I have noticed lately that I have a tendency to gravitate to pretty looking games. I’m not sure when this started, but it certainly happened with Armello. If you like board game mechanics integrated into a Studio Ghibli-like fantasy adventure, well, you’re in for a treat – designed by League of Geeks and supported by the local (Australian) and international (Kickstarter) communities – Armello is what you have been waiting for.
The game is set in the diurnal world of Armello. A Lion “King” (leave me alone, Disney lawyers) is in decline after he was infected by Rot. “Rot,” for lack of a better descriptor, is an infectious calamity that reduces your health during the day and raises your level of corruption at night. This king is slowly dying and there are four clans consisting of warrior wolves, adventuring rabbits, mystical bears and murdering rats vying for the crown. There is also a 5th faction called the Bandit Clan, available for Kickstarter backers now or as paid DLC in 2016.
Armello is absolutely beautiful. I cannot say this enough. The terrain, the characters, the cards and even the dice. It has such a Studio Ghibli sensibility to it. It is a pleasure to look upon, and to listen to. The soundtrack is fantastic too.
As you might conclude from above, every character in this game is represented by anthropomorphic animals like the ones found in the Redwall series. There is a wide assortment of them and they are fantastic. You really get a feel for the world when sneaky ferrets and badgers are sharpening their knives in a back alley right before they mug you. There are recruitable followers, too. These are part of your posse, or could be if you can afford to add them. Followers can provide you with extra dice during combat, reveal the quests of your opponents and much much more.
Armello is both a board game and a card game ruled by evil dice, or as the computer gamer calls them, RNG gods. A single match can last as little as 20 minutes or as long as one can tolerate. There are several different ways to win, but they all conclude with the old king dying. I know, sucks for him, right? But you better hurry, you only have 18 or so turns to get it done.
Digital board game you say?
The game board is a map that has mountain ranges (defense bonus and a movement penalty), swamps (health penalty), forests (night-time stealth), dungeons (treasure spots), stone circles (health regeneration), plains, towns (money) and the player’s personal clan grounds (safe territory). You and your three opponents start on opposite corners of the map and move around to finish faction quests, explore dungeons, and defeat various enemies including kingsguard, Banes and each other as you prepare to take on the king. You have to achieve all of this with three action points per turn. Yes, in a single turn, you can only move or do a total of three things, unless a peril reduces that number or you cast a spell to increase it.
There is also the day and night cycle. In the mornings, you gain gold which is based on how many towns you control, and at night you restore your magic. Corrupted players, those infected with the aforementioned Rot, also lose a health point when the sun comes up, so make sure your HP doesn’t end up at one, or you will die and start all over at your clan grounds.
There are eight stats to contend with. They vary from clan to clan and character to character. There is a sword representing your battle stat, or in game terms, how many dice you have that can be applied to offense and/or defense. Body is represented by a heart showing your current and maximum health points. Wit is represented by a chalice that is used to determine the maximum number cards you can have in your “hand” at any given time and your ability to resist trickery perils. Finally there is spirit, which looks like a flame. This stat is used to determine your magic level as well as your ability to resist magic perils. Then you have your wealth represented by coins, your magic which is represented by a swirly thing, your prestige represented by a crown, and finally your corruption represented by a rotting worm. That’s a lot of stats, but they are intuitive and easy to keep track of once you start playing.
Your stats are divided into two groups. One group is active, which is used for resolution purposes like combat and perils. The second group encompasses your ability to carry out passive activities like casting spells or paying to equip armor and weapons. For example, an active stat is your wits stat. It is used to regulate how many cards you draw at the beginning of each phase. It can also be used during questing or specific challenges called perils where your stat value (up to 10) is used to generate success/failure rolls. So, if a quest is testing your wits and you have a value of 5, it’s a 50/50 chance for success. More on quests in a moment.
As I mentioned earlier, the game has both dice and cards. The dice are used to resolve challenges when called upon. Cards are used to notate the various “things” in the game: spells, equipment, followers, trickery, boosts for combat and non-combat alike. Armello really does play like a digital board game with all the charm and teeth gnashing that comes with such games.
