If you were to plot a graph comparing sociability and type of game, board games would sit high on the scale. There’s a special type of fun to be had in holding back that grin when you have that perfect card to foil your friend’s plan, and then flipping the board and storming out of the room when he has just the thing to prevent you from doing it. Armello tries, and mostly succeeds, in taking that feeling from the living room to the computer.
Set in a world that reminded me of Studio Ghibli, Pearls of Lutra, Disney and fairy tales in equal measure, the first thing that caught my attention in Armello was how good it felt, looked and played, something I wasn’t expecting from a virtual board game. The cutscenes are lush, the board is vibrant, throwing the dice has a solid, chunky feel to it and each strike you deal during battles is accompanied by appropriate thuds and swishes and it certainly puts the ‘cute’ back into ‘regicide’.
Armello might seem a bit daunting at first glance, though the four-step tutorial does a good job at introducing you to both the different heroes and the game’s mechanics. Your main quest is to replace the king, either by slaying him or being the most prestigious contender by the time of his demise, and to do so you’ll have to compete against three other characters. You have a set of attributes that determine how good you are at certain tasks – Fight will improve your combat prowess; Wits make you better prepared for perils and allows you to draw more cards at once; Spirit determines how many spells you can cast; Body your health – and can improve these attributes by performing quests, casting spell buffs and finding items and artifacts. The latter two, along with tricks and traps, are present in the form of cards. Since both your mana for casting spells, gold for using tricks and your hand of cards are replenished at regular intervals, Armello encourages the regular use of cards and spells, lending it a fluid and fast-paced aspect.
Cards can be played at any time, regardless of whose turn it is, and especially while playing against other people I often had perils and setbacks thrown at me regularly as I tried to complete my quests and garner prestige. Each of the eight playable heroes has different attributes and exclusive mechanics – Zosha is always stealthed during the night, while Sana can use her heightened Spirit attribute when fighting corrupted creatures, such as Banes, the King or players who’ve succumbed to the rot.
The game’s main motif is that time is running out. The king is succumbing to the rot, and with each turn he issues increasingly absurd decrees – a decision the character with the highest prestige makes – that can help or harm the players, such as telling the guards to terrorize all villages, your source of gold, or giving an artifact to the player with the lowest prestige. With four types of victory, it’s your job to ensure your success by performing one of them before the king dies of the rot and the highest prestige (unless it’s you, of course) player wins the game: you can slay him in personal combat, win a corruption battle against him by letting the rot take an even greater hold on you or banish him by gathering the four spirit stones. Each have their own advantages, and while a prestige victory might at times seem the most straightforward the fact that a player can pinch it from you at the very last turn by slaying a debilitated king makes it a gamble that won’t always pay off.
Like many strategy games with a multiplayer side, Armello is best enjoyed against other players. The AI does a capable job of trying to oppose you, though it lacks the deviousness innate to our species, but unless you’re going for one of the harder victories, such as the Rot one, with a bit of experience under your belt you’ll hardly ever feel challenged by them. Unfortunately, Armello doesn’t help itself with a matchmaking system that at times is too slow to find a match, at others disconnects you from an ongoing game and often makes a hassle out of inviting your friends to a lobby and actually getting a game running.
Armello’s a virtual board game that, surprisingly, managed to give me that satisfying tactile feeling that handling cards and real dice in a board game has. It’s a game about foiling your friends’ plans, stacking rows of dice to add insult to injury when you overkill someone by nearly a dozen dice and hatching tenuous alliances just to stop someone from winning too quickly and giving yourself some time to recover. If that hasn’t convinced you that I thoroughly enjoyed this game, let me describe it to you like this:
It’s Game of Thrones with rat assassins and wolf knights.