakbreaker, is made for combat, you can instead increase his wit or magic for more utility.  After you've created a character, you then spend each turn (three action points for a character) exploring the board.  Towns that you own give you money, mountains are hard to climb, and there are dungeon tiles that might be good, or might be bad.

It quickly becomes obvious why Armello is digital, and not physical: the game keeps track of many factors, and does so fluidly.  Forests on the board will actually stealth your characters at night, while roaming guards of the king will occasionally attack or block your movement.  The king, dying horribly of an evil infection, puts out more 'perils', which are marked squares that cause challenges if you enter them, but you aren't sure what they are until they trigger. This can be good, because every turn you draw cards, which through the use of wits and coin, can be used to put down your own perils and problems for other players.  Or, if you like magic like me, heal yourself and immolate others.

Dice rolling usually doesn't feel this good. Or deadly.

You live and die by the dice in this game: a high fight statistic means that in combat, you are going to have more dice.  If you have more wits, it means you have more dice against perils.  There's a lot of hedging your bets which goes into your choices in Armello: the rabbit clan, as an example, might not have the scariest stats, but they are good at collecting items and coin.  You can equip items to make yourself better in particular ways, and it's important to note that there are many different ways to choose to play this game, as there are multiple ways you can win.  Are you going to be a heroic warrior, a 'peaceful' trickster, or someone that is unafraid to use Rot-infused items to murder your way to the top?  There are multiple win conditions that you are juggling, from outright breaching the castle (after a really tough peril) to kill the king, to simply outliving him and having more prestige, a currency of honor which you can cultivate.  Dying makes you start back at your camp, and lose prestige...killing other characters or Banes gives you prestige.  Sometimes, the game makes it worth violently attacking other characters at the right time, sabatoging someone else's adventure to make sure you come out on top.  For a cute game, Armello has a lot of intrigue and backstabbing built into it, keeping an intense game going.

What adds even more choice and flavor are the quests: the game gives you a choice of quests, and if you complete them, will allow you various bonuses to your character, including more risky rewards.  After completing four of these, a key into the castle is given to you.  One of the key struggles of Armello is wondering when is the right time to strike.  Can you complete your quests faster than others, or will you rush the king in a desperate gamble?  In the dozens of games I've played, my choices have led me to a stunning underdog victory, or left me in last place as the scoring screen comes around.

The Good: A Game of Imagination, Brought To Life

This game breathes character.  You start each game with lines of poetry reminding you of what is at stake.  The turn-based characters on the board snarl, brace themselves, and look furtively around the board while waiting for you to take your turn.  In what was a stroke of genius, the cards you draw during the game itself are animated beautifully, springing to life as you draw them or prepare to play them against others. X-COM: Enemy Unknown was praised for making a turn-based game feel so intense and full of action.  Armello should be praised for making a turn-based game feel so damn alive.

Occasionally, various conditions come together to give you choices that aren't usually available to you.  It adds more variety, and a wish to try again and again to play.

A perfect example of this is the game’s prologue, AKA, the tutorial. Many games have gotten better about these sometimes frustrating ordeals, infusing humor or fourth-wall breaking comedy into this process to make it easier, but Armello took a different route.  There are four tutorials, and each one is with a different one of the four animal clans.  Each one is book-ended with snippets of exposition: the wolf clan hero is shocked and stunned that the king’s guards are suddenly acting erratically.  The rabbit clan attempts to petition the king, and is rebuked, revealing more about how the mechanic of Rot can affect your game.  By the time I was playing my first full game, I felt as though I was part of this fairy-tale world.  I knew what was at stake, and I knew the various identities of the clans.

The theme and flavor of this game are top notch, but I can’t ignore what are also some great choices of game mechanics.  One thing I really appreciate is how you can win in multiple ways, and through multiple strategies.  In fact, the characters you get to choose from showcase this beautifully.  There are the four different clans, and each one highlights a specific methodology.  The wolves are aggressive, having an advantage in attack, while the rats like sneakiness and caution, using stealth to gain advantages and ambush.  The bears love magic, and utilizing it in bursts of utility or aggression, and the rabbits are excellent at collecting items and treasure to use to their advantage.

