By Tom Tolios / August 28th, 2015
I went into Armello not knowing exactly what it was going to be. It was described to me, without any other context, as ‘Game of Thrones with rabbits.’ Because of this description, without even knowing what the gameplay was going to be like, I was expecting it to have a lot of narrative intrigues, politics, backstabbing and hard decisions mired in murky, gray morality. And, while it can fairly be said that the game does partly require you to to advance your cause by stifling the efforts of others, culling the king’s favor and jumping on weakened enemies, it possesses its own fairly unique identity and is part of a subgenre that has woefully few entries in the realm of electronic entertainment.
Armello is a board game. More specifically, it’s a virtual board game where you pick from a variety of characters with different strengths, move them around a hex-based map representing a lush and varied fantasy world of forests, magic circles, dungeons and mountains. While you travel, you complete quests, face monsters, gather resources and sometimes have to deal with opportunistic rivals (played by the other players). Questing and fighting make you strong enough to achieve ultimate victory. You’ll also draw cards that can give you equipment, temporary buffs or can be played on the game board’s tiles to strengthen or weaken a given obstacle or even use them to harass your opponents and make things harder for them.
When you start the game, you can pick from one of four (there will be eight in the final build) anthropomorphic characters that come from different corners of the world. For my experiences, I stuck with Thane the wolf, the character with the best swordfighting capabilities. He was a little low on Wits, which determine the size of your card hand, and Spirit, which determines how much magic you start each turn with. My feeling was that a simple forceful approach would help me overcome most obstacles and, in the event that I needed to rely on my cunning or magic ability, I’d take my chances.
But what was the point of the game? What did you have to do to win? In this anthropomorphic-inhabited land, also called ‘Armello,’ there is a king who I’m sure was once wise and just, but has somehow become corrupted by a plague called ‘The Rot.’ It’s slowly killing him, and he only has ten days and ten nights left to survive. So, what you — and all the other players — are doing is traveling the land, questing, getting stronger and earning notoriety (represented by a stat called ‘Prestige’) so that you can build yourself up to inherit the crown. It’s actually a pretty interesting story and serves as a good narrative backdrop.
Armello is turn based, with each of the four players acting during the daytime phase of the game board and again during the night phase. You start by drawing cards from your choice of three different decks, and you can mix and match as you please, with each of the decks favoring one of the three key stats (Fight, Wits, Spirit). Ideally, you’d draw cards that would cater to your character’s strengths, but this won’t always be the case. If you’ve accumulated a lot of magic, drawing from the Spell deck isn’t a bad idea. Then you can move up to three hexes on the board, claiming towns to earn gold, entering dungeons for random rewards or penalties and going to magic circles to heal up. Where you go and what you’ll do are largely dependent on what’s close to you and how much it can benefit you at that point in the game. Strategy is key in Armello.
There are a few different types of quests you can tackle; each with varying rewards to help you grow into a worthy sovereign. When you start the game, you are given a choice of three different quest types that you can select, each one requiring a different stat. Usually, these are between Fight (melee), Wits (trickery and cunning) and Spirit (magic). Once you choose, a quest marker will be placed somewhere on the board and you have to make your way there, navigating the perils of the countryside as you go, and then complete the challenge. You’ll be required to roll a set of virtual dice, and the quantity you roll is based on the requisite stat. Equipped cards can add to your dice pool, but unused cards can be ‘burned’ to provide a one-time buff. You lose the card, but you might gain the advantage as a result. When you finish the quest, you are given another three-quest options to choose from and you repeat the process. In addition to quests you can choose, there are obstacles called ‘Perils’ that can be placed by world events or by players using cards. Succeeding at Perils grants Prestige, and losing at them causes a negative effect that is described by the Peril’s card and varies greatly. I should note, however, that you don’t need to complete these quests or Perils to win. The benefits, however, are certainly enticing and will be useful in the endgame.
Combat works in a similar fashion to quests, but always relies on your Fight stat and are always against other players, Banes (monsters that spawn from dungeons) or King’s Guards, which roam the land hunting for Banes. If you have a Bounty on you (either by attacking a King’s Guard or as a result of a world event), they’ll come after you, as well. The rogue elements of the Banes and King’s Guards are a nice addition because killing Banes grants Prestige but, in addition to the other players gunning for them, the King’s Guards are out there wiping them off the map and removing that particular resource from play. Sure, they come back, but, after going out of your way for a turn to kill one only to have it stolen by a NPC can be frustrating. Luckily, the game provides you with so many opportunities (provided you use solid strategy) that you can recover from this, too.
Fighting, of course, depletes your health, which is represented in the form of your Body stat and can be restored at stone circles. And, even if you die, the most you suffer is a loss of Prestige (a valuable stat, to be sure, but not essential for victory) and a respawn at your starting point. It’s a setback, but you never feel as though you’re completely out of the game unless the King’s about to die and you aren’t close enough to anyone or anything to get back in the thick of things.
There are several different ways to win in Armello. You can build your strength up and just storm the castle, but this takes a few turns if you want to do it right. You can also have the most Prestige when the king finally succumbs to The Rot, but this is a risky way to win because in the last few days, his health is almost gone and somebody that gets lucky on the dice could kill him and snatch victory away. Lastly, there are Spirit Stones that you can gather from the map or from quests. Obtaining four spirit stones and bringing them to the castle will banish the Rot-infested King, clearing your way to the throne. Players can also suffer Rot, as well, and, when that happens, there is another entire set of interesting mechanics that come into play and offer even more variety and strategies to explore.
All in all, Armello looks like a winner in the virtual board game genre. I daresay that it’s better than a lot of the best board games on the market right now. I’ve been told that the game’s various animations in the finished version will be more detailed and intricate, but I had no issue whatsoever with what’s in the early build. But the graphics, as nice as they are, aren’t the real appeal to the game. The rules and mechanics are the real stars here, and you can tell that a lot of work went into balancing all of the game’s various components. I’ll definitely be looking forward to the finished version when it comes out next month. It’s definitely worth a look, especially if you like board games and strategy games, and, with the ability to play online with others, you should get enjoyment out of this for some time to come.
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