Let’s go a-questing
From turn to turn, you can follow your main quest to power up, which can result in acquiring new cards or treasures while raising your stats and prestige. The quests you are assigned are random, so the experience will be different every time you play. Quests have both positive and negative attributes. If you succeed, you may gain an item, a spell, or a follower as well as a stat boost and prestige. You might also fail, and that could result in a loss of health, a negative peril or even a downgrade of your reputation (prestige). Finally, you can always take the easy way out, and gain the generic quest reward without gaining or losing anything “extra”. There can be a third option, but I’ll leave it for you to find out.
Beyond quests, there are also Banes to deal with. A Bane (an evil shadow crow thing) has a chance of infecting you with Rot, which can be good or bad. At sun up, infected players take a point of damage and that can kill you if you only have one HP left. Banes and corrupted players (like the king) also draw strength from the infected creatures which give them more dice in combat. Unless you have a higher Rot value, which results in you drawing strength from the infected instead. That’s actually part of the Rot victory condition but more on that later.
Regardless of how it goes, your last quest will always grant you free access to the king’s castle. This castle is fraught with danger. Entering will immediately use up your action points and force you to endure the castle perils. If you fail, you take a prestige hit, lose health and get a bounty placed on your head and then you’re summarily kicked out of the castle grounds. Which is usually followed by the guards or the other players ambushing you. A successful castle invasion allows you to stay on the grounds and attempt to win the game, assuming you can survive until your next turn. This is where the various win conditions come into play which will be explored in a bit.
How about that combat?
One of the most fun aspects of Armello is the combat. Using both the randomness of the dice and the certainty of your cards can really create some unique situations. There are several steps that need to be followed before engaging in a fight. Make sure that you are well equipped. The right equipment can give you additional dice AND remove them from your opponent. Cast the right spells and you’ll boost your stats or reduce theirs. Attack at night (when stealthed) and you’ll surprise your target locking their cards out completely for that engagement.
Let’s use the art above as an example of combat. When you first look at those odds, you’d think I am going to lose this engagement, right? I didn’t! Let me explain why. As Mercurio the rat, my three shields and two swords are there because of my equipment. Using my cards from my hand could give me an advantage, but in reality, it would reduce the number of dice in play for me since burning a card to guarantee a result removes a die from play. When a die is rolled, there are six possible outcomes: swords for attack, shield for defense, sun for a day attack only, moon for a night attack only, Wyld Tree for an additional die if you are good and Rotting Worm which gives you nothing unless you are corrupted, in which case the tree and worm switch rolls.
Every time you roll your die and it lands on a favorable (sword/shield) face, your attack/defense is increased. There are a lot of possible combinations here with the RNG going in one direction or another. The goal of combat is to have as many dice as possible in play. Cards, equipment, day/night cycle and your state of corruption all have an affect on the ultimate results.
But wait, there is one more thing! Not every encounter results in death. If you do more damage than your opponent but do not defeat them, then you push them back. This push can result in you moving into a favorable tile or vice versa. Depending on where the loser ends up, they can have some real problems. End up on a swamp, and you lose a health point. End up surrounded by NPCs and get pushed into one of them or off the game board? You just died. Death is not the worst possible outcome, but it’s close.
Renown, Fame, Counter-of-badassedness or whatever other name, this is how you are known in these lands. He with the highest prestige upon the death of the king will usually win. How is that? Well, if the king dies naturally, as in, zero health (usually turn 18+), the player with the highest prestige is declared the winner by popular vote, I guess. Kind of what happens in the real world, actually. Prestige is accumulated by almost every positive thing you do. Defeat an opponent in claw to blade combat? +1 Prestige. Bring a terrorized town under your control? +1 Prestige. Defeat a rampaging Bane? +1 Prestige. Equip the right item? +1 Prestige. Bring a bounty in? +1 Prestige and gold, too. Successfully complete a quest? +1 prestige and other good stuff.
