Armello is a turn-based digital board game being developed by the Australian-based “League of Geeks”. You’ll be aware that Australia is home to some rather odd looking fauna, but the armour-clad wolves and upright hares in Armello are of a different class entirely. This colourful anthropomorphism is reminiscent of the Redwall series’ book covers. Tales of Redwall were children’s fantasy novels, although they were dense, with plots that moved along at a snail’s pace. Armello differs in that whilst its world is still full of rodents with swords and cloaks, it’s a fast paced experience that jettisons twee for Game of Thrones style grit.
Armello has you control one of four clan heroes adventuring across a hexagonal grid in the hope of beating out the other clans and claiming the throne. There are a number of victory conditions, all of which are focussed around the demise of the Mad King who sits in his palace at the centre of the board. Each day the king is infected with “rot”, which if not stopped will eventually end his life along with the game. Like a lot of strategy games, the player with the most prestige (victory) points at the end wins.
There are a few ways to circumvent this fatalistic end – one is to take things into your own hands, build up your hero and storm the palace, another is to collect magical stones and cure the king’s affliction. In order to meet any of these victory conditions you’ll need to explore the board and build yourself an advantageous position. The board you’ll be playing on is procedurally generated, and each hexagonal space has some significant affect. Forests cloak you, mountains give defensive bonuses and swamps lose you a life. There are also stone circles which heal you, dungeons which you can explore for loot and settlements which provide income. Half the strategy is in how and where you move.
A string of quests which guarantee you prestige will also guide you across the land. One of the main elements of the game is the cards. As the game progresses you’ll acquire Spell, Item and Trickery cards. Items can either be consumed for an instantaneous boon or equipped in order to buff you in combat. Trickery cards use gold and allow you to either make political pacts with other players or curse or trap enemies. Spells work similarly, but use up magic instead.
There’s a lot of randomness to what cards you’re given. Some combinations are powerful and will give one player a quick advantage in terms of combat or prestige. Armello is however a highly competitive strategy game with a lot of player interaction. The three losing heroes will almost be intrinsically pushed towards banding together, making pacts with one another, and punishing the leader. Cards also come into play in combat. Equipped items give you bonus dice to roll, and cards in your hand can be “burned” in order to give you an advantage.
If there are any problems at this early stage they’re with the strategic balance. Despite the sheer amount of player interaction, some of the randomness could do with tempering. It would also be helpful for the non-prestige based winning conditions to be communicated more clearly. Currently, Armello is also a game that needs to be played against real people. NPC heroes don’t really have a grasp of the strategic nuance and will often finish the game with zero prestige, having constantly committed to unwinnable battles (including when an event occurs that penalises heroes for engaging in combat).
Between all the cards, tiles, battles and conditions, there’s a lot going on in Armello. Thankfully it’s a digital board game where things keep track of themselves, and all the systems come to be understood fairly naturally over time. Even at this early stage of development the game is beautifully polished. The interface is great and the animated cards and the exploding dice bring you about as close to the real, tactile objects as possible. Armello has already done a lot of good with the digital format, all it needs now is to fine tune some of the strategy.