It’s easy to make snap judgements with games, particularly indie games. While the art style for Armello is unquestionably beautiful, our first half an hour with the game was defined by boredom and a sense that this really wasn’t the game for us. A digital board game, the turns took quite a long while, there seemed to be far too many mechanics happening at once, and worst of all, much of it seemed quite random. Imagine playing Snakes and Ladders, Mouse Trap and Poker all at once in the middle of a Dungeons and Dragons game. That’s what it felt like. However, this was purely the fault of the tutorial. As soon as the game opened up and let us play a real match, everything made sense. Suddenly the lessons learned in the tutorial were vital pieces of information to make the best decision. You discover that while all of the mechanics are in play at once, you tend to choose one or two to focus on and the others merely become an annoyance. The strategy reveals itself and it turns from a mish-mash of luck games to something much closer to a strategy card game mixed with a little bit of Heroes of Might and Magic tied in.
Armello takes place on a small hex-based board with a base for each character at the corners and a castle in the middle. The goal of the game is to be the person to usurp the King in the castle. You choose a animal character (everything in this game is lovingly drawn with credits to the artists, even on each card) and some perks and then you start the game taking in turns. Each turn is either day or night, in the day a new decree from the King is chosen by the person with the highest prestige (a currency) which can dramatically alter the board, and everyone gets money from the villages they own. At night everyone gets some magic back (another currency) and some terrible ‘banes’ spawn, monsters of the ‘rot’ that is killing the kingdom. The King is a character like any other, albeit an incredibly powerful one. One way of winning is simply to kill him. Each turn he loses some life because he has been infected with the rot, but as the rot grows stronger he develops a new ability to use that rot when he fights you. Another way of winning is to collect four ‘spirit stones’ that randomly spawn around the map, then take them to the rot-infected King to banish him. Or you could simply wait until the King dies from his infection and be the player with the most prestige. You can even purposefully infect yourself with the rot, which damages you each turn, but also lets you use the King’s power against him. These are all possibilities and it’s wise to choose your strategy early on, although you might have to change it half way through.
Each turn you get three action points (unless it’s modified by something else) and you can go capture villages, explore dungeons (both just achieved by standing on their tile) or try to fight things. Tresspass into the castle or attack a guard and you’ll get a bounty on your head, with the guards coming after you on their turn and other players getting a gold bonus if they kill you. At the start of each turn you get to pick some cards that could be items (you can only equip three at a time), spells (you use your magic for these) or tricks, which can be placed on the board to mess up the plans of your enemies. You also get a quest at any given time, which will normally involve going to a certain tile on the board then completing a ‘peril’. You can choose if you want to face the peril, with the chance for a greater reward, or if you want to play it safe and come away with much less.
With all of the combat and perils, it’s a dice based game and your equipment and stats provide modifiers for those dice rolls. You can also burn cards to guarantee certain dice outcomes to give yourself an upper hand. There’s is a distinct element of chance and you’ll often feel the rolls are against you, but it provides a nice bit of tension, especially when it comes to the final fights against the King where you might each be rolling 10 dice and anything could happen.
With all of these different mechanics happening at once and four players competing, the game can seem a little chaotic, but thanks to the small board and small penalty for death (you respawn at your base and the opponent gets some prestige) it never feels like a lost cause and it rarely gets too much to take in. Guessing the next moves of your opponents is as important as planning your own so voice chat is a huge benefit to multiplayer matches and with some friends on Skype it’s a great deal more fun.
We’ve been enjoying Armello a lot, but it is clearly going to appeal to quite a niche audience. If the thought of playing what is very much a board game on your PC doesn’t bother you, then you’ll undoubtedly find something to love here once you get past the tutorial, but if you’re expecting a grander turn-based strategy you’re going to find this quite limited in scale.