Prestige also gives players an extra ability each round. Like any medieval king, advisors circle the dying like sycophants. The player with the highest prestige value gets to choose between two different global cards. Seldom do they favor the player, so it’s really a choice between the lesser of two evils. Are you willing to give up some prestige or allow the king’s guards to rampage and set all the towns on fire? How about an invasion of Banes the next night or a loss of prestige because you are too popular? The choices are usually not easy, but they offer some excellent strategic challenges.
The flip side to that is you can also lose prestige if you fail a quest, die in combat, or end up on the receiving end of an unfavorable decree by the mad king. Prestige is the easiest way to win, but is that all there is to it? No!
How to win for glory and profit.
To win the game, you need to not only survive the machinations of the king and the other opponents. The catch is you need to do it in style. I’ve talked about prestige and briefly mentioned the other win conditions, but let’s look a little closer.
As your last quest task, you are given the key to the castle. This lets you bypass the “peril” test. You must wait a full turn to engage the king, unless you use up the Hot Rot Wine or as I like to call it, Moonshine. You get one more action at the cost of one hit point. You can take on the king now. Even though the king is sick, he is still very powerful. His equipped items are powerful, too. Within the castle grounds, you are unable to target the king directly. It must all be indirect. If the king has living guards, they will pursue you with a vengeance now.
Anyways, at this point there are three victory types available to you: defeat the king in combat outright, Rot, and a Spirit Stone cleansing victory. Combat and Rot victories are practically identical. You must vanquish the king and survive the encounter. The battle is not easy at all, and the king has many advantages, but you could play a few different cards before combat to make it easier for you. With the Rot victory, the one with the highest Rot value gets bonus dice. Though, throughout the game there are many risks a Rot player takes from the king’s decree to anti-Rot cards to perils that target corrupted players and stone circles. Either way, if you defeat the king, you become the new king.
There are two interesting situations with the Combat and Rot victories. Sana, the magic bear, can substitute her Spirit stat when fighting a corrupted character. If you boost her spirit value through quests and cards, as well as bring the proper equipment, you can really do some serious damage to corrupted opponents. River, the bow-wielding she-wolf, has a first-strike ability. When she initiates combat, she does 1 HP of automatic damage. Engaging the king when he is close to death guarantees you a win.
The Spirit Stone victory is kind of anticlimactic. Throughout the game, you can obtain Spirit Stones by finding them in Stone Circles, through quests, special cards and discovering them as treasures. When you have 4 stones, you need to get to the castle grounds. You must beat the perils or use the key that was awarded as your last quest reward. Survive the guards for a turn or use the Hot Rot Wine card, and you automatically win by cleansing the king from the rot by killing him with the stones. Yup, that’s it. You won.
One last thing. Every time you beat the game, you not only advance your Steam achievement progression (if you’re into that), you also unlock additional amulets. These items can be used to boost your stats and/or give you additional benefits that can really tilt the odds in your favor when starting the game. You don’t have to use them, but if you do, they are really good. As a result, the game becomes more diverse and gets a little easier the more you play.
Armello is a fun game that can be quick. It has plenty of replayability and built in trickery that can help you to win or completely ruin your chances. There is no clear winner until someone actually wins. What’s missing for me are end game cinematics or anything to actually celebrate a victory. It’s kind of bland. I’d also like more variety in the hero choices and maybe a few more things to happen in the world. But those are minor quibbles because the game is so much fun.
TL;DR: Armello is a fun game that should be played with friends or other human players. If you can’t get them to play, you will quickly run out of things to do because the AI isn’t all that creative in its strategies and it’s not as vindictive as a human player can be.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You’ve always wanted to play a game in Disney’s Robin Hood universe
- You love board games
- You want to piss your friends off
- You like a bug-free experience
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You want a single player experience
- You want a narrative driven game
- You like playing against a smart AI
- Your friends hold grudges
Nate played for 38+ hours on a Macbook Pro 2.9 GHz Intel Core i7 with 8gb ddr3 RAM using OSX 10.10.5.