Board games, along with dumb anime fanservice titles and card games, are one of my weaknesses. When one shows up in my game-stuffed inbox, it usually ends up assigned to me both because I’ll play regardless of how much of a slog it ends up being and because I’ve got friends I can rope into playing. One of our more recent acquisitions was Armello, a digital board game from League of Geeks that’s available on Steam. We took a look at the Early Access release and now it’s reached full launch status!
Armello hasn’t changed significantly since our pre-release peek: it’s still a solid board game that’s hurting for options. If you don’t feel like clicking over, the long and short of it is that four players (local, online or AI) battle and quest their way toward the throne of Armello. Standing in their way is the King, a mighty lion who’s been afflicted with the corrupting Rot, his royal guard, the vile Banes that spread Rot, and of course the other players. The adventure is rendered a bit like a classic Don Bluth cartoon, with large and expressive animal characters
To win, a player must attain the most Prestige before the King dies from the Rot (at which point they take the throne by default), slay the King without dying themselves or approach the King while holding four Spirit Stones, which kills him instantly and awards the Stone-holder the throne. Naturally, any serious attempts at these win conditions will result in everyone else viciously turning on you, so you’ll need to watch your back.
There are eight characters to choose from (with a caveat, see below), each with their own strengths and weaknesses that suit each of them for a particular victory condition. Characters are defined both by different statistics as well as passive bonuses. Thane the wolf, for instance, is a strong combat character that stands a fair chance of defeating the King in battle. Amber the rabbit, on the other hand, is a jack-of-all-trades that receives bonuses for exploring dungeons and can easily load up on Spirit Stones as a result. For the sneaky types, Zosha the rat is much better at stealth than other characters, allowing her reprieve from hostile spells and attackers at night. There are characters to suit most playstyles, which is nice.
Your choice of character, as well as the small bonuses provided by the ring and amulet you choose at the start of the game, will play a large role in how you approach the game. You’ll have a completely different experience depending on who you choose and what statistics you decide to prioritize. Each turn, you’ll run around the board claiming villages for money, searching dungeons for treasure, completing quests and battling foes. When it’s not your turn, you can still interact with the game by accepting new quests and playing cards, so there isn’t a lot of downtime.
As a general rule, Armello rewards aggressive play more than most other digital board games I’ve tried. This is because there’s a strictly enforced time limit on each game thanks to the King’s gradually eroding health. It’s not possible to adjust this, so if you’re going to try for a win you’ll need to work quickly, and that often means stepping on others’ toes as you do so. While a game like Talisman: Digital Edition would prefer that players leave one another alone, that’s not even remotely the case here.
Characters who hoard Prestige or Spirit Stones can quickly spiral out of control without the other players actively working to stop them. Messing with others is generally performed via cards, which are drawn at the start of each turn and offer combat bonuses, damaging attacks and other tricks, and direct combat itself, which involves weighting dice to one’s favor by consuming unwanted cards. A dead character is revived at their starting area sans some Prestige, which can be a painful setback. Armello, like so many other competitive board games, isn’t exactly a team-building experience. Expect fights.
The inability to adjust game options like the King’s health or the ever-present timers associated with almost all actions is a bit disappointing. This doesn’t necessarily mean the game is a complete loss – far from it, in fact! It’s an enjoyable time if you can get people together to play, though AI-heavy games are a little disappointing since computer opponents are dumb as bricks. It’s just not an Editor’s Choice candidate. There’s a lot of potential nuance here that ends up quashed by the lack of settings; the more “passive” victory conditions are easy winners as long as the player can keep their head down, for instance, and many characters won’t have much of a chance for a combat victory since they’ll lack time to build up.
One thing that must be said: Armello launches with eight playable characters. Kickstarter backers who coughed up enough cash will receive four additional “Bandit Clan” characters, providing a sizable boost of much-needed variety to the game. The Bandit Clan boasts unique passive abilities, such as being able to maneuver around the King’s Guard, as well as a different selection of rings from the other characters. The bonus characters will eventually be released as DLC, though the pricing for this is up in the air and the time frame for it is measured in months.
There’s two ways to look at this from where I stand and neither of them are all that appealing. In one case, Kickstarter backers who were willing to shell out for a promise are getting messed over as their previously-exclusive content is sold to non-backers. In another, this is yet another one of those situations common to the crowdfunding generation of games where your money is worth less because, like a savvy consumer, you waited until a finished product was available before paying it – never mind that savvy consumers are increasingly less welcome in the games industry these days.
Whether or not this is a dealbreaker is really up to you and your views on the way games are financed these days, but it merits mention, and unlike something like cosmetic options or skins the additional characters are a significant and valuable addition to the game.
if you’re willing to overlook the, er, slightly egregious Kickstarter-exclusive content situation, Armello is a fun multiplayer title. The inclusion of online play is a huge plus – it’s a shame I have to say this in 2015 where it should be standard, but c’est la vie – and the bite-sized length of each match might be a good fit for your gaming group. More options and greater variety would have done a lot to help Armello keep its staying power, but you could certainly buy worse games with your cash.