You can always win by breaching the castle and taking out the king in combat, but it’s a risky move.  You can play the long game and get prestige to win over time, but then someone else might try to win through rushing the king.  There’s spirit stones to collect as a different method to victory, or you can always give into the corruption of the land, and try to use dark power to overwhelm everyone else.  The game constantly shifts, and I find myself never 

The Bad: Sometimes, The Dice Just Hate You

Luck is a fickle thing; it’s a fact of life, and one that, in many places, we understand are okay with.  Gambling halls, for example: if you walk through those doors, you know that there’s a chance that you will lose, or win, quite a bit of money on an arbitrary way the deck was shuffled.  If you are someone who loves board games, you understand quite clearly that sometimes you will win or lose based on what next card you draw, or if you manage to roll a 20-sided die high enough…and there’s nothing you can do about that.  It’s part of the fun, the appeal, the allure.  There’s an understanding here.

For being from the 'diplomatic' clan, the rabbit Amber really, really likes murdering me.

People who typically play video games don’t like luck.  There was a game that came out in the last year, Tharsis, that was a board game brought to life.  It was panned completely by video game reviews, but got a cult following for a while among board game players.  There’s been a lot of talk about Hearthstone, the hit video game that evolved out of places like Magic: The Gathering.  People have had issues with Hearthstone because of how random it can be, from the card draw, to how effects like “Summon a random monster” can make games spiral out of control.  Some people love how Hearthstone can be a card game with zany effects that wouldn’t be possible on a normal tabletop board; others ragequit when a mage accidentally summons in a legendary foe with Unstable Portal.

Make no mistake, Armello is one of those games.  There are some games that you are going to lose, and there is nothing you can do about it.  I’ve had games where I have 15+ prestige, I’ve collected 4 spirit stones, and the giant freaking bear on the board managed to take out the king one turn earlier than I could.  I’ve had fights where I enter them with more equipment, more gear, and more dice than my foe, and end up getting sent back to my starting camp while barely scratching them.  Die are mean, cruel things, and sometimes, they will hurt you.  If you do not like luck in your games, this game is not for you.

The only other gripe that I have with Armello is the one of micro transactions.  Recently, they have released DLC, which we will be reviewing on its own soon, but they’ve also released new ‘dice’ as separate purchases.  Now, these dice are shiny, and very pretty additions, able to replace the standard ones that you already use; they also don’t take away from the game, or give any sort of benefit.  They’re cosmetic changes that you can purchase – I know that for some people, seeing these sort of DLC packs can be disheartening, so it’s something to keep in mind.

Armello Is A Bold And Beautiful Hybrid Of Gaming

I enjoy playing Armello.  I enjoy playing Armello even after the computer decides that it hates me, and makes sure that I am going to be attacked repeatedly by everything else on the board.  You can’t win them all, and this game is so well crafted, and so damn pretty that I often don’t mind just seeing how things play out.

I cannot express enough how beautiful the artwork is in this game.  The cards you play with animate and glow as you use them on your foes.

This is a board game that takes full advantage of the fact that it’s been translated to digital media.  The little animations on cards and characters add extra flavor, and because the computer can run the math, it allows for more interesting and varied play.  I can play heroes that feel completely different from each other, and I can win in multiple ways.  Best of all, unlike traditional board games, it’s found a way to shorten game-length in a way that makes sense, and keep the tension going.

If you still aren’t sure about Armello, go watch the trailer.  Find a little gameplay video to watch online.  If the art style is something that rivets you, and you aren’t afraid of a little lady luck, then believe me, this is a game for you.  Get it, challenge me to a game: I’m still trying to figure out how to be the biggest possible jerk I can be with the rat clan.