It may be bad form, but I’m opening with a tangent; I’ve always had a ‘thing’ about zooming in and snooping around whenever a game asks you to take a more ‘deitesque’ approach to gameplay. ‘Cities: Skylines’ made my list of ‘Best Games I played in 2015‘ and whilst I didn’t admit it at the time, had the zoom option been absent (or more likely my scroll wheel broken) I would want to circle back past that year’s offerings carefully when weighing up if I should retain Paradox Interactive’s embarrassingly superior homage to Sim City on that particular register. Just hovering, formless, over a street corner, the street lights gently glowing, the wind in trees mixing playfully with the distant traffic noise, watching those late commuters returning to their virtual homes; it is captivating. The same was true of the mostly forgotten Atari STe title, ‘Prince’, (in the bundled ‘Entertainment’ pack) which, past some truly epic title music, was for me an exercise in zooming in and marvelling at the various pixel sprite villages strewn over this medieval battleground before my army was overrun and I was forced to start again. The delicately pieced together tiles that make up the kingdom of ‘Armello’ have that same ‘cosy’ quality, and with that as my kicking off point, the rest of the game isn’t too shabby either.
There have been some top notch translations of board games to mobile devices in the past couple of years and I assume those that have made it to console and PC are just as noteworthy… and I say assume because I generally don’t play board games on PC. I play their mobile counterparts to survive that hive of overheard conversations known as my commute, and the physical things themselves I love… but PC (or console if that’s your, ‘bicyclette atelier de réparation‘, as the French would say) I reserve for things that are more dynamic in nature; besides, the joy of a good board game is sitting with friends and absorbing the experience together. So it’s a rarity to find a digital boardgame that I have enjoyed for a good number of hours, both against friends online and (the slightly average) AI. Backtracking slightly to gesture to a point of interest that you may otherwise have missed, ‘Armello’ is a board game including: dice combat, a hex tiled playing area, limited actions each turn, several draw decks, various numerical stats & resources… pretty much everything apart from the all powerful ‘tail of dog’ that brings destruction and a premature end to the fun in many board games.
Mechanically it is measured; each element brought in to the game feels carefully considered and when combined these gameplay elements form a tight & balanced game with, crucially, several valid playstyles and routes to victory which encourages flexibility and provides variety to players. Given that there is no career mode, and the only progression is through unlocks, variety is essential to precipitate that grain of intrigue which triggers the ever elusive replay. Character perks & stats, supplemented by additional equippable amulets, present an upfront choice in playstyle but ingame equipment & ‘followers’ offer a realistic way to modify further if you suffer midgame buyers remorse. Likewise the start of each turn offers the player three different decks to draw their hand from: items, spells, and trickery. The variety of play shines through brightest however in the four different win conditions: Combat Victory, Prestige Victory, Spirit Stone Victory, or Rot Victory; and its worth the time to look at each one in turn.
The once good King has been warped by the ‘rot’; an evil curse which poisons his mind and body. Brooding in his castle he grows weaker each dawn facing an inevitable demise.
Combat victory is the easiest to appreciate, kill the King (and survive the encounter) and claim the crown. As the King grows weaker throughout the game this task theoretically becomes easier, so building your stats (through player quests and items) during the early turns often gives way to a full on attack later. Falling into the class of ‘Hmmm… The same… But also not‘ is the rot victory which requires that you become more rotten than the King before killing him. High levels of rot can make your character very powerful, but there are penalties (an idea ripped straight from every fantasy story ever) and accumulating rot in significant amounts is something that the game is delightfully coy about. Prestige is earned through player combat, completing quests, and a smattering of other routes; the prestige leader has a special place in the King’s tormented heart, should the monarch perish, without a clear victor via another win condition, then the prestige leader takes the crown. This has the effect of pitching a player shooting for prestige victory against those who are trying to kill the King. Finally players can find mystical spirit stones, when they either appear randomly, or are won through questing; collecting 4 and making it to the King allows you to cure him and often stealthily win the game whilst your fellow ‘heroes’ battle it out over prestige and murdering rights.
So with its varied gameplay, cute fantasy setting, a satisfying blend of skill, judgement, luck, and timing, why doesn’t it exist as a physical thing? In short, it would be horrible to play; the game carries out a staggering amount of ‘admin’ and book-keeping every single turn. This encompasses standard elements such as keeping track of player stats, resources, spell cast range and ensuring that the daily global modifiers are adhered to (as well as the day night cycle itself). Then there are more complex elements; traps that can be increased in difficulty after they have been placed, NPC behaviour of the King’s guards & wraiths, changing symbols on cards due to spell effects, and secret quest locations. Finally there is stealth, which would be farcical to orchestrate; character visibility that changes depending on terrain or time of day, still being subject to traps, combat, and normal space effects… Oh, and ‘scout’, which gives another player the ability to see hidden things on specific tiles (ie revealing stealthy players only to them). Each book-keeping phase would end up taking 20 mins, could involve various notepads, hidden cards, blindfolds… And maybe even a second game board in the next room…
Armello’s strength as a board game can be found in its balance and variety; its strength as a videogame however, comes from its use of the medium; allowing the genre to grow beyond the practical limitations imposed by physical cards and pieces. That’s not to say that a well crafted physical version wouldn’t look nice; it just wouldn’t be the same game.
Armello is available on PC, Playstation & XBox … also the dice animation is very satisfying…