The transition from board game to video game isn’t always perfect, especially since the most crucial element of board games tends to be missing from their digital representations. Board and card games are fun because they bring a group together in person to play together, while video games bring faceless gamer tags to the table. Since Armello is attempting to introduce a nonexistent board game to platforms, it’s actually somewhat harder to miss the community of a game night with friends.
Rather, Armello presents a brand new idea for a game that masterfully blends cards, dice, turn-based strategy and an interesting story that populates the fictional land with engaging characters. It’s not always perfect, as the board game nature of the game can get in the way of the video game aspect, but it’s a fresh title that I would love to see get an actual board game release.
Created by the small but talented team at League of Geeks, Armello chronicles the downfall of the king of the titular realm as he succumbs to the Rot, a corruption that leads to cruelty and, ultimately, death. As the king grows more ruthless, various anthropomorphic clans send their heroes to either rid the king of his curse or take the throne for themselves.
The story is simple, combining elements of Game of Thrones and Redwall in a way that keeps proceedings light but makes the quest feel deadly serious at the time. Each animal is animated in a way that gives them personality, as does a unique trait that falls in line with their clans’ strengths.
Armello wisely includes an excellent tutorial that manages to introduce newcomers to the game’s mechanics while avoiding walls of text and hand-holding. Broken up into four short stages, each tutorial introduces one of the main characters, including a wolf, a bear, a rabbit and a rat. Each race has their own strengths, making one method of conquering the kingdom easier than the other depending on the class you choose.
Broken up into hexagon tiles, up to four players take the field and work to build their strength before confronting the king. Turns can be spent looting dungeons, conquering settlements, battling fellow heroes, playing cards to boost stats, or taking on quests. Movement is limited by a set amount of actions available per turn, but cards kept in your hand can be used freely to upgrade your weapons and armor, cast spells on yourself or others and use political maneuvers to hamper your enemies or build rapport for yourself.
The endgame of Armello is to either save the king or take his place, and this can be done in multiple ways. If you gain enough Prestige by completing quests and conquering your enemies, you simply have to wait for the king to die from the Rot, or you could try to slay him yourself. You can also work to corrupt yourself with the Rot and overtake the king as the new dark lord. Or, if you’re the peaceful type, you can collect spirit stones and try to cleanse the king.
These multiple approaches to winning the game creates an interesting twist in which the strengths of your character can determine which method works best. Rats, for example, are weak in battle, but they are devious and can build prestige quickly by tearing down other heroes through trickery. Bears, on the other hand, are tanks that can take out the king in a one on one fight if they are well-equipped and lucky.
While a certain degree of skill is required to decide the best route and actions to take, a lot of Armello requires a fair bit of luck, which can lead to infuriating losses caused by errant rolls of the dice. Battles are fought by throwing an amount of dice equal to your character’s strength, but you can also burn a few of your cards to guarantee that the symbol emblazoned on that card shows up on a die. However, you have a short time limit to burn cards, and for some reason a bright light covers up the symbol on each of your cards, meaning you have to memorize each card’s symbol before battle if you want to burn any of them successfully. It’s a strange rule and even stranger gameplay decision that doesn’t make any sort of sense.
Battles also tend to happen quicker than you’re able to keep up with, at least at first. When enemies have items in their inventory that affect battles, they flash on the screen for a second before disappearing, meaning a seemingly defenseless adversary can all of a sudden end up with a huge swing and a ton of defense and you’ll be left with no clue how it all happened. This sort of problem often plagues digital versions of board and card games, showcasing one of the huge advantages tabletop games have over these: you can take your time to understand the game at your own pace.
That’s not to say that Armello is completely rough on newcomers, although the AI can sometimes be surprisingly contemptuous towards you for no reason other than you exist. It never reached levels of rage quitting frustration, though. A surprisingly handy and easy to read game guide is found on the pause screen, describing every single rule in detail so that you can decipher the ins and outs when you’re struggling.
League of Geeks has managed to pull off a pretty awesome reversal of what gamers are used to: they’ve created a unique board game exclusively for PC and consoles without an original idea to base it off of. Armello is a blast to play, and even though the luck elements and surprising difficulty may turn some away in the beginning, the strategy and depth of gameplay will keep board game fans coming back for more for weeks to come. More characters will continue to be added to the roster as well, each with their own abilities that will do nothing but add to the replay value. I never thought I’d say this, but this is one game I hope gets the proper board game treatment down the line.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 copy of the game, which was given to us for review purposes.
League of Geeks has crafted a fascinating world within its board game Armello, making it a unique and difficult quest that fans of both video games and tabletops will enjoy.