Armello is an interesting beast, straddling that weird design limbo where it’s a boardgame concept executed in the digital game space. Like many good boardgames, it focuses on mean spirited yet often desperate player interaction as players scrabble to best each other, in a turn based game of regicide.
Set in the fantasy kingdom of Armello, the once great King has succumbed to the Rot – a malevolent and toxic corruption that grants both power and madness to its host. Realizing this, the four clans of Armello, being Wolf, Bear, Rabbit, and Rat, depart to either save the kingdom from the corrupted King, or damn it to their own benefit. Armello is a game of backstabbing and political manoeuvring, of players each clawing at each other to achieve their own goals while beating their competitors back.
The game has four separate victory conditions to this effect: The Kingslayer victory requires you to combat and slay the king. The Spirit Stone victory requires you to collect four Spirit Stones and confront the King, curing him of the Rot infestation. The Rot victory requires you to succumb to the Rot yourself and defeat the king, becoming a new dark liege. Finally, the Prestige Victory requires you to have the highest prestige – gained by killing players, completing quests, and defeating Banes – and for the game to end without anyone else having achieved any of the other conditions.
The Prestige Victory waiting game relies on another important aspect of the game – the Rot is slowly killing the king, and it will eventually kill him if players do not. The result is that players are under a time pressure to achieve their goals. Before any of these goals can be achieved reliably however, players are encouraged to travel to and complete quests to gain special equipment and, most importantly, permanently increase their stats.
After completing a quest, players are given an option of three quests they can next seek out
The Armello board is roughly diamond in shape, made up of hex spaces, with player starter positions at each corner. At the centre lies the Palace, within which awaits the King himself. Beyond the palace, there are seven types of hex environments. Plains provide no benefit, nor any penalties. Mountains slow you down, but they provide a defensive bonus while you inhabit them. Forests hide you from other players at night unless they accentually move into your space, or are paying keen attention. Swamps damage you when you move onto them, while Stone Circles heal you. Towns are claimed by players who move into them, and provide gold each morning. Finally, dungeons provide a chance to get random rewards, or a potential unlucky punishment.
An example of the board environs, with a quest just in reach
Additionally, Perils can be played on tiles by the game or other players. These represent additional hazards that need to be overcome when entering those spaces, and are often used by players to block passage, heavily encourage a detour, or protect the villages they’ve claimed. Turns also alternate between day and night. At the start of each day, players are awarded gold for each town they own, and the King’s guard move and attack banes, or players with bounties on their heads. The King also loses one health at each dawn, and then offers two potential new laws, which the current prestige leader picks one to come into effect. At the start of each night, players gain Magic equal to their Spirit stat, and Banes – huge animalistic manifestations of rot, spawn out of dungeons to hunt players and terrorise towns.
At each dawn, the Prestige leader chooses one of two potential laws to come into effect
Players also have access to cards, of which there are three varieties: Items, Spells, and Trickery. During play, at the start of each of their turns players can choose which of these three decks to draw from until their hand size is full. Item cards are either gear you can equip or consumable items, while trickery cards affect other players and are mostly perils that can be played to the board. All of these require gold to play, use, or equip. Magic cards can do a variety of things, both offensive or defensive, and can at times also be played to the board as perils, though players spend magic to play these rather than gold.
At the start of each turn, players can draw cards up to their hand limit
The meat of the game is in the combat and peril encounters, where dice come into play. In combat, players roll a number of dice equal to their Fight stat. Each side of the six sided dice are unique, with your standard Hit result and Shield result, with other results being hits or misses depending on whether it’s day or night, and other results which always miss or always hit and grant bonus dice. Players also can destroy or “burn” cards in their hand to take one of their dice and choose its result to match the one shown on the destroyed card, before the rest of the dice are rolled.
This allows for some control amidst the chaos of a giant dice dump. In the end combat is quite simple – every hit you roll deals one damage, and every shield the defender rolls cancels one of the attacker’s hits. For characters with low health or a low fight stat, combat can be especially perilous unless they have equipment and spells to give them an edge.
