Armello: A true digital board game - Games Weekly

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Armello: A true digital board game

I’ve heard developers describe their projects as being inspired by strategy board games, but Armello takes it one step further. In all the ways that matter, Armello is a board game, but one that takes advantage of its digital presentation to add animation, music, and procedurally generated tile layouts. The crowd-funded title offers an intriguing mix of clever mechanics in a beautifully realized fantasy world. The early build I played still has some balancing issues, but the presentation is charming.

The land of anthropomorphic animals called Armello is in trouble. Its king has been infected with a horrible disease called Rot, which is slowly driving him mad and will lead to his eventual death. As the leader of one of various tribes, like the rabbits, bears, or wolves, you must quest across the land in an effort to save the nation, and stay ahead of the other tribes and their machinations.

Each player (either solo against A.I., or up to four online opponents) moves across a procedurally generated set of tiles in the turn-based action. Mountains slow movement, dungeons offer random rewards, and towns can be controlled to generate additional money each turn. Each space has its own properties, but the random layout of each game demands that you choose your path carefully.

Armello’s most interesting strategic twist is its multiple paths to victory. The mad lion king is a threat to the entire land, and a viable path to victory is overcoming his palace defenses and slaying him in battle. But that’s a hard fight, so the better option may be to complete enough quests to find the four spirit stones you need to cleanse the king of his curse. If you’re willing to give yourself over to the dark side, you can also win by becoming even more Rot-tarnished than the sovereign, and then conquering him to become the new mad leader. Finally, each player wins prestige throughout the game. If no one takes a more direct path to victory, the person with the most prestige when the king finally dies of his disease wins. Do you maximize certain skills in a bid to confront the king before all the other players, or focus on questing in the name of curing him? Multiple win strategies make for a more interesting competition, and force each player to pay attention to the others’ actions.

An intriguing dice-based conflict mechanic helps resolve fights and perilous situations you encounter during your journey. Your rank in stats like Fight and Wits determines the number of dice you get to roll in relevant encounters, and each die can offer added attack, defense, and other effects. Players also have a hand of cards they can use to improve their chances and decrease an enemy’s options. Equipment and follower cards are equipped for permanent boosts, and spells and tricks are played against your opponents. Alternately, cards can be burned during conflicts to get a one-time boost adding a particular guaranteed die result into the resolution of the encounter.

Beyond its core mechanics, Armello includes a number of fun features that add complexity and variety. A day/night cycle changes properties on the board, like the availability of magic or the movement of monsters around the board. Every day, the mad king offers up a declaration, one of two effects chosen by his current favorite advisor whichever player currently holds the most prestige. Declarations, like outlawing player fights or forcing everyone to discard their entire hand of cards, dramatically change the upcoming turn. But my favorite concept is the narrative-based quests given to each player, which guide you to a designated tile and present a choice about how to resolve a particular scenario through the use of your skills. I wish the game included more of this kind of storytelling, as the fantasy fiction is a lot of fun.

I played several games of Armello, and I’m impressed by its tight, interlocking systems. The small board requires constant conflict, which I like, but I hope League of Geeks continues to work on encounter balance. Too many conflicts result in both characters dying rather than getting a clear winner, with each being forced to restart at their corner of the map. The potential for a true digital board game is high, as it embraces the social and strategic potential of the medium. Armello is unlike any other title on the market, and I’m interested to see if its whimsical setting and smart gameplay finds an audience.

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