Having already sunk a few hours into the pre-release beta (it was originally developed for tablets), I can tell you that Armello is quite the unique experience. As Zen Studios does with their digital pinball machines, League of Geeks has the goal of creating a thorough, engaging tabletop experience, whilst harnessing the digital platform to provide features which would be impossible in a physical version.
I love strategy board games. Anything published in the UK by Rio Grande, I’m there. Armello is a strategy board game at heart, it’s randomly generated hex world populated with villages, mountains, forests and other points of interest reminiscent of La Citta, with a hint of Civilization. The world is populated by anthropomorphic beasts, with each set of animals belonging to various clans. The presentation is fantastic, with everything from the music and user interface to the animations and playing cards being precisely crafted. It looks great and it sounds great, but how does it play? Well, without wanting to become an instruction manual I’ll do my best to explain.
Following the outstanding Ghibliesque introduction – a sort of dark Redwall – you can delve straight into a four part extensive tutorial which perfectly pitches the game at you. There’s a lot to learn, but it’s also quite intuitive, and I highly recommend playing through each tutorial at least once so you can go into your first multiplayer game armed and dangerous. So as I say, how does it play? Well, Armello is ostensibly a board game. The playing area is a randomised set of hexagonal tiles stitched together to make a reasonably large single board, with each tile representing something in it’s entirety: A forest, a mountain range, grasslands, etc. Some tiles contain a village which is central to gameplay, as capturing them increases your daily income.
I say ostensibly, and that’s because many of Armello’s excellent features wouldn’t have the same impact as an actual physical product. The turns are split into a day and night cycle, for example, with each time being central to one team or the others strategy. In board game format, sure, you could flip over a card to show a sun or moon. But this isn’t the same as seeing the shadows stretch over the 3D rendered mountains and trees as the sun disappears over the horizon. There are many other elements which make Armello stand out from a physical product: The fantastic character animations, the soundscape changing as you roll the camera over forests and strange stone circles and on into fields and towns. The great musical score, and the embellishments on the battle screen as you roll your dice to attack the other teams. As a board game, Armello would be a really fun experience, but as a computer game it takes it to the next level – again I must draw comparison to Zen’s amazing Pinball FX 2.
Playing as a hero from one of the four animal clans, Rat, Rabbit, Bear or Wolf, you navigate your fully animated 3D character across the board (procedurally generated from 3D hex tiles). On the way you’ll quest, scheme, explore, vanquish monsters, perform the Mad King’s royal edicts, and face off against other players with one ultimate end goal in mind — storming the palace and becoming King or Queen of Armello.
When you start a new game, you’ll pick a character representing one of the four clans attempting to overthrow the Mad King. A horrible corruption known as The Rot spreads across the land, and with the King refusing to accept it’s terrible nature and save the clans under his rule, it comes down to one of the four players to stop him. That’s easier said than done, though, as you can’t just march straight up to his throne and take him out – your character would be far too weak. First of all, you must make your way across the board collecting procedurally generated quests from different towns and villages, killing hostile beasts and leveling up your characters unique stat line. You can also load out your pawn with rings and amulets, which add a personal touch to their stats, allowing you to tailor them to your own playing style, or to counter that of another player. The income you collect from achieving goals across the land allows for emergent strategy in deciding which cards and dice to play throughout your experience.
Combat plays out on its own screen, with your character on the left and the enemy on the right. You and your opponent throw bespoke combat dice onto the board, and they match up against each other to decide the outcome. Like the rest of Armello, it’s all beautifully animated, and really draws you into the game beyond a tabletop experience. There are over 120 animated playing cards in the game, and these can be burnt at the start of battle – and at various other times, some even during opponents’ turns – to give you buffs and other useful perks on your way to victory. There are multiple ways to win, too: You can quite literally commit regicide and take the crown for yourself. You can attempt to finish every emergent quest and take a victory of prestige. Or you can, perhaps most satisfyingly, thwart your opponents and bide your time as they succumb to The Rot. Of course, the corruption is spreading in you too, so it’s alright starting out with a plan of attack, but you need to be able to think on the fly as the strategies of other players will need to be countered.
Mechanically and technically, Armello should be a masterpiece. All of the pieces are in place, and the developers have clearly spent a lot of time not only perfecting the game, but providing a layer of polish which outshines most other digital board games. It really is as fun to look at as it is to play, and the sonics provide a great overarching atmosphere to the world and it’s troubles. There are a couple of areas which fall short however, and they really are the most basic. First of all, the multiplayer. It’s online only. Board game fans are used to playing in the same room, and the banter which ensues forms part of the atmosphere and directly influences the participants enjoyment. Seriously, how difficult would it be to have the option? Let us decide if people are trying to sneak a look at our cards. We can tell them to look away. Games have been doing this since the advent of strategy game Laser Squad back in the eighties! Secondly, the online multiplayer is fairly free of player interaction. Now, you can watch people’s battles play out and the like, and you get to play cards when you’re off-turn (killing someone with a sneaky spell when they’ve just survived an encounter is a despicable favourite of mine), but it’s missing key features of communication. You can only send pre-written lines of chat to someone so many times, and it’s just not the same laughing at someone’s failure when there’s only you there to hear it. It’s great being able to play with people across the globe, but I want friendly interaction with my missus while we play!
Despite these gripes, Armello is still a great game. It falls short of excellence by a whisper, but as the developers have put out four major updates for free on Steam over the past year, I have high hopes for the future. It’s a labour of love, for sure, and one which I’m confident will continue to be updated in the future.
Armello has a piece of DLC which has been readied to coincide with it’s Xbox One launch, available from the marketplace now. Called the Usurpers pack, it adds four new characters, rings and powers to the game covering various play styles. The details are as follows:
Magna, the Unbroken: A tank-like Wolf Clan member with the Hero Power, “Shield Maiden,” which allows her to reflect attacks. Magna’s high Body and Fight stats in combination with Shield Maiden is ideally suited for players who focus on combat.
Elyssia, Wardress of Warrens: A hero of the Rabbit Clan who can permanently fortify settlements with her “Architect” ability, granting Elyssia greater control of the daily gold reward for holding settlements. While not the strongest in straightforward fights, her high Wits stat and ability to monopolize Armello’s economy make her very dangerous.
Ghor, The Wyldkin: A Bear Clan hero whose magic draws strength from forests. His Hero Power, “Conduit,” allows him to cast spells for one less magic per adjacent forest, and enables him to cast to any woodland tiles on the board. This powerful ability, is ideal for stealthy spell play.
Sargon, The Death Teller: The latest addition to the Rat Clan has evenly balanced stats, but his Hero Power, “Veil Gazer,” makes him a very appealing choice to cerebral players. Sargon has the ability to see cards before they’re drawn, giving him a strategic advantage over every other character.
So, is Armello and it’s DLC worth your time? Yes. Yes it is. Again, I must emphasise that in my opinion it falls short during online multiplayer, which could be considered it’s most important aspect, but as a whole? If you’re a fan of strategy, then I absolutely recommend it. If you’re also a board game fanatic, it’s a no brainer. Armello has the potential to go on and be the best digital board game ever made. I’d love to see a scenario editor in the future that allowed players to build their own boards and win scenarios, and local multiplayer is an absolute must – but whatever happens, I’m confident it will continue to grow and garner fans from across the world, and that by this time next year my review will be irrelevant.
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