Armello is an interesting blend of genres and ideas. It’s a strategy meets card game hybrid with some role-playing elements thrown on top. It seeks to recreate the tabletop experience in videogame form, such that it not only plays like one, but captures the look and feel too. From its aesthetics to its rules and mechanics, Armello almost feels like an adaptation of an existing board game than an original creation.
The premise is that the king of Armello has fallen ill to a force known as “the rot,” which is slowly killing him. As news of his condition spreads, each of the four clans – wolf, rat, rabbit, and bear – send their best to claim the throne. As one of eight characters, you roam the land taking on quests and fighting monsters (or sometimes your fellow players) to earn renown and grow stronger. The goal is to be the first to the throne, either by slaying the king through various means or by having the most prestige when he inevitably dies naturally.
The prologue guides you through Armello’s systems in grand detail in a sort of pseudo-story level. It details the premise and uses the objectives it hands you to walk you through the gameplay. For instance, placing a peril – an obstacle that can damage or penalize any player who fails to make a successful roll against it – is explained by your spymaster giving you a lead on where the AI is going, so you lay it just ahead of them to take them down. It’s a fun way of teaching you how to play while also fleshing out the world.
At the start of a game, you’re given three quests to choose from, each with its own stat-boosts and loot. By completing them, you earn a bit of prestige and an increase to one of four stats: fight, body, wit, and spirit. Each predominantly determine how many dice you’ll roll in certain scenarios, with the exception of body, which solely dictates your total hit-points. The majority of your time is spent roaming the board to take on your next quest. You can only move up to three times per turn, so you don’t get many opportunities for detours, though it definitely encourages – and rewards – exploration.
Settlements and dungeons entice you with riches and treasure. Claiming settlements adds to the amount of gold you receive every dawn, which allows you to play more cards. Dungeons contain rare item and follower cards that can provide a significant advantage, though they can also summon monsters and teleport you to another part of the board, pushing you further from your next quest. Granted, you don’t have to complete quests to win. Depending on what victory condition you decide to pursue, it might be in your best interest not to go after every quest you receive.
There are four possible victories: prestige, kingslayer, spirit walker, and rot. The first two are straightforward, but the other two take a lot of work and a little luck to achieve. Occasionally, spirit stones spawn on the board. Collecting four of them imbues you with their power, allowing you to cleanse the rot from the king and allow him to die peacefully. Conversely, a rot victory involves becoming more corrupted than the king to beat him at his own game. Fulfilling either of those victory conditions is often more trouble than it’s worth, though, because they’re based entirely around luck. Luck that the stones will spawn or that you’ll find them in a dungeon or earn them from a quest. Luck that you’ll draw the right cards to build up rot quickly or die to enough monsters to earn it that way. As such, you rarely see anyone win by either of those means. Which is a shame, because they’re the most interesting options.
Sticking to a single win condition is generally unadvised. Improvisation is key to succeeding in Armello, as nothing is ever certain. Victory can be snatched away at the last second. Alliances can crumble as quickly as they form. You have be ready to adapt at the drop of a hat, for reliance on factors you cannot count on will almost always lead to failure.
Nowhere is this more apparent than your hand. Every turn you draw a number of cards from three decks: item, spell, and trickery. Items are consumables like potions or equipment like swords and armor. Spells provide temporary boosts to stats or grant special abilities, while trickery deals in perils and subterfuge. Your given a random set of cards at the start of the game, usually a mix of cards from each deck. Unwanted cards be burned during combat and perils, which has the side-effect of rolling particular symbols to help get the desired result, but generally it’s in your best interest to figure out how to make the most of what you got.
That means knowing when to play them. Cards can be played at any time. If another player’s getting too close, for instance, you can prepare for battle by equipping any necessary gear or by restoring any lost hit-points before they arrive. It helps keep the game engaging at all times, encouraging you to be constantly alert and consider the uses of each card.
In one instance, I had the Allies Pact card in my hand. It grants one prestige to person it’s played to as well as the card’s holder each dawn until one of the recipients died. A player had been slaying anyone close to them, no doubt to recover the prestige they’d lost from falling in battle previously. They were one tile away and I wasn’t confident about my chances of survival. They were well-armed and had more health than I, whereas I was ill-equipped. Seemed inevitable that I wouldn’t stand a chance. So I played my card and hoped it would steer them away. We both had the same amount of prestige, so I figured appealing to their needs would save me. It worked. On their next turn, they moved around me rather than through me. It paid off later as well, when they played a spell to me to cure the poison I’d been inflicted with.
The dynamics of building alliances on the fly is one of Armello’s greatest elements. In the same way you might try to persuade another player to cooperate with you verbally in an actual board game, you do the same in Armello but through action instead of words. The chat is limited to canned remarks, so you can’t conspire with other players directly, but I never found it a problem. Everyone could still easily work together to foil the lead player’s plans for victory. It just took a bit of intuiting each other’s actions.
Armello is at its best played online. Offline games with bots are plenty enjoyable in their own right, but the AI doesn’t nearly play as interesting a game. They never play cards when it isn’t their turn, nor do they try to pursue alliances. The games are faster – 30 minutes instead of 60 – though you definitely lose something in the process.
Regardless of how you play, Armello captures the thrills of a proper board game splendidly. From rolling dice that clatter against the background with a satisfying clunk to playing cards to the board and each other and the fun of everyone playfully reacting to each other’s successes and failures during the game, it channels the things that make playing board games enjoyable to make a good approximation of the experience while turning it into a fantastic videogame.