Encountering a peril
It’s interesting to note that as the King slowly dies he becomes weaker, thus far easier to kill in combat. Part of the game of Armello is waiting until the king is weak enough to kill easily, but not waiting too long to allow someone else that opportunity.
Perils are similar, though instead of looking for enough hits to overcome a defender’s shield dice results, the player is looking to roll specific dice results required by the peril, the quantity depending on the peril’s difficulty.
The dice roll as two players combat each other
As for how it actually plays? Well, the game is damned ruthless. Quest locations are placed in a way that force you to cross paths with other players, and that player interaction is high quality cutthroat. Outside of cards that players will play on each other, the likely occurrence of combat is highly lethal. Even if a player has an advantage, there’s always a chance for a disastrously poor roll by them, and an amazingly lucky roll of their opponent. As the majority of dice results are hits, and only one result is a shield to help you defend, there’s a huge emphasis on aggression, and it’s not rare to see two players killing each other.
This lethality is further flavoured by the rich spice of frustration, as death sees a player respawn back at their starting location, their clan grounds. This reset can be infuriating, especially if you’re trying to reach a point on the other side of the map. There are around fifteen turns in the game before the king dies, and some of the farther quest locations can take as many as five turns to reach. This further encourages players to be unforgiving, unwilling to allow the barest chance that a nearby player may hamper them.
Each character is slightly different, with each having unique abilities that push them towards certain play styles, and can be further modified prior to game start with a selection of clan unique upgrades, followed by choosing a single upgrade available to all.
The eight playable characters available at launch
The four victory conditions tend to work well, and one tends to see players heading for different victories, though admittedly that’s often out of necessity considering what’s around them at the time. While it’s difficult to shift which victory you’re after half way through a game, there’s always the chance for a last ditch effort to fight the king, or gain more Prestige than the leader. It’s often daunting to see your plans crumble, but I’ve seen a fair share of victories for players who’ve scrabbled something together from the ashes of their initial plans, either managing to scrape enough prestige while robbing players of theirs, desperately grabbing Spirit Stones, or succeeding in a desperate bid to fight the king before better equipped players attain victory.
I’d be remiss to not mention the beautiful artwork and animation that ebbs and flows life into the game. The game board is fantastic to look at, each character has unique animations when attacking or defending, and every single card has unique animations that play as they sit in your hand. The game has absolutely stunning presentation, and you can feel the love the creators poured into the project.
Seriously, look at these cards. What other game undergoes so much effort to bring their cards to life like this?
The one strong criticism I can lay against Armello is directed at the card management. In particular, the tendency to be stuck with cards that one can’t use, and can’t get rid of. Characters with low magic or little to no gold can easily get stuck with cards they can never use. Alternatively, players can get cards they could use but are unwilling to pay the cost, such as cards that simply give you rot when you use them. The one avenue to get rid of unwanted cards is to burn them when rolling dice either in combat or against perils, though this is often detrimental, especially with cards with Rot symbols that always count as misses.
Being stuck with dead cards is frustrating, especially when one is trying to dig for specific cards. It really does feel that simply allowing players to discard cards before they draw up at the start of their turn would go a long way to help mitigate this problem.
Going for victory in combat against the king
There are also times when you can simply be picked on, and get repeatedly slapped when attempting to reach for the most meagre of rewards. Sometimes the quests of other players bring them all near or through your starting area, resulting in you getting repeatedly killed and reset every time you try to reach that objective just out of reach. Other times you’ve finally trekked across the board to reach that far flung objective, only to be killed or blocked the turn before you’d finally arrive there. Sometimes people are just really, really bloody mean with little cause to be so.
And yet, I can’t stop playing the game. I often get frustrated, often spit fire at other players, or the game itself for doing something as simple as moving a Palace Guard onto the village I wanted to move into, delaying me and causing me to lose any time I had to win. But I’m always happy to start the game up again and give it another go, because it’s a type of frustration that’s damned good fun.
Last Updated: September 22, 2015